45 Degrees of Separation

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Nov. 3) — Tie Domi turned 45 on Saturday. Johnny Bower, please God, will turn 90 this coming Saturday. Which means that Domi was born one week before Bower’s 45th birthday (did that all by myself). It can also mean that Bower is twice as popular as Domi or any player in Toronto Maple Leafs history; twice as popular — in fact — as any athlete not named Michael Clemons in the sporting annals of our city.

With Bower, the folkloric netminder that back-stopped the Toronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1960’s, there will always 45 degrees of separation. He placed himself apart then as he does now — by merely being Johnny Bower. To call him “beloved” is to call the Hope Diamond “valuable.” Wondrously gifted with charm, humility, good fortune and boundless energy, Bower has remained in the public eye for nearly – yes – 45 years since hanging up his pads. Domi was one year, one month and nine days old when Bower played his final game in the National Hockey League – at Montreal – on Dec. 10, 1969; the ancient stopper calling it quits, he will tell you, “because I couldn’t see the puck anymore.” That, too, is Johnny Bower: Pragmatic; unwittingly humorous.  

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TIE DOMI (LEFT) AND JOHNNY BOWER: 45 DEGREES OF SEPARATION.

Now, we add Gordon Howe to the equation. Mr. Hockey, born three years, four months and 23 days after Bower in the ghost town of Floral, Saskatchewan; Johnny having arrived amid the bright lights of Prince Albert. Best pals and fishing buddies in the summer back home. Fierce rivals in winter on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Detroit Olympia. As Bower approaches the beginning of his 10th decade among us, Howe rests at his daughter’s home in Lubbock, Tex. — a paralytic stroke last week having impaired function to the right side of his body. Imagine the right side of that body diminished; the flank from which the NHL’s deadliest wrist-shot was unleashed in the 1950’s and 60’s. 

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GORDIE HOWE (LEFT) AND JOHNNY BOWER HAM IT UP LAST NEW YEAR’S EVE AT COMERICA PARK IN DETROIT — SITE OF THE RED WINGS–MAPLE LEAFS ALUMNI GAME.

For Bower — to this point in his long life — age is a non sequitur; practically a falsehood. For Howe, it has become a burden… as it is for a regal contemporary of both men: Jean Beliveau. The legendary Montreal Canadiens captain has been stricken several times, only to bounce back the way the great ones do. The principal hockey heroes of yesteryear embody degrees of separation. Octogenarians from the Prairie flat-lands of Canada remain farther apart than most. We wish one continued health at a remarkable 90 years of age; the other, a quick and full recovery at 86.

Our national game’s royalty is a precious gift.

GORDIE HOWE IN PRINT

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The biography written by Stan Fischler (top-left) came out in paper-back — once again — 45 years ago, in the autumn of 1969. A coffee-table book of recollections (top-right) arrived 30 years later, in 1999. Currently on bookshelves is the definitive Gordie Howe autobiography (below). 

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PETER PUCK RETURNS

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Nearly 40 years after co-designing the Peter Puck cartoon character with Hanna-Barbera Studios (creator of The Flintstones), Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Brian McFarlane (top-right) has come out with a children’s book. PETER PUCK AND THE RUNAWAY ZAMBONI MACHINE (top-left) will be released next week. McFarlane is best remembered in this country as Bill Hewitt’s partner on Saturday and Wednesday night Maple Leafs telecasts from 1965 to 1980. He also worked as intermission host for the NBC Sunday afternoon Game-of-the-Week in the early-to-mid-70’s, which is where Peter Puck originated in a series of short-story cartoons.

Brian was at a gathering of hockey lifers that I also attended this week. These affairs — held on the first Monday of each month at a Shopsy’s restaurant north of Toronto — bring together, in an informal setting, ex-NHL players, referees and hockey media. I always make sure to have my trusty NIKON with me, as I did on Monday:

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I am pictured here between Paul Hunter of the Toronto Star (left) and former NHL defenseman Bob Baun, who played on all four Stanley Cup teams with the Maple Leafs in the 1960’s. Paul and I spent countless days and nights on the road covering the Leafs between 1993 and 2010. We have stories too numerous to mention, though one came to mind earlier today. In December 1997, we were on a four-game trip with the Leafs to Colorado, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Paul had rented a car for the California leg and was returning it to Los Angeles International Airport prior to our short flight to Phoenix. At that time of year, with cool temperatures and no smog, you can see for miles around the L.A. basin. I was in the passenger seat of the rental car, next to Paul, when the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles came into view. Paul was busy concentrating on the “Rental Return” signs at L-A-X and asked me about the mountains. I mindlessly crossed my left arm in front of his eyes and pointed out the driver’s-side window. The car briefly swiveled and Paul regained control seconds before we’d have tumbled over an airport railing and embankment.

“Sorry, Paul, I’ll send you a post card,” I think I said.

Bob Baun has long been one of my favorite, all-time NHL players – dating to my earliest hockey recollection. Wearing No. 21 and skating alongside defense partner Carl Brewer, he was a mainstay of the Leafs dynasty under Punch Imlach, winning the Stanley Cup in 1962-63-64 and ’67. He later went on to play for the California Seals and Detroit Red Wings before returning to the Leafs in 1970 for his final two seasons. I always get a rush from chatting about hockey with the Boomer, as he was known during his NHL career. Baun is one solid character.

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Oh, the verbal abuse I hurled toward these two gents during the 1970’s at Maple Leaf Gardens. Bruce Hood (left) and Ron Wicks were among the most prominent NHL referees of the era. I suspect they were not privy to my homicidal screams from the last row of south mezzanine Blues at the Gardens — where I had season hockey tickets — and they are too darned nice to verbally eviscerate today. Bruce and I have known each other since 1984, when he officiated his last NHL game. He was the referee on that legendary Mother’s Day afternoon in 1970 at Boston Garden when Bobby Orr scored in overtime against St. Louis to win the Stanley Cup for the Bruins, generating one of the game’s most iconic images (below). Wicks was a referee between 1960 and 1986, working the Stanley Cup final on five occasions.

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RANDOM THOUGHTS: It was one year ago this weekend that the 2013-14 season began to unravel for the Maple Leafs. Having accumulated a deceptive 10–4–1 mark in October, the Leafs were throttled, 4-0, in Vancouver and would register only four regulation-time victories in their next 32 games. The 26-shot barrage that James Reimer encountered against Chicago in the third period on Saturday was a reminder of that western Canada trip. Leafs won at Edmonton and Calgary despite allowing 43 shots each night, and then were out-blasted 11-0 in the first six minutes of the Vancouver game. Ultimately, the repetitive shots-on-goal disparity would drag Leafs into a life-and-death struggle for the playoffs, which the club lost by withering in the final 14 games… Reimer again proved, on Saturday, not only how capable he is as a stand-in for Jonathan Bernier, but how his competitive mind-set has shelved a disappointing summer in which he was hoping to be traded… Leafs haven’t lost at home to Chicago since Mar. 5, 2011 when the defending Stanley Cup champion ended a promising 6–0–3 Toronto streak with a 5-3 win – a score that flattered the Blue and White. Blackhawks were crushed, 7-3, at Air Canada Centre last Dec. 14 in arguably their most inept performance of the season… Timing appears to be on the Maple Leafs side this week for a quick jaunt to Arizona and Colorado. The Coyotes and Avalanche each have just one home-ice victory thus far… Good line by Sean Gordon of the Globe and Mail, who covered Sunday’s boring Toronto–Montreal CFL game at Molson Stadium: “Never let it be said that Montreal’s offensive game plan was about a single idea. It was based on at least two”… Leo Komarov is again providing the Maple Leafs energy and opportunism up front. Locomotive Leo set up Peter Holland from behind the net for a one-timer that beat Corey Crawford early in the third period on Saturday. It stood up as the winning goal in Toronto’s 3-2 victory… Not sure if Joffrey Lupul is jinxed or made of crystal. Either way, his injury accumulation is astonishing… By the way, Johnny Bower is the third-oldest surviving member of the Maple Leafs, behind Wally Stanowski and Howie Meeker (good call, Jim Tatti)… What a finish to the World Series. All Game 7 lacked was a two-out single by Kansas City in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings. Once again, the baseball post-season was magical — from the Royals incredible march, to the late heroics of Michael Morse and Travis Ishikawa that won the National League pennant for San Francisco and, of course, the pitching of Madison Bumgarner. Baseball types will be talking about Bumgarner’s 2014 playoff gem for ages… According to the National Enquirer, O.J. Simpson has finally confessed to murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in June 1994 and is no longer dying of brain cancer (as the tabloid reported in the summer). Instead, the Juice is about to succumb to a disease incurred from a transvestite he apparently had a “rendezvous” with in prison. Honestly. It’s right here:  

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Heard this ad for Rexall on the radio the other day. The drug store chain was offering its customers free flu shots. The ad ended with “flu shots subject to vaccine availability.” Isn’t that like saying “rain in today’s forecast is subject to cloud availability?” In other words: D’uh… Can someone please tell me when the “flip-pass” in hockey became a “saucer” pass? Would be much appreciated… The NFL Network last week featured a terrific, hour-long documentary on Mike Ditka — best remembered as the gruff, uncompromising coach of the 1985 Super Bowl-champion Chicago Bears. Currently a public speaker and commentator on ESPN’s NFL Live show, Ditka reminded us of a wonderful life quote: “Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery; today is a gift.” Impossible to argue that philosophy… Speaking of the ’85 Bears, I still have not seen anything in football as spectacular and dominant as that club’s swarming defense. Pittsburgh’s “steel curtain” had a longer run in the 1970’s but was never as wildly effective as Buddy Ryan’s “46” defense. In three playoff games, the ’85 Bears outscored their opposition 91-10 — shutting out both the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams before demolishing New England, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX… Can you imagine reporters in Calgary living with Brian Burke if the Flames continue their early-season roll much longer? Almost never in the past three years have the Canadiens been made to look so ordinary on home ice as during Sunday night’s 6-2 pasting by the Flames. When does Montreal ever get out-shot 19-4 in a first period at the Bell Centre? Of course, were Pat Burns still alive, he’d quickly offer the bromide of the “first game back home after a long road trip” being the ultimate challenge. The Canadiens returned Sunday from a swing through Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. It was Montreal’s first loss at home this season… I debated the other day with a friend about the best-ever NHL player from Europe. To me, it’s easy: Nicklas Lidstrom by several lengths over Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg… Is there anything my old pal Rod Smith cannot do well for TSN? Rod has long anchored the 6 p.m. Sportscenter show. He currently hosts the Canadian Football League intermission panel and fills in, when needed, in a play-calling role, such as during Sunday’s Argos–Alouettes game in Montreal. Long-time TSN viewers may remember Rod hosting the original CFL panel in the mid-to-late 90’s with Bob O’Billovich, Marty York and Less Browne… I am told, subjectively, that Connor McDavid is the brightest NHL prospect since Mario Lemieux in 1984. That would, of course, place him ahead of Sidney Crosby among draft gems, though Crosby — at this moment — has a 787–0 NHL points lead over the consensus No. 1 pick in next June’s amateur lottery… Peyton Manning will be a first-ballot hall-of-famer once his NFL career is over but the Denver Broncos – under his quarterbacking direction – have failed miserably in their past two mega match-ups: Super Bowl XLVII, a 43–8 shellacking by Seattle nine months ago, and Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, where Tom Brady and the New England Patriots waltzed to a 43–21 victory… Ron MacLean does Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry here in Toronto on Saturday night before jetting off – the next morning – to whichever town is featured in the Sunday night Hometown Hockey telecast. I would imagine that Rogers has a back-up plan for the teeth of winter, when flying to the snowy climes of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta may not be quite so routine as in October and November. It would be a shame for Ron to host a Hometown event from the Aeroplan lounge at Pearson… Isn’t it wonderful to have electronic devices that automatically convert to Standard Time on the first Sunday of November? Only my microwave oven required manual adjustment this weekend… A hockey statistic that I continue to marvel at: Justin Williams being a perfect 7–0 in Game 7 situations during his 14-year NHL term with Philadelphia, Carolina and Los Angeles… Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Barker — an otherwise princely chap — was banished from the sideline after an incident with game officials two weeks ago at Rogers Centre. This was long overdue. The sideline is no place for a GM; particularly one that was so easily agitated by referees and line judges during his career as a head coach in the CFL. Barker should be upstairs in a private booth, not breathing down the neck of the Argos current sideline boss, Scott Milanovich… Big-time prayers to former Leafs coach Pat Quinn, who is fighting the good fight at home in Vancouver. Stay strong, big Irishman. The world still needs you.

AND SPEAKING, ONCE MORE, OF 45 YEARS…

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Tie Domi was one day old when I attended my second Toronto Argonauts game — against the Montreal Alouettes — 45 years ago yesterday (Nov. 2, 1969). In a steady rain at the old CNE Stadium, before 28,916 on-lookers, the Argonaut defense roughed up Alouettes quarterback Sonny Wade, who had allegedly uttered the “N” word at Toronto defensive end Ed Harrington during a previous match-up at the Autostade in Montreal. Harrington (pictured above wearing No. 54) abused Wade all afternoon, relieving the quarterback of four teeth during a particular assault in the third quarter (below). Unlike this weekend, when a weak-kneed Toronto club lost in Montreal, the ’69 Argos bruised their way to a 22-18 victory.    

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One comment on “45 Degrees of Separation

  1. I truly look forward to this every week, I really enjoyed what you shared this week, especially the meetings with the retired Leafs and Johnny Bower. Having spent my formative years at the original Montreal Forum I always like Bower and Baun (and most of the Leafs) – despite my lifelong love of Les Canadiens

    Thanks again Howard – your efforts are appreciated

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