Tag Archives: WHA

R.I.P. Gordie

Howe and Rocket

When I was a kid in the schoolyard, the conversation with my buddies would go something like this:

Rocket’s better.
Nope, Howe’s better.
No way. Rocket’s better.
Howe’s better.
Take off, hoser.
No you take off.
Shut up and your mother wears army boots. (Or words to that effect).

That’s what it was. Always the same thing. Rocket and Howe. Two completely different players, but Howe was the enemy and Rocket was my hero, so I won. And I’ve  known now for years that Howe was the better all-round player, but I didn’t then and I wouldn’t have admitted it even if I did.

In the 1990s I had breakfast with the legendary goalie Glenn Hall, who was in Powell River for the Allan Cup. Glenn was a teammate of Gordie’s in the 1950s with Detroit, and played against him while with Chicago and St. Louis.

Glenn had also faced the Rocket and Orr during his Hall of Fame career, and because he lived near Edmonton and still involved in hockey in various ways, was as familiar with Wayne Gretzky as practically anyone.

I asked who he thought was the greatest ever and he didn’t hesitate. Howe, he answered, because he could do it all, and the others couldn’t.

I didn’t tell Glenn his mother wore army boots.

But Howe could do it all. His wrist shot was something to behold, his passes pinpoint, his deft scoring touch like few others, his unequaled on-ice intelligence, the unparalleled respect he rightfully earned from other players.

And tough? You want tough?

My friend and former co-worker Gilles Gratton was a backup goalie during the 1974 WHA Canada-Russia Summit Series, and he told me about the time Gordie’s son Mark was leveled by a Soviet defenceman in dastardly fashion, so much so that an unsteady Mark initially skated to the wrong bench and had to be steered to the right one by Soviet players.

Not long after, Gordie just happened to skate by the player who nailed Mark, and the guy just happened to end up with a broken arm and was gone for the series.

You didn’t mess with Gordie or his kin.

Players in the NHL, WHA, or Russia didn’t go in the corners with Gordie. They timidly poked their sticks at the puck and then got the hell out of there before one of those famous elbows crushed their faces.

He did it all, legally or not. There was absolutely no one like him.

Several years ago Howe came to Powell River for an autograph signing and the prices charged for his signature were incredibly outlandish. Way higher than normal, maybe because Powell River is fairly isolated.

I was astonished at these abnormal prices and I wrote a column about it for the local newspaper in which I wasn’t very nice, coming down hard on him and the grocery store where the signing was held.

I regret that I did that. Extraordinary prices or not (and they were), this was a fine and friendly fellow, a legendary man, possibly the greatest hockey player to ever play the game,  and he was there trying to make a buck. What an asshole I can be sometimes.

Now he’s gone and it’s a sad day for me and you and millions of others. I can almost hear angels in heaven’s schoolyard: “Rocket’s better”. “No, Howe’s better.” “Take off, hoser”.

Gordie & Rocket

Live, From The Edmonton Gardens

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Neat old 4-page program I came across years ago, featuring the visiting New York Rangers playing the minor pro WHL Edmonton Flyers in an exhibition game prior to the 1955-56 season.

It’s actually a yellow program, but my camera gives it a bluish tint.

The Rangers lineup is packed with familiar names, including future HOFers Gump Worsley, Harry Howell, Bill Gadsby, and Andy Bathgate.

But the Edmonton Flyers has its share of names too, with Al Arbour, Jerry Melnyk, Bill Dea and a handful of others, plus #17 Aggie Kukulowicz, who, along with playing four games with the Rangers between 1952 and ’54, acted as a translator for Team Canada during the 1972 Summit Series.

The Flyers, which existed from 1940 to 1963, were a Detroit Red Wings farm club, and also shows Johnny McCormack, who played for the Canadiens from 1951 to ’54, in the lineup.

Players on the Rangers who would don the Canadiens sweater at one time or another include the Gumper from 1963-64 to 1969-70; Ivan Irvin, who skated with the Habs for 4 games in the 1952-53 season; Lou Fontinato, with117 Habs games under his belt in 1961-62 and ’62-63; Jean-Guy Gendron, who was a Canadien for 43 games in 1960-61; and Bronco Horvath, who wore the CH for one game in1956-57;

And coach Phil Watson, who laced ’em up with the Habs for 44 games during the 1943-44 campaign.

I hope I haven’t missed anybody.  If I have, feel free to mention it.

The Edmonton Gardens, where this game took place, was built in 1913 and demolished in 1982, although years before the demolition, in 1974, the WHA Oilers moved over to the new Northlands Coliseum.

 

Rocket And Nordiques On View

Very interesting documentary titled “Just Another Job”, showing the WHA’s Quebec Nordiques leading up to and during their first-ever game of the 1972-73 campaign, which was also the league’s first season of play.

Maurice Richard is coaching (he would last just two games before stepping down) and J.C. Tremblay is on defence, so sit back and enjoy this 27 minute feature.

Flattened Rink

Orillia

The old Orillia rink, where I put on my first team sweater when I was about six years old, is suddenly an empty lot. So is my old high school but I’m not missing that.

I always looked for number 9 because it was the Rocket’s. Often in those first few years I’d get it. Survival of the quickest to the sweater heap. And maybe number 9 was more important to me than to the others.

A rink where Ricky Ley, who became a star defenceman in the NHL and WHA, started life as a goalie and was rarely scored upon because he simply laid down across the goal and no one could raise the puck over him.

Where much of  my childhood and adolescent was centered around, and where the old guy who pulled the barrel of water on wheels around to flood it always had a cigarette in his mouth.

When I was a kid having my dad tie my laces, the rink was actually quite new, the same age as me, but it seemed old, with smells I smell to this day. Great smells. Cigars, sweaty sweaters. Distinct smells. It had only been a handful of years but it wasn’t new, not by a long shot.

The demolition company charged $97,000 to level the old barn, which I thought was cheap. It had become unsafe, the roof was the problem, and I guess it’s never good to sit in an arena watching a game and hoping the roof doesn’t fall on your head.

Developers had stayed away from $649,000 asking price because of the added cost of demolishing. But it was smack dab in the heart of Orillia where $96,000 tacked onto the land price shouldn’t be all that outlandish. I don’t know. Is it?

They turned the Montreal Forum into a cinema, coffee shop, liquor store and bank mall. Now I lose my second rink and it only cost $97,000.

It’s where my winters were spent. Where I went public skating. Where I took a puck in the mouth which broke two teeth, when I was sitting in the stands.

Where I was a smallish yet shifty right winger for Byers Bulldozers bantam and midget all-star teams, and where it was a badge of honor to get lots of concussions, long before we knew what a bummer a concussion could actually be.

Hey! I’m going to blame all my teenage and adult poor decisions on my concussions suffered at the old rink when I was kid! This is the best excuse I’ve ever come up with!

Other Orillia and rink stories are in Categories under “Orillia” and include, among others – Psst, Wanna Buy An Arena? and Old Orillia Rink.

 

Gilles Does It His Way

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Ex-WHA and NHL goalie Gilles Gratton in a mock arm wrestling pose with Bobby Hull.

They did it as a joke because Gilles has always been a slight fellow and Hull is Hull.

I work with Gilles and he’s a great guy who seems to enjoy talking with me about games the night before and ones coming up. The feeling is mutual. I like hearing his thoughts on things.

Gilles was considered one of the best backstoppers in the WHA and was a backup during the WHA 1974 Canada-Russia series. He didn’t play and didn’t mind at all.

Gilles gained a reputation of being somewhat of a flake when he played, sometimes making noises at opposing players, rambling on about reincarnation to teammates and coaches, and he once refused to suit up with his Toronto Toros because the moon was in the wrong part of the sky and not lined up with Jupiter, which was his way of disagreeing with his coach being fired.

Ken Dryden says in his book “The Game” that Gilles once streaked during a practice with whatever team he was on at the time, and I asked him about it. He said that was wrong. It was during a ball hockey game and the coach promised him five new sticks if he did it.

He told us this story recently. When he first arrived in St. Louis to play for the Blues, he was in an elevator and a man riding up with him asked him if he was happy to be joining his new team.

Gilles answered, “I don’t give a f*&%k about the St. Louis Blues”.

When the elevator stopped, they got out and were met by others. It turned out the man in the elevator was his new coach Gary Young.

Gilles lasted 6 games in St. Louis before he walked out. The next year he was with the New York Rangers, then a season in the minors, and that was that.

After he retired he worked as a wire service photographer at a couple of World Championships in Europe, and eventually ended up in India for several years where he learned to meditate.

Gilles’ a Montreal boy, and I once asked him if ever would have liked to play for the Canadiens.

He said he didn’t know, he’d never thought about it.

1974 Team Cyrillic

The picture below was sent to me from a friend in Leningrad in the mid-1980s.

Team Canada 1974, stars from the rival WHA, taking on Kharlamov, Mikhailov, and Tretiak two years after the big one. (results at the bottom).

Rick Ley, second in the top row, was a boyhood friend growing up in Orillia, who knocked my front tooth out by accident when throwing a baseball. And he borrowed my hockey gloves and never gave them back.

Five players suited up at one time or another with the Habs – JC Tremblay, Rejean Houle, Ralph Backstrom, Marc Tardif, and Frank Mahovlich.

Three players on this Team Canada ’74 squad also played in the historic 1972 Summit Series before bolting to the WHA  – Paul Henderson, Mahovlich, and Pat Stapleton.

1974

Down the left side are coaches Billy Harris, Bobby Hull, and Pat Stapleton.

Top row left to right – Don McLeod, Rick Ley, J.C. Tremblay, Mike Walton, Rejean Houle

2nd row – Brad Selwood, Andre Lacroix, Tom Webster, Gordie Howe, Marty Howe

3rd row – Mark Howe, Ralph Backstrom, Tom Harrison, Rick Smith, Paul Shmyr

4th row – Paul Henderson, Serge Bernier, Bruce MacGregor, Marc Tardiff, John McKenzie

5th row – Al Hamilton, Frank Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers

USSR Wins Series 4-1-3

Mr. Gratton And The Mask

G. Gratton

This is a replica we have at work of Gilles Gratton’s mask, voted by SI.com as the NHL’s 4th all-time scariest mask.

Gilles played three seasons in the W.H.A. with the Ottawa Nationals and Toronto Toros, and two seasons in the NHL with St. Louis and the Rangers. Although he got into a tiff in St. Louis and only played six games.

I work with Gilles and he’s a real nice fellow.

He told me his hockey pension is $55 a month.

 

Rick In Retirement

Terrific piece in the Orillia Packet and Times about Rick Ley, a kid from my old neighbourhood, a guy who once borrowed my hockey gloves to go to junior camp, and who also accidentally knocked out my front tooth with a baseball. Of course he also enjoyed a stellar career in the NHL and WHA, which isn’t as important as the hockey glove and tooth knocked out, but should be mentioned anyway.

This link, sent to me from my buddy Ron Green in Orillia, is an interview in the Wednesday edition of the Packet, and it seems retirement is agreeing with Rick, which is great. It also mentions another guy I’ve talked about often, John French, along with Wayne Piper, who was my coach for a couple of years when I was a smallish-yet-shifty right winger for Byers Bulldozers.

Have a look. It’s a good read about a good Orillian. Ley’s Credentials Second to None

 

Summit ’72 – Woes In Winnipeg

We had them. And then we didn’t.

There were such high hopes coming off the big game two win in Toronto, and more of the same was expected in Winnipeg, now that the boys had rid themselves of their cobwebs and decided to get down to business. But as depressing as can be, Team Canada just kept blowing leads like 3-1 and 4-2 and let a major win slip away, with the game ending in a 4-4 tie.

The Soviet Kid Line of Viacheslav Anisin, Alexander Bodunov, and Yuri Lebedev, in their first appearance in the series, accounted for five points, and Kharlamov was once again inserting daggers into all of Canada, with tonight a gorgeous shorthanded goal when he burst in alone on Tony Esposito, who was making his second straight start after playing so well in Toronto.

Added to the dismal atmosphere was the fact that Winnipeg wasn’t all that stirred up by the big show. Former Black Hawk superstar Bobby Hull, who had bolted to the WHA and was now playing for the Jets, wasn’t allowed to play for Team Canada because he was such a big, bad traitor, and many in Winnipeg felt the team should’ve been called Team NHL, not Team Canada. It also doesn’t take much to imagine how Hull would have helped.

Just not a great night overall, and it hurts that we blew these leads. Two victories and we’re rolling, but it not to be. We’re stuck with one measly win, a loss, and a tie so far, and the uphill climb is getting steeper.

Now it’s onward to Vancouver, where Phil Esposito gives us shit.

All Together Now! “Couchiching, Couchiching, By Lake Couchiching”

From my 1959 Orillia and area phone book (which includes Bobby Orr’s family in Parry Sound), you can see the Lightfoot family on Harvey. Above that, as an added bonus, is Norman Ley, father of Rick Ley, former defenseman with the Leafs and the WHA New England Whalers, and coach in Hartford, Toronto and Vancouver. My mother went to school with Norman.

Not only that, as another extra bonus, there’s the Liberty Cafe, which was a restaurant on Orillia’s main drag where my dad would buy a bag full of hamburgers on special occasions, bring them home, and we’d sit and watch old war and gangster movies.

Okay, sing along – “Couchiching, Couchiching, by Lake Couchiching.”