He had all the things I knew were good in life – a big talent and one who could skate like the wind, a great brush-cut, a lovely wife, was a heralded phenom when he was a kid, and he wore the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens. What could be better than all that?
He was Ralph Backstrom, and I wanted to be Ralph Backstrom. I knew I wasn’t going to be another Rocket or Beliveau or Geoffrion, so I thought I’d be Backstrom instead. I started by getting a brush-cut and posing on the ice like I’d seen Backstrom do in pictures, even when I was supposed to be concentrating on playing. My coaches must have wondered what the heck I was doing.
He had come out of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, a little town in northern Ontario that seemed to churn out hockey players the way General Motors churns out cars, having produced Ted Lindsay, Mike Walton, Dick Duff, Barclay, Bob and Bill Plager, the Hillman brothers, Mickey Redmond and others, and especially Backstrom. He was a star in minor hockey, as most pros once were, and was captain and the best of the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens junior squad before he joined the big club.
I loved the way Ralph Backstrom played, the way he skated like a blur and was so solid both as a scorer and a checker. And because he was such a fast skater, he and Henri Richard would race around the Forum ice from time to time for the fun of it because they were the team speed demons.
I hadn’t seen an image of Backstrom for years, and suddenly, during the 100th birthday celebrations at the Bell Centre, there he was, smiling and walking out to centre ice with the others. It made me happy to see him. But he doesn’t have his brush cut anymore, and that made me sad.