The colors of the autumn Canadian countryside moved past the windows as Dick Duff told his story to Toronto Maple Leaf coach Tom Watt. The trip from Toronto to Montreal had hit the boring stages now, three hours down, two more remaining, so some entertainment had to be cooked up in the first passenger car of the afternoon train called The Meridian. Duff did the honors, with playing cards.
He held the deck in his left hand, and every time he mentioned a fact in his story, he turned over the top card or cards with his right hand to illustrate what had happened. There were four guys, you see: one, two, three, four kings. They went to New York, looking for four women: one, two, three, four queens. They were....
He seemed to shuffle the cards while he talked very fast, but somehow the random arrangement always seemed to wind up as his arrangement.
"The guys were told they should go to the 484 Club." Four. Eight. Four.
October 13, 1991
" 'Where's that?' they asked. Someone told them it was 'over on Second Avenue.' " Two.
" 'No,' they said. 'We think we'll go to the Club 77 on 58th.' " Seven. Seven. Five. Eight.
Along the length of the car, Toronto players slept or read or talked. This was Oct. 2, and the Maple Leafs were on their way to open the 75th NHL season the next night in the Forum against the accursed Montreal Canadiens. The train ride was a public relations gambit, a traveling photo opportunity to promote the anniversary, a return to a time when the league had six teams and its map began in Boston and went no farther west than Chicago or south than New York, when the train was an everyday fact of hockey life. Each of the players had been given a hat—a fedora—as part of the show. But the Leafs looked more like a group of young rabbinical students on their way to a convention than the Al Capone gangsters they thought they resembled.
Watt, 56, and Duff, 55, a winger in the 1950s and '60s for both Toronto and Montreal, and the four other old-timers on the train looked better in their hats. The fedoras fit their older faces, and their older faces fit the long-ago picture. Nostalgia? Duff's story ended as the four guys in New York played in a late-night card game in which they figured to win with a hand of four nines—nine, nine, nine, nine—but were beaten by a four, five, six, seven, eight straight flush that neatly finished out all the cards in the deck. Watt hooted in proper amazement.
How long had it taken to learn a trick like this? How many hours? How many days? How many idle moments had to be killed?
"Do you know what?" Watt said. "Two of these players told me they'd never even ridden on a train before."
Seventy-five years. Things do change.
"The ride from Montreal to Chicago was the worst," says veteran hockey writer Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette. "You'd finish a game on Saturday night at the Forum and go right to the station. You'd travel all night and all the next day and get to Chicago at about 6:00 at night for a 7:30 game. Then you'd play the game. Back to the station. Ride all day. Ride all night. You'd get home around 8:00 on Monday night. Forty-four hours. Total. You'd only leave the train to go to the game."
The train was home. The rink was home. There wasn't much time for any other home. The game was insular and feudal, played with a poor man's passion. Who was making the money? Surely not the players from Moose Jaw and Swift Current and Lachine and Kingston who arrived from the black ice of Canadian ponds to expose their heads and faces to the perils of a flying disk of frozen rubber in the artificial rinks of six big cities. The game was everything, brutal and pure.
The coaches, like Toe Blake in Montreal and Punch Imlach in Toronto, were autocrats in fedoras, totally in charge. Management was as benevolent as the average landlord at the front door on the first of the month, ready to expel the widow and her five children for nonpayment of rent. Who could argue? Six teams. One hundred twenty hockey players. Total. These were tight little bands of survivors, hammering away at each other, the same teams playing each other 13 and 14 and 15 times during the season. The train carried no faint hearts. The survivors did what they were told.
"You have to remember how hard it was to make this league," Duff said. "Not more than 12 to 15 new players would come into the league in any one year. The Canadiens had the same three centermen for 14 straight years. Henri Richard. Ralph Backstrom. Jean Beliveau. Where did that leave everyone else for 14 straight years? Not only weren't there a lot of jobs, but everyone who had one did as much as he could to keep it."
The train would be waiting after most home games. Each team had its own Pullman car. The beds would be pulled out, made up for the night. The special porter for the team, tipped an extravagant 25 cents per man, would have stocked the requisite number of beers and sandwiches in each berth. The rookies and the one or two reporters assigned to cover the team slept on the upper berths, subject to the exaggerated sways and motions on the turns. The veterans would have the lowers. The coach had a bedroom all his own.
The smell for the night would be of cigar smoke, for some reason the smoke of choice for hockey players. The quantity of beer consumed and the noise level attained would be commensurate with that night's performance. If they exceeded a certain level, the coach's bedroom door would open. The autocrat in the fedora would not be happy. "That's where they always had you," Duff said. "The only way you could do what you wanted was to keep winning."
A popular feature was the back-to-back weekend series. Toronto, say, would play the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens and then the two teams would play again on Sunday night at the Olympia in Detroit. The teams' two cars—ML1 and RW1—often would be hooked to the same train. There would be no mingling on the trip. If necessary, the players from one team would wait until the train stopped so they could get off and walk around the other team's car, not through it, on the way to the dining car for breakfast. The rivalries did not stop at the edges of the ice.
Blake supposedly once lost his socks in the dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. He asked the attendant to find him some replacements. The attendant returned with socks that had little maple leaves on the sides. Wear a pair of socks with little maple leaves on the sides? Blake put his bare feet into his shoes and headed toward the train.
"Oh, there'd be some fun, though," said Frank Finnigan, now 90 and the oldest living former NHL player, a Stanley Cup champion with the Leafs in 1932. "We were on the train once, and Hal Cotton had bought a new hat. A bowler. That was the fad. Charlie Conacher bought another bowler. Hal hung up his hat, and Charlie came along and quietly replaced it on the hook. Then, later, Charlie walked up and said he didn't like the looks of the hat, took it down and punched a hole through it. You should have seen how mad Hal got before Charlie brought out Hal's hat and gave it to him."
The veterans would harass the rookies, who would hide in the bathrooms, the doors locked. The veterans would set a newspaper on fire and slide it under the door. The Canadiens almost burned up a train doing that one night. Pants legs would be cut off at the knee. Shoes would be filled with any strange substance available. Songs would be sung. Laughs would be had.
"It would be, for a young player, almost an honor to be on that train," said Paul Henderson, a Red Wing and a Leaf in the 1960s and 70s. "I came up with the Red Wings, and all of a sudden I'm sitting there, playing bridge with Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio and these people I've been following all my life. Detroit thinks it has a good deal in whatever it's paying me, but I'm thinking I'd pay them a million times that amount just to be there. You have to understand. I was on the train with my heroes."
The amazing part was how long life in the NHL stayed the same. From the founding of the league in 1917 until the grand expansion in '67, from six teams to 12, when plane trips became of necessity the primary mode of travel, a player's experiences were essentially the same. Finnigan skating against Howie Morenz in the '30s had the same experiences as Henderson skating against Bobby Hull in the '60s. The passion was the same. The travel was the same. The people virtually were the same, white and Canadian and earnest. The money, for sure, was not extravagant. The league was a carousel limited to six stops. The train tracks connected the dots.
"The train would be where you'd grow up," Duff said. "You'd get some young guys, 18 and 19 years old, who'd been working so much at developing their hockey talent that maybe some other parts didn't get developed. If a guy had some inhibitions—even if he'd never heard of the word—they'd be worked out, living with everybody else. There wasn't room for inhibitions. You had to grow. I think it would work out for the best."
The end of the ride for the 1991 team in fedoras was a game, but now there was a night's sleep in a hotel bed on arrival. There was a practice skate the next morning to work out kinks. That night, before the game, there was a pageant dedicated to the past: More than 40 former Canadiens and five former Leafs were introduced to the crowd. During the game, the two present-day teams wore uniforms from the 1930s, and the referees were dressed in old-time sweaters. The players wore their helmets, though, and some had visors, and the goalies wore masks on their faces and pads the size of trash cans on their legs and gloves the size of phone books on their hands.
The only two other games on the opening-night schedule also were nostalgia matchups in old-time uniforms—the Boston Bruins versus the New York Rangers, and the Red Wings versus the Chicago Blackhawks. But some of the sticks were made of aluminum. The noise during the Canadiens-Leafs game was sometimes encouraged by a bilingual megaboard that asked the customers to begin a Wave. The action on the ice, crisp and efficient, seemed to be carried out by padded robots rather than the medieval knights of the olden time. Bigger men, faster men, but anonymous men. Strangers working a job. A black man played in the Leaf goal. A Soviet played on the Leaf defense.
And after the game, there was no Pullman car waiting at the station.
"Oh, we'll charter out," Watt said after his Leafs were dumped 4-3 by the Canadiens. "We'll get to the plane, then be back in Toronto in an hour."
"What about the next time you come to Montreal?" someone asked. "Will you take the train again?"
"Not this year," Watt said.
How much has life changed? This was Toronto's only regularly scheduled visit to the Forum in this anniversary season.