January 16, 2021

Norman "Hec" Fowler

This is Norman Fowler. He was better known by his nickname Hec, sometimes spelled Heck. The origins of the nickname remain unknown to me. Perhaps it was because he gave his opponents heck. He was a a brawling puck stopper, an early day Ron Hextall.

Born in Saskatoon in 1892, Fowler rose through the goaltending in the junior ranks in northern Saskatchewan city, earning praise and notice.

He turned his youthful passion into a career that took him to some unusual places. In 1916 he moved to Spokane, Washington to play for the Canaries of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. He would later play with the PCHA's Seattle Metropolitans and Victoria Aristocrats/Cougars.

When the Boston Bruins joined the National Hockey League in 1924, they acquired Fowler from Victoria to be the Bruins first goaltender.

The excitement soon faded for the Bruins and especially for Fowler. After seven games he was dumped. He had won just one of those games and allowed 42 goals.

There is even some suggestion that Fowler burned some bridges by admitting he was allowing extra goals against in hopes that the Bruins would go out and get some better players. Manager Art Ross opted to do just that, but named Fowler as their scapegoat and let him go.

Ross apparently even suspended and fined Fowler as much as $1,000. Fowler returned home but found a new team in the Edmonton Eskimos. Somehow though, Ross bound Fowler to a contract for just $1. In order to secure his release the Eskimos paid Fowler's $1000 fine.

Fowler took his $1 and framed it. He reportedly posted it on the walls of a printing shop he opened in Saskatoon after retiring from hockey.

Fowler would play two seasons in Edmonton before relocating to California to play for a team called Oakland Shieks! He was somewhat of a celebrity in the sunshine state, dubbed a "human blanket" for his puck stopping abilities.

I found one article from 1951 by Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette which paints "Heck" Fowler as one of the most colorful hockey players ever. Here's the highlights:

  • "Probably the roughest and toughest goaltender to hit major professional hockey in the last 35 years . . ."
  • "Fowler was a physical culture fanatic with arms like a village smithy and legs hewed from steel."
  • "He often participated in speed contests against Phil Taylor (formerly of the Ice Follies and Ice Capades) and Norman Faulkner, a prairie champion before losing a leg in the First World War."
  • He was an avid baseball player, uniquely playing short stop like a goalie. "He played the position hockey-fashion, blocking grounders with his feet and shins, then making the pick-up for the throw."
  • "During the summer months he used to get out on the sidewalk in front of his house and invite neighboring kids to fire pucks at his unprotected shins."
  • He also was quite the amateur soccer goalie.
But it was his temper and physical play that set him apart from most goalies.

"Insisting that a goaltender's cage was his castle, Fowler wouldn't permit an opponent within a stick's length. Oldtimers who campaigned against him will tell you Fowler was the original wood-chopper. He delighted in laying on the lumber. If you got too close for a good belt with the hickory, he'd throw a punch.

"He served time in every penalty box within skating distance during his eventful professional career. In his campaigning days when a goalie was penalized no substitute was permitted to serve his sentence as is done today. He engaged in a dozen fist fights in the Coast League, several in the NHL and despite the burden of equipment, didn't lose many decisions. In a duel with the sticks, which was the favorite skull denting approach until the moderns encouraged a milder form of physical encounter, he could swing his heavier war club vigorously enough to fell one of California's famous Redwood trees. But he preferred his fists. Claimed he was always breaking sticks and his tough knuckles took the punishment easier."

January 12, 2021

Who Was Better? Rick Middleton vs Lanny McDonald

 Two of the most popular players for the 1970s and 1980s were wingers Rick "Nifty" Middleton and Lanny McDonald. They were different types of players yet had similar careers. 

The question we pose today is: Who was better? Rick Middleton or Lanny McDonald?

After a rocky start with the impatient New York Rangers, Rick Middleton joined the Boston Bruins and delivered surprising results. He became an exciting fan favorite, even though he was not the typical Boston hockey hero. He was not rough and tumble, but rather a fancy pants with incredible stickhandling ability especially in traffic. Add to that his great skating which featured a couple different gears to change it up and he could deke defenders right on to the highlight reel. 

Moreover, Middleton rounded out his game into a solid overall game. And he did it all very cleanly, only collecting 157 penalty minutes in over 1000 NHL games. In 1982 he won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1982. 

You can read my full Rick Middleton biography here.

Lanny McDonald's bushy 
mustache is his trademark, but so were such characteristics as speed, work ethic, and commitment. Those traits, not really counting his facial hair, helped make him a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

McDonald enjoyed his greatest season in 1982-83 when McDonald unthinkably challenged Wayne Gretzky for the NHL goal scoring total. Gretzky would end up with the crown thanks to his 71 goals, but McDonald wasn't far behind with an overachieving 66. It was simply an amazing season for McDonald.

Another amazing season was Lanny's last. He was grizzled veteran by 1989, but he scored his 500th goal, 1000th assist and, scoring a memorable playoff goal along the way, finally won his first Stanley Cup. 

You can read my full Lanny McDonald biography here.

There seems to be some consensus that Lanny is one of the more borderline Hockey Hall of Famers. Nifty is similarly borderline, but he's on the other side of the line - not enshrined.  The difference may very well be McDonald's ties to Toronto and, for that matter, Canada where he played the bulk of his career as a beloved, mustachioed face of two franchises. Middleton never played for a Canadian team, but had he excelled with Toronto for a few years, it wouldn't surprise me if he would have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame by now, too.

You tell me - who was better? Rick Middleton or Lanny McDonald. 

January 10, 2021

Who Was Better? Guy Lafleur vs Mike Bossy

Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy are two of the greatest goal scorers to have ever played the game of hockey. But who was better?

These two gunners had a lot in common. They were the two best goal scorers of their eras, succeeding each other as the game's dominant sniper. In doing so each served on successive dynasties, each arguably the greatest of all time. And the two Quebecois right wingers were superstars despite regularly smoking.

Their hockey Hall of Fame resumes are among the best in history. Bossy with his 573 goals, 1126 points in just 752 games. Four Stanley Cups. One Conn Smythe trophy. Eight All Star recognitions in just ten seasons. Then there is Lafleur with 560 goals and 1353 points in 1126 games. Five Stanley Cups. Two Hart trophies. Three Art Ross trophies and three Pearson trophies.

The numbers are bit hard to compare. Bossy went out in the prime of his career, forced out early due to a debilitating back injury. Therefore, he was never able to achieve the longevity of Lafleur. Though that prevented him from padding career numbers, his numbers never fell off like Lafleur's and pretty much every other player in history did.

In spite of the short career, Bossy had better offensive numbers almost everywhere except career assists and career points. His best years came in the 1980s, which which was a slightly higher scoring era than Lafleur's 1970s. Had he been able to play longer, even presuming an offensive slowing down from his prime, he likely would have dwarfed Lafleur's career numbers.

Yet when it comes to ranking hockey's greatest players, history has almost unfailingly given Lafleur the distinct advantage. There are several reasons for this.

Lafleur succeeded Bobby Orr as the greatest player in the game. Lafleur captivated audiences all by himself. He had a little bit of Rocket Richard's flare in him and a little bit of Jean Beliveau's grace in him. People in every NHL city came to see The Flower, hockey's main event.

Bossy in turn succeeded Lafleur as hockey's top sniper. Unfortunately for "The Boss," he was never the best player in the game. That torch undeniably was held by Wayne Gretzky. Bossy was the great goal scorer, but The Great One was even better.

It's too bad that Bossy was in many ways overshadowed by Lafleur and Gretzky, because he may have been the best shooter of all time. Bossy was the better goal scorer than Lafleur, as suggested by his better career totals in significantly fewer games. History tends to view Bossy as a one dimensional scorer, in that he relied time and time again on quick releases, one timers and overpowering shots. He was deadly accurate.

Lafleur, on the other hand, was a stylish scorer, scoring dramatic goals with highlight reel dekes and rushes. To watch the incredible Guy Lafleur was truly an event in the late 1970s.

Lafleur was regarded as more than just a goal scorer. He was the key offensive generator of the great Montreal dynasty of the 1970s. Bossy was part of a New York Islanders machine that was perceived to rely equally as heavily on Trottier and Denis Potvin.

And make no mistake, history also looks more favorably upon Lafleur because he played in Canada and was better exposed on television regularly back in those days.

Everyone adored Lafleur, for his artistry on the ice and for his swagger off of it. People did not warm to the confident, some say cocky, Bossy. This was partly because of his lack of comparable exposure and partly because his controversial and outspoken stands, such as on violence in hockey.

Who was the better goal scorer? Bossy. He may very well have been the best pure goal scorer ever. Certainly in the top five.

Who was the more dynamic offensive force? Lafleur, in his prime. He was the main event.

Had Bossy been able to stay healthy and play longer, he could have achieved career numbers that could have dwarfed Lafleur's, and maybe even challenged Gordie Howe's goal crown.

But based on their actual careers, I have to agree with history's reflection: Lafleur was the better player.

January 09, 2021

Wayne Gretzky's 51 Game Point Scoring Streak

Trivia Time - Who surrendered Wayne Gretzky's first goal as an Edmonton Oiler? Here's a hint - it happened in the WHA. 

Winnipeg's Finnish goalie Markus Mattsson yielded the first goal to Gretzky as an Oiler. Gretzky scored 14 seconds into the 2nd period on November 2, 1978, his first game as an Oiler. Gretzky had just been acquired from the Indianapolis Racers who had to sell the junior phenom due to financial problems incurred by owner Nelson Skalbania.

Mattsson got his revenge on Wayne in the NHL more then five years later. By then he was a goalie for the Los Angeles Kings. Mattson was in the nets for the game on January 28, 1984. That was the night that Gretzky's incredible record 51 point scoring streak came to an end.

Other than those two moments involving The Great One, Mattsson is all but forgotten about other than being the answer to a couple of good trivia questions. 

Mattsson got an assist from teammate Dave Taylor in ending Gretzky's famous streak. About a week earlier, Taylor slammed Gretzky with a devastating but clean hit. Gretzky suffered a severe shoulder bruise.

Had his record breaking streak not been on the line, Gretzky almost certainly would have stopped playing. But he soldiered on, extending the streak by three games (including a 2 goal, 4 point, 1 armed performance against Vancouver in game 50). After getting shutout in game 52, Gretzky did sit out the next six games to recover from the injury. But, as the league's biggest draw, Gretzky still participated in the annual All Star Game first! Every NHLer who sits outs the All Star game nowadays should be told this. Although he may not have gone had he not already planned a quick vacation in nearby Atlantic City.

Gretzky returned from the injury and scored points in 20 out of the 22 remaining games. He finished that season with an unthinkable 87 goals, 118 assists and 205 points in 74 games. In the amazing 51 game scoring streak he registered 61 goals and 92 assists for 153 points!

By the way, the record of 51 consecutive games with a point could be considered to be even higher. Gretzky's 51 straight games was from the start of the 1983-84 season. But he ended the previous season with a 10 game point scoring streak. Shouldn't the record be considered 61 games?

Here is a few more interesting numbers from Gretzky's amazing streak and season:
  • Twice Gretzky scored 8 points in a single game during the streak - 3 goals, 5 assists against New Jersey and 4 goals and 4 assists against Minnesota. He also had 7 points against Winnipeg, 6 against Quebec and 5 points on seven occasions (plus twice more after the streak ended).
  • Gretzky barely extended the streak to 44 games. In that 44th game he scored an empty net goal with just two seconds left in the game. It was his only point of that night.
  • Gretzky scored his 50th goal of the season in game 42. He had his 100th point in game 34!
  • The Oilers went 1-5 and were outscored 38-19 in the six games Gretzky missed.
  • The Oilers would win their first Stanley Cup that spring. Including playoff goals, Wayne Gretzky scored 100 goals that season.

January 07, 2021

Refereeing Controversies As Old As The Game Itself

This is an actual - and amusing - newspaper clip from 1894. More specifically, it is a newspaper clip covering the very first Stanley Cup challenge match between the Montreal AAA and the Ottawa Hockey Club, also known as the Ottawa Capitals or Generals. Both were members of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada.

 March 22, 1894 - The hockey championship was decided here tonight, and never before in the history of the game was there such a crowd present at a match or such enthusiasm  evinced. There were fully 5,000 persons at the match, and tin horns, strong lungs and a general rabble predominated. The ice was fairly good. The referee forgot to see many things. The match resulted in favor of Montreal by 3 goals to 1. 

The referee forgot to see many things! Oh my, that is worth a good laugh, although apparently the paper lacked the editorial space to expand upon this thought.

On March 23, 1894 the Montreal Gazette published a much more thorough review of the Stanley Cup final. It mentions that "the referee was not nearly strict enough."

Oh how some things never change. The very first Stanley Cup playoff featured an officiating controversy.  I'm pretty certain there has been moments in every Stanley Cup playoff ever since when someone was unhappy with the referee at some point. Keep that in mind as the new season is upon us.

The referee that night was Herbert Scott, of Quebec. He was assisted that night by "umpires" Anderson and Irwin. At this time little else is known about Scott, but I will continue to dig

December 15, 2020

Gretzky Thieves Caught

 Here's an interesting story I did not know about. Thieves broke into Walter Gretzky's basement this past summer, stealing upwards for half a million dollars worth of Wayne Gretzky memorabilia. Police have now caught the two crooks and have been successful in tracking down much of the memorabilia which was sold online.

November 09, 2020

Howie Meeker

To a whole generation of fans, Howie Meeker was the squeaky voiced announcer on television who highlighted replays with his revolutionary telestrator. Almost as famous as the telestrator and magic pen were his "Howie-isms" such as "Golly Gee Whiz" and the often used adjective "Cotton Pickin.' " "Pass the Cotton Pickin' Puck!" he'd often exclaim.

His unique, lengthy and numerous contributions to the hockey broadcasting industry landed Meeker in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 in a special broadcasting category.

With Meeker's tremendous success on radio and television (as well as in print for that matter), it is easy to forget that once upon a time Meeker was a pretty good hockey player in his own right. Later he became a coach. And his entire NHL playing and coaching career took place in the Queen city of Toronto.

Like a lot of Canadian boys, Howie grew up with the dream of some day playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But even though he had been recruited by Hap Day for the Leafs while playing junior hockey, Meeker decided other things were more important than playing hockey, and he volunteered his services in the Canadian Armed Forces and he went overseas to do battle in the second World War. Meeker was even seriously injured during the war when a hand grenade blew up between his legs.

Three years after Meeker recovered from the hand grenade incident, he began re-pursuing his dream, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Howie spent one season playing senior hockey with the Stratford Indians before the Leafs gave Howie his chance. And Howie didn't disappoint.

Meeker's passion for the frozen game was as obvious when he strapped on a pair of skates as it was when he put on a broadcaster's headset. The excitable Meeker made an exciting debut. Meeker centered the "Tricky Trio" line (also dubbed "Kid Line 2") with Teeder Kennedy and Vic Lynn.

He made his NHL debut with the Leafs in 1946-47. Howie notched 27 goals and 45 points in his first NHL campaign, good enough to earn him the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top rookie performer. Meeker outshined everyone on the night of January 8, 1947 when he scored 5 goals in a game against Paul Bibeault and the Chicago Black Hawks. Even though these first year feats were incredible, for Howie they were not the best part of his dream season. His best memory had to have been helping the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in just his first year!

Winning Stanley Cups became the norm for Meeker. He was part of the dynasty years in Toronto, tasting champagne from the famous mug in each of his first three seasons, and in 4 of his first 5 seasons. However the rest of his playing career was not always as sweet.

Meeker missed the majority of his third season, 1948-49, with a collarbone injury suffered 2 days after Christmas. The injury would haunt Meeker for the rest of his days, and limited his effectiveness.

In just 346 games , Meeker scored 83 goals and 185 points. He played in 3 All Star games. To make matters even more interesting, during his playing career Meeker served for 2 years as a Conservative Member of Parliament in Ottawa.

While his promising playing career was cut short, Meeker never left the game of hockey. He spent two years coaching with the American Hockey League Pittsburgh Hornets before he got the opportunity to replace King Clancy as the Maple Leafs head coach in 1956-57. However a losing record prevented him from returning as head coach.

Meeker headed out to Newfoundland, where he coach and occasionally played in the St. John's senior hockey circuit. It's also where he got his break into broadcasting. Meeker would go on to enjoy a 30 year career with Hockey Night in Canada and later with The Sports Network.

"I'm the last guy in the world to think I'd be a successful broadcaster. I've got a terrible voice, all these other guys have got syrupy smooth voices. They've got fantastic memories and mine is long-term great, short-term not worth a lot."

Hockey has a lot of great characters who can tell a lot of great stories, but few if any are better at telling stories than Howie Meeker.