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Jim O’Brien: Recalling a strange story in hockey history

May 25, 2012
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Jim O’Brien: Recalling a strange story in hockey history

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

It was one of the strangest stories I encountered in my career as a journalist.  I never knew the full story.   I still don’t.  No one does.  No one really wanted me to know the full story.  It stays with me like one of those cold cases they feature on crime shows on television.

I have been watching the National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs and the National Basketball League playoffs on television, switching back and forth from the Pirates’ games.

With the Penguins’ unexpected early exit in the playoffs, I had to find other teams to root for and I found them in the New York Rangers in the East and the Los Angeles Kings in the West.

With the Los Angeles Lakers out of the NBA playoffs, I am now rooting for the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma Thunder to go all the way and claim the crown.

Seeing the Rangers reminds me of time spent at Madison Square Garden, and the days in the early ‘70s when I covered some of their games for The New York Post.  My main assignment back then was to cover the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association starting in 1970 and then the New York Islanders when they came into being as an expansion franchise in 1972.

I saw the Islanders put the pieces together that would win them four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early ‘80s.  Bill Torrey, whom I first met when he was the General Manager for the Pittsburgh Hornets, was the architect of those Islanders’ championship teams.  He is one of seven men associated with that team who is honored in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

I benefited from that Pittsburgh bond when I covered the Islanders.  I was, in fact, the first writer in New York to refer to the team as “the Islanders,” before the team chose its official nickname.  It seemed logical enough.

I lived on Long Island in a community called Baldwin about five miles from the Nassau Coliseum, still the home of the Islanders.  The Nets have been playing in New Jersey in recent years but will move to a new arena in Brooklyn next season.

Dr. J, Julius Erving, was the star of the Nets and the ABA back then, and now they show him from time to time sitting in a special suite at the 76ers’ games with the Boston Celtics.  Erving was traded by the Nets to the 76ers when the ABA was absorbed into the NBA in the late ‘70s.  He is now a Philly icon.

The other development that made me think about the strange story involving the Rangers was the death on St. Patrick’s Day of this year of former Rangers’ defenseman Ron Stewart. He was 79 when he died of cancer.

Stewart was one of the figures in the strange story I referred to in the first paragraph.

There’s been some rough play in the NHL and the NBA playoffs, sometimes to the extreme, but none of it compares to what happened in a drunken brawl between two teammates on the Rangers back in 1970.

I was relatively new to New York in April of 1970, having just moved there after a year’s stay at The Miami News.

         On the evening of April 29, 1970, Ron Stewart and Terry Sawchuk, a Hall of Fame goalie who was winding up his storied career as a backup goalie for the Rangers, got into a fight in the backyard of the house they were renting in East Atlantic Beach on Long Island, and Sawchuk died from a blood clot at a nearby hospital.

I was told that Stewart had kicked Sawchuk in his groin with such force that he drove his plumbing deep into his stomach and injured his gallbladder and liver.  Sawchuk underwent surgery three times during his short stay in the hospital.

Sawchuk took the blame for the brawl.  He said, “It wasn’t Ron Stewart’s fault; don’t blame him.  I was the aggressor in the whole thing.”

Sawchuk was one of the greatest goalies in the NHL and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year after his death.  He held the record for most shutouts in NHL history (103) and his final one came against the Pittsburgh Penguins in New York during that 1969-70 season.

I was sent out to do a story on the Rangers at their practice rink at New Hyde Park on Long Island.  I stopped Stewart as he was coming out of the clubhouse and took him aside to interview him.  I wanted to get his side of the story.

No sooner did I start talking to him, alongside one end of the ice rink, than Emile “The Cat” Francis, the general manager and coach of the Rangers, came out of the clubhouse and caught me at work.

I can still picture that moment, just a snapshot in my life as a newspaperman, of Francis moving fast in my direction.  I see a lot of dark green (the color of the seats in the rink) behind Francis.  He positively pounced on me.  They didn’t call him “The Cat” for nothing.

Francis swore at me and told Stewart to get out of there in the same sentence.  Stewart seemed surprised by Francis’ facial expression and he left the building, leaving me behind with an empty notebook.  Francis was a little fellow, probably 150 pounds, but he looked fearsome to me that afternoon.

A week later, during a quarter-final Stanley Cup round with the Boston Bruins, I was standing at the back of a pack of reporters in the Rangers’ dressing room at Madison Square Garden.  We were interviewing Emile Francis.

One of the reporters, Gerald Eskenazi of The New York Times, turned to me and said, “I’m surprised to see you here after the way Francis treated you the other day.”

And I told Eskenazi, “I’m just doing my job.  The readers could care less if Francis gave me a hard time.  I have to write a story and I have to hear what he has to say about this game.”

Francis had created a community of sorts for his Rangers on East Atlantic Beach, near Long Beach on Long Island.  That was about a 20-minute car drive to the Rangers’ practice rink at a public facility in New Hyde Park.

The Rangers and the Knicks seldom had an opportunity to practice at Madison Square Garden because that building hosted so many different kinds of entertainment offerings.  The Knicks often practiced at high school gyms on Long Island.

Francis felt it was safer for his players if they didn’t have to drive in the demanding traffic that led in and out of Manhattan.  So he told players it would be better to live on Long Island than in the city.

It didn’t save Sawchuk.  Precisely how the fight started and how Sawchuk incurred his injuries remains murky, but a Nassau County grand jury found the death to be accidental, absolving Stewart of blame.

None of the news media in New York really dug into this story, which still seems unbelievable.  I don’t think that would be the case today.

Sawchuk, who had been a star mostly with the Detroit Red Wings, was known to be a moody sort, and was disclosed to have suffered from depression at times. Playing goalie in the NHL without a face mask might do that to an individual.

He was also known to be “a bad drunk.”

I visited my neighbor Eddie Johnston recently and asked him what he knew about the incident involving Stewart and Sawchuk.

Johnston, who has served in so many capacities with the Penguins, including stints as coach and general manager, said he didn’t know much more than what was in the newspapers at the time.

“I knew that Sawchuk could be a nasty sort when he got into one of his moods,” said Johnston, the last NHL goalie to play every game in a season and someone who once played the position without a protective face mask.  “Terry was a great one.”

Sawchuk and Stewart shared a home on Long Island during the hockey season.  They had been at a local bar that night and had gotten into an argument.  Sawchuk may have owed Stewart some of the rent money for the home they shared.  They started shoving one another.  And it carried over when they reached their home later.

The dispute resumed and they started pushing each other on the lawn by their home.  Witnesses said Sawchuk fell into a barbecue pit.

I came home to Pittsburgh in April of 1979, nine years later, and was determined to be a positive writer.  I had found that in stints in Miami and then New York that it wasn’t worth writing controversial stuff.

So I am in Pittsburgh about a month and I hear that Jack Lambert of the Steelers has been assaulted at a downtown night club.  Someone slammed a beer mug against his ear and cut Lambert badly, causing him to bleed quite a bit.  At least two guys jumped him.

I attempted to find out what happened. Lambert, after all, was the star linebacker for the Steelers, who had won their third Super Bowl the previous season.  Lambert was regarded as one of the toughest players in the NFL.  Who’d jump Jack Lambert?

I called Lambert on the telephone at his home three times but he never returned my calls.  I went to Chuck Noll to discuss the incident, but he was not happy with me for wanting to talk about it.  He offered little help or direction.  He didn’t want me to deal with the subject.

I would later learn that the editor of my paper was aware of what happened at The Happy Landing – that was the name of the night club, interestingly enough – and the police reporter on both newspapers knew about it.  A police report had been filed on the skirmish.  The beat reporter on the rival daily knew about it.

No one wanted to write the story.

I wrote the story, or what I could piece together, and I lived to regret writing the story.  I didn’t receive a pat on the back at the office or from any readers, and it got me off to a bad start with Lambert.  He snarled at me, breathing flames I swear, when I encountered him at St. Vincent College at the team’s summer training camp.

I went to his room and we worked out a peace pact.  If I wrote something like that again, he warned me, I would pay the consequences.

I later learned that the guys who jumped Jack Lambert that night were bad news.  They intended to hurt him.  They had said they were going to cut the ligaments in his legs.

There was a third guy at the bar that night who was reluctant to take on Jack Lambert.  He stayed back when his buddies jumped Lambert.  He was later shot and killed by one of the combatants because of his failure to join in the fray.

I told you these guys were bad news.  The killer was sent to prison and had quite a rap sheet to show for his history of misbehavior.

Martin Brodeur, the goalie for the New Jersey Devils, broke Sawchuk’s record for the most shutouts (103) in an NHL career.  Brodeur is still the backstop for the Devils and continues to add to his record.  He’s had 24 shutouts in the playoffs alone.

I saw Brodeur and the Devils play at Consol Energy Center this past season, and I asked my friend Ken Codeluppi, who has season tickets for the Penguins, if he had ever heard of Terry Sawchuk.  He was not familiar with the name.  Our seats were three rows behind one of the goalie nets, and I ducked at least a dozen times when a puck struck the protective glass in front of us.

I scolded him, saying that if you were going to call yourself a hockey fan, you had to know about Terry Sawchuk.  He was one of the greats of the game.

Stewart bounced back from that dark night on Long Island to continue playing for the Rangers.  That fight on the lawn was called “a tragic, senseless, bizarre” incident, in the words of the Nassau County district attorney, William Cahn.

Stewart would later, strangely enough, be named the coach of the Rangers.  He’d enjoyed quite a career until he retired as a player in 1973.  His heyday had been during his 13 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was Emile Francis, by the way, who hired Stewart to succeed him as coach of the Rangers, the same Emile Francis who chased Stewart from the rink at New Hyde Park when I was trying to interview him.

Here’s another note about Emile Francis:  back in 1945, when he was a professional goalie, he was the first goalie to use a first baseman’s glove with a cuff added to protect his hand and wrist.  Before that, goalies wore the same kind of gloves as their teammates.  It had to be difficult to catch a flying puck with those regular gloves.

If you’re going to call yourself a hockey fan you need to know that sort of stuff.

By the way, when I was in Los Angeles this past February, we went to see the Kings play the Boston Bruins at the Staples Center.  The Kings were in last place in their division at the time.  “They can’t be very good,” I said on the day of the game.

That night we watched the Kings defeat the Bruins, who had won the Stanley Cup a year earlier.  Afterward, I observed, “Hey, the Kings look pretty good.”

Lo and behold, the Kings won the West and are in the Stanley Cup championship round.  And most Pittsburgh hockey fans thought the Penguins would be playing for the Cup once again.

Pittsburgh sports author and historian Jim O’Brien has written about the Penguins and other local sports stars in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series of books.  His website is www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gerald Eskenazi permalink
    June 10, 2012 1:06 pm

    Boy, Jim’s story brought back memories–he did a good job reminding me of the Sawchuk-Stewart-Francis drama. Jim always was a ballsy writer. He’s right that it couldn’t get passed over today, although in my minor involvement, I did call the cops and the Nassau County D.A. It was hard to get stuff when officials say no crime has been committed. Anyway, enjoyed reading the recount.

    • June 19, 2012 6:39 pm

      Gerry, I am always glad when I learn that one of my contemporaries in New York is still alive and, yes, believes I was “balsy.” I will take that as a compliment since Dick Young was one of my mentors in those days. I feel fortunate that I had a terrific nine-year run in New York prior to coming back home to Pittsbugh. It was a great time to be in New York. So many outstanding sports writers. And we all wrote books. I wrote three while in New York about pro basketball and have written 20 since returning to Pittsburgh. I have one coming out this fall called Immaculate Reflections. The Stewart-Sawchuk story will be one of the stories in the book. I’d be honored to have a blurb from you. If you would like I can send you some other excerpts. I know Vic Zeigle, Maury Allen, Ike Gellis, Sid Friedlander, Milt Gross and Dick Young are all gone, sad to say. Hope this note finds you in good health. My e-mail address is jimmyo64@gmail.com Thanks for sending a missive to this site. Best, Jim O’Brien

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