Hockey's Historic Highlights

Hockey's Late Starters

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Hockey's Late Starters

Posted March 16, 2020

Viewed 1887 times

Better Late Than Never

   On January 2, 2020, Mason Marchment made his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Winnipeg Jets. During the Hockey Night in Canada telecast, he was the frequent topic of casual comments in the broadcast booth. Jim Hughson referred to him as a “late bloomer”.

  That is a tag normally hung on players who don’t reach any significant level of hockey until later than usual. That fits Mason, whose father, Bryan, also played in the NHL and (for one season) with those same Maple Leafs. Mason’s name first appears in the 2011-12 records of the Central Ontario Wolves, a Midget AAA squad. By 2013-14 he had graduated to the Provincial Jr. A Cobourg Cougars. The following season, as Hughson points out, he finally reaches the Major Jr. level, skating for the Erie Otters. In 2015-16 he was now sporting the colours of the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs and Mississauga Steelheads. He played 35 games with the Orland Polar Bears of the ECHL and nine with the Toronto Marlies in ’16-’17. He was still wearing the Blue and White when he was promoted to the parent club at the age of 24.

 Examples of late bloomers abound. Bob Barlow was a rookie with the North Stars at age 34. Jim Anderson and Helmut Balderis both took a stab at the Big Time as first-year competitors when they were 37. But Connie Madigan broke Barlow’s ripe-old-age then-record when he joined St. Louis in 1972 as a 38-year-old.

  Dominik Hasek was guarding the twine in his native Czechoslovakia when he was picked in the 10th round of the 1983 entry draft; but didn’t pull on a Chicago Blackhawk sweater until 1990-91—and that for only five games.

  It’s hard not to recall Tim Thomas’ bursting on the big league scene in 2008-09. Starring for the Bruins he carted home the Jennings and Vezina Trophies that season. He repeated his Best Goalkeeper recognition in 2010-11, and added the cherished Conn Smythe Trophy, as the play-off MVP. But for years previously, he had kicked around Europe, the IHL, the ECHL, and the AHL.

  Both waited for a good many campaigns to reach the pinnacle of their NHL tenures.

  There is at least one more way in which progress up the shinny ladder of success was slow. Eddie Shore, as irreplaceable as he was to the Boston Bruins, did not win the Hart Trophy until he was 30.

  Johnny Bower was 36 when he had his moniker engraved on the Vezina; and Nicklas Lidstrom was 31 when he was properly recognized by earning the Norris.

  But being a late bloomer and being a late starter is not the same thing. The former has to do with experience—the latter to do with age.

  Technically Mason Marchment was both. Because his steps to the Big Time took him through so many levels of the game he was described as a late bloomer. But because of the era in which he lived and played he was also delayed in getting out of the gate, he was also a late starter.

  He candidly admits that he did not get involved in the game until 2003 when his dad joined the Leafs — making him eight years old. In the New Millennium, that is being the cow’s tail in hockey. That popular Hyundai commercial focuses on the realities of the way it is these days. A five-year-old covers his head with the pillow in protest of having to rise and shine before the sun does, to attend early morning practice. The clips accurately picture these toddlers, looking like they are mostly all helmet, skating on their ankles, sliding on their knees, or resting on their posteriors on that cold and slippery surface. Those of us who have had sons or grandsons (or daughters or granddaughters) have seen them attempting to conquer their balance, while joining their peers dropping like flies — even when approaching a scoring opportunity. For them, eight is ancient!

  Back in the day, six teams did not use their third of the ice surface, skating crossways while adult coaches barked orders about passing plays, off-sides, and back-checking. The pond, the river, or the lake was their rink, where they polished their skating and puck handling while playing “keep-away”!

Thoughts about bluelines, fore-checking, or power-plays were as distant as goalie masks and video replays. What we call “organized hockey” was not a priority, and was more an ideal than a reality.

  Howie Morenz’s mind-set fit that pattern exactly. The youngest of three boys by six years, he tried to imitate his senior peers, Wilfred and Ezra. They all experienced their initiation to the ice game on a small back yard rink that covered the area which was the family garden in the summer time.

  One by one the brothers graduated to the “pond”, an area just above the dam on Thames River in their home town of Mitchell, Ontario. Anxious to be included, young Howard William made the move prematurely, and automatically collected loots of bumps, lumps, and bruises as he tried to be included in the action among the older boys. But, even though his main challenge was to survive unscathed, he gradually developed his swift skating style which enabled him to become “hockey’s first superstar”.

  Like so many lads of that generation, he could be found with his pals on Saturday morning, first wielding a homemade scraper to clear the ice; then, apart from a break for lunch, staying from dawn until dusk, chasings a lump of coal or frozen “horse bun” up and down the frozen surface. His equipment, apart from skates and stick, often included summer catalogues stuffed in his socks to protect his shins from the flying missiles.

  There was no minor hockey system to accommodate this elite prospect—no Novice, Pee Wee, or Bantam classifications. In those days, the future “Mitchell Meteor” didn’t have visions of sugar plums (in the form of the Arena Gardens or the Westmount Arena) dancing in his head. The Mitchell “Juveniles” were his target (normally ages 16-18).

  Dean Robinson, who was Howie’s biographer, wrote: “…he was not a standout……he held his own…..but at 15 years of age he was just a step out of his league”. Compared to Wayne Gretzky who “could skate at two, was nationally known at six, and was signing autographs at ten”, the future “Stratford Streak” was a late starter.

  Clarence John Abel was born near Sault St. Marie, Michigan, in Chippewa County in 1900. By the time he was 18, he stood 6’1” and weighed in at 225 pounds. He was a big man for that era, and represented an imposing presence in a league in which he played.

  He holds a number of distinctions: he was the first U.S.-born skater to become a regular competitor in the NHL. He is also considered by some as the first Native North American to accomplish that susses. As well, he is the initial Indian to be elected to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Likewise, no other of his origin was given the honour of carrying his country’s flag at the opening of any Winter Olympic games.

  He probably is best remembered for teaming with “Ching” Johnson the night that Lester Patrick picked up the big goalie paddle to fill in for the injured Lorne Chabot in that crucial post-season match against the Montreal Maroons. With their help, the 42-year-old Ranger manager gave up only one goal, while nervously sliding around on his knees trying to keep the old boot-heel from getting by him.

  But all this didn’t happen overnight. By the time Abel first pulled on the colours of the Broadway Blueshirts, he was had been shaving for several years — he was 26. In fact, he didn’t play the game at any recognized level until he was 18.

  He was tagged with his nickname, “Taffy”, during his high school days. He used to smuggle salt-water taffy, his favourite sweets, into the classroom and nibble on it when he thought the teacher wasn’t looking. It was also during these teen years that he first became interested in the game. He and his friend, Sam Koko, had the job of sweeping the local arena between games. He not only got to watch the play, but the two of them informally scrimmaged during that time. Eventually, they formed a team called the ‘Sweepers”, and challenged other contingents of that talent level to games.

  As inexperienced as he was, he tried out for, and made, the Michigan Soo Nationals at age 18. He was next a member of the Michigan Soo Wildcats sextet for four seasons, and then moved to the St. Paul Athletic Club, before being conscripted as captain of the American Olympic squad in 1924. From his blueline position, he bulged the twine 15 times — catching the attention of Conn Smythe, who had been hired by the fledgling New York Rangers in the building of their new team.

  He is also a member of the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.

 John Mariucci, who was born in Eveleth, Minnesota on May 8, 1916, the site of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, has been called the “godfather of hockey” of that state. He has been referred to as a “gentleman”, a “brawler”, and a “character”—and there is abundant evidence of the latter two especially. His 110 P.I.M. in 1946-47 affirms that tag.

  His mischievous side occasionally came to light — very much in the public eye. He used to make a habit of sewing an “A” on his underwear top. And whenever he disagreed with an official’s call, he simply yanked down the top of his hockey jersey and showed them his badge of authority. And then there was the time when, as a spectator at a big-league match, he jumped out on the playing surface, gathered up the snow from the ice, made snowballs, and started flinging them into the stands.

  He grew up on Hayes Street in his hometown — sometimes called “incubator street” because of the numerous children housed in the homes representing various nationalities. It is said that he played on the icy streets with hand-me-down skates, and magazines used as shin-pads. He and his pals even challenged kids from other “street teams” to improvised shinny contests.

  But it wasn’t until he was 21 that he became part of “organized” hockey. A natural athlete he was a talented footballer — which no doubt opened the door at the University of Minnesota for him to become part of their varsity hockey team. The Providence Reds of the AHL snapped him up in 1940-41 — and before the season was over, he was sporting the colours of the parent Chicago Blackhawks — a 24-year-old novice pro rearguard.

  “Gentleman” was probably a stretch when it was applied to the rough and ready Mariucci, but they called Alfred Francis Joseph Primeau “Gentleman Joe”. It was the way he played the game — his being awarded the Lady Byng Trophy in 1932 was ample proof of that — even though he had the most P.I.M. that season of all his clean playing years. At 153 pounds he was the antitheses of his “Kid Line” partners. Both Jackson and Conacher tipped the scales at 195 pounds.

  Born in Lindsay, Ontario, his family moved to Victoria, B.C., were outdoor ice was as scarce as hen’s teeth. So, It wasn’t until Toronto became his new home when he was almost 13 that he had opportunity to try his hand at Canada’s National Sport. At best he was wobbly on his blades at that age — hardly a likely prospect to become a pro puckster, let alone a pivot selected as a member of the Hall of Fame in 1963. But he persisted; and with Oakmount Park adjacent to his home, he played every chance he got.

  It would be an exaggeration to say that there were immediate dividends. He tried out for various organized teams, but failed to catch on. Oddly enough, it was baseball, a game at which we excelled, which gave him opportunity to catch on to the winter sport. His school, St. Francis, decided to keep the team together for the winter, and formed a hockey sextet. At 16 he took his first positive strides on the ice, adapting very quickly. Within a year he was a regular on the St. Mike’s Majors of the OHA Junior circuit.

  He never looked back. Originally conscripted as part of the New York Rangers initial club, his personal contract with Conn Smythe brought him to the Maple Leafs instead. His first pro game was recorded when he was 21. The rest is history.

  In the first quarter of the 20th Century, the concept in many parts of the world, especially the United States, was that Canadians were born with their skates on. When one hears the name “Eddie Shore”, it compares in hockey with the name ‘Babe Ruth” in baseball. But the “Edmonton Express” was anything but a natural when it came to skating, the basic element in the sport. In fact he didn’t don his first blades until he was 12, and didn’t venture into hockey until he was 16.

  He had little interest in the game. As far as he was concerned it was his brother Aubrey’s sport. Any attention he paid to it was as an observer — studying it in the way he might engineering or physics. After Aubrey had established himself as a Junior level star, Eddie’s comment that he might follow that same path was met with “that’s absurd!” He had in mind that his younger sibling was a “wobbly skater”.

  It was the wrong thing to say to a fellow with a determined mindset. He snapped back that he would be a professional in five years. Anyone who has read of his multi-hour drive through the ice and snow to get to a game against Montreal will know that this only caused him to dig in his heels and prove he was able to do anything he set his mind to.

  His record shows that, after leaving the Manitoba School of Agriculture he transferred to St. John’s College School. The team included the robust Saskatchewan country boy, who played the club’s only two games just before Christmas, 1919.

  He shows up next in a more serious venue. Aubrey’s Cupar (Q’par) squad was competing with the Melville Millionaires for the Saskatchewan Intermediate series. Eddie persisted until he was allowed to join his hometown gang in this showdown. He scored four times in his team’s convincing 9-3 triumph over the opposition. The second game was called because of the serious injury to Cupar’s goaltender. Another match was subsequently played, with the Millionaires prevailing and claiming the championship.

  By the time the next schedule was struck, Eddie was a regular on his local club. From there he went to Melville, Regina, and Edmonton. His next stop was Boston, where he skated for 540 games, followed by 10 more games for the New York Americans.

  Lynn Patrick was once asked if he had ambitions to imitate his illustrious father’s experience in goal. He answered that he only stood between the uprights once, and 20 pucks went by in. That settled that argument.

  If it had been up to his parents, he would not have played any position in the game. His mother classified all shinny personalities as “bums”. Lester simply felt he had the potential to do something more significant with his life. In fact on one occasion when his future was discussed, and Lynn expressed his ambition to play pro hockey, Lester snapped: “That’s one h--- of an ambition for a young man with all your opportunities you have in life!”

  With his father owning the Victoria Arena, he learned to skate when he was six; but opportunities to play the game were limited. In his teens he was involved in a little “commercial league” action. But in 1933 the family moved to Montreal. There Lynn spent every spare moment on outdoor rinks honing his skills. By late in the season he had joined the ranks of the Royals city league sextet.

  That fall he attended his father’s hockey school in Winnipeg, and, reluctantly, Lester included him in the Ranger’s line-up for the 1934-35 campaign. He was already 22 years old at the time. Better late than never!

  The mention of Murray Murdoch conjures the memory of all the NHL’ers who have proved themselves to be almost indestructible — “Iron Men”, they are called. This Lucknow, Ontario product founded that exclusive club. By the time he hung up his Rangers sweater for the last time, he had chalked up 508 games as a Broadway Blueshirt without ever missing a beat.

  He had never been involved in the game until, at age 12, he was enrolled in the St. John’s College, which was connected to the University of Manitoba. He had little choice about whether he would give the game a try. It was mandatory that each student automatically became a puck-chaser. He ran out the string at that level, then when he graduated to the University itself, he not only joined, but captained the Varsity squad.

  He turned pro with the old Winnipeg Maroons of the CHL when he was 21. After one year he was invited to be a part of the founding Rangers in New York City. He holds the distinction of being the last NHL’er to wear the old “double-ender” blades. He showed up at training camp in 1926 sporting what was often termed “skeleton blades”. The league outlawed them in 1927.

  Admittedly, the profiles of all of the above were from the vintage days of the game. Since it was 1935 before the OMHA was formed, establishing the various categories, like Pee Wee, Bantam, and Midget, according to age levels, opportunities for “organized” hockey were much more limited. Often a broad scope of older or younger guys existed because teams were school oriented.

  But there have been a number of pucksters, even during these carefully defined lines, who have had comparatively late starts.

  Yvon Lambert was not a good skater. That’s why the Red Wings, who had drafted him in 1970, let him slip through their fingers to become a part of the Montreal Canadiens entourage. Born in Drummondville, Quebec, he lived with his family on a dairy farm 10 miles outside of town. He was no stranger to hard work, since the care of the cows was left to him, his mother, and his sibling, while his father worked in a textile mile to help ends meet.

  His shortcomings on the blades can be attributed to the fact that he didn’t even learn to skate until he was 14. He worked at improving his skills in this area, and depended upon his checking and creating openings for scoring. He is best remembered for his winning tally during that unforgettable night Don Cherry’s coaching blunder cost the Bruins so dearly.

  Using his other talents wisely, he crashed the line-up of the local Quebec Juniors team, before graduating to the IHL Port Huron Flags and the AHL Nova Scotia Voyageurs. He was 23 before he finally stuck with the parent Habitants. Despite his awkwardness, he managed 206 goals in his nine NHL campaigns.

  Valmore (Val) James was the first U.S.-born black to make it to the NHL, although we wasn’t the first to bear racial abuse because of his heritage. He was born in Ocala, Florida on February 14, 1957, but lived there for only three years. His father, a hard-working labourer, moved his family to Commack, New York, in the Long island area, hoping to find more suitable employment with which to support his family. It so happened that the farmer for whom he worked was also the owner of the Long Island Arena. It wasn’t long until the trusted hireling was given the position of operations manager of the rink.

  This move prompted young Val to become acquainted with the game of hockey. Not only did he get to watch the action, especially when the Long Island Ducks of the EHL competed; but it also opened the door for him to learn to skate. On his 13th birthday his parents presented him with his first pair of blades.

  Like many kids seen at family skating hours today, he laced them on, grabbed a chair for support and struck on learning to stand up more than 30 seconds before becoming intimately introduced to the cold, hard ice surface. He candidly shares in his autobiography that he not only kept company with his chair, but his dog was more hindrance than help, often knocking his pins out from under him.

  But, he prevailed, and eventually was able to participate in various local youth leagues. There he was introduced to the bizarre prejudice which followed him his entire career—not only exhibited by parents of all teams, also by opposing players.

  He left home at age 18 to join the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, and after two seasons found a place in the line-up of the Erie Blades. Scotty Bowman was impressed by the potential he saw in this gritty prospect, and, at age 25, he was called up to the parent Buffalo Sabres. Perhaps he expected a better reception in the Big Time. But taunts and slurs, plus bananas and stuffed monkeys rained down upon him. That night he cried — not for joy in making it to the top — but in rage.

  Once during those seven games with the Sabres, the team bus was surrounded by angry fans who threw debris, and shouted, “Get that n------ outta here!” No wonder it was natural for him to take upon himself the role of enforcer. When he retired, his memories prompted him to not watch the game for 10 years.

  There are others from the post-1967 league expansion. But lest this missive becomes a booklet, we conclude with a profile of the best known of this exclusive crowd. His name is Rod Langway. He was 21 before his 45 games with the Flying Frenchmen in 1978-79 went into the books.

  Born in Formosa, Taiwan, where his father served in the Navy, he was just a lad when the family moved to Randolph, Mass. near Boston. A natural athlete, he shone in both football and baseball. But it was only at the urging of his friends that he got involved in hockey. They kept telling him that he should try the game — and, at age 13, he showed up at a pond where the pick-up games were held, all set with a stick and in his overshoes. Typically, he was elected to play goal. But after a month of that he earned some money shovelling snow and bought himself some blades. His ignorance of the game immediately showed because he had purchased figure skates—which prompted his pals to kick him off the make-shift rink. But, he went home, filed off the picks, and came back. They let him play the rest of the winter. He learned quickly; and when he learned about a team being formed locally, he appeared with his shin-guards strapped on over his jeans, and elbow pads on the outside of his sweater. But, one of the coaches was sympathetic and he became part of the squad. He honed his skills on his high school sextet, and upon graduation earned a scholarship at the University of New Hamphire.

  Both the WHA and NHL had their eyes on him, and Birmingham and Montreal drafted him in 1977. After a season in the rival loop, and part of a season with Nova Scotia, he settled into a successful stint with the Habs. He has three All Star selections, and two Norris Trophies to his credit.

  Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the auto industry with his assembly lines until he was 50; Thomas Edison introduced the rechargeable battery when he was 63; and Colonel Sanders didn’t commence his KFC empire until he was 65. So it is not unthinkable that some hockey players are a bit tardy in getting out of the starting gate.


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