Preface & Introduction to a hockey book – Hockey’s Most Tragic Deaths

Preface

It was to be a compilation of short stories detailing the lives and tragic deaths of several former NHL hockey players. I was somewhat skeptical about the project at the time, reasoning that a comprehensive range of tragic stories about former pro hockey players had already been compiled in a single book, and that, in any event, such an undertaking would be too extensive and exhaustive for us to realistically complete. My findings from an initial wave of research were that, indeed, several hockey biographies had already been published about players I wished to profile, such as Howie Morenz, Terry Sawchuk, Tim Horton, and John Kordic. There was not, however, a single source which brought together several of these stories. My research also confirmed my initial belief, that the task at hand would be daunting.

The process of establishing the book's parameters and scope began to emerge once I started my research. It was decided early on that only former NHL players would be profiled, with the exception of early hockey greats such as Hod Stuart, Frank McGee and Hobey Baker, all who played before the league was established. Some hockey legends were thus excluded, including the great Soviet scoring star Valeri Kharlamov, who died in a car crash at a young age.

It was also decided that I would profile only players who died while still playing pro hockey. There were some exceptions to this rule. McGee and Baker left the game to go to war, recently-retired Babe Siebert was poised to coach the Montreal Canadiens, Yanick Dupre was bravely battling leukemia, and Brian Spencer was shot to death, several years after his NHL career ended. These players all passed away relatively young, however, which was consistent with the project's central premise. Some hockey legends who died tragically were excluded; among others, goalie great George Hainsworth who died at the age of 55 in a car crash.

My original plan was to profile ten hockey players, most notably stars such as Morenz, Sawchuk and Horton. But I began to uncover cases of several former NHLers who died tragically young. The lives of no less than 12 players were eventually detailed in separate chapters. A final chapter was added, in which 16 more were briefly profiled.

My fascination with the often turbulent lives of several of these professional hockey players made it somewhat easier to remain committed to writing the book, as it progressed from one story to the next. I remain thankful that excellent bibliographic sources were available for my comprehensive project: hockey books, historical documents, magazine stories, newspaper articles, internet stories, and first-hand interviews with former players.

I sincerely hope that readers will enjoy reading about hockey’s most tragic deaths, and along the way discover more about the history of professional hockey and the NHL, in terms of how the league developed and the ensuing drama both on and off the ice.  I also expect that readers will appreciate how the lives of these players parallel their own, in the sense that we all experience "triumphs" and "tragedies" in life.  

Introduction

Several former NHLers profiled in this book were established stars with special places in hockey history. No less than six of these stars were among the twelve charter members chosen to the National Hockey League Hall of Fame in 1945: Hobey Baker, Charlie Gardiner, Howie Morenz, Frank McGee, Hod Stuart and Georges Vezina. Hod Stuart was one of the top Canadian amateur players at the turn of the century, but at 28 he died tragically while swimming. One-eyed Frank McGee was the most feared scorer of his day, helping Ottawa successfully defend the Stanley Cup nine times in the early 1900s, but he died in battle during World War One. All-American sports hero Hobey Baker survived the Great War, only to be killed during a routine test flight. Baker, McGee and Stuart were all established hockey stars, of course, before the formation of the NHL in 1917.

The other three charter members made their marks of greatness in the newly formed league. Durable Georges Vezina, nicknamed The Chicoutimi Cucumber, rarely missed a game from 1910 through 1924. Arguably the premier pro goaltender, Vezina led the Montreal Canadiens to two Stanley Cups. After the veteran star's death from tuberculosis, the NHL announced that The Vezina Memorial Trophy would be awarded annually to the netminder with the lowest goals-against average. "Chuck" Gardiner himself won the award twice during a seven year, all-star career, the last time shortly before fending off a painful tonsil infection as he led the Chicago Black Hawks to the 1934 Cup, the team's first ever. The infection having spread throughout his body, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died soon after.

Howie Morenz, also known as The Stratford Streak, was the league's first true superstar. A speedy, talented centre for the Montreal Canadiens, Howie helped popularize hockey in the United States in the 1920s. After stints in Chicago and New York, the veteran returned to his beloved Canadiens in 1937, only to break his leg during the celebrated comeback and later perish in the hospital, broken-hearted that his stellar career had ended so badly.

Although Maple Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko never made it to the Hall of Fame, he is still remembered for his game-winning 1951 Stanley Cup goal. That tally handed the Leafs its fourth Cup during Barilko's five years with the club, but the lucky young rearguard's fortunes drastically changed later that summer, when he disappeared on a plane trip to northern Ontario. Bill's body was not discovered until 1962, the next year the Leafs won the Cup.

North Stars journeyman forward Bill Masterton never had the opportunity to challenge for the Stanley Cup, but he still fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL. The 29-year-old rookie suffered severe head trauma from an on-ice collision early in the 1968-69 season. Tragically, he died in the hospital soon after. The league later created The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded each year to the player best exemplifying perseverance, dedication, and sportsmanship to hockey. Masterton's death also prompted some NHLers to start wearing protective headgear, but the use of helmets was not made mandatory until several years later.

Arguably the greatest goalie ever, Terry Sawchuk captured four Vezina Trophies and seven Stanley Cups during his glory years in Detroit and, later, Toronto.  A perennial all-star during his remarkable, 21-year NHL career, "Uke" revolutionized goaltending with his trademark crouch style. It was copied by generations of aspiring, young netminders. Sawchuk was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1971, a year after his death from stomach-related injuries, at the age of forty. Another veteran who enjoyed a long and storied career, tough and dependable rearguard Tim Horton toiled for 24 years in the NHL, winning four Cups with the Leafs and later anchoring the defense for young teams in Pittsburgh and Buffalo. In early 1974, driving home to Buffalo late at night after a game at Maple Leaf Gardens, Horton died when he his speeding sportscar crashed on the highway.

Pelle Lindbergh, the young Swedish goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers, was another hockey star who died in a horrifying car crash late at night. His bright red Porsche crashed in a New Jersey suburb in November 1985, leaving him in a coma, with severe head injuries. Lindbergh had recently become the first European goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy, so the subsequent death of this pioneer star shocked the hockey world.

Troubled and tormented enforcer John Kordic's death also shocked many in pro hockey. An adept fighter who terrorized NHL opponents with his fists during the late 1980s, Kordic was popular in Montreal and Toronto, but soon wore out his welcome. After unsuccessful stints with a number of pro teams, the embattled pugilist died in 1992, likely the result of ingesting a lethal mix of alcohol, cocaine and steroids. His well-publicized demise prompted the league to eventually adopt a comprehensive substance abuse policy.

Alcohol also allegedly had a part in the death of veteran rearguard Steve Chiasson, who played for Detroit, Calgary, Hartford and the Carolina Hurricanes. Chiasson attended a team party right after the 1999 playoffs ended, and died later that night, after his pick-up truck crashed on the way home.

Another defenseman, talented Bryan Fogarty, never became the player many thought he would be. Often compared to Bobby On as a Canadian junior hockey star, Fogarty continuously battled substance abuse problems throughout his troubled and inconsistent pro career, like good friend John Kordic. After short stints with Quebec, Pittsburgh and Montreal, the rearguard played for several European-based clubs before eventually calling it quits in 2000. He died of heart failure less than two years later.

This book's final chapter briefly considers the lives of 16 other former NHLers who died too young. Hod Stuart is discussed; his death at the start of the century was the first real hockey "tragedy". Others include Hobie Baker, Scotty Davidson, Frank McGee, Red Garrett and Joe Turner; these players died as soldiers, in either the First or Second World War. Also mentioned is "Bad" Joe Hall, a rugged defenseman who patrolled the blueline for the two Montreal clubs, the Maroons and Canadiens. Hall was the only player to die from influenza during the 1919 Stanley Cup finals between the Habs and the Seattle Metropolitans, which was eventually ended without a winner declared. Like Stuart, former Canadiens great Babe Siebert also met his demise while swimming. Babe was a star defenseman for the Maroons, Rangers and Bruins, later finishing his career in the late 1930s with the Canadiens. He drowned while on vacation soon after.

Some modern NHLers are profiled near the end of the final chapter, including Michel Briere, a talented rookie star player with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team's best player in the 1969 Stanley Cup playoffs, Briere suffered major head trauma in an off-season car crash. He remained in a coma for almost one year before finally dying. St. Louis defenseman Bob Gassof also was victimized by severe head injuries, his being received in a motorcycle accident. A tough, dependable defenseman for the Blues in the mid-1970s, Gassof was another player who died in an off-season misadventure.

Brian Spencer was a talented hockey player but never reached his true potential, as a journeyman for Toronto, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. "Spinner" was just a rookie in 1970, when his father was tragically shot to death by the RCMP. Brian's career never took off after that, and the troubled former NHLer moved to Florida soon after his retirement; eventually acquitted of first-degree murder in a highly publicized trial, Spencer was mysteriously shot to death shortly afterwards.

Tragedy also revisited the Philadelphia Flyers in the late 1990s. Left winger Yanick Dupre played briefly for the Flyers between 1991 and 1996, but then became ill with leukemia. He died less than a year after his final NHL stint. A promising rookie defenseman from Russia, Dmitri Tertyshny earned a roster spot with Philadelphia during the 1998-99 season, but was killed during a boating accident that very summer.

How NHLers have lived and died often reflects how much these players were products of their times. Vezina, Gardiner, Hall and Morenz all died from disease or illness early in the 20th Century; it is quite possible that their lives would have been saved if they had access to the assistance which modern medicine and science routinely provide patients. Baker, Davidson, McGee, Garrett and Turner all perished fighting in struggles dictated by the politics of their times. I addition to Barilko, these early hockey greats were also victims of the inherent dangers of modern aviation.

Modern NHLers have also met fates which accurately reflect the perils of our times. Briere, Horton, Gassof, Lindbergh, Chiasson, Tertyshny and Snyder all died due to misadventure, in motor vehicle accidents. Most of these mishaps involved the use of alcohol, largely during or after an event involving at least some of the player's teammates, be it a game, team function or party. Alcohol was also an essential factor in the deaths of Sawchuk, Spencer, Kordic and Fogarty, with dangerous and illegal drugs probably playing significant roles in the latter three cases. The recent suicide of Roman Lyashenko, the only known NHL suicide, is another telltale sign of the relentless pressures facing modern pro hockey players.

A major lesson here is that several pro hockey players have historically fallen victim to the same substance abuse problems, bad decisions, and personal demons. It is not surprising, then, that many NHLers have died as a result of misadventure, often during the off-season. Late spring and summer are months when hockey players are afforded the opportunity to let their guards down and enjoy life more. They are known to have a few beers, play a few rounds of golf, and spend more time with family and friends. Some players take their leisure time to heart, living life in the fast lane, taking part in reckless, even life-endangering activities. That such players might engage in irresponsible behaviour to escape the pressures of being pro athletes does not make their actions acceptable, just more understandable. There is little doubt that modern hockey players regularly face much more stressful situations than players from previous eras, and this seems to be reflected in the recently increasing number of fatalities. Since 1997 seven of the twenty-three players profiled in this book have died - Stephane Morin, Dupre, Fogarty, Chiasson, Tertyshny, Lyashenko, and Snyder. It is interesting to note that the latter three died because of misadventure, during the off-season.

 

Brad Lombardo received his B.Ed. from the University of Toronto and his M.A. from McGill University. He has worked as a business manager, marketing consultant, account executive, admissions counselor, high school teacher and sportswriter. He has written a still to be published hockey book, and is currently penning a movie script based on his experiences as a Canadian teenager living in Spain.

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