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“A well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life”—Psychology Today
There is a well-worn gag about a man who has managed to get a seat at centre ice for the 7th game of a Stanley Cup Final. When he locates himself, he is surprised to find that the seat next to him is empty. Curious, he asks his neighbour, “Is nobody going to be using that seat?”
“No!” was the answer.
“Incredible!”, he gasps, “Who is their right mind would not use a seat like this for a game like this?”
“Well”, the man replied. “Actually it’s my seat. My wife normally sits here, but she passed away!’
Expressing his condolences, he then inquired if there was not another family member or friend who could use it.
“No!”, came the reply. “They’re all at the funeral!”
That, of course, is canned humour—of the worst kind—one might add. But in this missive I want to take you to the where the action is, peeking into the personal lives of real people—professional pucksters—finding some yuk yuks emanating from their down-to-earth experiences—some which will seem to prove that truth is stranger than fiction.
Most of these tales find their roots in hockey’s “Golden Years”. The reason being that the public was constantly being made aware of the anecdotal side of life at the arena. Journalists followed them into the personal warp and woof elements on the pay-for-play stage—then shared these behind-the-scene incidents with their fans.
That is no longer the case during more modern times. Occasionally a shinny scribe will make reference to a player being “a very amusing guy” — but fails to give even a single example of that side of his personality. Hence, followers of the fastest game on earth are robbed of the opportunity to chuckle at the antics and/or conundrums of big-league hockey players.
In 1925, Ronnie Moffatt was a member of the Saskatoon Sheiks of the old Western Canada Hockey League. They were scheduled to play Seattle, and travelled by boat from Vancouver for the game. Newsy Lalonde, a mischievous sort, joined with the rest of the club’s teammates to pull a prank on the newcomer. They told him it was urgent that he go to the engine room and bring back a pail of steam. He was gullible enough to believe his more experienced companions, and proceeded on the errand. And, as the old adage has it: “was his face red”—when he sheepishly returned, realizing he’d been had. He was never allowed to forget his gaff—from then on he was “Steamer” Moffatt.
Clarence “Taffy” Abel was an original member of the New York Rangers, a club welcomed into the NHL in 1926. Lester Patrick had replaced Conn Smythe, who had assembled this fledgling crew, and ruled with an iron hand. One of the first native Americans to reach that level of hockey, he was a fun-loving, fast- living character, whose “life-of-the-party” lifestyle often kept him in hot water with management — namely, the “Silver Fox” himself.
One “morning after the night before”, Mr. Patrick had called the rearguards together for a lecture on what to do when faced with a three-on-two rush. They were not to let the puck-carrier get between them; they were to guard him until the last possible moment, then spread out to prevent him from circling wide — and thus allowing him to get a shot on goal. Clarence became drowsy as Lester droned on, and was caught with his eyelids drooping.
“Mr. Abel!”, his bench boss growled. “Perhaps you would be good enough to tell us what you would do if you were alone on defense and a three-man attack occurred!”
“Why sure, Lester!” I’d do just what you said I should do. I’d spread out!”
Russ Blinco was a calm and even-tempered member of the Montreal Maroons. He never fought, never lost his temper, and never used bad language. Of course the opposition players took advantage of that — and his teammates teased him about it. But, he took both in stride. One night, Roger Jenkins clouted him on the head with his stick — and, as usual, he just went right on playing. That was too much for Lionel Conacher.
“Look”, he lectured the Grand-Mère, Quebec native, “Next time something like that happens, tell those blankety blank guys off. That’s a lousy trick to be played on you!”
“I will!”, he responded. And he appeared to be starting to really get angry. It wasn’t long until his attacker crossed his path, and he shouted at him: “Jenkins! You’re nothing but a goll darn tinker! That’s what you are!”
“Red” Dutton and “Rabbit” McVeigh were long-time friends. Their fathers were friends, which hints about how long they had known one another. They went overseas together during World War I; they played amateur hockey together after returning; and they hooked up again as pals with the old New York Americans. Dutton took over managing the star-spangled crew in 1937, and the “Rabbit” became an NHL linesman in the mid 1930’s. On one occasion they were brought together again, in the roles just stated. That evening, the Amerks were battling the Red Wings, and “Red” felt his old buddy had missed some calls at the blueline, which affected the outcome of the match. Dutton tried to get his attention several times, but the diminutive whistle tooter failed to realize it, due to the fact he had lost his hearing on the battlefield.
Finally, after the action has ceased, the New York bench boss got his attention. He smiled and asked how his family fared, and if he was finding the government pension was a help. McVeigh answered in the affirmative, mentioning that he’d even received an increase in the supplement. That gave “Red” the cue he wanted. He went on to say that he had a friend on the Pension Board in Ottawa, and would try to get him an ever bigger increase for him.
“That’d be great—but what are you going to tell the board about my case?”
“I’ll tell them you’re blind too, you little squirt!”
“Dit” Clapper used to enjoy sharing about an incident which took place in the 1940-41 campaign. The Leafs were hosting the Bruins and, as usual, the game was rough and tumble. During a rush, the nimble Syl Apps tried to slip between the defense duo of “Flash” Hollett and the aforementioned Clapper. He didn’t quite make it, and both he and Hollett went down in a heap on the playing surface. Accidentally “Flash’s” stick had knocked Syl’s tooth out.
He rose to his feet, holding his hand over his mouth, and whirled to face his aggressor. Anticipating a scrap, both benches emptied, with all and sundry ready for a rhubarb. But what happened defused the situation very quickly. Staring at the clean-living, clean-playing, non-swearing Bruin defender, the clean-playing, clean-living, non-swearing Leaf pivot, grumbled: “By hum, Flash, you knocked my tooth out!”
His accusation was answered with: “For gosh sakes, Syl, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do it!”
The exchange continued. “By criminy, Flash, that was a bad thing to do to a fellow!”
“Aw gee, Syl”, came the agitated reply. “My stick just bounced off your stick, and hit you in the face. You know how those things happen, doggone it!”
The hostile looks on the onlooker’s faces began to evolve into grins. Only to spare the pair embarrassment, all-out laughing was stifled. The best the veteran Boston defenseman could do was further ease the tension with this mock scolding: “See here, fellows. Cut out that bad language! It’s terrible for the fans to hear. Shame on both of you! And I mean it!”
The two “brawlers” just looked at Clapper, startled and sheepish, and quietly skated away to their benches. “Dit” added: “Only then could I let down and really laugh. I skated rubber-legged back to our goal-cage, draped myself over it and howled.”
Steve Buzinski had the misfortune to be thrust into service as an NHL goalie during World War II. Player shortages meant that players not really ready for that level of competition were called upon as emergency replacements for those overseas. Buzinski donned the pads for nine games with the Rangers in 1942-43, who were extremely hard hit that way. In a game against the Leafs, he ended up, apparently stunned, on the losing end in a goalmouth scramble. New York teammate, Lynn Patrick, complained that Bob Davidson had high-sticked him, and that’s why he was lying prone on the ice. The Toronto forward countered with the argument that it was the puck which did the damage. When it looked like the “puck” version was gaining acceptance, suddenly the diminutive prairie backstop raised his head and shouted, “That’s a lie!”—then laid back down again and closed his eyes.
Alex Kaleta was nicknamed “Killer” in derision—because he was so mild-mannered. In the late 1940’s, while toiling for the Rangers, he found himself in that rare position of having a breakaway. Former Toronto Telegram scribe, Bob Hesketh, recalls that “he had nothing between himself and the enemy goalie but air… setting a dizzy pace , he covered the distance in short order, and let loose a shot that was nine and a half feet off the net…..Explaining to the coach when he got back to the bench, he announced: ‘Gee, coach. I was skating so fast that my eyes started to water, and I couldn’t see the net!”
On December 28, 1947, the Maple Leafs visited New York for a match against the Rangers. During some leisure moments, Teeder Kennedy, Howie Meeker, and Turk Broda were strolling down Broadway, discussing the musicals which had been popular during that era. “Annie Get Your Gun”, “Brigadoon”, and “High Button Shoes” were the three highlighted in the trio’s conversation. The “Fabulous Fatman”, proving that he was no connoisseur of stage productions, opined there was no doubt which one merited the highest honours. It was “Annie Button Up Your Shoes”!
Lester Patrick’s sons, Muzz and Lynn, followed in their famous father’s footsteps — first playing pro hockey, then serving at the executive level. In the fall of 1961, Lynn was GM of the Bruins, and Muzz held the same position with the Rangers. As the pre-season was winding down, Muzz phoned his big brother and boasted that his Broadway Blueshirts had just won their 10th exhibition match—and “what did he think of that?” Without batting an eye Lynn shot back with: “How many points do you have?”
Sheldon Kannegiesser played for the Pittsburgh Penguins during three seasons, but only one full one — 1971-72. In his book, Warriors of Winter, he tells this story on himself. “I wasn’t getting along with coach Red Kelly, and was benched approximately twenty-three games straight… (but one night) we’re playing the Vancouver Canucks, there’s a minute left in the game, and we’re down 6-1. Red yells for me to get out on the ice, and I yell back, ‘Do you want me to tie it or win?’…. Just then one of the Vancouver players crossed over to my side of the ice carrying the puck with his head down. I could throw a pretty good hip check, and started cutting hard to nail him at centre ice. He saw me at the last moment and dropped to his knees, and I soared over his head, clearing the boards and destroying the ESPN camera* which was set up in the penalty box. I landed on my head amid sparks, smoke, and broken glass, while simultaneously my skates ripped the shirt off the timekeeper sitting in the box. When I finally got my bearings and started back for the ice, Joe Friday, the referee, standing in front of me said: ‘Go back and sit down, you’ve got to two minutes for elbowing!’”
As mentioned earlier, reported light-hearted incidents after the “Original 6” era had elapsed are few and far between, but thanks to the Hockey News, a minuscule number of chuckles emanated from a feature, “Two Minutes in the Penalty Box” — personal interviews with NHL’ers. When asked what was the funniest thing he had ever seen in a game, Brian Boucher recalled what he called a “memorable shift” of a Philadelphia teammate, Chris Therien. “He got tangled up in the play several times; first he lost a glove, then he lost his stick, then he lost his helmet, then the other glove was gone. By the time he got back to the bench he was half-naked!”
Having reviewed some of these incidents, there is a quick quip, credited to “Aunty Acid”, which is the only answer to the ups and downs in hockey as well as life: “Sometimes smiling is just better than having to explain why you’re sad!”
*We’re aware that ESPN did not exist yet in the time period when Sheldon Kannegiesser was playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it’s his story…
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