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Little guys have always been fan favorites; Who were/are yours?


In recent years, the return of the “little guy” has occurred in conjunction with the new era post-lockout NHL.  That is, new rules enforcement has led to relatively little hooking and holding and has opened up the game for skill players— of all sizes.  It has really made for a more level playing field, and as a consequence, smaller players can shine more than perhaps they had in earlier years.

In recent seasons, Martin St. Louis became the poster boy for the fact that small players could still stand out among the relative giants playing NHL hockey today.

That said, there has, in fact, always been room for the extraordinary little man in hockey.

Now, long before my time (I was born in 1953), it was probably more unusual if you had a particularly big player on your roster.  In fact, most of the guys were of average size in the really olden days (1930s ans '40s).  The key skill was a player’s swift skating ability.  As a Montreal fan, my Dad often spoke of the exploits of Aurel Joliat.  I’d have to look it up, but my guess is the guy weighed maybe 140 pounds.  He was likely a bit small, even for his era.  In later years, Maple Leaf heroes like Howie Meeker likely never made it past 150 pounds, if that.  It wasn’t uncommon, I don’t believe, to be an "average" size and weight and play in the NHL.

But as time went on players got bigger, of course.  By the time I was following the game ardently in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, size mattered.  You didn’t have many guys who were say, more than 200-205 pounds (even Gordie Howe, who was considered not only very strong but a big man for his time, weighed maybe 205 pounds).  Elmer “Moose” Vasko of the Black Hawks was the biggest man in hockey when I was a kid, though he would just be another guy today.  He was probably 220 pounds “officially”, more, I’m guessing, when he jumped on the scale at training camp every fall.

The biggest guy I can remember, in terms of weight, was probably another Black Hawk in the very early 1970s.  I believe his name was Rick Foley.  He maybe weighed 235 pounds (or more) but I don’t think he had a long career in the NHL.  He had some skill and was considered mobile for a big man at the time, but not that fast.  Another big guy was Black Haw Jerry Korab, later better known for his time with the Buffalo Sabres as a rugged defenseman and his “King Kong” nickname.

But for all the big guys like those I mentioned (and the Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau types), there were the small, skill players that I remember fondly from the 1960s, too.

In Toronto, the “little guys” who stood tall in blue and white included Dickie Duff and Dave Keon.  Both were wonderful players and skaters.  Keon (pictured at right in the very early 1960s in one of those marvellous Harold Barkley photos)  went on to have a 15-year career with the Leafs, and seven more in the WHA and back in the NHL with the old Hartford Whalers.  Keon weighed probably 160 pounds, a little smallish even for the early 1960s’ era.

Off the op of my head, a few names come to mind of “small” guys around the league back then who really stood out.  Maybe the smallest guy of all in what I would call (for me personally) the modern era was New York’s Camille “The Eel” Henry. (See the great old photo at the top of this story.  Henry is scoring on a backhander against Toronto's Don Simmons in the Leaf net.)  He was, I think, 140-150 pounds.  But boy, he could play.  He was slick and could finish.  The guy was a goal-scorer when scoring 20 goals a season made you a star.  His career was impacted, as I recall, by serious back problems, though he played until he was 37 with the expansion St. Louis Blues in the late '60s.

Another New York Ranger who later became more prominent with the Chicago Black Hawks was Lou Angotti.  He was a waterbug on the ice, but a guy who could not only skate and handle the puck but he would go after guys, too.  He wasn’t a fighter but he wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there.  It’s funny, after Vasko left Chicago to finish his career with the expansion Minnesota North Stars, Angotti was a Chicago crowd favorite. They used to call out “Moose” as in “Mooooose…” whenever Vasko would carry the puck up ice.  When the much tinier Angotti did the same in later years, the chant was “…Louuuuu….)

Murray Oliver wasn’t tiny, but he was a skilled, under-sized guy with the Bruins and later the Maple Leafs and North Stars.  He had a really nice NHL career, too. 

Ralph Backstrom was one of the finest things on ice in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.  He could really play.  (I remember a beauty of an overtime goal he scored for the Habs against Gerry Cheevers in the Bruins in the spring of 1968 or ’69…they played the Bruins both years…Backstrom made a great rush up the ice, cut across the blueline and lazered a high wrist shot over Gerry Cheevers' shoulder.  Game over.)  He finished his great career in the WHA and was a standout in the 1974 WHA/Soviet Series.

Billy Dea I recall as a good small player for a time with the Red Wings but I don’t think he was a “light weight” like some of the others I have mentioned.  Little Andre Boudrias came up in the Montreal system in the 1960s, but I think he later played with Minnesota and Vancouver, though I would have to look that up, too.

Maybe the smallest guy, height-wise, that I remember from those golden years came up in the early 1970s.  Bobby Lalonde had a brilliant junior career, and did play with the expansion Vancouver Canucks.  I think he was maybe 5 feet, 5 inches.  A very skilled guy with the puck and a wonderful skater, as you might expect, to make it that far at that size.

I’m sure I’m missing the names of some fine "small" players from that era.  By all means, if you think of someone from those days, or "under-sized" guys you enjoy watching now, send your memories and comments along!

           

           

           

           

           

4 comments:

  1. Got to send out some love for Allan Bester.

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  2. DGB...Bester was a favorite of mine. A really under-sized goalie, but awfully quick and talented. I wonder if he might have had an even better career with the Leafs with a different coaching situation during his time in blue and white?

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  3. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 3, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    Hope your not getting a little tired of me. Here are my favorites! Pit Martin, got a bum rap for being one of the puzzles in one of the most one sided trades in the history of the NHL. I remember as a kid walking into the old Hamilton Forum and seeing a photo of Martin and Henderson lifting the 62 memorial cup. Even though I never saw him play with the Wings (I was born in 59) to me Martin was a real hero in my eyes. A true soldier who played a gritty two way game for the Hawks.

    JP Parise played the game hard and with a lot of hustle. Wished the Leafs had held onto him.

    Fran Huck, nothing special about the former Blue, but how can you not love a guy with a name like that!

    Pie face John McKenzie, a former Bruin player you hated, but love to have on your team.

    Dennis Maruk, played on some bad teams, nevertheless, a great goal scorer who didn't shy away from the traffic.

    Little Napoleon Marcel Dionne,I remember watching him playing for the St, Catherine Black Hawks. In my humble opinion thought that he was better than Guy Lafleur. Love watching him centering Sittler and McDonald in the 76 Canada Cup...to bad it wasn't with the Leafs.

    Some small Leafs but big in my heart, Dave Keon Rick Ley, Guy Trottier, Pat Boutette, Mike Palmateer, Rocky Saganiuk, and Dan Daoust, Doug Gilmour, and Nikalai Borschevsky. Great players in their roles as Leafs.

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  4. Not tired at all, Long suffering. I very much enjoy your posts here!

    It's funny, I can't recall if I've written too much about him, but I have the same feeling about-and regard for- the late Pit Martin. He played his heart out for the Hawks for many years. They should have beat Montreal in '71. Martin was outastanding in that '73 final series. So, a bum rap, indeed and not at all fair. He was a fine player. (Sometimes we can see still him as a youngster with the Red Wings on Leafs TV when they show those great old games in the playoffs against the Leafs in the early '60s...great stuff...)

    Parise had an excellent career with the Stars, and certainly could have helped the Leafs, had they held on to him. I can't recall if he was traded or simply set free in the '67 expansion draft.

    Huck had some nice years with the Blues, right? I remember him most fondly, though, as an amateur and part of Canada's Olympic/National teams.

    I loathed Mckenzie with the Bruins, but what a competitor. The Leafs could use a guy like that right now.

    Maruk, for sure. Little guy, big talent. And I tend to agree about Dionne. Lafleur, to me, as outstanding as he eventually became with the Habs, would never have thrived outside of Montreal. Dionne never had that kind of support and yet was an amazing player in Detroit and LA.

    Thanks as always for taking the time to write.

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