Category Archives: Vancouver Canucks

Dave Balon Battled

The following is a tremendous story published in the National Post on May 30, 2007 regarding Dave Balon, a tough and talented player for the Canadiens from 1963 to 1967.

He’d come to the Montreal from New York in a  trade that saw him, Gump Worsley, Leon Rochefort, and Len Ronson become brand new Habs and Jacques Plante, Phil Goyette, and Don Marshall going the other way.

This story was published just a day after Dave lost his battle with multiple sclerosis. I don’t know who wrote it, but it affected me.

Instead of just providing the link, here it is in full, plus a photo I have in my scrapbook of Dave and his wife Gwen.

Balon

Dave Balon’s Silent Fight

PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – She takes a handful of tissues and shuffles to her husband’s side. Her back is crooked by osteoporosis, her body beaten by a failing spine and the stroke she suffered last summer.

She looks much older than her 68 years. Her face is deeply lined, her hair thin and stringy, and her voice little more than a bullfrog’s croak, the product of a lifetime of heavy smoking.

There is a sadness about Gwen Balon as she sits next to the hockey player she married 47 years ago. She leans in close to his cheek and tenderly wipes away the stream of saliva bubbling from the corner of his mouth.

“Are you OK, hon,” she asks, gently, the words delivered with a sweetness that show she has never stopped loving theman in front of her.

“It is so hard for me to express,” she says. “They tell you there is no such thing as a soulmate, but Dave is mine. I knew right off the bat that we would get married. “He is such a kind man.”

Dave Balon’s clear blue eyes shift toward the sound of his wife’s voice and lock on to her loving gaze. “It’s been a long time for us, eh, honey?” Gwen says. “Yeah,” he whispers.

Balon used to talk in torrents. Words would pour out of his mouth so fast, and so softly uttered, that the hockey writers who hung around the dressing rooms in New York, Montreal, Minnesota and, at the sad end of his 13-year National Hockey League career, Vancouver, would scribble madly or risk missing what Balon had to say.

“Gosh,” “holy cow” and “guldurn” were among his favourite expressions, folksy terms spoken by an earnest, friendly, hard-working forward from the farm country of northern Saskatchewan.

The words do not come easily any more. They started to come less and less about four years ago, when the multiple sclerosis that has gradually transformed Balon’s once-athletic physique into a withered coffin of flesh and bone began its assault on his voice.

Everything below his neck is intact, but gone, really, a victim of the progressive strain of an incurable disease that affects the central nervous system. It first appeared just as Balon was enjoying his most productive seasons as a pro.

Squeeze his arm and Balon feels the pressure of your fingers, though his body is unable to respond. He takes Tylenol to ease a persistent low-grade ache and muscle relaxants to prevent his deadened limbs from twitching involuntarily

What remains alive for the man inside the broken body is his own bright mind, and a wife and a daughter, Jodi, who love him, care for him and continue to stand by him, even while somany others no longer do.

They want the hockey world to know that Dave Balon’s spirit persists, and that his life still matters. He can still experience joy. He can still hear everything. He has not stopped fighting this terrible disease. He never will, not until it kills him.

The women who love him hope an earlier generation of hockey fans have not forgotten about the bow-legged Prairie boy who helped Montreal win a pair of Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66, played in four NHL All-Star Games, and fought for his teammates wherever he went.

Marshall Johnston remembers who Dave Balon used to be. The Carolina Hurricanes’ head of professional scouting was a teammate of Balon’s with the Prince Albert Mintos, and he has been friends with the family ever since. His duties with the Hurricanes seldom take him back to Saskatchewan, but when he gets there, he will drop in on his former junior teammate. He is one of the few that still do.

Balon’s permanent address is a private room at the Herb Bassett nursing home, a full-care facility on the outskirts of Prince Albert, not more than 15 minutes drive from the front door of the family home.

Every two weeks the staff transports him back to his real home, a tidy brick bungalow on Gillmor Crescent, where he spends the day in a reclining chair just inside the front door.

It is difficult to watch him sitting there now, motionless, in the late winter sun. He has blankets around his legs, a quilt around his shoulders and a Team Canada cap perched on his head. This picture doesn’t connect to the pictures from another time, some 50 years ago, when a handsomely rugged hayseed from the farming community of Wakaw first appeared in Prince Albert to play junior hockey for the Mintos.

Johnston remembers a brawl in Flin Flon, Man., way back when, that had Balon in the middle of it. “Dave was one tough player,” he says. “And I wasn’t very tough, and I guess that’s why I respected him so much: Because he was tough, and he could play.”

He could also charm the ladies. Gwen Gillies was a raven-haired nursing student at the Holy Family Hospital. She liked going to Mintos games. The whole town did. Balon spotted her there and thought she had a pretty smile. (He had “nice legs.”) Balon asked Gwen if she wanted to grab a Coke at the ice cream parlour sometime. “You were the prettiest groupie, mom. Come on, admit it,” Jodi says. “Thanks, Jod,” says Gwen, blushing.

They married in 1960, the season Balon skated for the New York Rangers’ farm club in Trois-Rivieres, Que. He would ship packages of fancy clothes back to Saskatchewan for his new bride. She would look forward to opening each one.

Balon broke in with the Rangers in 1962-63, but he was traded away to Montreal that summer. In his first season with the great Canadiens, Balon surprised Toe Blake, the legendary coach, by exploding for a career best 24 goals and 42 points — and 80 penalty minutes.

“I always knew he was a good checker,” Blake said then. “But he’s shown he can be a real good scorer, too.”

Montreal won Stanley Cups in 1965 and ’66. Balon drew the assist on Henri Richard’s Game 6 championship clincher in ’66, in overtime, against Detroit.

Minnesota selected Balon first overall in the 1967 expansion draft, but he was back in New York by the end of the year. Unable to have children of their own, the Balons adopted Jodi, and then a son, Jeff. New York was a happy time for the young family. Many of the Rangers were Saskatchewan boys, such as Orland Kurtenbach and Jim Neilson, and the whole crew lived in Long Beach out on Long Island.

They would get together to play cards, board games, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, laugh and share stories about their crazy new life so far away from home.

Long Beach was known as a mafia suburb back then, full of goodfellas and crime bosses. One day, there was a knock on the Balon’s front door. It was a delivery man from the Fulton Fish Market, dropping off a thank you from some shady character whose son had received a stick from Balon after practice. “I was giving fresh fish to everyone on the street,” Gwen says with a laugh. “I didn’t know where to keep it.”

On the ice, Balon was enjoying his best years. He finished 10th in NHL scoring in 1969-70 with 33 goals and 70 points. He scored 36 the following season, led the league in plus-minus — Bobby Orr came third — and won the Frank Boucher Trophy, given to the most popular Ranger in a vote by the fans.

Gwen clipped every article written about her husband, kept every hockey card, and she put it all in a scrapbook now held together by electrical tape. She noted Dave’s highlights in a neat, schoolgirl script; a four-goal game against St. Louis, a hat trick against Detroit and beating Orr in the plus-minus race.

But even as Balon was doing so well, something wasn’t quite right. “His legs and arms started feeling weak for no reason,” Gwen says. He talked to the team doctors, but all they could find was a chiselled 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete.

Balon signed with Vancouver in 1971. He was expected to score goals. He got weaker and weaker instead. Canucks management figured Balon, at 33 years old, was washed up. He jumped to the World Hockey Association, lasted for three games, and then quit for good in 1973, heading home to Prince Albert.

The Balons had always been smart with Dave’s NHL money. They owned a house, a cabin in Prince Albert National Park and a paddle-wheel boat. Balon was the captain of the 40-passenger vessel. Every summer, Saskatchewanians from the south would trek north and line up for Dave Balon’s tours of Lake Waskesiu.

“Have you ever been to Waskesiu?” Balon asks. “It is so beautiful up there.”

People started gossping about his health in the late 1970s. Balon was having trouble with his balance. There were whispers he had a drinking problem. The problem was worse than that.

Dave and Gwen had never heard of MS when the doctors in Saskatoon gave them the diagnosis in 1980. They were told there was no cure, and that it would only get worse.

But Balon took on the disease like he took on his NHL career — with fight in his belly, a capacity to suffer its worst and seldom a complaint. Sure, there were tantrums every now and again, rages where the “Holy Cows” were replaced by curses better suited to a hockey dressing room than the family dinner table.

“The odd time he got cranky,” Gwen says. “But he really fought, and we just didn’t acknowledge the disease.”

That is, until they could no longer ignore it.

Balon started walking with a cane early on, and then two canes, and then a walker. He drove a big Lincoln outfitted with a hydraulic lift. He fell getting into it 12 years ago. That was it for walking.

“Honestly,” Jodi says, “he could do everything up until that one point when he fell, and then everything fell apart.”

The Balons did their best to keep it together, though, with the help of the NHL emergency fund, Dave’s player pension and the alumni associations in Montreal and Vancouver. The Canadiens paid for a custom van. The bungalow on Gillmor Crescent was outfitted with special lifts, and an electric chair to carry Balon down to the basement, his favourite haunt.

Jodi has spent the past several months transforming the cluttered space into an orderly shrine celebrating her dad’s NHL career; decorating it with old photos, framed newspaper articles, the Frank Boucher Trophy, and the pair of skates he wore with Montreal.

It is a museum Balon will never see.

The majority of Dave Balon’s neighbours at the Herb Bassett home are elderly women. Several of them suffer from Alzheimers. Orderlies wheel the patients to a common area after meals, where they sit in front of a television set. Balon sits among them. Many of the faces there harbour blank expressions. Oprah and Montel Williams — who also suffers from MS — are Balon’s favourite daytime entertainment. But he most enjoys those nights when a hockey game is on, especially one featuring Montreal or New York. The ex-Hab still refers to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the “Laughs.”

Some days the nursing home brings in guest performers: musicians, authors and clap-your-hands-and-sing-along groups. Balon likes some of the events, but mostly he looks forward to every second day, when he knows Jodi and Gwen will appear at the door for a visit.

He puckers his lips when he sees his daughter — and again when she gets up to leave — a ritual that leaves her near tears, even now, four years after a serious infection put her father in the home permanently.

“It was the worst day for us,” says Gwen. “The disease progressed so slow at first that we just adapted to it.”

The 69-year-old Balon has plenty of old friends living in the Prince Albert area. But few come to visit. They tell Gwen it is just too hard to see Dave like this. “Well, how hard do you think it is for dad?” Jodi says. Her brother Jeff, a handyman in Fernie, B.C., does not come around much either. “He misses his son,” Gwen says. Fans used to write letters, but not so much any more. Jodi wishes they still would. “Tell them: Just send money,” Balon whispers, his sense of humour clearly intact.

It has been a couple years since Kurtenbach, Balon’s teammate in New York, who now lives in Vancouver, has stopped by to see his friend. “Dave had changed so much,” Kurtenbach says. “It is a shock to see him.

“It’s terrible, especially the last time I was there, because it is a pretty one-sided conversation now. Dave is laying there, and you know he is not going to get up.”

Sometimes, in his dreams, Dave Balon does get up. He is a young again, and racing down the left wing of the old Madison Square Garden. He is free in these dreams. And they seem so real to him, but they aren’t. What is real is the woman who has spent a lifetime loving him.

The late afternoon sun is fading through the front window of the house on Gillmor Crescent. It has been a long day for the old hockey player.

Gwen leans in to her husband’s cheek.

“Are you OK, hon?” she asks. “That’s my guy.”

“I’m your guy,” Balon whispers back. “I’m OK.”

Canada 6 Austria 0

“Whatcha think of the game, Elmer?”
“Best game I’ve ever seen, Red.”
“You gotta stay away from that homemade corn whiskey, Elmer.”

Press box

Just a couple of things to mention:

You could see the guys a bit more in sync in game two than in game one.

And speaking of game one, they showed a Canadian fan in the stands wearing one of those red and white “Cat in the Hat-type” hats. Do you think the person behind him who couldn’t see appreciated it?

For the second straight game, Shea Weber fired a laser from well out that bulged the twine, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this guy’s shot might be in the top one or two hardest in the history of the game.

Don Cherry did his Coach’s Corner with some kind of dog hat on his head.

Announcers Jim Hughson, Craig Simpson, and Glenn Healy were really on top of things when they told us that the Sochi time-out snow shovelers aren’t as good as NHL snow shovelers.

PK Subban had a solid night. Hopefully Babcock and company thought so too.

It’s been said often that if Luongo played well in this game, it should be enough to use him from here on in, which is just silly. What about a bad game from him on Sunday, or the next game?

Carey Price still has a chance to be the guy, regardless of what they say. Luongo had an easier night, but he recorded a shutout. Price allowed one goal, which apparently was too many.

Sunday against Finland. It’ll be good to finally see a real challenge. And Saturday’s U.S.-Russia tilt should be a beauty.

Price To Start

Price and Mike Smith.

photo 1

Mike Babcock and the gang have decided on Carey Price to be in nets against Norway on Thursday.

As it should be. Price has been lights out lately. Roberto Luongo and his Vancouver Canucks have lost their last seven games.

Of course, in looking at the comments on CBC, some people hate this idea because they feel it’s a lack of respect for Luongo, who has an Olympic gold medal on his resume, plus the fact that Price didn’t fare well in big games late in the season last year.

So be it. Price is the man.

Annually Disappointed

Interesting story in The Hockey News sent over from Ian Sirota about fans in 10 cities who are completely long-suffering.

Always teased, always disappointed, their team always falling short.

And no, the Habs aren’t on the list. They’re not even on the honorable mention list. I’m not sure why. We’re annually disappointed.

It’s right here. Thank you Ian for the link.

Habs Win, Max Hurt

It started slowly for the Canadiens in Raleigh, half the game in fact, but they got it together to win 4-1 and now go into the Olympic break on a three-game winning streak.

The Hurricanes had opened the scoring in the second period when Carey Price was completely screened and had no chance, although he would’ve if P.K. Subban had decided to remove the player he was standing beside.

But no matter, four answered goals buried the home team, and that was that. But PK might want to get a bit more truculent with guys in front of the net once the playoffs start.

Price was excellent as usual, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be the starter in Sochi. He’s deserved it.

A fine win. Not the most exciting (how often have I said that), but a win nonetheless. Three in a row, and a surprising five wins in seven games from a team I thought was sliding somewhat.

And although they’ve been keeping the puck out of the net, they also haven’t been scoring. Until they buried nine goals in the last two games, that is.

They continue the march, somehow, some way. What a crazy team this is. Amazing. I’d love to see them shake off the Leafs, though, who continue to be blazing hot.

But as hot as Toronto is, the Canadiens are right there, sitting just above them. Both have 70 points but the Habs have played one less game.

So take that, Cabbagetownonians.

David Desharnais scored twice, Ryan White, who was selected the third star for the third straight game, and Brian Gionta in the open net were the Habs’ marksmen.

But aside from all that, Max Pacioretty crashed into the net, was helped to the room, and never returned. On the eve of him getting on a plane and heading to Sochi.

A horrible situation, and we wait to hear. But there is a silver lining. Max and his wife have a brand new baby, Lorenzo, and if an injury prevents a trip to Sochi, imagine the quality time he’ll have with his wife and son.

Random Notes:

Shots on goal – Carolina 32, Habs 24.

Rene Bourque played another solid game. He’s been a new man lately.

It’s Olympic time now, with the Canadiens resuming play on Feb. 26 when the Detroit Red Wings come to town. And maybe we’ll have Alex Galchenyuk back at this time!

I’m here every day regardless of the Habs break. Olympics, summer, Christmas. Like a stray dog you can’t get rid of.

Good luck to all the Habs playing in Sochi. Especially to Price and Subban. Bring it home, boys.

 

Max Leads The Charge

Canadiens whomp the hurting Vancouver Canucks 5-2 at the Bell, with three goals and two missed penalty shots by Max Pacioretty.

Two penalty shots, two minutes apart, by the same guy. I’m willing to bet that’s never happened before.

Max’s second attempt saw him almost come to a dead stop before he made any sort of move, but the puck was rolling and Luongo isn’t easily tricked anyway.

So that was that. But he got three anyway, so that’s fine.

Vancouver outshot the Canadiens 44-29 on this night, but Carey Price was there when called upon, and the gang was both fortunate and good going the other way.

Max’s first marker, which opened the scoring, was a PK shot from the blueline on the power play, and it hit Max on it’s way in.

Ryan White, selected third star for his second straight game after coming back from injury, fired a great backhand into the top shelf with new guy Dale Weise helping out.

And the boys went to the room after the first with a 2-0 lead, which was unusual considering they usually only score one or two in an entire game.

The second period saw the Canucks narrow it to 2-1, and not only did Max get his two penalty shots, but three guys were taken to room with injuries – Emelin, Murray, and Bournival, and only Emelin and Murray returned.

I couldn’t really grasp what exactly happened to Bournival, but he took some sort of hit or stick to the head or face, and after looking quite stunned on the bench, left and never returned.

It’s finger crossing time on that one.

In the third, a nice backhand from DD to Max for his second goal made it 3-1, then Pleks was the last to touch the puck before Canucks defenceman Alex Edler kicked it in bis own net to widen it to 4-1.

And after the Canucks scored another, this one on the power play, Max found the empty net and hats came down from the stands.

I don’t know about you, but as happy as I would be if one of our guys notched three, I’m sure I’d be unwilling to throw my thirty dollar hat on the ice.

But that’s just me.

A fine game, a great result, and these two points keeps the gap between them and ninth place at five big points.

Random Notes:

The Canucks have now lost six straight.

Dale Weise has been excellent in his two games with his new team. But just as he arrives and the fourth line makes great noises, one third of the trio, Michael Bournival, goes down.

Both Gally and Desharnais garnered a pair of assists, and the line, with Max, was a force to be reckoned with.

Rene Bourque laid on a couple of decent thumps, and if he could somehow find it within himself to step it up in the aggressive department, he could be truly valuable even when not scoring.

Imagine if Bourque was scoring and hitting? We wouldn’t recognize him.

Next up for the Habs – Saturday in Raleigh for a 6:00 pm ET puck drop. Or 6:10ish if you want to get technical.

 

 

 

Habs To Crush Canucks – Hopefully

Aside from the Price/Luongo Olympics-related storyline, the Diaz/Weise swap, and the game being huge for both teams, this is a night when the Canadiens really have to win on top of all that.

I just spent the last 17 years among smug Canucks fans. I don’t know why they’re smug, but I suspect it has something to do with their team being better during the regular season than the Habs over the past couple of decades.

Not that the Canucks have been any good in the playoffs, but that’s beside the point. Canucks fans I know never failed to remind me of the superiority of their team.

Yes, I know, Habs fans have been accused of being the same thing at times. But the accusers have been wrong. We’re misunderstood salt of the earth fans.

If we were a tad smug, it was years ago. It doesn’t count

And one last thing to mention. I miss many of these smug Canucks fans. Great people, great friends. I’ll be thinking of you when the game’s on.

 

 

 

 

Habs Blank Cowtowners

It wasn’t a barnburner, the crowd was in something slightly less than a frenzy, and the boys didn’t fill the net, but they beat the Calgary Flames 2-0 on Tuesday, and that’s plenty good enough.

Especially with Toronto losing and the Rangers winning. Results that tie the Canadiens with the Leafs and keeps them one point up on New York.

It’s a slippery slope out there.

They also end their two-game losing skid. Yessiree, it’s all good news tonight.

We also saw something quite startling. A Habs fourth line that rocked, a Bournival, White, Weise combo that skated miles, checked hard, and earned a few good chances.

Good to see Ryan White back. He adds character, except for those times when he loses his mind. White suffered an upper body injury during the Jan. 2 game against Dallas and has only just returned now.

Newcomer Dale Weise can really skate, seems to know what to do out there, and likes to get down and dirty. It was great to see his fine first contribution.

And Raphael Diaz in a Canucks uniform potted one in his first outing with his new team.

Fine debuts for both of them. Although we want Weise to sparkle and Diaz to fizzle on Thursday when the Canucks pay a visit.

I’m not going to get overly excited just yet about Weise – it’s just one game from the ex-Canuck, but it was a fine outing with his brand new team, and he, White, and Bournival seemed to truly compliment each other.

Having a solid fourth line can prove very important.

Not the greatest game ever played on Tuesday night. Not when the shots on goal were 5-4 Habs after the first period.

But in the second, after the puck came within a whisker of going completely over the line behind Carey Price, the Canadiens then killed a full two minute five on three when Lars Eller and Tomas Plekanec were resting uncomfortably in the box.

It was a huge kill, and soon after, none other than Rene Bourque scored a bit of flukey goal, and the boys held on until David Desharnais found the empty net to salt it away.

A fine win, even though Bell Centre employees are still finding a small scattering of people asleep in their seats.

Random Notes:

Shots on goal 26-26

Canucks in town on Thursday, then it’s a flight to Raleigh to meet the Hurricanes on Saturday night. After that, the Olympics to watch and enjoy.

Diaz For Weise

Weise

With Ralphael Diaz the odd-man out recently on the blueline, the time had come for the Swiss-born fellow to be shipped out, and so Raphael is now a brand new member of the Vancouver Canucks.

In return, the Canadiens receive 25-year old Dale Weise, a 6’02”, 201-pounder who spend most of the past three season with the Canucks, and with 162 games-played in the NHL totaling 10 goals and 16 assists, along with 185 PIM.

We’ll see what this does. Maybe Weise is Hamilton-bound. Maybe not.

The one knock about Diaz, who was  a smart player with a good shot, was that he wasn’t physical enough. And Nathan Beaulieu has definitely picked it up several notches after being brought up from Hamilton.

So we just got a bit bigger and a bit tougher. No complaints there. I just hope Weise can contribute.