Gretzky was gentleman on, off ice during NHL career

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Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as “The Hockey Maven,” shares his humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

This week — in advance of Canadian Thanksgiving on Monday — Fischler lists 10 Canadian-specific “hockey gifts” for which he is thankful.

1. SYL APPS, MY FIRST HERO: Tall, fast and indomitable, Apps was the Toronto Maple Leafs captain when they won the Stanley Cup in 1942. He became my hockey inspiration and role model. I’ll always be thankful for that. Apps helped make me a Maple Leafs fan after they were down three games to none in the Final and rallied to win four straight and the title. Being a kid from Brooklyn, I also had never heard the unusual name, Sylvanus, before. That’s another reason why Syl fascinated me. Thanks, pal.

2. THE INIMITABLE ROCKET: In the late 1940’s I was able to pick up the signal to CBM-Montreal on my little Philco radio. Listening to Doug Smith call the action was special. But nothing beat the roar of the Montreal Canadiens fans when Maurice Richard scored a goal. Remarkably, much later in my life I became friends with the iconic “Rocket” and helped write his autobiography, “The Flying Frenchmen.” In my life, I never met a more down to earth, sincere athlete than Richard. Thanks Maurice for adding something very special to my life. You!

3. CONN SMYTHE: How could I not idolize the Maple Leafs manager who was a hero not only in World War I but volunteered and served in World War II before being seriously injured in action. After the conflict, Smythe built Toronto into the first NHL dynasty; Cup-winners in 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951. Smythe also came up with one of the best lines in the game, “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice!” As hockey leaders go, Smythe made me feel as if I’d loved to have served under his guidance. Many thanks “Major” for those inspiring championship teams.

4. THE BATTERED GOALIE: Charlie Rayner, a native of Sutherland, Saskatchewan, never played for a Cup-winner but he came very close with the New York Rangers in the 1950 Final against the Detroit Red Wings. He did win the Hart Trophy, voted as NHL most valuable player, that season, but lost Game 7 of the Cup Final, 4-3 in double overtime. Often injured and never with a strong team, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” still was a hero to New York kids like me and made me want to be a goalie like him. Later, as a hockey journalist, I had the good fortune to befriend Rayner. Thanks Charlie for giving meaning to that line, “Wait ’til next year!”

5. “HE SHOOTS, HE SCORES!”: I became a hockey fan while listening to my first broadcast in 1942. Foster Hewitt’s pulsating play by play was like nothing I ever had heard before and never heard duplicated since. It was Hewitt who invented hockey play by play on radio in the late 1920’s and still was going strong in the late 1940’s doing the Maple Leafs games from the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens. Hewitt’s signature “He Shoots, He Scores” has been copied by hundreds of broadcasters to this day. I got to meet my broadcasting idol in a press room before a playoff game and what I told him then still is what I feel today. “Thanks for turning me into a hockey nut.”

Video: Wayne Gretzky all-time leader in goals, points

6. MISTER HOCKEY: Like Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe was inimitable. For my money, the Floral, Saskatchewan, native was the best, most complete player I had ever seen. Gordie could do everything and that included never losing a fight. One of my biggest thrills as a writer was authoring Howe’s biography. It was my first hockey book and I’m thankful to him for that. Plus, I’m even more thankful for having met the great man and interviewed him many times. How can someone be more thankful than to tell his kids, “Gordie Howe was my buddy.”

7. THE GENTLEMAN SUPERSTAR: You had to be a Billy Smith, the ornery goalie of the New York Islanders, to dislike Wayne Gretzky. Otherwise, just about everybody loved him — and still loves him. Never has there been a more talented, creative, generous face of hockey. As super as “The Great One” was on the ice, that’s how wonderful he was off it. When my younger son, Simon, was suffering from heart failure, Gretzky heard about it and came through with an autographed stick. Later, when Simon worked at Cosby’s hockey store in Manhattan, Gretzky would drop in to say hello. There’s still a lot of “Thanks” in the heart of Simon to Wayne. Mine too. And thanks for the memories, Great One; even though you beat my Islanders in the 1984 Cup Final.

8. THOSE WONDERFUL NICKNAMES: I’ve always had a fascination with nicknames. And when it came to neat handles, no team had a better collection than the 1942 Maple Leafs. Just hearing them broadcast or reading them in the papers, I got a big kick out of Dave “Sweeney” Schriner, Walter “Turk” Broda, Wilfred “Bucko” McDonald, Rudolph “Bingo” Kampman and Wally “The Whirling Dervish” Stanowski. Their coach was Clarence “Happy” Day. You’d be happy too if you won the Stanley Cup five times!

9. MY FAVORITE HOCKEY CITY: Long before the Jets graced the NHL, I had become a Winnipeg fan. Dating back to the 1940s, “The Peg” seemed to me the continent’s most productive producer of hockey players. I loved its pure cold while standing on the corner of Portage and Main. Some of my very best friends in hockey were Winnipeg guys and I was lucky to have befriended some of them, especially those who came to New York and played for the Rangers. I was particularly close with Wally Hergesheimer, Nick Mickoski and Cal Gardner. My best pal of the bunch was Andy Bathgate. His shot hit goalie Jacques Plante in the face and from that episode, Plante started wearing a face mask. Maybe the thanks here should be from every goalie who followed.

10. A FAN’S NEWSPAPER: As a Maple Leafs fan from 1942-52, I got my best stories by mail from the Toronto Globe and Mail. Columnist Jim Coleman inspired my writing style. He was one of the rare few who could treat the abject seriousness of hockey with rich humor. Other Globe aces of the late 1940’s were Jim Vipond, Al Nickelson and the very underrated Rex MacLeod. I owe a debt of thanks to each one of them!

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