THE BALM OF POETRY #2

For all of us who don’t know

 We can read what we want to read

 Believe what we want to believe

 Hope what we want to hope

 Say what we want to say

 Eloquently, beautifully, compellingly, persuasively

 Presidents, prime ministers, dictators

 We can blog, tweet, post, proclaim

 Reach thousands, millions

 We can want what we want

 Do what we want

 COVID-19 is not impressed.

This rather sombre poem about the relentless of COVID-19 was written by Ken Dryden, if not his first published poem, certainly the first I had come across. It appeared April 1 in the National Post. Dryden, of course, is the legendary Hall of Fame goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens, best-selling hockey author and former federal Liberal cabinet minister, who has been so consistently impressive over the years with his intelligent, considered and caring response to just about everything that attracts his interest. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have considered posting a poem like this, given that I have been turning to poetry as a way to help soothe the soul in these unprecedented, perilous times. But if we are going to get through this, I found it a reminder of just how much all of us need to come together, regardless of ideology, income, rank, instant expertise and on down the list. From jet-setters to Boris Johnson to the frail elderly in our long term care homes, COVID-19 is a threat to all, a leveler of the direst nature. Dryden said he had written his poem in late March “after much thought”.

Plus, in a more cheerful vein, it gives me a chance to relate my one encounter with Ken Dryden, way back when we were oh-so-young, Martha. Somehow, perhaps with the help of me sitting on the bench, the Newmarket Pee-Wee all-stars had managed to make it to the final of an annual baseball tournament in Listowel, Ont.

Our opponent was North Toronto, and their pitcher was Ken Dryden. That created a buzz on our team because somebody knew he was the brother of Dave Dryden, who played goal for St. Michael’s Majors in the exalted ranks – at least to us – of Junior A. Who cared about his younger brother? We felt touched by fame because of his connection to brother Dave. Little did we know…

(Dave Dryden, during his time at St. Mikes. He subsequently played in both the NHL and WHL, but is best known for devising the first cage-style goalie mask, which remains the norm today.)

The other player on the powerful North Team who created a stir before the game started was their second basemen. It was none other than Rossie Armour, one of my first best friends when I moved to Newmarket. He lived just up the street. Until his family departed for Toronto, we bonded over our love of sports, even at our ridiculously young age. Of course, as was common in a small town like Newmarket, us kids pretty well knew everybody of the same age, if they played sports. “Hey, it’s Rossie Armour,” we nudged to each other.

As for the game itself, we were totally in over our heads. I mean, North Toronto against little old Newmarket. They clobbered us 9-0. Ken Dryden was overpowering on the mound. Our only hit was a slow dribbler down the third base line. (“Looks like a line drive in the box score!”). Most of our batters struck out. The only time one of them reached the outfield was a drive to left field by Gary Toporoski, who managed to time a Dryden fastball just right. Unfortunately, the new bat Toporoski used was broken an inning later by Lloyd Harris, as he managed his squib of an infield hit. I don’t think Toporoski ever forgave him.

When the shellacking mercifully came to an end, I think most of us felt a bit embarrassed by the lopsided score, but also a tinge of pride that we had been in the presence of such prowess. It was a feeling that only grew over the years as Ken Dryden made his mark in the NHL as one of its greatest goalies ever.

Years later, after a stop in Victoria during his federal Liberal leadership campaign, I asked Dryden if he remembered that game in Listowel against Newmarket. He said he did, but I think he was just being nice to a reporter. However, he did have firmer memories of his North Toronto team-mate and my early buddy, Rossie Armour. As I tried to prolong the conversation, he looked impatient. A moment or two later, he was gone, bundled away by his aides, leaving me with my memories and he with a look of anticipation to the next campaign stop.

One final note: the coach of the North Toronto team was some guy named Roger Nielsen*. Ever heard of him?

Be well.

* You can find his statue outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

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ME AND WILLIE O’REE

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Every now and then, the National Hockey League, even under Gary Bettman, does the right thing. So it was with the recent selection of Willie O’Ree to the Hockey Hall of Fame. O’Ree, 82, was chosen under the hallowed institution’s “builder category”, as the first black to lace ‘em up in the NHL and a long-time ambassador for youth and hockey diversity. In recent years, the honours have piled up for the likeable O’Ree. Banners raised, arenas named, ceremonies, inductions to other, more local halls of fame, and in 2008, the Order of Canada. O’Ree has taken it all in stride, evincing little bitterness over the setbacks and racist taunting he experienced at times during his long hockey career, which lasted until he was 43 years old.

Most of that time was spent in hockey’s minor leagues, a respectable place in those days to earn a few dollars, followed by a summer job to fill out the year’s earnings. Back then, there was nothing pejorative about being “a career minor-leaguer” like O’Ree. And he was a good one. All told, he scored more than 400 goals over 17 seasons, most of them in the Western Hockey League, which included the Vancouver Canucks before they jumped to the NHL in 1970.

Willie O’Ree played only 45 games in the National Hockey League. I was lucky enough to have been at Maple Leaf Gardens for one of them, and I have very clear memories of that magical night. It was my best friend’s birthday, and, baby-boomer parental indifference being what it was, (“go out and play”), we went on our own to the Gardens to watch the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins.

That meant taking the mighty Grey Coach bus from our sweet home town of Newmarket all the way into the big city, about 30 miles distant. This was different from daytime trips with the parents. As a young teen-ager, I remember being awed, and slightly intimidated, by the bright lights and nighttime crowds swirling along Yonge Street, particularly outside the legendary Brown Derby Tavern. But we made our way to the nearby Gardens and plunked down $2 each for standing room tickets. That was the only way to get in, since Leaf games were always sold out.

At the Gardens, you could stand behind the blues, which were best, the greens or the greys at the top of the rink, which were worst. From there, you could barely see the distant players through the haze of cigarette smoke.

 

We lined up in the cold with the other standees. An hour before game time, they opened the doors. Everyone rushed through the turnstiles and dashed frantically up the stairs to get a good place. Rather than risk being crowded out behind the blues, we opted for the lesser greens. We may have been the youngest guys there, but we didn’t care. We were at the Gardens seeing the Leafs, our hockey heroes, for a paltry few dollars.

I also knew that Willie O’Ree would be in the lineup for the Bruins. His historic first appearance had been the year before, but he suited up for only two games, before being shunted back to the minors.. Now he’d been called up again, and the Toronto hockey scribes had been writing about O’Ree and what a curiosity he was, a black player in the NHL. So I was curious, myself, to see him, in addition to rooting for the Leafs.

I watched him closely in the warm-ups, noticing what a fast skater he was. He also seemed to have a good, hard shot, based on the noise the puck made cannonading off the boards when he missed the net. It was fun to see him on the ice. But the Bruins were a last-place team, and the game went well for Toronto. As an added bonus, Johnny Bower, my all-time favourite player, made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen, Despite losing his goal stick, Bower hurled himself full length across the net to deny the Bruins a sure goal. The crowd rose as one in a roaring salute to the greatest custodian of the pipes the Leafs ever had.

oree_willie_action3But back to O’Ree. He didn’t do much in the game. Indeed, during his 45 games in the NHL, he amassed only four goals and 10 assists, which was not enough to keep him in the league beyond the 1960-61 season. Watching him, you could tell he had the speed to be an NHL-er, and he didn’t shy from mix-ups. Yet, he had trouble hitting the net and making those key passes to set up scoring opportunities.

Only much later in life did O’Ree reveal that an early injury had left him virtually blind in his right eye. He had kept it a secret, figuring, probably rightly, that few teams would want him if they knew he had full use of only one eye. No wonder he missed the target so often. I wasn’t the only one to notice it.

Boston teammate Don McKenney recalled a magazine article on O’Ree headlined “King of the Near Miss”, which highlighted the number of his shots that sailed wide. “I’m sure his eye problem was the cause of that because Willie O’Ree was an excellent hockey player in every other regard,” said the skilled McKenney, who occasionally centred a line with O’Ree and Jerry Toppazzini. In the same 2007 interview, McKenney noted exactly what little ol’ teenage me noticed from my perch behind the greens: “He was extremely fast and had a strong shot.”

So not only was O’Ree the first black to play in the NHL, he might have been the first one-eyed winger, too. Remarkable achievements on both counts.

Playing left wing, as he did, forced him to turn his head over his right shoulder to see a pass clearly. In 1963, however, while with the WHL’s Los Angeles Blades, wily coach Alf “The Embalmer” Pike, an off-season mortician who presumably knew something about the human body, sensed something was wrong with O’Ree’s eye. He switched him to right wing. O’Ree began to score like gangbusters. His 38 goals led the league that year, followed by four more 30-goal seasons, including one at the age of 39. One is left to speculate how good Willie O’Ree might have been with 20-20 vision in both eyes.

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As hockey’s black pioneer, O’Ree is often called the Jackie Robinson of the NHL. It’s a poor comparison. Taking nothing away from O’Ree’s breakthrough, the two situations are miles apart. Whether NHL owners were biased against blacks is an open question, but there was no rigidly defined colour bar as there was in baseball, forcing some of the best players in history to play in the Negro Leagues. Robinson’s signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers caused a sensation. O’Ree’s first NHL game was treated as more of an unusual footnote than anything else.

Outside of the Maritimes, from where O’Ree hailed, few black Canadians played hockey. A handful did well in the minor leagues and might have been denied a chance because of their colour, but there were no obvious stars. O’Ree deserves every credit in the world for preserving in the sport he loved from boyhood (“I loved the feel of the wind rushing by as I flew along the ice.”) and making history by making it to “the show”.

Back in Toronto, after the game ended, my friend and I streamed out of the Carlton St. Cash Box, as sports writers liked to call it, into the late-evening crowds, and headed to the bustling, grim bus terminal at Bay and Dundas for the return trip to Newmarket. We sat quietly in the darkened bus, as the miles flashed by, tired but happy. , It had been a wonderful night. The Leafs won 4-1, with the Big M, Frank Mahovlich, and a young rookie, Dave Keon, among the goal scorers. My hero Johnny Bower was the first star, and I had seen Willie O’Ree.

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AL ARBOUR, THE GUY WITH THE SPECS

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One of the fun things about growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, besides knowing where all your teachers lived for purposes of Hallowe’en, was being able to root for the Toronto Maple Leafs the last time they were a truly great hockey team. Under the hard-nosed but savvy guidance of coach Punch Imlach, the team won three straight Stanley Cups – 1962-1964 – and copped a surprise fourth Cup in 1967, the final year of a six-team NHL. They haven’t come close to winning since. But of course, that was only half a century ago….

Back then, my hockey heroes were anyone who wore the big maple leaf, although a special place in my “love bug” was reserved for Johnny Bower, ageless custodian of the pipes, as the knights of the keyboard liked to call him, and The Entertainer, aka Eddie Shack. And, lest we forget, both also made a contribution to the world of music, Mr. Bower with his classic Honky The Christmas Goose and Mr. Shack, subject of the equally immortal Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack.

But I loved all the players, as only kids can, including the guys who didn’t get much ice time. And here I am thinking of good old Alger “Al” Arbour. Although he never came close to making an all-star squad, everyone who followed hockey in those days knew the lanky, durable defenseman. Not only was he a fearless shot blocker, he did so while wearing glasses. 1958-59 topps 64 al arbourImagine that. Hurling yourself in front of slapshots, face first, with nary a thought of what might happen if the puck shattered your prominent specs. That was Al Arbour, as courageous a player as the NHL ever had. In fact, he was the last guy in the NHL to wear glasses on the ice. No contact lens for him. He really stood out for us kids. Sure, a Gordie Howe hockey card was treasured, but so was the card of the guy wearing glasses. It just seemed so insane.

Alas, for all that, Al Arbour was hardly one of the league’s elite blueliners He was slow, and his shot would barely shatter glass, let alone his own spectacles. In 712 games, he registered a mere 13 goals and 66 assists. Still, you never heard a goalie complain about having Arbour out there, as he dove to stop yet another cannonading drive with his body, before it reached the net.

The Leafs were one of Arbour’s four NHL teams. He was there when they won the Stanley Cup in 1962 and 1964. But he had the misfortune of being the fifth defenseman on a team that had two of the best defense pairings in the league: Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, and Carl Brewer and Bobby Baun. The four of them played together for years. It’s not like today, when defensemen are switched around like Parcheesi pieces. On the Leafs, ice-time for Arbour was always a rarity.

Yet it was always a thrill when broadcaster Bill Hewitt would announce his presence on the ice. You felt he was an underdog, too, scuffling for his place among the big boys, as was I in Grade Nine. Despite his lack of flash, I don’t remember him ever making a careless play.

Plus, he was a factor in one of my favourite anecdotes from the good old days of Six-Team Hockey. Punch Imlach was a big fan of the unorthodox, and if that meant putting his five oldest players on the ice during the last minute of the last game of the 1967 Stanley Cup final, he did so. Anyway, one night, with the score close, for reasons known only to himself, Imlach ordered the slow-moving Arbour over the boards to take the face-off and play centre. Unabashed, Arbour calmly stood up and said in a loud voice to the equipment guy: “Get me my stick-handling stick.”

Later, Al was the brains behind the bench of one of the most successful franchises in NHL history, the New York Islanders of the early 1980’s. He was the main reason I became a firm fan of the Isles, who won four successive Stanley Cups, with the no-nonsense, mournful-looking Arbour at the helm. http://www.lighthousehockey.com/2015/9/1/9242695/nhl-islanders-video-tributes-al-arbour

Al Arbour died last week at the age of 82. The hockey world is already a poorer place.

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