Search

SUBJECT: DICK IRVIN

Feb. 13, 1956
Feb. 13, 1956

Table of Contents
Feb. 13, 1956

Events & Discoveries
Spectacle
Olympics
Conversation Piece
Sporting Look
  • Right off a Mexican peasant's back, it has been embellished by California designers to become spring's hottest merchandise

The Wonderful World Of Sport
Ski Tip
Fisherman's Calendar
Acknowledgments
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

SUBJECT: DICK IRVIN

After a million miles of travel and 30 years, a grand old veteran talks about hockey and his own changeful career. It is a mean and bitter game, he says, but a wonderful one

A PullmanWashroom in the middle of the night is a wonderful place for conversation. Onthis particular occasion, on the midnight express to Boston, the room wascrowded with hockey players in various stages of undress. A joke went outthrough the heavy cigar smoke directed at a veteran forward with a fancifultaste for loud underwear. A defenseman, half naked and hairy, pulled an eggsandwich out of a crumpled brown paper bag and munched on it slowly. He hadsaid nothing and wasn't about to. A laugh went around the room and anotherplayer said as he looked at the sandwich eater, "Look at him, willyou—always the same, never says anything. Like Alan Ladd, in one of thosewesterns!"

This is an article from the Feb. 13, 1956 issue Original Layout

"Yeah,"said another voice, "we call him Shane. Hey! How about that, Shane? Prettygood, huh?"

The man they hadnicknamed Shane said nothing. He smiled faintly and kept on munching. A figureappeared at the door and the general laughter subsided. James Dickinson Irvin,coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, and at 63 the senior coach of the NationalHockey League, moved toward the window seat and sat down. He looked around andsmiled. In 30 years of playing and coaching, Dick Irvin had seen many a happywashroom crowd—and many a gloomy one. "See them," he said with slowdeliberation. "In hockey the goal is the thing. Look at a team that has wonand see how they act. A hockey player who has scored a goal is the happiest manalive. If we hadn't beaten the Rangers tonight the boys would have been in bedby now. But, no, tonight they win, so what do they do? They sit up too latepuffing on their cigars and trying to get a rise out of Shane."

Everyone lookedat the sandwich eater and Irvin went on speaking. "Oh, his name isn'treally Shane, you know. It's actually Frank Martin, and he can play a prettygood game on defense when he wants to. But, here, let me introduce some of theothers."

The coach stoodup, then propped himself against a washbasin. He is not a big man; with hissilver hair and thinning face he seems almost frail, But he has a distinguishedlook about him. He stands 5 feet, 10½ inches and weighs 165 pounds. His voiceis quiet and his penetrating eyes are gray. There is an inch-long scar on hisright cheek. When he talks, he conveys authority and automatically commandsrespect.

He began pointinga long arm around the crowded room.

"There,"he said, "on the end there is Nick Mickoski. You saw him turn in a goodgame tonight. Next to him, over there, is Al Dewsbury, then Tony Leswick.There's our captain, Gus Mortson, then comes Lee Fogolin. This tall fella here,next to Shane, is Eddie Litzenberger and the last two are Glen Skov and BennyWoit."

The members ofthe hockey team acknowledged the introductions. Soon after, by the time thetrain had reached New Haven, the happy cigar smokers had drifted off to theirberths, leaving Dick Irvin slumped pensively against the window staring withnoticeable disgust at the last heavy clouds of smoke as they curled slowly outinto the corridor. He stood up, finally, and unlimbered himself in a longstretch. "I suppose all of us are tired after a game. But me, I never getto sleep early on a train. I sit up talking or just thinking—talking about whathappened in the last game or thinking about what we can do in the next one.

"The coach inthe National Hockey League is different from a coach in any other sport. Now,take your baseball manager. It is taken for granted that under certainconditions he will play the percentages. Whether his move works for him orfails him, it is accepted as a perfectly legitimate method of eliminatinghimself from personal blame. Look at your football coach. He has maybe 10 gamesa season. All right, but he has a week between games—a whole week to get hisinjured players back in shape, a whole week to think up new plays, devise newstrategy, rebuild morale and confidence within his club. A whole week, mindyou, seven days and seven nights. Then, what happens in the game? The footballcoach, when he sees things going against him, has a time-out to reorganize histeam."

A vague smilespread across the coach's face. "Ah, and wouldn't I just love to yell for atime-out once in a while when I see a Rocket Richard or a Gordie Howe comingdown on my nets! Sure I would. So would every other hockey coach. But hockeyisn't like that. It's the roughest game in the world—on the players, yes, buton the coach too. In the National Hockey League we play 70 games—half of themon the road. It means about three games a week, sometimes as many as four gamesin five nights. The coach has the job of devising different patterns of play touse against each of his five league opponents. He's got to see that his playerscan make this switch quickly—from night to night. To succeed he's got to knowhow to handle men, know when to give them the bull whip or feed themsugar."

Irvin put hishands into the pockets of his coat and leaned back. "For all of this, I'mnot complaining, because I love the game. It is my life. It is also, I think,the greatest of all games, for it is fast, there is continual action, bodilycontact, cleverness and finesse. As a player, I admired these qualities. As acoach I find them no less admirable.

"The coach isan important man on a hockey club. But never for a minute forget that no matterwho the coach is, he can't put the puck in the net from the bench. This is my27th season in the league as coach and I think I've been the luckiest thereever was because I've always had good hockey players.

"People pointto my record of missing the Stanley Cup playoffs only once in 26 years. Allright, part of the explanation may lie with coaching experience, but most ofthe credit must go to the players themselves. If you haven't got the playersyou do not get very far. I will say this, though, a poor coach can spoil a goodteam just as easily as a good coach can make a poor team play well. Continuingalong this line of reasoning, I quite positively believe that a good coach,through his knowledge and experience in the game and through the properapplication of team strategy at the right time, should in a season win as manyas seven games that his players, thinking for themselves, would probablylose.

"There's notelling how many games are won or lost through sheer luck and the breaks of thegame. Tonight we beat the Rangers and, frankly, we deserved just about a tie.But the puck was working for us and against them. Tomorrow we play Boston. Ithink we're a better hockey club than Boston, but they're on a long losingstreak and one of these nights the puck is going to work for them and they'llbeat any club in the league. But it won't mean they are a better hockeyclub." Dick Irvin stood up and yawned. "Might as well turn in," hesaid.

Late in theafternoon of the next day Irvin was sitting in his room in Boston's SheratonPlaza Hotel. It was nearly time to pack again and move on to the Garden. Irvinwas beginning to think about the coming game, and as he did he reflected for amoment on a hockey player's training. "When I go to training camp at thestart of a new season I put three big letters on the blackboard. The firstletter is 'C.' It stands for condition, and I don't give a damn what sportyou're talking about, condition is the key to success. Another letter is 'D.'It stands for discipline and desire. The boy who is going to make the NationalHockey League has got to have three essential qualities: desire, or the will towin; ability; and finally, courage. But first comes desire. Three or fourfellows on a team with it aren't enough; the whole team must have it. I tell myplayers over and over again that a team that can skate and has the desire towin can do a lot to make up for lack of ability.

"Fifteenyears I coached the Montreal Canadiens. Some of those teams had pretty goodrecords. Some of them had some pretty good hockey players, fellows likeRichard, Lach, Durnan, Blake and now Beliveau. Hell, do you think it was mycoaching that made Rocket Richard the greatest scorer in the game? I didn'tcoach Rocket to greatness—no coach could because Richard has the naturalability and the desire to win. He fought his way up all alone, not because Iwas his coach." Dick Irvin rose and began pacing the floor. He was nowtalking excitedly about something he loved very much, and for a moment heallowed himself to stray from the pattern of training-camp routine.

"I know aboutdesire after what I've seen the Rocket go through. For 13 years that man hasbeen the target for everyone in the National Hockey League who is not in aMontreal uniform. And after 13 years he's come out on top. Why? The answer isdesire. I can remember a night in Boston some years ago. Every Boston playerwent after the Rocket, but he kept driving. I was getting pretty mad becausethe other team was getting away with murder and Referee Bill Chadwick was doingnothing about it. After that game was over, Chadwick came to me and said,'Dick, I know what you're thinking, and I'll admit to your face that for awhile out on that ice tonight I froze. I froze and found I couldn't blow thewhistle, and the reason was that I was so horrified to see a man stand up undersuch punishment.' "

Irvin stopped,and almost with an effort brought his mind back to his training-camp routine."The 'D' for discipline," he said. "That is elementary. If anefficient army runs on strict discipline, so must a winning hockey team. I'venever stood for slave-driving tactics, nor have I ever checked on my players tosee what they do after games. Most hockey players want a few beers after a gameand I expect them to have a few beers—as much for pleasure as for plainrelaxation. But at the arena discipline has got to be maintained.

"The thirdletter on the blackboard is 'W.' It stands for work and weight. A good hockeyplayer will want to work as hard in practice as in the real games. Sure, he mayhave the natural talent, but without the work he won't be worth a damn. And ifhe can't keep his weight down he's worth nothing.

"I think Ican tie together a few of these points with a couple of illustrations. First,more about desire and work at training camp. To get the best team together youhave to be tough from the beginning. I had a system when I was with Montrealand I think it paid off pretty well. At the end of the training-camp period,just before I had to make the last cut and decide on the final club, I used tohold a regular full-length squad game. Only this one was a little differentfrom most: it was veterans against rookies. I'd put the veterans in onedressing room and the rookies in another. To the older players I'd say, 'Look,there's a bunch of rookies in the next room gunning for your jobs. Now you'renot going to let them get away with anything, are you?' Then I'd walk acrossthe hall and tell the kids, 'Look, I've got room on my club for some of youfellas but today's the day you earn your ticket. Now I want to see which one ofyou is going to be the first to go out there and put Richard or Bouchard on hisarse.'

"Well, sir,I'm telling you, some of those squad games were as rough and tough as anyleague game I've ever seen. The system may sound brutal, but it worked, forhockey is a game of meanness and bitterness where there is no such thing as afriendly relationship."

The taxi threadedits way through the Boston streets to the Garden. Dick Irvin slouched down inthe back seat. For a moment he looked suspiciously out into the darkness, thenturned and gazed at the floor. "I think at last," he said, picking upthe thread of his earlier thoughts, "that I must know something aboutconditioning of athletes. It follows that part of my responsibility is to tryand prove to my players that I know what is best for them. Let me tell youabout one way I proved my point this season.

"We'd gonethree or four games without a win and I was getting pretty worried. I checkedthe weight list and noticed the players—as a group—were 37 pounds overweight. Igot them all into the dressing room and told them I thought there weren't morethan three men on the club who were in condition. They looked at me as thoughthey thought I was crazy, and yet nobody said a word. Then I said to them, 'Andnow I'm going to prove to you just how right I am.'

"Well, fortwo days, two practice sessions a day, I worked them. I skated them, I skatedthem again—and I skated them some more. The first day we had no contact work.Instead, I had the forward lines just going up and down the ice passing thepuck back and forth. Mind you, no checking from the opposition, just passing.Pretty soon, as they became more tired, the passes were looking more awful. Itcame to a point where I was watching grown men, professionals in the NationalHockey League, who were absolutely incapable of putting that puck on alinemate's stick. When I called them in there was no need for me to explain thepoint they had just proved to their own satisfaction: a hockey player cannotexpect to be alert mentally if he is not in condition physically."

At rinkside inthe Boston Garden that evening the visiting team was lonely and withoutfriends. There was a group of girls in the first row behind the Black Hawks.Carefully they scrutinized the faces of the warriors before them and thenquickly checked the number on the back of each jersey with the numbers on theprogram. Boston fans burst into an abrupt cheer for a goal just scored by theBruins. Two young boys skipped down the passageway, yelling—partly at theChicago bench and partly at Irvin—"You guys really stink, ya hear? Yareally stink."

As the game inBoston grew progressively worse from the Black Hawks' point of view, Irvinrestrained himself with marvelous control. A man who has almost never beenknown to berate a hockey player in public, the coach made an honest effort totake some pressure off his boys, all of whom had only to turn their headsslightly for one glance at the man to know what degree of humor they couldexpect to find him in later that night on the train to Montreal. Irvin lookedover the tops of their heads and said simply, "The puck hasn't worked forus once tonight."

Before the trainmoved out there was time for a snack in the coffee shop. "You lose hockeygames in two ways," Irvin said. "One, by having the breaks go againstyou. Two, by playing badly. Nobody—coaches or players—can do anything to alterthe breaks of the game. But a coach is getting paid to see that his teamdoesn't play badly.

"All right,let's see what it is that makes a team play badly." Dick Irvin held out ahand and prepared to thrust out one finger at a time. "A team plays badlyfor four reasons: one, it is stale; two, it is lazy; three, it cannot, or is byits nature not capable of doing what is asked of it; four, it will not do whatis asked of it.

"The coach'sproblem is to see which of these four factors is causing his team to lose—andthen to remedy the fault. I'll now take them in turn. If the team is stale,that's easy. You give them a rest. If the team is lazy, that's easy too. Yougive them more work. If the team simply cannot do what is asked of it, theanswer is to try and get new players who are more capable. Ah, and here's thetoughie—if the team will not do what is asked of it, then the man who is introuble is the coach. Management isn't in the habit of firing the whole teamwhen it is relatively simple to let the coach go." Irvin popped the lastpiece of muffin into his mouth and smiled for the first time in several hours."So you see," he said, while slipping into his overcoat, "the coachmust be more than a coach in a technical sense. He must be a psychologisttoo."

The lights in theprivate car BH 1 were extinguished early. Only in the drawing room was there asign of life. Dick Irvin sat huddled in one corner, allowing himself to berocked gently by the motion of the car as it sped northward toward Canada. Thedoor stood ajar, and from his position the coach could look the length of thecar where, on either side of the dark corridor, drawn curtains indicated thatevery member of Chicago's losing hockey club had chosen quick retirement infavor of a probable midnight lecture. After gazing down the curtained berthsfor a few silent moments, Irvin reached a hand inside his breast pocket andwithdrew a fat sheath of carefully folded papers. He took a pencil and beganwriting.

"I'm a greatone for figures and statistics," he explained with a small smile. "Igrade every player after every game with my own point system: three points fora star night, two points for good, one point for fair and minus one point forpoor. Dressing 17 men for a game, if all 17 play a top game, it should give youa total of 51 points. Now let's see what sort of score we can give themtonight."

Irvin scribbledeach name down in a long list, and after each name went a figure. His face wasexpressionless until he reached the end of the page, drew a last heavy line andbegan his addition. "There," he concluded a few seconds later,"just about what I thought—one of the worst games we've played all season:a total of six points out of a possible 51."

He lapsed intosilence and twiddled with the pencil as he stared at the paper in front of him.After a while he pulled another sheet of figures from the bundle and made someminor adjustments on it. "It's strange how statistics have a fascinationfor some people. I keep a record of all sorts of things and never get tired ofit. For instance, I've kept a record of every game and goal I've seen since Ibegan coaching during the 1929-30 season. Including the playoffs, I've coached1,634 games. My teams have won 801, lost 601 and tied 232. During all that timeI've seen 8,705 goals—4,721 for me and 3,984 against me."

The trainsuddenly came to a jerking halt at a small New England station and Irvinchuckled quietly. "People wonder that I don't get tired of spending half mylife on the railroad sleeper. Well, it's just a matter of getting used to it.By the end of this season I figure that I will have traveled roughly 1,050,000miles during 30 years in the National Hockey League. A long way, sure, but Iasked for it and who's to say I wouldn't do the same thing if I had to startall over again?"

As the traingathered speed once more, Irvin shuffled the papers around in his hands andfound himself suddenly back to his personal record of the Black Hawks' gameagainst Boston. A furious scowl covered his entire face and he exclaimed,"God damn it, only six points out of a possible 51. I just can't figure it,but when a team goes that bad the coach must take the blame if he expects totake credit when the team wins. I wonder, though, what the players think ofthemselves right now. Do you really think each man realizes what sort of a showhe put on in Boston?" Dick Irvin stood up excitedly. Taking a blank pieceof paper, he tore it quickly into little strips. Next he reached up to take hishat off the overhead rack. With the hat in one hand and the ballots in theother he moved quickly out into the corridor and began prodding the occupant ofthe first berth within reach. "Every one of you," he began, "willfill out a piece of paper I'm about to distribute. On it you will sign yourname and indicate whether, in your own opinion, you deserve a rating for star,good, fair or poor after tonight's game. Drop your answers into this hat, andwe'll take the matter up again tomorrow." The train to Montreal drove onthrough the night as Dick Irvin conducted his poll and tabulated the ballots.It was a cold night and, for some, a long one.

The oldest coachin the National Hockey League was born on July 19, 1892 at Limestone Ridge,Ontario. "My father," he said, as he sat in a well-stuffed chair in thelobby of Montreal's Mount Royal Hotel watching the passing parade of transienthockey players and other less distinguishable guests, "was a butcher bytrade. I was the fourth of 10 children. There were six of us boys and fourgirls. In 1899 we moved to Winnipeg where I saw a pair of skates and the gameof hockey for the first time. I think it must have fascinated me because I canremember staying out in the backyard practicing shooting a puck at a spot onthe wall until my mother would have to come and drag me indoors for dinner.

"There werecommercial leagues in Winnipeg and naturally I wanted to get on the teamsponsored by the butchers. I was 15 before I got my chance. One of the regularforwards was taken sick and a friend of my father's suggested that I be given achance to play. The man came to me before the game and said he'd give me adollar for every goal I scored. Under the circumstances I suppose I was asexcited and nervous as any boy of 15 can be. But I was confident too. I haddeveloped a good wrist shot and somehow I always knew how to score. In thatgame I got five goals—and five dollars—and I know I've had few thrills like itsince."

Irvin's eyes tookin the wide range of the hotel lobby and focused on a rookie who was juststepping up to the cigarette counter. The boy had a confident look about him.His coach grinned. "You know, when I finally turned professional withPortland of the Pacific Coast Hockey League, my salary was $700. It was in1913, and the top pay in the league was $1,250." An old acquaintance hoveinto sight, and Irvin's eyes lit up. "There's an old National Leaguer. Heknew what it was like in the old days. I was 34 when the Portland club was soldto Chicago in 1926 and my team became the Chicago Black Hawks. The first yearup in the National Hockey League I finished second in scoring to Bill Cook ofthe New York Rangers. The next season I fractured my skull and I was never anygood again."

Irvin settledback slowly into his seat. "I can reminisce about the old days," hesaid, "and maybe I'll surprise you because I won't tell you how much betterwe played the game than they play it today. Hockey, in my day as a player, mayhave been dirtier—but it was not tougher to play. By dirtier I mean plainbrutal. The butt end of a stick could break off in a man's ribs and the refereewould never call it. Today the refereeing is better and the hockey is bettertoo. A man does more skating in one period now than he used to in a whole game.It was the total legalizing of the forward pass in 1929 that opened up hockey.In my day we had stickwork, sure, and rough board-checking, but the game was soslow that if you tried it today, you'd put 15,000 people to sleep—or elsethey'd walk out on you.

"In their daythere were great hockey players like Howie Morenz and George Hainsworth. Theycalled Hainsworth one of the greatest goalies of all time. Well, I suppose hewas. In one 44-game season Hainsworth had 22 shutouts and his team won exactly22 games. Fine, but nobody's going to tell me that today's goalies aren'tbetter. Fellows like Bill Durnan, Turk Broda, Harry Lumley and Terry Sawchukwere better than Hainsworth or Georges Vezina simply because the speeded-upgame forced them to react faster. Still, you've got to go by the old theorythat a goalie can be no better than the team in front of him. Where do you drawthe iine between individual and team ability? Sawchuk was terrific withDetroit. Now he's with Boston and having a bad year. Who is to blame, Sawchukor his team?"

Anothergame—another loss for Chicago. The Montreal Canadiens, a team which Irvin,after 15 years as their coach, still affectionately refers to as "my oldteam," walloped the Black Hawks and now both clubs were on the same trainheading west across the dominion for still further combat the following night.In the sleeper next to Irvin's were some of his star pupils: Maurice Richard,Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Doug Harvey, Bert Olmstead and JacquesPlante.

"As a rivalcoach," he said in reference to his former players, "you look at themdifferently. You face the challenge of trying to devise tactics to stop themwhen you know perfectly well what they can do. It should be easier for a coachto defeat a good offensive club than it is to beat a good defensive club. Why?Hell, you can take an ordinary ham-and-egg hockey player and tell him to stickright on a big star, say a fellow like Rocket Richard. But tell that sameham-and-egger to skate through a tough defense and put that puck in the net,and you've got a different story. Why, I read just the other day that thisrookie Dickie Duff, a kid with Toronto, stuck to Gordie Howe of Detroit soclose in one game that Howe never got off one shot all night long. Everywherehe went, here was this Duff skating along with him—just annoying him andskating around getting in his way, zigging and zagging and never letting Howeget away from him.

"Despite thechallenge you may feel about beating a team of stars, you don't let yourselfforget a cardinal theory about hockey players. It's what makes the coach'schallenge all the more challenging: when a super star has a bad night he isstill pretty good. When an average player has a bad night he is fair. But whena poor hockey player has a bad night he's nothing. The hockey coach is foreverhoping the other team's stars will have a bad night and his poor players a starnight."

Irvin lay back inhis berth, scanning the headlines of a paper. In a minute he had covered theimportant news and put the paper aside. "I never thought much aboutcoaching until my skull injury finished my playing career after the 1928-29season," he went on. "I got my first chance to coach at Chicago in1929. For two seasons I put the Black Hawks into the Stanley Cup playoffs, andin my second season as coach we lost the Cup only after going into overtime inthe last game of the final series against Montreal. I was pretty pleased, butthey dropped me as coach the next season and I went west to take a longvacation. The new season wasn't very old when I got a phone call from ConnSmythe in Toronto. The Maple Leafs had gotten off to a bad start and Connwanted a quick coaching change.

"I took thejob and that first Toronto team of mine went on to win the Stanley Cup. Istayed with the Leafs for nine seasons before moving on to Montreal.Now—although I still make my home in Montreal for my wife and two children—I'mtechnically back where I started coaching: in Chicago. I live alone in a hoteland think of ways to make my hockey players play better hockey. When they lose,sure, I brood and often feel that it's my fault and not their's. And when I getback to Montreal to see my family (Dick Jr., 23, and Fay, 19) a lot of my oldfriends look at my club and then at Les Canadiens and want to know if I don'tfeel silly accepting a job with a club that's going nowhere.

"To that Isay: it's just another challenge. Conn Smythe tossed a challenge at me when hefirst asked me to come to Toronto. I accepted it and won that round. Last yearit was Smythe again who let me know that the Chicago coaching job was mine if Iwanted it. I thought it over pretty carefully. I thought too of how I'd been infive Stanley Cup final rounds with Montreal in the last few years and how we'donly managed to win the Cup in one of those five cracks at it. That could havebeen my fault too, not my players. So, instead of retiring to a farm andraising my pigeons and chickens (racing homers, bantams and white Wyandottes),I took Smythe up again and accepted the job Chicago offered me. The Black Hawksmay be going nowhere this season. It looks doubtful as to whether we'll makethe playoffs. But we're building up a farm system and I still happen to think Ican help in the building. It's the same old thing: just another challenge.Maybe I'm too old. Maybe I'm wrong. But I don't think so."

PHOTOPLAYER IRVIN, as a forward for Chicago in the '20s, was a prolific goal scorer.PHOTOARCHIE LIEBERMANTHREE PHOTOSSOME OF HOCKEY'S GREAT PERFORMERS: THE GAME'S OLDTIMERS, says Irvin, were judged for greatness on the basis of performances in a slower brand of hockey. Just the same he ranks Howie Morenz (right) among alltime stars. George Hainsworth (left) had a record 22 shutouts in 44 games during 1928-29, but Goalie Turk Broda (center) may have been better in the '40s because faster game forced quick reactions.PHOTOCONN SMYTHE, president of Toronto Maple Leafs, bossed Irvin for nine seasons, was influential in persuading his friend to accept the challenging Chicago rebuilding project.ILLUSTRATION"I'd like to get up a fund to send you to Australia."PHOTOIRVINS AT HOME in suburban Montreal with daughter Fay, 19, and son Dick Jr., 23. Since taking the job with Chicago Irvin's family visits have been hasty and infrequent.