Tag Archives: Jacques Plante

Full Concentration

Of the countless Habs photos in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, this one for me ranks right up there near the top. The close-up action, the fans watching intently (I see one woman), Jacques Plante still almost two years away from putting the mask on.

It’s Dec. 18, 1957, Madison Square Gardens in New York, and Plante and Tom Johnson are working on thwarting a Rangers attack.

The Rangers in front of Johnson are Camille (the eel) Henry and Leapin’ Lou Fontinato wearing number 8. Fontinato would be dealt to the Habs in 1961 for Doug Harvey, who had fallen out of favour with the Canadiens mostly because of his player/union work.

This great photo, slightly adjusted, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on Feb. 17, 1958, and here, a Habs player wearing #27 is included. But I don’t have a clue who this guy might be because my records show that no one did before Frank Mahovlich, who wore it from 1971 to ’74.

However, one could suggest that it could actually be #22, and if that’s the case, Don Marshall wore this number. But Don had way less hair than this guy and a different shaped head.

Here’s an even wider frame that includes a sprawling Claude Provost in front of Fontinato, plus a couple more women in the crowd.

 

Hockey’s Golden Age Is When?

Isn’t it funny that no matter what decade we’re in, many retired players and older fans always insist that the game isn’t as good as it used to be, when they played or watched.

It’s only natural that they feel this way. The present game, of any decade, just doesn’t have the romance it did for them. And hockey always changes, whether it’s the way players shoot, or pass, or even their size.

Ken Dryden, when asked when he thought the golden age of hockey was, answered that it’s whenever we were young.  It is for me. The 1950s and 1960s were my golden hockey years. They were magical years, with road hockey, collecting cards, digging pucks out of snowbanks, outdoor rinks and frozen toes,  and a six-team NHL. And I had the Rocket, Beliveau, Howe, Hull, Plante, and Sawchuk to watch.

But for men who played in the 1930s and ’40s, those 1950s and ’60s years sucked. And for those who played in the 1910s and ’20s, the next few decades after them simply didn’t cut it.

It’ll always be like this. Ken Dryden was right. It all depends on when you were born.

Here’s some examples.

Cyclone Taylor, one of hockey earliest stars, talking about the game in 1968:

“I don’t think I’d like to play the game now. I was used to going on at the start of the game and playing to the finish. I think any man between the ages of 18 and 35 who can’t play 60 minutes of hockey – well, he just doesn’t want to play, that’s all.”

Newsy Lalonde, who signed with the Montreal Canadiens in 1910, talking hockey in 1970.

“Never did I use the slapshot the way you see it used in the NHL now, with the curved sticks and all. With us there was no other shot to use but the wrist shot. When a man makes a slapshot today it’s more powerful than a wrist shot, but you can’t place it in the same way. The modern player just shoots the puck in the general direction of the net and that’s it. We knew where the puck was going and didn’t have to look twice.

And if you think hockey is a tough game nowadays, you have no idea what toughness is all about.”

Bill Durnan, star goalie for the Habs from 1943 to 1950, talking about the NHL in 1969.

“It’s a changed game, no doubt about it. Now it’s congested and half the time you don’t know how the puck went into the net. Thy just don’t have the plays we had; they simply shove the puck in the corner, then there’s a wild scramble, with three or four guys behind the bloody net. The puck comes out and somebody bangs it in. At that point, even the announcers who are supposed to know what happened start guessing.

And the players have changed, especially their attitudes, though at least until recently there were a few honest skaters left. John Ferguson, who played for the Canadiens, is an example. I was at a party with him a few years ago and somebody asked him why he was such a stinker on the ice and a nice guy off it. Ferguson replied. “When I’m on the ice, I’m at work!”

Now that’s the kind of answer we oldtimers would give.”

Cooper Smeaton, NHL referee before and after World War 1, interviewed in the 1970’s.

“Those were the golden days of hockey when you had fellows like Howie Morenz, Nels Stewart, and Georges Vezina. They talk about Bobby Hull’s speed, but Morenz would whip around his net like a flash and be up the ice before you could blink your eyes.

Take a goal scorer like Stewart. In today’s game he’d score 100 goals. And in the old days if a team was a man short it would stickhandle the puck until time expired. Now they just heave it down the ice. You don’t have to pay a guy $400,000 to do that.

We had a more appealing game game with lots of stickhandling and nice passing. Now it’s all speed. But one thing remains the same though – the referees never seem to please the coaches or managers or owners. To this day, nobody is perfect.”

More Lovely Habs Wives

Photos from my old scrapbook, which I still open from time time.

Bernie ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion with his wife Marlene and kids. That little gaffer is Danny, who went on to play for the Habs in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Marlene is the daughter of Howie Morenz, so she’s a hockey gal through and through. She looks beautiful, especially in that white blouse.

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Big Jean Beliveau doing the dishes with wife Elise. Elise said she had to do most of the driving when they were dating because Jean was a lousy driver.

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Jacques Plante, with wife Jacqueline and boys Michel and Richard, singing and forgetting about flying pucks that hurt when they hit the face. Plante also liked to knit, and made his own socks and toques.

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Dickie Moore and his lovely wife playing with their little baby. Such a fine looking couple. One of Moore’s daughters, and it could be the one in this photo, eventually dated one of Doug Harvey’s son. (I never heard how that worked out).

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Bert Olmstead showing his beautiful family his scrapbook. Scrapbooks were all the rage back then, and probably very cool when the scrapbook was about yourself. Years ago I looked up Olmstead in the Calgary phone book, phoned him and asked him if he’d mind talking about the old days with the Habs. He hung up on me.

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This is Maurice Richard, of course, just sitting around with his wife Lucille and the family. The kids are Maurice Jr., Hugette, Normand, Andre, and Suzanne. In the top photo, the Rocket shows his Rocket scrapbook to Normand and Andre. Most kids don’t have dads with a personal scrapbook. However, my dad was probably a much better sign painter than the Rocket.

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Henri Richard and his lovely wife Lise, being happy and healthy at home in Montreal. We would see Lise often over the years in camera shots at games with the Pocket, and she always looked great, that’s for sure.

Henri was just a little kid when his older brother was becoming a star with the Canadiens.

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One of the most important players on the Habs in the early 1960s, and a third and fourth line grinder at that – Dave Balon and his beautiful wife of whose name I don’t know. I wish I did.

Sadly, Balon passed away in 2007 from MS, and of course it was way too early because he was only 68.

Balon was one of those guys who was never a star, but was a hard worker, a checker, and he shone in playoff situations, scoring key goals, and was put out often in key situations against the other teams’ stars. For every Jean Beliveau, a team needs a Dave Balon. He wore number 20, and as far as I’m concerned, he’s never gotten enough credit for what he did for the Montreal Canadiens.

Look how happy they look, especially his wife.

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Ralph Backstrom and his wife Frances and kids.

After Backstrom’s playing days were over, he ended up coaching the University of Denver team, founded a roller hockey league in the late ’90s, and in 2003, the Colorado Eagles of the Central Hockey League.

Backstrom was always one of my favourite players. I even got a brush cut like his once. The guy personified the Montreal Canadien teams he played on – speedy, classy, and a beautiful skater. Like me except for most of that.

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Canadiens goaltender Charlie Hodge and lovely wife Sheila. Charlie had the unfortunate luck of being on the same team as Jacques Plante, so he was often a backup goalie with the Habs early on. But he would win the Vezina outright in 1963-64 and shared the Vezina with Gump Worsley in ’65-66. He eventually went to Oakland when expansion came into being in 1967, as each team had to surrender a goalie for the new upstarts (the original six teams were allowed to protect only 11 skaters and one goalie).

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John Ferguson with wife Jean and daughter in this really nice family photo. As much as Fergie was a bruiser on the ice, he was known as a gentle pushover at home.

Fergie and family would go back to Nanaimo BC in the off-season where he played professional lacrosse, and he also had a long-time love affair with harness racing.

 

Papa Got A Brand New Team

I’m a Habs fan, born and raised in Orillia, Ont, which is Leafs country I suppose, considering it’s only an hour and a half north of Toronto. I’m a fan and my old man had a lot to do with it.

My dad, who served in the Canadian army overseas in WWll, was a hockey fan most of his life, although his enthusiasm waned as he aged, which I understand more and more. He followed the Leafs when he was young, and once wrote a letter in the 1930s to Ace Bailey, who lay in a hospital after Boston’s Eddie Shore clubbed him over the head, ending his career, and nearly killing him.

Bailey’s wife wrote back and thanked him.

Later though, my dad began to change his mind about his team. The Toronto Star and Telegram both plastered their papers with Leafs stories and my dad would complain. It was always “Leafs, Leafs, Leafs” he used to say. Broadcaster Foster Hewitt was the definitive homer, and this rubbed dad the wrong way. And pops was a quiet fellow and wasn’t crazy about the brash, loud, and arrogant Leafs owner Conn Smythe.

In the 1950s, with television entering households, it was usually only Leafs game shown, and when the Montreal Canadiens played in Toronto, my dad liked what he saw on his TV. There was the Rocket, Beliveau, Harvey, and Plante. Magical names. Stanley Cups began to be won by the Habs on a regular basis, and the Leafs just kept plodding along. The Canadiens had something the Leafs didn’t.

When I was a boy he started a big Montreal Canadiens scrapbook for me. He helped me write fan letters to the Rocket, and at one point, Rocket sent me a Christmas card. He took me to Maple Leaf Gardens a couple of times, and once, when we were really early and stood at the gate, the Canadiens players walked right by us.

He bought me a hockey book for Christmas which he mailed to Montreal asking for autographs, and it was mailed back signed by the entire 1957-58 Habs – Richard, Plante, coach Toe Blake, Beliveau, Geoffrion etc, with Doug Harvey’s as the only signature missing. Later when we went to a game at the Gardens, he brought the book with him, took it down to the Montreal dressing room corridor, saw Toe Blake standing there, and asked Blake if he would take the book into the dressing room and get Harvey to sign it.

Believe it not, Blake did just that.

Thanks dad.

Saturday Morning Close But No Cigar

The Canadiens almost pulled it out in the dying minutes but they didn’t, so why even mention it?

Because I’m feeling guilty for slacking off lately with the recaps and this is the best I can come up with.

A 3-2 Caps win at the Bell Centre, in a game that saw the home team play with more vim and vigor than their comatose display in Philly Thursday night.

But 95-year old Betty White and a full century Kirk Douglas would play with more vim and vigor than the Habs’ Thursday sleep-in. So instead of doing a little summary of that recent yawner, I decided to pick my toenails and melt my ear wax instead.

Today (Saturday) was a game that began at 10:10 am at my house, which works out beautifully because it gives me plenty of time to track down my pusher. Same thing tomorrow when the boys greet the Edmonton Oilers.

Sure hope I don’t get ‘acid’ indigestion while stirring the ‘pot’ full of boiled ‘hash’ while I, uh, drink my ‘coke’.

I can’t wait for the playoffs. This 82-game schedule is merely a series of teams tweaking before real hockey begins. Let the Canadiens play like bums now, it doesn’t matter. Calm down and don’t get your shorts in a knot. Spent some quality time with your pusher instead.

The Maharishi would tell you the same thing if he were alive and not busy hitting on Mia and Prudence Farrow.

The postseason is the real deal, not Gary Bettman’s dream of parity, where almost every team is basically as good as every other team, in the regular season at least.

The top of the heap Caps are notorious flops in the playoffs and I expect them to do so again, mainly because it’s all we know from them. And surprises happen in late-spring. Small and quick teams with great goaltending, who were often boring and inept as hell beforehand, can sometimes surprise and go far at this time. Like Montreal will this year.

Just have to get the wretched season over with.

I hate parity. I want a handful of good teams and plenty of bad ones. It’s nice to see the bad ones play like gangbusters against powerhouses. Sometimes the poorer teams win because of hard work, lucky bounces, milder hangovers, along with supreme cockiness and worse hangovers on the part of the good ones.

Where was I going on this? What’s this about parity? Sorry.

Carey Price allowed his usual three goals, which he does on most nights now, but it matters little because it’s not the playoffs. So please don’t take his play or Galchenyuk’s or Shaw’s to heart. It means almost nothing.

Is there a rule that says Price can’t wear Jacques Plante’s old equipment during a game?

Random Notes:

Alexander Radulov was on fire today, with a goal, an assist, and a goal called back after Max interfered with Caps netminder Braden Holtby.

Below is Lyla, who is the main reason why my priorities have changed. Why I don’t write summaries after every game now. Why I often pace the floor or look at blank walls instead of paying attention to these friggin’ multi-millionaires on the ice who insult all of you when they float or sign their chicken scratch names on a piece of paper, which ultimately looks like something Lyla would’ve scribbled.

Lyla’s become way more important than getting wound up about any lousy regular season showing on the part of this team that I’ve put my heart and soul into for six decades.

My wife Lucy and I are raising this little girl, with great help from Lyla’s mom, even though we’re in our mid-60s. And I’m slowly converting my spare room, that was filled with rare Habs memorabilia, into a little girlie room, which I’m happy to do.

Lyla is real life, unlike the regular season.

 

 

Those Were The Days

What, you say I never played for the Habs?

Then who’s that in the middle of the back row?

59-60 Habs

Yes, I remember it well. Me and Rocket and Doug sticking lit firecrackers in Boom Boom’s pajamas as he slept. Stealing Toe’s fedora and blaming it on Hicke. Putting Ex-Lax in Plante’s hot chocolate. Finding Backstrom’s paycheque and giving it to the Conservative Party.

But for all the hilarious hi-jinks, we still won plenty of games and were on top of the world. And I like to think that as a smallish-yet-shifty right winger, I did my part.

Those were the days, my friends.

Thanks to a great guy, Ed Wolk in Ottawa, for sending me this big surprise – the only known photo of me with the Habs. (I tried to stay out of the limelight).

 

Habs Handle Panthers, But……

There was good, bad, and disturbing in the Canadiens 4-1 win in Sunrise on Sunday, so I’ll just get down to mentioning some before I head to the 7/11 to buy a creme-filled Easter egg.

Carey Price finally nailed down his 42nd win of the season, which ties him with Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden.
Michel Therrien grabbed his 200th win as coach of the CH.
Tomas Plekanec scored his 200th NHL goal, all as a Hab.
Devante Smith-Pelly scored his first goal as a Hab after converting a nice pass from P. A. Parenteau.
Parenteau scored a dandy, going coast to coast, grabbing his own rebound, and firing.
And P.K. Subban, looking like a slick forward, sent a reasonably tough pass across to Brendan Gallagher who buried it in twine.

The bad? Carey Price was run into on about five different occasions, a couple of times having his mask was knocked off, and….this is the part that really gets me…..his teammates did next to nothing to show that this sort of thing is unacceptable. Not even one little punch to a face.

This, with the playoffs just around the corner.

And the truly disturbing? Max Pacioretty, one of the team’s rare gunners, crashed backwards into the boards in the first period after being pushed by Dmitri Kulikov, he  may or may not have a concussion which may or may not be serious, and he was gone for the game.

No payback to Kulikov, who not long ago was handed a four-game suspension for clipping the Dallas Star’s Tyler Seguin. Not one stick jammed down his throat.

We might have lost our top forward, and it wouldn’t surprise me if our Russian guys Markov, Emelin, Galchenyuk, and Gonchar went for borscht with this fellow countryman bastard afterwards.

And the half dozen or so Panthers who ran Price? They walk out of the rink with not one set of stitches or crushed nose. No teeth missing. No swollen balls from a knee to the gonads. No lesson taught about not screwing with the goalie.

A good win that halts the three-game winless streak. But not such a good win with Max possibly being seriously hurt, with Price almost hurt, and the guys on the team letting it all happen with probably only a couple of F-bombs as their big time retaliation.

The nasty injury-causing stuff is beginning, I’ve been predicting this for months, and the reaction of the Canadiens was more than disappointing. Playoff-bound teams will see this and smile and rub their hands, which is the gist of my complaint here.

Next up – Thursday, when the Red Wings visit the Bell.

Fingers crossed about Max.

The power play? One for seven.

And one last thing before I head out to get my creme-filled Easter egg. DD, will you shoot the friggin puck from time to time?

Another Fine Blanking!

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The Canadiens looked like they were coming off a Demerol party when they lost 4-0 to the Sharks on March 2nd in San Jose, and which kicked off the 3-game hard-to-swallow California crushing.

It had us all in a dither.

But Saturday at the Bell, the boys played hard-hitting, slick passing big time hockey as they slayed the Sharks 2-0, making it three straight wins, four of their last five, coming not long after the aforementioned California slide had us searching for the key to the liquor cabinet.

Great game by the Habs, regardless of the fact the shirtless Joe Thornton told Sportsnet’s Christine Simpson between periods that his line had been in Montreal’s end all game.

Not what I saw, Joe. And really, for the sake of us guys watching, could you please put a shirt on.

Carey Price saved the day when called upon, which could be said for just about every time he’s manned the nets this season, with this being his 9th shutout (tying M.A. Fleury for the lead), and second in a row after beating Carolina 4-0 on Thursday.

The win is also Price 40th of the season, just two back of the Habs all-time leaders Jacques Plante and Ken Dryden, which is absolutely exciting. Price has entered the Land of the Giants.

Tomas Plekanec got his team on the board in the first period, his 22nd of the year, on a great play that gave him most of a wide-open net to shoot at. The goal also came at a great time, with just 1:14 remaining in the period, and we could see that with the way they were playing, taking the lead late like that could very well spell serious trouble for The Shirtless One and his fish.

Brendan Gallagher would notch the insurance marker, his 21st, in the third with the Sharks’ net empty, and with just seconds left and the boys up 2-0, the Ole, Ole song began, with props to the singers. You sang it at the proper time for a change. When the game wasn’t in doubt.

And man, were the last few minutes tense with the goalie pulled and the score still 1-0, and with the game, and a shutout, on the line.

But the Canadiens came through, as they did all night, standing their ground, checking hard, passing well, and all in all, unless you’re a Sharks fan, a mighty fine night at the not-so-old Bell Centre.

A nice, impressive hometown win by the gang, and a tremendous thing to see, considering there’s only nine games to go and maybe, just maybe, they’re rounding into playoff form.

Random Notes:

Tom Gilbert took a puck in the mouth area during the second period and was gone for the night. Hopefully it’s only a chiclet or two and nothing more.

Props to Brandon Prust for playing a fine game, including a nice piece of business on the penalty kill late in the game.

The Canadiens have reached 99 points, tied with Anaheim for top of the heap.

Alex Galchenyuk needs just one more to reach 20 goals.

Next up – Tuesday, when the team hits Music City, U.S.A. to shut out the Predators.

 

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.

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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.”