Saturday, 20 December 2014

OH, THAT DREADED SLAPSHOT



'55-56 Parkhurst Products card of Boom Boom Geoffrion
(Canadian Public Domain)
Some people--including a few writers over the decades--credit right winger Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion with inventing hockey’s slapshot, a weapon that Geoffrion had used to his advantage as far back a teenager in the Quebec Junior Hockey League. There, he had scored 177 goals in only 167 games.  By the way, they called him “Boom Boom” not because of the sound of his stick pounding the puck, as some people think. No. It was due to the BOOM of the puck off the boards when he missed.

By the time Geoffrion signed as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens on 14 February  1951, two days shy of his twentieth birthday, the opposition and fans didn’t know what to think of this electrifying five-foot-nine, 165-pounder with the menacing shot. Especially when he was placed on the right point on the power play, a position usually reserved for a defenseman whose job it was to merely push the puck up to the forwards, so that they could score. The 1950s saw changes to the game, and the slapshot was one of them, although a few diehards tried to hang on to the past. Coaches felt the shot took too long to wind up, thus giving the goalie time to set up. Besides, it missed the net far too often. But many players soon adopted it. And the fans--the ones who really count because they pay the bucks--loved it.

As a huge part of the Canadiens devastating power play, Geoffrion went on to terrorize many barefaced and early masked goaltenders by scoring 393 goals in his NHL career, and another 58 in the playoffs. Twice he won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point getter, including a 50-goal and 45-assist season in 1960-61, where he became the second person to score 50 goals in a season, 15 years after teammate Rocket Richard.

But did Geoffrion invent the slapshot? Not really.

Boom Boom was the first to perfect it, though, then use it extensively. The first recorded appearance of the unorthodox shot dates back almost fifty years before Geoffrion to 1906 and a fellow named Eddie Martin of the Halifax Eurekas playing in the Colored Hockey League, an all-black organization that thrived in the Maritime Provinces from 1895-1930. Frank “Bun” Cook of the New York Rangers also experimented with it in the 1930s, but used it only in practice. His teammate Alex Shibicky was actually the first to use it in NHL  games. The next player to use the slapper--shortly after Geoffrion--was Leafs defenseman Tim Horton. Yes, the same Tim Horton of coffee and doughnut fame.  Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante called Horton’s shot “the toughest in the league.”


Tim Horton (courtesy www.beehivehockey.com)

Rangers Andy Bathgate was one of the early pioneers taking to the shot as he entered the league a few years after Horton and Geoffrion. In fact, it was a Bathgate slapper that led goaltenders to adopt the mask as their protection against the 100-mile-per-hour missiles racing their way. That came about on 1 November 1959, when Jacques Plante’s face got in the way of a Bathgate slapshot. Off the goalie went to be stitched up, while everyone waited. In the dressing room, Plante then told coach Toe Blake he would not return unless he could wear the mask that he had been using in practice that season but not permitted by Blake for use in a game. Blake caved in because spare goalies were not part of the picture fifty years ago. Then the Canadiens went on an 11-game unbeaten streak with Plante in net, climaxed that spring by their fifth straight Stanley Cup championship to close the 1959-60 season and the decade.

From then on, the game was changed forever, although some coaches were dead set against the mask. Blake, for one, thought that Plante had lost his nerve to play. Some fans thought the same thing and wrote Plante using some very colorful metaphors questioning the goalie’s masculinity to prove their point.

In the 1960s, Chicago’s Bobby Hull’s took the slapshot to the next level when he was clocked--using early measuring equipment--at 118.3 miles per hour, and his wrist shot at 105 miles per hour. In addition, his skating was recorded at just under 30 miles per hour. Hull was the first player to score more than 50 goals in a season when he notched 54 in 1965-66. Even by then, there were still some goaltenders refusing to wear a mask. Gump Worsley, Johnny Bower, Roger Crozier, Glenn Hall were a few who waited until their last seasons before donning face protection. One particular Hull shot off the noggin of Rangers Gump Worsley knocked the poor guy out cold.

Today, who doesn’t use the slapshot as part of their arsenal? Hardly anyone.

More recently, Boston’s 6-foot-9, 260-pound defenseman Zdeno Chara, set the modern slapshot NHL record at 108.8 miles per hour in the 2012 NHL All-Star Game competition skills. That same year, defenseman Alexander Riazantsev’s shot reached 114.127 miles per hour in the European KHL competition, although the KHL competition was taken from a shorter distance to the goal than the NHL. The next year, during the 2013 NHL playoffs, one of Chara’s slapshots broke the mask of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

In a 2011 Bleacher Report, “The 25 Hardest Slapshots in the History of Hockey” were rated. On the list were three Hulls---Bobby; Chicago teammate and brother, Dennis; and Bobby’s son, Brett. Bathgate, Geoffrion and Chara also made the short list.  Al Iafrate made Number One.

                                                                                  
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I know about slapshots only too well, going back to my Junior Hockey goaltending days in Saskatchewan. I remember being hit in the neck twice, before there was any neck protection. I was also smacked several times in both shoulders, and once or twice in the collarbone. Several also went off my mask that stunned me for a moment or two. And they all hurt to some degree. I even remember one that I felt through my pads.  I remember the player, too--Vince Warner. Yeah, I had a couple off my cup, too!

And guess what? I was one of those foolish diehards who started out playing goal without a mask, thinking that nothing would happen to me. This was in the outdoor City Parks League in Regina in the mid-1960’s. I was 13 at the time, in my last year of grade school. In a game that season, one of the neighborhood kids wound up and hit me with a slapshot just below my left eye, right on my upper cheek bone. Talk about pain.

I was a one-eyed monster for several days. When my parents took me for x-rays, the doctor took one solid look at me, then glanced over at my parents. “Reminds me of a few shiners I used to get,” he said, chuckling.  It turned out nothing was broken, thankfully. I had a lot of swelling for a while, until my eye finally opened again, plus it displayed every color of the rainbow for the next few weeks. Red. Blue. Yellow. Green. And I sure got a lot of sympathy from the cute girls in my class. That part I didn’t mind.

Cute girls or no cute girls, I acquired a mask before the season ended. I didn’t want to wreck my handsome face.


Saturday, 6 December 2014

CANADIAN WAR HERO--BUZZ BEURLING

Whenever I watch the 1984 movie Top Gun and see Tom Cruise in his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, I think of Canadian World War II fighter ace George “Buzz” Beurling. Why? Because these two pilots were very good at their craft as well as confidant rebels.

Buzz Beurling had another nickname. “Screwball.” Beurling was a committed Christian who didn’t drink, smoke, or swear. But that didn’t stop him from being a troublemaker in the eyes of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was rude and full of himself, a true mercenary, and a loner who didn’t take well to orders from superiors. He hated the stiff formation flying forced on him. He’d rather go off on his own and engage the enemy in his Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered Supermarine Spitfire.

Beurling was an instinctive pilot, and a master at deflection shooting, where a pilot fires ahead of his prey just at the right moment and the proper angle, eventually catching the prey with a deluge of potent shells. In the space of just a few months in mid-1942, while stationed with an RAF fighter squadron on the Mediterranean island of Malta, Beurling shot down over two dozen Axis aircraft, earning him such honors as “The Falcon of Malta” and “The Knight of Malta.” He is still talked about in Malta today, where he’s a folk hero.

Beurling didn’t need tracers for his aiming like many other fighter pilots did, this info confirmed in 1983 by Cecil Mann from Ancaster, Ontario, a ground crew explosives expert stationed on the same British airdrome as Beurling’s squadron. “Most pilots would use a ratio of armor-piercing, tracer, two standard bullets, armor piercing and a tracer,” Mann said to me. “Some preferred explosives. Beurling wanted nothing but armor-piercing, standard and explosives--no tracers. He always said, ‘I don’t need tracers. I know where I’m shooting. Just give me enough to do the job.’” A good portion of Beurling’s kills were as close as 250 yards away. Sometimes less. And he liked to use short, hard bursts.


Buzz Beurling recovering following his transport crash off Gibraltar, 1942  
(Department of National Defense, Canada)

































George “Buzz” Beurling came into this world on 6 December 1921 in Verdun, Quebec. He had a strict upbringing. His parents wanted him to go to university and study medicine. He took another route by dropping out of high school and taking up flying. He obtained his commercial license in 1938, then flew for an air freight company based in Gravenhurst, Ontario. When World War II broke out in 1939, Beurling approached the RCAF, but was turned down due to his lack of education. Then he tried to join the Finnish Air Force (who were fighting the Russians), but couldn’t obtain his parents’ permission. Next, he sailed across the Atlantic in 1940 to enlist with the Royal Air Force. Trouble was, he had forgotten his birth certificate back home in Quebec. So, he returned to England a few weeks later and was taken right away by the RAF, where he went through extensive training.

Beurling worked on being the best fighter pilot who ever lived. Blessed with keen eyesight and excellent estimation of range, he worked hard until everything seemed to become second-nature to him. He and his Spitfire became one. As Sergeant Pilot George Beurling, his first posting was to RCAF 403 Squadron in Essex. With them, he flew his first operation on Christmas Day 1941. He remained with the squadron for four months, flying fighter sweeps and escorting bombers across the Channel. No real action to speak of, however. He was then sent to RAF 41 Squadron based in Sussex.

Flying “Tail-End Charlie” on his fourth operation with 41 Squadron, he broke formation to shoot down a lone German FW 190 over France. For such action, he quickly became unpopular with his superiors and his squadron pilots. After his short stint in England, Beurling applied for a posting outside the British Isles, where he thought his talents would be more appreciated and accepted. On the other hand, his superiors found this the perfect opportunity to get rid of him. Taken by RAF 249 Squadron on the besieged island of Malta, Beurling arrived in his Spitfire on 9 June 1942, after having taking off from the deck of HMS Eagle and flying 600 miles to the island.

On 12 June, his first time out in his Spitfire, in a formation of four, he was credited with a damaged German Bf 109. On 6 July, he shot down three Italian aircraft. Four days later he became a Malta ace by shooting down his fifth enemy machine. Four more kills came on 27 July. By 30 July, his tally rose to 17. For most of August and September, the effects of daily combat flying plus the poor rations, the heat and dysentery (which the pilots called “The Dog”) led to Beurling--newly commissioned as a pilot officer--being bed ridden. He had lost almost 50 pounds. When he returned to combat, he never let up. More kills.

After shot up badly on 14 October 1942, he was forced down over the water, where he pancaked his Spitfire, then was rescued in the dinghy he had managed to pull out before his fighter sank. With 27 Malta kills to his credit (the highest by any RAF pilot on the island), his time in Malta was over, his reputation established. On Halloween 1942, in route to England, his B-24 Liberator transport hit a fierce thunderstorm and crashed in the water off Gibraltar when the pilot missed the runway. One of only three survivors, Beurling swam the 160 yards to shore. 

Later landing in Britain, he was then sent to Canada to help in the war effort by selling war bonds. But he was a poor speaker and he hated everything about the tour, except signing autographs for his female admirers. Promoted to Flying Officer on 30 January 1943, he continued his promotional tour of the country, most of the time embarrassing the RCAF by telling the shocked crowds that he enjoyed killing enemy pilots, especially blowing their heads off. His off-the-wall “screwball” behavior may have been the result of battle fatigue. Or he could have said such graphic things just to get off the tour. What he actually really needed was a good, long rest.


Buzz Beurling, March 1943,
while on his War Bonds tour of Canada
 (Department of National Defense, Canada)
Returning to Britain in late-May as an RAF gunnery instructor, he was then transferred to the RCAF on 1 September, and posted to his original operational squadron at 403. The next day, he shot down an Fw 190. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant within a few weeks, Beurling stunt-flew a Tiger Moth at zero altitude over his airfield. Instead of court-martialing Beurling, the base commanding officer sent the pilot to 126 Wing Headquarters who in turn sent him off to 412 Squadron, where the earlier-mentioned Cecil Mann, ground crew with 401 Squadron, came in contact with him.

The undisciplined Beurling, up to his old tricks, drove his new commander crazy by refusing to fly in formation and engaging in even more stunt work. His final World War II kill came on 30 December 1943, when he shot down an Fw 190, while flying escort for a flight of American bombers. According to Cecil Mann, he remembered Beurling performing a “victory roll” for all to see over the base after one particular kill, his last in the war. By now the RCAF (and the RAF before him) had enough of their “lone wolf” and canned him for good.

By the time the RCAF had returned Beurling to Canada in April 1944 with an honorable discharge, a year before the war ended, he had been given the rank of Squadron Leader and decorated with a DSO, DFC, and DFM and Bar, and had shot down 31 and one-third aircraft, the highest total of all Canadian pilots. He also damaged nine other aircraft. (The one-third of a kill meant it was unconfirmed--an aircraft that two other pilots may have shot down.) Throughout the war, he had survived nine air crashes, including his four times shot down over Malta.

Beurling found civilian life too boring and couldn’t wait to get back to combat. Anywhere around the world. When he was recruited by the Israelis--during their fight for independence in 1948--to fly P-51 Mustangs, Beurling jumped at the chance. But the Norseman transport plane he was flying crashed en route upon landing near Rome. Sabotage was suspected, but never proven.

George “Buzz” Beurling was laid to rest as a local hero in the military cemetery at the foot of Mount Carmel in northern Israel. He’s a hero here in Canada, too, although a lot of people, I find, have never heard of him. What a shame.