TORONTO (May 24) — So, the puck has slid from the players to the National Hockey League’s end of the ice. Gary Bettman’s administration has the final call: a) move forward with a concocted mini–tournament for the Stanley Cup in the middle of summer, four months after the most–recent games were played, in neutral–site venues with no spectators on hand. Or, b) declare “no winner” for 2020 as a result of the COVID–19 pandemic; preserve the integrity of the sport, and resume normal activity when reasonably safe.
I cannot tell you when that time will arrive. Nor can anyone else. But… we’ll know.
In my neighborhood of social media, sentiment toward re–starting is divided, sharply, among those who will profit (financially/emotionally) from the NHL’s return and those who will not. As such, friends of mine in sports media are raring to go, come hell or high water. Nor is there any hypocrisy in this corner. I’ll be the first to admit that I would surely feel the same were I still covering the Maple Leafs for The FAN–590. But, I’m nearly a decade removed from that wondrous assignment and my current occupation enables me a rather unique perspective. I deal with death every day and the volume of COVID–19 victims is staggering. To risk even one life for the purpose of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup would be outrageous and irresponsible.
Doing so amid empty arenas in the heat of summer would, fairly or otherwise, cast hockey as even more of an extreme sport in the United States. Conversely, annulling what is left of the 2019–20 season would instantly provide the NHL a four–month cushion — between now and the start of training camps in September. Time that could be used, invaluably, to determine the most–prudent (and safest) approach to resuming recognizable activity (home arenas, fans in attendance), perhaps with the help of a therapeutic compound to resist the coronavirus. Those who claim nothing will have changed by September could be bang on. What we know today, for certain, is that COVID–19 remains exactly where it was — and with the same potency — as when the NHL shut down on Mar. 12. Mitch Marner and Max Domi have notably warned about the peril of returning amid the un–changed environment. We should listen, closely, to their voices.
Nor do I buy the lame excuse of fulfilling network–television commitments. We know that such world–recognized events as the Summer Olympics, Wimbledon, the French Open, the Indianapolis 500, the U.S. Open (golf), The Masters, the Open Championship (in Britain), the PGA Championship and the Kentucky Derby also come with major TV obligations. All have either been postponed or tentatively re–scheduled.
If NASCAR can proceed without fans in Darlington and Charlotte, you may wonder why the Indianapolis 500 was pushed back from this Memorial Day weekend to Aug. 23. The answer, from my perspective, is two–fold: hope and integrity. “We will continue to focus on ways we can enhance the customer experience in the months ahead, and I’m confident we will welcome fans with a transformed facility and a global spectacle when we run the world’s greatest race,” noted a press release on Mar. 26. At the time, Indy officials clearly decided there was no purpose moving forward without fans and the ubiquitous activity on the racetrack infield. Whether that can change in the next three months is questionable. But, those in charge wisely provided themselves, in late–March, a half–year’s cushion. The NHL, without question, should follow suit.
Some of my media friends suggest that COVID–19 may never be neutralized with therapy or an effective vaccine. Then what… as it pertains to re–starting the NHL? It may be a somewhat–valid concern, but “never” is an awfully long time. Simply throwing up one’s hands in frustration — even though understandable — will not solve a thing. You may as well begin smoking three packs a day with the comfort of knowing that “only” one in four people are diagnosed with cancer. COVID–19 doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the economy… or whether you cannot withstand life without the Toronto Maple Leafs. It has to be defeated and only human beings can, ultimately, get the job done. Neither is testing a fail–safe exercise. As Steve Simmons pointed out in his Sunday Toronto Sun notes–column: “a concern with more than 700 NHL players apparently returning sometime this summer — if 3% of all COVID-19 tests are not accurate, does that mean there are 21 players to worry about every day… and all of those around the 21 players?” I’d love to see an answer to that query.
Folks, it’s just a bad idea. The NHL has far–more to lose in prestige, integrity and respect with a pseudo–product in the middle of summer. If naming a champion is so integral, why didn’t the NHL and the Players’ Association concoct some form of mini tournament in the summer of 2005, after finally agreeing to a new Collective Bargaining pact? True, there were no games played in the 2004–05 schedule, but the tall thinkers could have arrived at a reasonable format, perhaps involving the top 16 teams in win–percentage from 2003–04. With the Cup to be contested in August and September, delaying the 2005–06 season by three or four weeks. Clearly, it wasn’t a consideration back then. Nor, does it need to be right now.
MONTREAL FORUM PROGRAMS
Among my better memorabilia scores is this collection of nine hockey programs from the Montreal Forum in 1968–69. That season proved historic for the Canadiens in several ways. After 44 years, the Forum underwent a massive, $10 million renovation, principally to remove the support columns (pictured below) that obstructed the view for spectators. This remodeling began, literally, minutes after the Canadiens defeated St. Louis (May 11, 1968) to win the first Stanley Cup of the expansion era. It prompted the Habs to play their initial eight games of 1968–69 on the road before debuting at their refurbished arena on Nov. 2. By winning the Stanley Cup again in ’68–69, the Canadiens completed what is remembered as the “lost dynasty” — four NHL titles in five years, interrupted only by Toronto’s upset triumph in 1967. For whatever reason, the Cup wins in 1965–66–68–69 pale in comparison to the NHL–record five championships (1956–60) under Toe Blake and the four titles (1976–79) annexed under Scotty Bowman. The ’68–69 title occurred with Claude Ruel behind the Canadiens bench, as Blake had retired after 13 seasons and eight Stanley Cups.
This was the front and back cover of the program from the Canadiens’ first game at the renovated Forum (vs. Detroit Red Wings — Nov. 2, 1968). On the front (top–left), Dick Duff (8) is shown beating a sprawled Glenn Hall of St. Louis during the 1968 Stanley Cup final, with Jacques Lemaire (25) also in the frame. Whoever bought the program ran into baseball star Fergie Jenkins (of the Chicago Cubs) that night and obtained his autograph. There was a feature story (below) on the changes made to the historic arena.
Cover (top–left) of the program–insert — all of which featured editorials written by legendary Montreal hockey scribe Saul (Red) Fisher, who covered the Canadiens from 1955–2012 for the old Montreal Star (1869–1979) and Montreal Gazette (founded 1778). He was also a staple on Hockey Night in Canada in the 1970’s with the “Fisher Report” intermission segment. Red Fisher died at 91 years of age on Jan. 19, 2018.
MONTREAL 2, DETROIT 1 — With the Forum in its final leg of renovation, the Canadiens began 1968–69 with an eight–game road trip — to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Detroit, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston and Toronto, compiling a 6–1–1 record (losing only to the Bruins). Gordie Howe and the Detroit Red Wings provided opposition for unveiling of the new arena, on the first Saturday of November. And, how appropriate that Montreal captain Jean Beliveau would score the first goal, beating Terry Sawchuk at 4:38 of the opening period. Peter Stemkowski tied the match at 8:23 of the middle frame, but Yvan Cournoyer provided the winner at 3:37 of the third. Rogatien Vachon stopped 27 shots for the win. Referee Vern Buffey handed out only eight minutes in penalties. His linesmen were Neil Armstrong and Matt Pavelich.
Red Wings/Habs line–ups for first game at the renovated Montreal Forum: Nov. 2, 1968.
Front and back cover of the Toronto Maple Leafs album at the Montreal Forum in 1968–69. The front (top–left) showed Bruce Gamble sprawling to make a save on Yvan Cournoyer of the Canadiens, with Tim Horton (7) in pursuit and Bob Pulford (at bottom) turning away from the play. The back (top–right) showed Horton standing in the way of Montreal captain Jean Beliveau, thus enabling Johnny Bower to corral the loose puck. Autographs on the front–cover are from Gump Worsley and Terry Harper of the Canadiens.
The minuscule Toronto skyline from Lake Ontario in 1967 (top–left), with only one tower of the Toronto Dominion Centre completed. The Royal York Hotel (opened in 1929) stands out at left and the old, 34–story Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce tower (opened in 1931) at right.
1968–69 would be the final full season in Toronto for Leafs stalwarts Tim Horton and Johnny Bower.
MONTREAL 4, TORONTO 2 — The Maple Leafs, on Nov. 14, 1968, became the first visiting team to win a game at the renovated Forum, prevailing, 5–3. But, the Habs got even on Boxing Day. The Leafs had won in Chicago on Christmas night while the Canadiens were resting at home. Still, it took Montreal until 13:55 of the third period to put this game on ice (John Ferguson beating Bruce Gamble). The visitors twice had the lead: 1–0 (Murray Oliver at 9:45 of the first) and 2–1 (Norm Ullman at 1:43 of the second). But, the Habs, seeing action for the first time in four nights, grew stronger as the game progressed. Henri Richard tied the match at 12:39 of the middle frame and Bobby Rousseau provided the eventual winner 5½ minutes later. Toronto had been blazing–hot coming into the game with a 7–2–3 mark in its previous 12 starts. Tony Esposito tended goal for the Canadiens; one of 19 starts he would make before being claimed on waivers by Chicago (June 11, 1969). The following year, Esposito recorded 15 shutouts for the Black Hawks — still a single–season record. Vern Buffey officiated the match with linesmen Bob Frampton and Claude Bechard.
Maple Leafs and Canadiens line–ups at the Forum on Dec. 26, 1968.
Water–color front and back of the Minnesota North Stars album at the Forum in 1968–69.
The North Stars incurred a tragedy in their inaugural season when Denver University product Bill Masterton died (Jan. 15, 1968) less than two days after striking his head on the ice at the Metropolitan Sports Center in a game against the Oakland Seals. Masterton remains the lone NHL player to perish as the result of an on–ice incident. The Bill Masterton Trophy is still presented to the player that “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey” — often one who has rebounded from serious injury or illness. Most–recent winner is goalie Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders.
MONTREAL 4, MINNESOTA 0 — In the second year of expansion, the six new teams were largely inferior to the established clubs — a point emphasized as the Canadiens blanked the Minnesota North Stars. Prior to the game, Montreal’s home record against the expansionists was 7–2–2; both losses occurring against the improved Oakland Seals. On this night (Jan. 29, 1969), it was no contest as the Canadiens peppered Cesare Maniago with 38 shots. John Ferguson had a big game with two goals and an assist. Claude Provost and Jacques Lemaire also scored for the Habs. Lorne (Gump) Worsley stopped 25 Minnesota shots for the shutout. This began a 9–1–1 stretch for Montreal; its only defeat, again, at Oakland on Feb. 5, 1969. Art Skov officiated the match with linesmen Bob Frampton and Bob Myers.