Hockey's Historic Highlights

The Revival of Hockey's Lost Art of Stickhandling - Part 1

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


The Revival of Hockey's Lost Art of Stickhandling - Part 1

Posted February 01, 2019

Viewed 2109 times

Vancouver’s Mickey MacKay - PCHA puck-handling magician
 Vancouver’s Mickey MacKay - PCHA puck-handling magician
(Source: A 1919 postcard of Vancouver Millionaires centre Mickey Mackay owned by Brent Barnes in Oklahoma.)

   On January 5th, the Toronto Maple Leafs hosted the Vancouver Canucks, and played up to their full potential, with a 5-0 victory. It was an impressive display of fire power. But what this writer will remember long after the details of that match have joined the department of lapsed memories, was Mitch Marner’s display of one of the game’s all-time basic skills. For about 30 seconds he held onto the puck in the vicinity of the Canuck’s cage, avoiding every attempt to dislodge the disc from his possession. It looked like he held the puck on a string.

  The following week, with the Beantowners visiting from Boston, while he didn’t quite duplicate that performance, he still prompted Bruins’ bench boss, Bruce Cassidy, to comment: “I don’t know how much he weighs… but try getting the puck from the kid…”

  For those who may have come late to “Hockey 101”, he was talking about a skill — hockey’s once lost art — stickhandling — demonstrated in spades by a Queen City third-year right winger named Mitchell Marner

  Three basic skills are part of the make-up of a shinny attack — skating, puck handling, and shooting. From the very origin of the sport, all three were elementary. For a while, a half century after the first puck (round or square) was dropped, the middle skill seemed to have gotten misplaced.

  When organized matches were first played, hockey was an “on-side” game. It was patterned after soccer—only passes to players not in front of the passer were allowed. That meant there was only one option when it came to getting in scoring position — the old boot heel had to be carried into the defending area. To be successful, a skater had to manoeuver around defenders in order to get into scoring position.

  The flip side of this scenario called for the ultimate of puck control — often referred to as “ragging”. Until 1956, when the Montreal Canadien’s potent power play prompted a major rule change, the short-handed club had to “kill” the full amount of time assessed to the penalty. That’s when elite stickhandlers rose to the occasion. They played “keep-away” — a term describing pond hockey skills, where random competitors simply keep the puck away from all others as long as possible.

  Scanning game reports as far back as the NHA and PCHA, constant mention is made of individuals who stood out above others with this artistry.

   In 1917, the Canadiens journeyed to Seattle to take on the Mets in order to maintain possession of Lord Stanley’s coveted trophy. The Montreal Daily Mail reported on the final match of the series: “A minute only has passed before (Frank) Foyston gave a beautiful exhibition of stickhandling, and went through the whole Canadiens team for another tally!”

  The Royal City press added this summary of the playoff: “The team (Seattle) displayed better form with some real hockey, with greater speed and stickhandling ability……”

  Two years later, the same teams met in the East/West saw-off for the championship. Once more the same prowess made the headlines: “……Jack Walker’s wizard stickhandling was featured from the start!”

  Although he was not involved in either of the above series, Vancouver’s Mickey MacKay was another PCHA puck-handling magician. Not only was he a terrific skater, but he was known for his “double shifts” as he advanced toward the opposition nets. He could deke defensemen with his tricky moves to the left or the right. He had a unique way of “puck jiggling”, as they called it, keeping the disc away from rearguards, swinging around them and in on goalies. Breakaways, leaving blueliners stripped of their dignity were his speciality. The Globe and Mail’s veteran sports scribe, Jim Coleman, called him “the most polished stickhandler of the PCHA.”

  It’s not that the East didn’t have their own masters of finesse, while Foyston, Walker and pals were making headlines in the West. When a group of hockey old timers gathered together to discuss bygone days, on the subject of who was the best stickhandler of that era, Odie Cleghorn was given the nod. Of a different temperament than brother Sprague, whose chief aim was to maim opposition skaters, Ogilvie James specialized in deking opponents out of their hockey pants. When his obituary was published, included was this summary of his ability on ice: “He was reportedly regarded as one of the best stick-handlers of all time!”

  Dink Carroll, sports editor of the Montreal Herald, wrote: “In his playing days he was known as the Beau Brummell of hockey — always impeccably garbed, débonnaire to a degree. He was always a great stick-handler and superior goal scorer. Odie was an exponent of the short stick. He could cradle the puck between his feet while skating, so that it was difficult to get it away from him. He could juggle the rubber just beyond the tip of his toes in baffling fashion.”

That era, especially in the 1920’s, was saturated with skaters whose shinny smarts resembled what stage magicians accomplish with their sleight of hand. George “Buck” Boucher, whose brother Frank made headlines with the Rangers from 1926 through 1944, was once referred to as the “niftiest stick-handler in captivity”.  Sporting the barber pole sweater of the Ottawa Silver Seven, he made headlines in a game against Toronto by “stick-handling his way through the entire Toronto team, drawing (Jackie) Forbes out of the net, and flipping the puck into the open cage!”

   Other tributes paid to him included: “…he sent the fans away crazy with his famous stick-handling”; and, “…his amazing stickhandling was loudly applauded as in previous games!”

While “King” Clancy is known more for mischief and mayhem, he was also very talented in this area as well. In one playoff game, with his Ottawa sextet leading 1-0, he was sent out to use his speed and stick-handling to control the game as much of the third period of the game as possible. He himself estimated that he had possession of the old boot heel 15 of the 20 minutes — resulting in the “greatest performance of his life!”

  During that memorable game against Edmonton, when he played every position, including goal, he did more than fulfill Benedict’s request to take care of things while he served his time in the sin bin. It is said that “near the end of the penalty he raced out to trap the puck, forgetting he had “Benny’s” big goal stick — kept on down the ice and shot at goalie Hal Winkler!”

  “Dinny” Dinsmore was just a little guy, but was big when it came to dangling the disc, keeping it away from opposition skaters. He signed with the Montreal Maroons previous to their initial campaign in the NHL. In an early game against the Toronto St. Pats, he checked them to a standstill. In the process his puck-handling was described as “immense”. Try as they might, they “couldn’t get the puck away from him at all!”

  They called Aurèle Joliat the “Mighty Mite”.  He was also tagged as a “stickhandling wizard — a ghost on skates”.  It was his habit to wait just inside the opposition blueline, “avoiding checks by a slight shift”. One night against Chicago, he “put on a stickhandling exhibition which kept the Hawks at bay…”

  Frank “The Pembroke Peach” Nighbor is mainly remembered for his famous “poke check”. But he was also adept at “ragging” the puck — keeping it in his permanent possession, away from opposition players for extended periods of time. Harold Garton, in his Hockey Town in Canada book, recalled a playoff contest against Vancouver in 1923: “Frank commenced stick-handling, working himself into such a frenzy that only his jubilant teammates broke his momentum, 10 seconds after the game-ending whistle.”

   In his day, Gordon “Duke” Keats was known as the “greatest stick-handler hockey had ever produced.” He was not a fast skater, but Lester Patrick was quoted as saying, “He has more genuine hockey brains than anyone else in togs. He never wasted energy. He waits and calculates carefully. He may be a little slow on his feet but he makes up for it with his brilliant stick work and head manoeuvring.”

  The 1930’s also spawned another generous crop of pucksters who could dangle with the old boot heel, throwing the opposition off kilter.  Every serious historian knows the “Black Tuesday” account of “Ace” Bailey’s tragic experience at the hands of Eddie Shore. What may not be remembered so clearly is what led up to that cowardly assault. Bailey was a puck ragging specialist. So when the visiting Maple Leafs lost two men to penalties, “Ace” was sent out to kill time. On that occasion, as usual, he utilized a dozen slick, deft, tantalizing moves as he fulfilled his assignment perfectly. After an amazing minute-long performance, the referee blew his whistle for an offside. The Bruins were frustrated by this expert demonstration — none more than Eddie Shore. He took it out on Bailey—and the rest is history.

  Johnny Gottselig spent his entire career with Chicago Blackhawks—first as a player; then as coach, and finally as PR Director. Dick Irvin Sr. recalls an occasion when his Windy City crew faced off against the Bruins. “Gotteslig put on one of the greatest demonstrations of ragging the puck I ever saw! Shore nearly blew his top trying to get the puck away from him. But for two minutes, while (goalie) Charlie Gardiner was off, no Beantown player was able to get his stick on the puck!”

  “Gentleman Joe” Primeau is possibly the least famous of the Maple Leaf “Kid Line” of the early 1930’s. But he was another who could drive players from other teams crazy with his puck-handlig wizardry.  One night during a game against the Rangers in New York, Toronto was a goal up on the hometown sextet, but found itself two men short because of rule violations. The slim pivot played “keep away” for two solid minutes with Blueshirt players chasing him all over the ice. “It was such a dauntless display “, wrote Ed Fitkin, “That everybody in Madison Square Garden cheered him as he staggered wearily to the bench, almost in a state of collapse, when the penalty-killing chore ended!”

  Perhaps the most unlikely member of this unique aggregation was tall and lanky Andy Blair, a débonnaire university graduate from Winnipeg. He carried himself with an air of sophistication, sported a moustache, and carried a handkerchief up the sleeve of his hockey sweater. But all that disappeared when he took to the ice for the Maple Leafs. One night, in a close-checking contest with Ottawa, the score was tied at 0-0 in the waning minutes of the game. To complicate matters, four of Toronto’s rearguards ended up in the coop at the same time. Since there was no delayed penalty system, this left Blair and goalie Lorne Chabot to hold the fort. “He frantically skated and spun, his flailing stick keeping the puck away from keeping the rubber away from every Senator who tried to take it from him!”

  Brian Hextall Sr., “Flash” Hollett. Bill Cook, and Earl Seibert are others whose profiles are filled with accolades about this legendary skill.

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