April 17, 2006

Eddie The Entertainer

Eddie Shack is one of the most colorful characters in a long list in NHL history.

Eddie's magnetic personality, desire and fearlessness made him a crowd favorite. Eddie was known for his fisticuffs, and make no doubt about it, that's why he made the NHL. He feared nobody. His battles with AHLer Larry Zeidel and many NHLers, most notably Gordie Howe, are legendary.

Eddie's brutal stickfight with Larry Zeidel, one of the toughest guys in the AHL in the era of "old time hockey" is a classic. Both were thrown out of the game, they went to their respective dressing rooms, showered, then came out to watch the rest of the game in the stands. Zeidel spotted Eddie sitting the front row of the stands, and ran after him to resume the fight. The two of them fought again, and Zeidel rationalized it by saying that "Shack was going to the NHL and I'm staying in the AHL and I probably won't get another shot at him".

Eddie could also be dirty if he wanted to. Once when Chicago Blackhawk Pat Stapleton swerved to hip-check Eddie, he took two knees in the back and Eddie's stick across his head. Stapleton had to crawl 25 feet across the ice to get to the bench.

Eddie could also use his head. During a game against the Montreal Canadiens, he took offence at Henri Richard's style. "He was out there zippin' around like he didn't have a care in the world, so I decided to bring him down to us," Eddie once said. After Eddie got a couple of shots in, Henri grabbed his arms. "We'd take two steps over here, two steps over there," Eddie said. "I said piss on this and I banged him with my head." Richard left the game with a cut over his right eye requiring six stitches. Later in the game Eddie nailed Jean Beliveau into the boards, knocking the hockey legend out for two games. During his second stint with the Leafs, Eddie injured two Rangers on one play. He elbowed Rod Gilbert and cross-checked Phil Goyette in the head, leaving both men unconscious on the ice.

As a teenager Shack was working in a coal mine and as a butcher when he decided to try out for the Guelph Biltmores. He figured he could always return to the meat cutting business, but he wanted to give hockey, his one true passion, his full shot.
Shack not only made the team but became its star. He played in the Royal City from 1952 to 1957, leading the Biltmores to an appearance in the Memorial Cup tournament in 1957.

At the time the Biltmores were a feeder team for the NHL New York Rangers. The Rangers were impressed enough to promote him to their farm team in the AHL, the Providence Reds. With a good scoring touch and his aggressive play in the corners, Shack would spend only one season in the minor leagues.

In the following two seasons in Manhattan Shack established his reputation for exuberance and zest but not for scoring. With just 16 goals over two years, the Rangers gave up on Shack. They initially tried to make a trade with the Detroit Red Wings that involved Red Kelly, the transaction was cancelled when Kelly refused to report to New York. He was finally traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs later that year in exchange for Pat Hannigan and Johnny Wilson.

Moving to the Leafs was the perfect move for Shack as he fit in with the team right away. In his first full season with the team, the Leafs brought home the Stanley Cup and won three in a row from 1961-62 to 1963-64. Shack scored a Cup-winning goal and later told the press that the puck had gone off his behind and that he was just trying to get out of the way! Shack won another cup with Toronto in 1967 before being traded to the Boston Bruins the next season.

Shack moved around to several other teams including the L.A. Kings, Buffalo Sabres, and Pittsburgh Penguins before ending up back in Toronto as a Leaf. He retired from the game with four Stanley Cup rings and having made three consecutive All-Star appearances from '62 to '64.

It was Eddie's magnetic personality that the fans remember most. "We want Shack" was a regular chant in Maple Leaf Gardens. Eddie, living up to his nickname "the Entertainer," would occasionally stand up from his spot on the bench and lift his arms to encourage the fans to do chant louder! Another favorite move of his was to entertain the fans even when the game was over. If he was called as one of the game's three stars, he'd enthusiastically rush out to center ice, do his trademarked pirouette, and then enthusiastically skated off! The fans loved it! The fans loved him!

One night Toronto was getting trounced 10-0 late in the third and Eddie had never left the bench. The fans, to fight boredom started the chant, "We want Shack !" Coach Punch Imlach finally relented and told Eddie, "Get on the damn ice." Eddie leaped over the boards, raced around the ice to warm up and he had the fans in hysterics. They lined up for the face-off then Eddie called time and hustled over to the bench. "Coach I forgot to ask, did you want me to go for a win or a tie?"

Critics scoffed at Eddie the Entertainer. But he brought to the team a totally unique intangible. He knew how to work the fans. They loved him and he loved them. He knew how to liven up the fans which in turn would liven up his team, which ultimately helped his teams win some games.

Shack was known as a tough guy and a joker, but he was one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever had. He became the spokesperson for countless firms and products.

Lost in all the showmanship is the fact that Shack was actually a pretty decent hockey player. He was actually a scorer in junior, but was turned into a checker when he turned pro. He played 1047 games and recorded 239 goals and was an integral part of four Stanley Cup championships.

While Shack will never get a vote as one of the greatest players of all time, but make no doubt he is a legend of hockey. . In fact Shack's status is more Legendary than many of the players in the Hockey Hall of Fame. While Shack the player might not be qualified for eternal greatness in Hockey's Hall of Fame, his incredible combination of toughness, leadership, character and showmanship may never be matched again.

Shack continues to be one of the most popular cult figures in the game long after his retirement. A regular nomad on the travelling alumni circuit, Shack is easily recognizable, either as a player or as a referee, thanks to his trademark black cowboy hat and his rollicking laugh.


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