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.


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