It's strange now, some 17 National Hockey League seasons later, to think back on that night of March 28, 1950. It's stranger than ever if, as you're thinking, you happen to be watching the Detroit Red Wings on the ice with old indestructible Gordie Howe skating strong as ever under the weight of heaven knows how many NHL trophies for first, most, best and greatest.
Nevertheless it is a fact of hockey history that on that night in 1950 during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the sudden and violent "death" of young Gordie Howe touched off the most vicious and acrimonious feud in the chronicles of the league.
That year, thanks to the implacable offensive mounted by the Detroit "production line" of Howe, truculent Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, who is now their manager, the Red Wings finished No. 1 at the end of the regular season. Their opponents in the first round of the playoffs were the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs, who had won the cup for an unprecedented three consecutive years.
For far more years than that the Red Wings had nursed a simmering hatred for the Leafs. Under Coach Hap Day's guidance the Toronto club had repeatedly frustrated the Wings, beating them in 11 straight playoff games in years when they were lucky enough to make the playoffs and keeping them out of the playoffs altogether for three straight seasons. An atmosphere of imminent open warfare hung over Detroit's Olympia Stadium before that first game of the 1950 playoffs.
Before the opening face-off George Gravel, the bald-pated French-Canadian referee, who was something of a cutup, attempted to lighten the scene by bowing deeply from the waist in the direction of the press box. It was a useless gesture. One fight erupted early in the first period between Marty Pavelich and Fleming Mackell, and another, involving Howe and Bill Juzda, exploded soon after. Both quarrels were quelled by the officials without serious consequence, however, and by the middle of the third period, when Toronto had coasted to a 4-0 lead, anger on the Red Wing bench was supplanted by an attitude of watchful waiting. The fans assumed that the Wings had given up on this game and would calmly skate out the final minutes, conserving their energies (and their anger) for the second game. They seemed to be doing no more than playing it safe as Toronto Captain Ted (Teeder) Kennedy sidestepped his way across the Leaf blue line on another down-ice sweep.
Kennedy was six feet from the left boards as he reached center ice. Behind him in hot pursuit was the Wings' Defenseman Jack Stewart. Sweeping in from the right side was Howe, who attempted to crash Kennedy amidships. Howe was skating a trifle too slowly to hit Kennedy with full force, and it appeared the best he might do would be to graze the Leaf player and throw him off-balance. But he missed even that opportunity and, as Kennedy stopped short and then pressed forward, Howe tumbled, face-first, into the thick wooden side boards. Seconds later he was lying unconscious on the ice, his face covered with blood. As 13,659 fans sat horrorstruck, Gordie Howe, the young favorite, was carried off the ice on a stretcher and removed to Harper Hospital.
For several hours there was a question whether he would survive at all. A call was put through to Saskatoon, Sask. urging Gordie's mother to take the first plane to Detroit so she could be at her son's bedside.
As it turned out, Gordie didn't die. Two days later when Mrs. Howe got in from Saskatchewan, she told reporters, "He still has a headache, but he's feeling fine."
But Detroit's press and public were not listening. As far as they were concerned, Gordie had been lethally assaulted and somebody would have to pay for it. Toronto naturally denied responsibility for Howe's headache, and the argument raged like a forest fire with sportswriters, coaches and fans from both sides pouring verbal gasoline on it to make sure it didn't go out.
Detroit's theory was that Teeder Kennedy had speared Howe deliberately. Kennedy offered to take an oath that he had not caused the injury. "I saw Howe lying on the ice with his face covered with blood," said the Leaf captain, "and I couldn't help thinking what a great player he was and how I hoped he wasn't badly hurt. Then Detroit players started saying I did it with my stick. I knew I hadn't and, as I've always regarded Coach Tommy Ivan as a sensible level-headed man, I went over to the Detroit bench and told him I was sorry Howe was hurt, but that I wasn't responsible."
The Toronto camp made a countercharge against Detroit Captain Sid Abel. In a bitter editorial, Jim Vipond, sports editor of The Globe and Mail of Toronto, wrote, "Sid Abel, a fine performer and a veteran of the game who should have known better, disregarded the puck when the play finally was resumed. Instead, he slashed at Kennedy's ankle, and Ted has a nasty welt to show for it."
It didn't take long for the antagonists to find a common enemy in NHL President Clarence Campbell, whom they blamed for his failure to prevent the brutality and violence that both preceded and followed Howe's injury. Despite the charge of vacillation, Campbell quickly took a stand on the Howe case and exonerated Kennedy.
"Kennedy," said Campbell, "as a right-handed player, had the butt part of his stick tight to the fence as he was going up the ice. He was being checked from his right. The injuries to Howe were on the right side of the head. Kennedy had stopped to avoid the check, and Howe went in front of him."
The Toronto player was further exonerated in a report by Referee Gravel. But one Detroit paper quoted Gravel as saying he hadn't seen the Howe incident.
Even the mayor of Toronto, the Hon. Hiram McCallum, squeezed into the act and dispatched a message to Kennedy: "The people of Toronto know that absolutely no blame in any way can be attached to you for the accident to Gordie Howe. They are 100% behind you all the way and know you will go on and continue to play wonderful hockey and lead the team to the cup."
Before the opening face-off of the second game of the semifinals two days later, the Red Wing players were chanting. "Win this one for Gordie." The Maple Leafs were bracing themselves for a Detroit attempt to "get" Kennedy.
It started in the second period when Lee Fogolin sent Kennedy rolling with a stick trip. As play halted and Referee Butch Kelling thumbed Fogolin to the penalty box, Ted Lindsay rushed up and cross-checked Kennedy back to the ice. Gus Mortson flew at Lindsay and lights broke out all over the rink. About 20 feet out from the Detroit goal, Jim Thomson fell and Leo Reise bludgeoned him across the head and shoulders with his stick. The Toronto defenseman was momentarily defenseless as Reise, apparently not satisfied, slashed away. By this time Kennedy was on the other side of the rink and Reise moved over to get in some more stickwork, this time across Kennedy's shoulders.
Lindsay returned and rushed at Kennedy, his stick held high: then Abel came on flailing with his fists. A fan grabbed Kennedy and held his arms as other Wings struck the Leaf captain. Toronto Goalie Turk Broda, handicapped by 35 pounds of leg pads, trundled over to assist his teammate. Abel and Lindsay persisted in their efforts at mayhem.
When the fighting finally subsided the penalties were sorted out, the ice was cleared of debris and the game resumed, with Detroit the ultimate victor. The Wings trooped happily into their dressing room with Lindsay marching proudly at their head shouting for all the world to hear: "We won for Gordie!"
But by then the Howe episode was threatening to move to the courts. The Wings claimed that Toronto's Smythe had said: "Two years ago Detroit broke my Gus Mortson's leg, and last year they broke the jaw of Elmer Lach of the Canadiens in the playoffs." Detroit's Adams countered: "We are now suing...for $75,000."
Antagonists were in agreement on one point: further action by the NHL president was badly needed. Campbell responded with a loud gavel, warning that "very substantial fines and suspensions" would be applied, if necessary, to stop bitter feuding between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings.
Armed with Campbell's edict, Referee Bill Chadwick tolerated no nonsense in the third game, played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. He whistled Howie Meeker off the ice in the opening minute, after which he had to penalize only two other players. Equilibrium seemed to have been restored and both teams were playing hockey according to the book. At the end of six games, the teams were tied, 3-3.
In the final game the teams battled through three periods of regulation time without a goal being scored. Checking remained close through the opening eight minutes of the sudden-death overtime.
Then Ivan sent out a line of George Gee, Steve Black and Joe Carveth.
Gee, Black and Carveth launched a dangerous rush for the Wings, backed by Stewart and Reise. Several times the puck bounced close to the goal line, only to be cleared; but the Leafs couldn't quite get it out of their own zone. Finally, Gee captured the puck and slid it across the ice to Reise, who was standing near the blue line 60 feet from the goal.
His shot went straight to the net where Turk Broda appeared to have the short side blocked with his skate, pad and stick. But the puck bounced over Broda's stick and hit the back of the net. Detroit had won 1-0.
The final round against the New York Rangers might have been anticlimactic except that it too went into overtime on the seventh game, during which Howe was in the arena. When the ancient silver mug was pushed out to center ice, to be claimed by the victorious Wings, 13,095 fans were chanting: "We want Howe! We want Howe!" As Gordie gingerly stepped onto the ice, Lindsay grabbed his hat and sent it flying into the stands. During the postgame ceremony, Howe himself was at mid-ice, one hand proudly on the cup. As a better writer than I once put it, his death had been greatly exaggerated.