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Remember, Canada: Anything can happen in junior hockey

As Canada nurses its World Junior wounds, a look back at former Leafs coach Joe Primeau’s 1945 reminder that there’s ‘nothing as unpredictable as a junior hockey player’


 

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THE newspapers awarded the Memorial Cup a little earlier than usual this hockey season. By Christmas the eastern sports writers donated this trophy, which goes to the national junior hockey champions, to St. Michael’s College of Toronto and by January the Western “Boswells” fell in line. Even out on Vancouver Island a couple of golfers had an opinion as early as February.

“There never was a hockey team like St. Mike’s,” said one of the golfers, signalling for two more.

Since I happen to be coaching St. Michael’s, this is high praise. Unfortunately I have a well-defined suspicion, bounded on the east by the Oshawa Generals and on the south by the St. Catharines Falcons, that we’ll do well to win the Ontario championship before we start interpreting our clippings too literally.

Newspapers are like that, you know. They watch a hockey team win seven or eight games and immediately hand the team the national championship.

And that adds one more headache to a coach already hitting the aspirin bottles far too frequently.

My old teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Charlie Conacher, can tell you more about that than I can. Chuck has been coaching Oshawa Generals for the last four years—and making a swell job of it too— but he always had overconfidence to contend with. After the first couple of games each season the sports writers were calling the Generals the best junior team in the country, but it wasn’t until last spring that they won the Memorial Cup for Charlie. Thre^ years ago he lost to Portage Terriers at Winnipeg in the Cup final and two years ago the Winnipeg Rangers, with the seats out of their pants, beat him in Toronto. Last year, after many heartbreaks, the Generals whipped Trail to take it all.

I’ll admit our record this season has been one of the best early-season displays I can remember. We won our first 12 games fairly handily and we piled in 112 goals in the first 10 of them. That’s better than 11 goals a game. At the same time our opponents scored only 24 goals, or less than 2 1/2 a game.

But every time people start talking Memorial Cup to me I change the subject. Even if I overlook Conacher’s misfortunes I still run smack into my own experience with the 1937-38 Marlboros. You may have forgotten that team. We had a first line of Alex Smart, Hank Goldup and Peanuts O’Flaherty. Smart came to us from the Portage Terriers. Goldup was one of the best junior left-wingers I’ve seen and is still going well with the New York Rangers. O’Flaherty was a hard-driving right-winger, who later went up with the New York Americans and then joined the Air Force. We also had Elwyn Morris, now a defenseman with the Leafs, and Bobby Laurent—in short, a strong hockey club.

All through the season we had our own way. We repeatedly defeated Oshawa, and because I wasn’t as cagey about those things as I am now I figured we had a Memorial Cup club. Came the play-offs. We were overconfident against Oshawa, played a 3-3 tie in the opening game at Toronto. Then we went to Oshawa and the Generals, playing grand hockey for the home town consumption, nosed us out 3-2. We finally untracked ourselves in the third game, back in Toronto, and walloped them 7-1.

Well, it had been agreed that all games after the second would be played in Maple Leaf Gardens but Oshawa claimed the fourth game should be played there. A long and stormy argument ensued, with Oshawa insisting they were being discriminated against. It was finally decided we should play the fourth game at Galt. You can see how that would react on teen-age boys. The Generals were hopping mad, figured Toronto was trying to hog away a home game from Oshawa, and went into Galt fighting mad.

Billy Taylor, whom I regard as the greatest junior hockey player I ever saw, carried the load for Oshawa that game, but I still think we had the better team. We had a kid named Anderson, who had looked like a potential star all season but who had never really untracked himself. Near the end of the first period, though, thia Anderson suddenly went crazy, took the puck the length of the ice and scored a beautiful goal. I figured he’d finally arrived; that he’d probably score two or three more goals for us.

Four Illegal Goals

The period ended, 1-0 in our favour, and we went to the dressing room. First intimation I had that anything was wrong came with the long delay between periods. I went out into the corridor to see what was up and discovered an argument going on near the timekeeper’s bench. Oshawa was insisting the timekeeper’s watch was wrong, and after another lengthy argument the referee decided Oshawa was right, the watch was wrong. They discovered Anderson’s goal had been scored after the period should have ended, so they disallowed the goal. Instead of us leading 1-0 when the second period started, we were tied. And Anderson was heartbroken. Any hopes I’d had that he had been inspired by his goal were smashed.

We scored four goals in that game and every one of them was disallowed. Goldup scored on a penalty shot and the referee ruled his stick had crossed the penalty-shot line and therefore the goal was illegal. Smart shoved in another goal and the referee claimed he was standing inside the crease. All of these were technicalities, but they were enough to keep us off the score sheet. Then, late in the third period, Billy Taylor stickhandled through our defense and scored a beautiful goal. It was the only legal goal of the game. We lost, 1-0, and were eliminated from further competition. The Generals advanced to the Cup final and lost to the St. Boniface Seals, who showed us Wally Stanowski for the first time.

All of this proves, I think, that you can outsmart yourself in junior hockey, where you’re dealing with high-strung, emotional adolescents. For instance, if we’d gone to Oshawa to play the fourth game I’m satisfied we would have had the better hockey club.

But the arguments and the delays gave the underdog, in this case Oshawa, a shot in the arm and tended to leave our players in mid-air. Thus, of course, is only the opinion of the losing coach. Tracy Shaw was handling Oshawa then and he’d probably give you a different version. The point, though, is that you’re dealing with dynamite when you tie yourself up with juniors.

The toughest obstacle confronting a coach comes when he must tell an aspiring hockey player that he isn’t quite good enough to make the team. This works two ways. First, you might be hurting a potentially good hockey player and, second, you might be cutting your own throat.

Some Are Made Great

Adolescent hockey players, you see, develop very quickly. A boy may be a poor prospect in October and yet by March he can conceivably develop into a standout.

You need look no farther than Red Horner as an illustration of this. Red had all the courage in the world and he was a good blocker. But he was a clumsy fellow as a kid and consequently a poor skater. But once he developed his skating he became not only a great defensive defenseman but also a good rusher. Even as a pro with the Leafs Red was awkward and, as Teddy Reeve once said, there was a time when it was questionable whether Red would be able to go around behind the goal without the aid of an umbrella. But when he developed into a strong, if inartistic, skater he could hand out a good pass and frequently set up scoring plays.

Some Are Born Great

On the other hand there are “natural” juniors, boys who seem to be born hockey players. Outstanding of these, to my mind, was Harvey Jackson. A wisecracking, handsome kid, he loved to play the game and he was making a pretty good job at left wing with the Junior Toronto Marlboros in 1929 when Conn Smythe decided to give him a whirl with the Leafs. Jackson was just 17. At the time I was playing centre on a line with Harold Cotton and Charlie Conacher.

Our first trip was to New York, but Harvey had picked up a severe Charley horse in his last junior game so wasn’t playing. Our trainer, Tim Daly, had a cure for everything, a vague, black salve which he plastered on everything from an ingrown whisker to a broken toe. So he lathered it on Harvey and then told him to gather up the sticks and follow him to the players’ bench.

“Go sit in your salve, I’m not your stick boy,” retorted Jackson.

“Well, if’n you ain’t the freshest busher I ever commentated,” growled Daly, who has worked many a miracle with the English language. That, incidentally, is how Harvey came to be called Busher and he remained Busher Jackson in all his years in the NHL.

It was January before we got together as a line—what was to be later known as the “Kid Line”—in a game at Chicago. Smythe decided to move the Busher over to Cotton’s left wing spot with Conacher and me. As we came out of our dressing room to go on the ice, Lome Chabot, our goaler, put a friendly hand on Jackson’s shoulder and said: “Nothing to worry about, kid, just give ’em your best.”

Did that phase the 17-year-old Busher? Not a bit. He told Chabot: “You keep ’em out, pop. I’ll score ’em.”

He did too. He scored twice that night, and for seven years our line remained intact, except, of course, if injuries came up.

Billy Taylor was like that as a junior, too. A natural, I mean. He was a standout junior for four years, as I recall it, and no other junior has a record to match Billy’s. He played for me with Toronto British Consols when he was 16, and then had three seasons with Oshawa.

Money Question

A lot of people have asked me if juniors receive money. Far be it from me to get involved in a subject so dear to the heart of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. But I think it’s fairly common knowledge that junior hockey players get jobs as a direct result of their hockey skill. Frankly I see nothing wrong with this, because a youngster who might find difficulty obtaining a good-paying job in his home town can better himself and his future if he can learn a trade or receive an education in another locality. I think such a discussion should be left in the hands of team managers anyway. Coaches have enough to worry about.

Not all of hockey’s headaches are confined to the players; there’s the small item of expense too. Fortunately I’ve always been connected with teams with strong financial backing, but if you are pondering the possibility of forming your own junior hockey team you might be interested in these points:

Every player must be equipped with such items as underwear ($2.50), athletic support ($2), hockey pants ($10), shin pads ($7.50), shoulder pads ($8.50), elbow pads ($5), skates and boots ($33), hockey gloves ($10), garters ($1.25), and sweaters and stockings ($10). Add up the figures and you’ve an expense item of $89.75.

That’s for one player. If you hope to win a championship you must carry around 15 players, some of them subs.

So let’s put equipment down at $1,300.

You’ve just begun. Sticks are a major expense. Over a season your team will probably use 200 sticks—at $2 a throw. There’s another $400. Then you’ll have skate sharpenings to pay for, tape to buy, cotton and oranges to consider. Your uniforms will have to be cleaned a couple of times, and there’ll be such repairs as ripped pants, torn sweaters and tattered stockings. You’ll have a trainer to look after many of these items and you’ll likely give him about $400 for the year. Since $400 will likely take care of your running expenses you’ll probably find that $2,500 will take you through a season.

I haven’t included a coach’s salary here because it has never been my experience to receive a salary. Men whose hobby is coaching hockey teams generally do it for their love of the game (if you’ll pardon the hackneyed expression) and for their interest in the development of youngsters into good hockey players. But many teams, particularly in small towns, are forced to pay their coaches if they are bringing them in from larger cities. The amount you add to your bill of expense for this item depends largely on how fast you can talk.

Coaching Isn’t Easy

You must be in a position to devote considerable time to hockey if you want to be a coach. Practice sessions are held two or three times a week in most cases, and a team can be expected to play at least twice a week. On top of that you’ve got to watch the other teams in your league so that you’ll know what your own team is up against. Many of the games are out of town, and in wintery weather don’t be surprised if you arrive home just in time to get to work the next day.

How you coach your team depends largely on the kind of material you have at hand. I have handled both senior and junior teams and I can’t say I have any preference, although each calls for a different method of coaching. With senior clubs you figure the players have just about obtained their maximum degree of skill. Then coaching becomes a matter of handling players and grouping them, sizing up the best combinations and introducing your system.

With juniors it’s more a case of instructing and developing. Perhaps there is more satisfaction here because you’re trying to show the boys the style of play which is best suited to their talents. You can make or break a junior, and it is a thrill if you should develop a lad into a great player.

There is no hard and fast rule to be followed in grouping your material into the best combinations. I like to have a good blocking defenseman paired with a good puck carrier. It’s nice to have a couple of hard-hitting boys on the blue line, but in modern hockey they won’t do you much good if one of them isn’t a puck carrier. Nowadays, with teams throwing that rubber into your end of the rink and swarming in after it, you must have a stick handler who can get the puck out or you’ll spend most of the game in your own end of the ice.

I like a boy at centre who’ll set up plays, a good skater who can keep feeding the puck to his wingmen. With him, of course, it is essential to have a fellow who can score goals once he’s been set up, and then you need someone with checking ability too. A line won’t be very effective if it can travel only one way. So the thing to do is try various combinations in a process of trial and error until you’ve hit on the right one.

One of the most important fundamentals is to be able to carry the puck without looking at it. I’ve had many a hockey player who can fly while he’s pushing the puck but who has to coast to do his stick handling. If you teach a boy to skate with his head up and carry the puck by a sense of touch he’ll know who he has to beat and who he has with him when he comes busting out of his own end.

Although there is nothing as unpredictable as a junior hockey player (they’re like two-year-old race horses in this respect) the breaks oftentimes play a tremendous part. There’s the case of Glen Harmon, now a talented defenseman for the Canadiens in the NHL, who was almost overlooked as a junior. Harmon, something of a tempestuous boy, had a reputation of being hard to handle. A better definition might be that he was misunderstood, but, at any rate, no lights glowed in coaching eyes when his name came up.

But Baldy Northcott, former Montreal Maroon wingér, added Harmon to his list of defensemen with the 1941 Winnipeg Rangers. The team had five or six good defensemen and Harmon was no standout. The Rangers squeezed past a powerful Saskatoon Quaker team in the Western final and came east to joust with the Montreal Royals, who had, miraculously, eliminated Oshawa Generals. Thus the series was played in Montreal.

A Ranger defenseman was hurt and Harmon rose to the occasion with some marvellous rushing and defensive work. Montreal liked him. The next season Glen played amateur in Montreal and now he’s one of the Stanley Cup holders’ defensive lights.

If Coach Northcott hadn’t taken a chance, Harmon would likely be a long way from the big time today.

The case of Turk Broda, Toronto Leafs’ Vezina Trophy winner three years ago, is similar. He was working in u logging camp in northern Manitoba 10 or 12 years ago when it was discovered that the goalkeeper for the Brandon Native Sons was over the junior age limit. The team frantically sought a replacement on the eve of the provinciul final series and nohody had a clue until it was recalled that Broda had played a few games for the camp team. A hurry-up call went out and Broda, a Brandon native, came in from the logging camp in time to help the Native Sons win the Manitoba championship and, subsequently, advance into the western Canada final, where they were nosed out by the Regina Pats.

Broda played so well, even in defeat, that the Winnipeg Monarchs induced him to forget about logging and concentrate on pucks. Turk did, was picked up by the Detroit Red Wings a year later and spent the next season in the nets of the Detroit Olympics, a Red Wing farm team. Conn Smythe, going to Detroit to have a look at another goaler, Earl Robertson, then playing for the Windsor Bulldogs, decided he liked Broda better. He bought him for the Leafs.

Thus Turk wound up with a Stanley Cup winner. He might just as well have remained in the logging camp in northern Manitoba had not that regular goalkeeper been overage.

Unpredictable Hockey

Junjor hockey is a strange and wonderful business, in which nothing is so certain as that everything is uncertain. St. Mike’s had a game at Oshawa recently, and, because of snow-swept roads, we were late arriving. All the cars reached Oshawa except one—the one containing all our skates. The minutes ticked away and still no sign of the missing car. The rink was jammed with impatient fans. Then, at the last minute, our dressing-room door was banged open by a burly gent buried under all our skate?. It was Charlie Conacher, the Oshawa coach. He had been driving down from Toronto, had been flagged by a snow-bound car. The driver didn’t know him but asked him if he happened to be going as far as Oshawa. Chuck said he was. The driver, stressing the importance of his request, asked him if he’d mind delivering 15 pairs of skates to Joe Primeau at the Oshawa rink.

Our kids didn’t show much gratitude. We beat Charlie’s Generals 5-1.

So you never know what might happen next in junior hockey. That’s why we’re not saving our clippings this early. It was mighty nice of the sports writers to hand us the Memorial Cup for Christmas, but, if you don’t mind, I’ll wait until April when, Kipling to the contrary, East does meet West— for the national championship at Maple Leaf Gardens.

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