"How I’d make hockey a better game”
There are only six great hockey players playing today, says this all-time great. In the Thirties there were dozens. Charlie Conacher tells why he quit the NHL and
Charlie Conacher with Trent Frayne
Outside on Grand River Avenue the wind was howling past the old pile of dirty brick that is the Detroit Olympia. Inside there were maybe eleven thousand people hooting occasionally at the players sitting on the Chicago Black Hawks’ bench. It was the last game of the 1950 regular season and, as coach of the last-place Black Hawks, I was jammed at one end of the bench beside my players. Pressed close behind us, and then fanning up into the gods, were row on row of Detroit fans, needling my players and me. It was 3 to 0 for the Red Wings at the end of the first period, and I felt as bad as the score looked. A half-eaten hot-dog bun came looping down from somewhere in the w'aves of laces behind us and bounced off my grey hat.
Me and my family . . . the story of the Conacliers CONCLUSION
"These six are today’s NHL greats,” says Conacher.
"There is no seventh.”
The way it turned out. the Hawks rallied in the next two periods, silencing the hoots in the big smoky bowl and heating the first-place Red Wings 5 to 4. But I still didn’t feel much better, for this was my farewell to hockey. I had al-
ready made up my mind to quit the Hawks after two and a half years as their coach.
When the game ended I congratulated my players in the cramped cubicle the Olympia provides as dressing quarters for visiting teams, and then I walked through the darkened corridor under the scats to the street. As 1 stood in the chilling wind on Grand River, and signaled a cab. I realized I was ending more than a term as the rather undistinguished coach of the rather undistinguished Hawks. 1 was winding up my part of the Conacher family's connection with the National Hockey League, a connection that had started in 1925 when my brother Lionel broke in, and was to end the following spring when my brother Roy closed out his career. When I stopped to figure it out as the cab whirled me downtown, 1 realized that the three of us had logged thirty-five years as performers or as coaches (when Roy retired the following spring, that made it thirty-six). Each
of us became an all-star player—Lionel as a defenseman, Roy as a left-winger and me as a right-winger, and the game had been the focal point of our lives.
Now, in honesty, I think I must say that in spite of those thirty-six years in the game, hockey was largely a means to an end to the Conacher family, and to each of us it represented something different. 1 doubt that any of us — my mother or father or any of the ten kids — had any deep-rooted love for the game itself.
To my parents hockey meant that their boys had made good. I remember that mother loved to go to the Gardens when her sons were playing. She’d sit there with dad and she’d look around at the tremendous crow'd of thousands, and she’d say to dad, “Imagine, Ben. all these people are cheering our boys.” Her reaction would have been precisely the same, I’m sure, if we’d happened to have been playing football.
I remember once the Toronto Star assigned
a woman reporter to sit beside my folks when the Montreal Maroons came into Toronto to play the Leafs. Lionel was with the Maroons, playing defense, and I was at right wing for Toronto beside my Kid Line mates, Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson. Suddenly, this w'oman sitting beside my mother started yelling at Lionel, calling him a big stiff who didn't belong in the NHL. A little later she hooted at me, calling me lazy or lucky or both. The point was that she was trying to arouse a reaction in mother to spice up her story. But mom, who didn’t know this woman was a reporter, didn’t say a word until the end of the game when she put her hand on the woman's arm. “You wouldn’t yell like that at those two boys if you knew them,” she said. “They’re good boys.”
Hockey didn’t mean too much to my five sisters, either. Of course they were aware of the fact that their brothers were playing in the big league and thereby were continued on page 74
The story of the Conachers continued from page 33
“Few people realize that two players can
mean the difference between first and last place”
creating a certain amount of interest among the fans, and that they were getting their pictures in the newspapers, but they didn't get puffed up about it, by any means. Their favorite hockey player was Roy. because he was the youngest.
I remember once when Roy was playing for the Boston Bruins 1 asked my sister Nora who she would cheer for.
“The Bruins,” she replied. And then she added quickly, “But I hope you score three goals.”
Hockey, curiously enough, meant misery to Roy. He played because 1 made him play. Where else was he going to get any money? Before he turned pro with Boston he was driving a truck for a men's-wear shop in Toronto for ten
dollars a week. Roy loved the shinny sessions he and his twin brother Bert and I used to have on the street where we’d play with hockey sticks and a rubber ball. But once Roy got into organized hockey he hated the game. One time when he and Bert were playing for the West Toronto juniors, Roy purposely left his skates at home, hoping he wouldn’t have to play. I was with the Leafs then, and I’d gone down to the rink to see the game. I knew what Roy was up to. I sent him galloping home for his skates. When he got back he scored three goals against the Native Sons. Roy could always put the puck in the net, even without relish. He played hockey in the NHL for eleven seasons and his career was interrupted for a stretch of four years while he was in the RCAF, but in spite of this fine record he did his job without enthusiasm. He’s told me that each year he could feel the tension growing tighter, and he found that the more goals he scored each season the more he was expected to deliver the following season. It got so that Roy, who has a tremendous bond with his twin Bert, refused to go to training camp or to play another year of hockey unless Bert, who lost an eye playing shinny with us when he was sixteen, went with him. So what hockey meant to Bert was that he could be with Roy and help him. Coaches can’t even eat Roy was with me at Chicago when I closed out my coaching career and. because we are brothers, he knew of the tensions of a losing coach. Easily the most frustrating experience in hockey is to coach a losing club. You try everything you can think of to make the change that will spell the difference between victory and defeat—juggle the forward lines, switch the tactics, cajole your players, praise them or snarl—and all you can do once the game starts is sit at the end of the bench, or, in some NHL rinks, pace restlessly behind it. and watch helplessly. Not many fans realize that the difference between a first-place club and a last-place club is only two or three players. Trade Lindsay and Howe from Detroit to Chicago, and send Beliveau and Richard from the Canadiens to New York, and the two powers in the NHL today would be Chicago and New York. The rest of the players are so evenly matched that those changes would make all the difference. Coaches of losing clubs can't digest their food properly and their mood is usually dark. One-goal defeats night after night drive them up the walls, which is where 1 figuratively spent most of my time during my two and a half years with the Hawks. Crazy things happen. One night in Montreal Bill Durnan, the Canadiens’ goalkeeper, stopped a shot as the Black Hawks drove for a goal. He spotted Maurice Richard up past his own blue-line and he fired the puck up to him. Richard actually was away out of position; he wasn’t backchecking. But when he got the puck he had a clear path to our goal and he combined with Elmer Lach to score. The official scorer rightly gave goalkeeper Durnan an assist, because he’d made the play possible. It isn’t twice in
five years that a goalkeeper will get an assist, but it happened against the Black Hawks, and it made me sick.
Losing coaches have short tempers. I became one of the few NHL hockey coaches — if not the only one — who ever punched a hockey writer. He was lew Walter, a Detroit newspaperman who wrote that three of my players were well up in tne scoring because they were picking up phony assists from a lenient Chicago official scorer. A couple of nights later we went into Detroit and got badly beaten. In that game 1 figured the referee, Bill Chadwick, had overlooked a number of infractions by Detroit players, and I was steaming. When Walter, the newspaperman, came into our dressing room after the game I didn't want to talk to him and 1 told him to get out.
“No so-and-so coach is going to tell me to get out,” Walter said, only he didn’t say so-and-so.
I knocked him down.
He was going to sue for assault, and Clarence Campbell, the league president, was going to fine me, but nothing came of it, probably because a couple of days later, back in Chicago, our fine old publicity man, Joe Farrell, told me 1 was gaining nothing going around slugging writers. I looked at Joe's white hair and figured he was probably right, so I followed his suggestion and wired an apology to Walter.
For awhile I’d done all right with the Hawks. Halfway through the 1947-48 season Fd accepted the job from Bill Tobin, the Chicago president, and 1 developed a forward line of Metro Prystai, Bep Guidolin and Bert Olmstead that was second in scoring only to the great Detroit line of Howe, Lindsay and Sid Abel. But Tobin and I began not seeing' eye to eye when he wanted to sell Prystai to Detroit. There were other incidents. 1 talked Connie Smythe of Toronto into letting me buy any three players he owned who were playing in the minor leagues. This was about a month before the 1950 season ended and Smythe agreed to let me take my three for ten thousand dollars each. I scouted the American Hockey League for two weeks and then named the three: Tod Sloan, Fleming Mackell and Harry Taylor.
When 1 got back to Chicago, Tobin told me that if Smythe had agreed to sell those three players there must be something wrong with them. I told him there was nothing wrong with them, that I’d scouted them. Tobin refused to listen, and the moment he vetoed that deal was the moment I decided I’d be through as soon as the season ended. Incidentally, two weeks later Sloan and Mackell played so well in the AHL playoffs that the Leafs called them both up. They’ve been in the NHL ever since, both top-rate hockey players.
That was my own farewell to the NHL, and when Roy also called it a day in the spring of 1951 all of the Conachers pretty well lost their interest in hockey.
1 guess it’s significant of what the game meant to our family that we rarely go down to see an NHL game any more,
to Who is it? on paye 58
Johnny I ongden. Canadianreared jockey who is the world’s all-time leading winner of horse races.
Roy or Bert or the girls or me. For awhile we went to see my son play with the Black Hawks, my son Peter, that is, who was born during my first marriage. But now Pete is with Buffalo in the American Hockey League, so we don’t get a chance to see him in Toronto.
After Peter’s mother and 1 were divorced I was married again seven years ago, and my wife Sunny and I have two boys. Brad who is six and Scott who is five. Whether they're going to be hockey players or not, 1 couldn't tell you. The game has changed so drastically since I
played that it’s hard to tell these days just what does make a hockey player.
For example, my old buddy on the Leafs, Hal Cotton, has become recognized over the last ten years as one of the best scouts in hockey. As a birddog for Boston, Cotton has probably flushed more good hockey players than any scout alive. But what he looks for today would never have got a Conacher to the big leagues. He says he combs the underbrush for twelve-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds whose principal talents are what he calls his Three S’s—speed,
size and spirit. He channels these youngsters into the Boston organization and hopes that inside ten years they’ll develop into National Leaguers. Hockey has become so highly organized that if a kid hasn’t shown promise by the time lie's fifteen, chances are he'll have been discarded as a pro prospect long before he’s twenty.
As I say, if that had been the case when the Conacher clan was growing up, we’d never have had a chance to get out of the near-slums of Toronto's old north end. Lionel never would have got
to be a big-league coach and a star with four different NHL clubs. Roy never would have got to be a scoring champion and all-star winger, and neither would I.
Why, my brother Lionel never even skated until he was sixteen, an age at which, these days, some kids are compelled to leave hockey because they aren’t good enough. At sixteen I could hardly get out of my own way, and Roy was a string-bean kid just getting over his awkwardness. Speed? There wasn’t any. Size? Well, we had that, all right, just about the right size to get a joh on a truck. Spirit? Who’d know whether we had spirit? We could barely skate well enough to get across the rink.
And yet we all became National Leaguers because we were able to develop other skills that once were important in hockey. Roy and I practiced our shooting for hours and hours and succeeded in an era when putting the puck in the net was an art. Nowadays, the business of putting the puck in the net is largely a matter of luck—deflected shots, screened shots, and wild stabs in the midst of scrambles. Lionel, in his early thirties, had applied himself so intelligently to a system of playing angles that even though he was a comparatively slow skater he could keep himself between the goal and the swift-skating forward trying to get past him. These days, with science having given way to a shoot-and-chase style that makes for eleven men jamming in first one end of the rink and then the other, there’s no room for a defenseman who has anything but legs. His head? Well, he can use it to block shots.
I hope the point I’m making here is not that what’s wrong with modern hockey is that it wouldn’t be right for the Conachers. No, I’m thinking of all the other Lionels and Roys and Charlies across the country who never get to the big league because of the kind of game hockey has become, and because the six NHL teams have so completely organized its recruiting right down to the last pink-cheeked twelve-year-old that they’re strangling it.
In 1942 I told Frankie Selke, now
the managing director of the Montreal Canadiens and then the assistant manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, that if the pro teams didn’t keep their noses out of amateur hockey they’d ruin it. Well, they’ve ruined it, and I only mention the date of the Selke conversation so that I won't be accused of secondguessing.
In the fifteen years since then, I’ve frequently been accused of biting the hand that fed me. But on the other hand, who’s better equipped to take an objective viewpoint of the game than somebody who owes it so much? Anyway, it’s not hockey that I’ve complained about; it’s what the game’s administrators have been doing to it.
Their rule changes have eliminated most of the colorful players, reduced the need for stickhandlers and pattern passing, curtailed the number of clear-cut goals, and introduced a breed of player who needs small artistic qualities if he has a strong pair of legs and an ability to clutch an opposing player by the sweater, arms or head and jam him against the boards. The game’s greatest evil is the rule that permits players to shoot the puck from the centre red line to any point in the other team’s area and then chase after it.
Shooting from centre eliminates clean body checking by defensemen who must turn and rush for the loose puck. It relieves the forward lines of the need to work the puck toward the other team’s goal by passing or stickhandling—it’s simpler just to shoot it in-—and creates the endless scrambles in the goal area. In the days when the emphasis was on immediate control of the puck and swift precise pattern plays, hockey was a better and easier game to look at.
People who argue for the modern game keep telling me that this style does produce colorful and accomplished players, and they point to Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard and possibly Doug Harvey of the Canadiens, and to Gordie Howe, Ted I.indsay and Red Kelly of Detroit. The trouble is, they always point to this same half dozen players. They never add a seventh. The reason,
of course, is that there is no seventh. Once you've named half a dozen you’ve named them all.
By contrast, when I think of the Thirties, 1 can think of twenty-five players offhand who were colorful and accomplished and whose names have endured. You think I can’t? Any hockey fan who was old enough to see a game then could. There were Bill Cook and Frank Boucher and Bun Cook and Ching Johnson and Taffy Abel on the Rangers alone. The old Maroons had Hooley Smith, Neis Stewart and Babe Sichert.
Boston had Eddie Shore, Dit Clapper, Cooney Weiland and Dutch Gainor. The Canadiens had Howie Morenz, Aurel Joliat and Johnny Gagnon. Detroit had Ebbic Goodfellow, Marty Barry, Larry Auric and Herbie Lewis. The Leafs had King Clancy, Busher Jackson, Joe Primean, Red Horner and Ace Bailey. Even the downtrodden old Americans had Sweeney Schriner and Art Chapman.
I don’t even go along with the reasoning that says the modern game developed Howe and Richard and Bcliveau. I think those fellows emerged in spite of
the modern game, and would have been great stars in any era. Is it an endorsement of the kind of hockey that was played during World War II to point out that Rocket Richard was a product of it?
To my mind, the reason colorful players have disappeared to be replaced by a faceless scurrying band is that the amateur associations have permitted the professionals to bulldoze them into accepting NHL methods as their methods. Young players are regimented into a standardized mold where they play NHL
rules and follow NHL theories of attack and defense. Kids rarely play shinny any more, weaving in and out with a puck, learning to stickhandle and skate in a helter-skelter incubator that hatches their natural ability. They’re so completely organized and regimented that they don’t get a chance to develop any individual characteristics. But you can’t regiment talent. How could you develop an artist, say, if you took him when he was twelve and for the next eight years told him how to put every daub of paint, every stroke of his brush, on the canvas? If they want kids to develop their skills the amateurs ought to throw out all those fancy red lines and circles they’ve got on the rinks these days, toss a puck onto the ice and let the players learn the rudiments of passing the puck, stickhandling and skating. Then the good ones would begin to emerge, just as the Howes and the Richards and the Beliveaus have emerged—and, incidentally, have you ever watched two more unorthodox hockey players than Howe and Richard? These two break every rule that today’s regimentalists are instilling into kids, and they’re two of the alltime greats. Positional play? Howe wanders all over the ice. Backcheck? Richard detests it. I've heard a lot of people say that all Richard can do is put the puck in the net. That’s like saying that all Ted Williams can do is hit. If putting the puck in the net isn’t the most important thing in hockey, why do they keep score? Richard, to me, is the greatest ot all the right-wingers, just as Howie Morenz was the greatest centre I ever saw. Béliveau is coming fast and I think you II soon be able to class him with the alltime greats. At left wing, my old linemate on the Kid Line, Busher Jackson, had tremendous natural ability but I d have to say that game in and game out led Lindsay is the best left-winger. Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson were the best defensemen I’ve ever seen and my all-time goalkeeper is little Roy Worters. He played with the Americans, a team that for years gave him no protection, but for cutting the angles off and for stopping the puck and getting rid of it in one motion, Worters was in a class by himself. Just by Coincidence, Worters and 1 are partners in the ownership of two hotels in Toronto, and it’s wonderful to sit around with him and reminisce. Sometimes my brother Roy joins us—he’s the manager of one of the hotels—and usually Bert is with him. They’re as inseparable as they ever were, and we occasionally wind up our sessions by climbing into the car and driving down to the house on Scollard Avenue where dad * and my sister Nora live. It’s not a hundred yards from Jesse Ketchum school where the Conachers grew up on Davenport Road. When we get there we go to the kitchen and sit around the big stove, and my brother Derm sometimes drops in, and my oldest sister Dolly. And that’s the picture I like best of the Conachers—the whole clan gathered together in the kitchen. The sad thing is that mother isn’t there now, or Lionel either. It seems ironic that they should be the missing—Lionel, whose example did the most for us, and mother, who always took the most pride in our successes. ★ IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE? Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.