When hockey rode the rails
They went by names like "The 20th Century Limited" and "The Owl." They are signposts of an era that cannot be reprised in today's day and age.
No, they are not the nicknames of past players or line combinations, but rather the names of the trains used by NHL teams in the days when clubs traveled via railroad.
Before expansion in 1967, it was both possible and practical for NHL clubs to journey by rail from one game to another. The trips were short enough, with the hop from New York to Chicago the longest journey, an 18-hour trek.
Now, with 30 teams and an 82-game schedule, it is all but impossible for a club's travel plans to include using railroads. Time constraints simply don't permit it. But for the men who took part in the six-team NHL of decades past, the years of traveling by train are pleasant memories. And while the rides were relatively short, they certainly were long enough to breed some creative behavior.
"The all-time greatest was when Ralph Backstrom got a new suit," recalls John Ferguson, the great Montreal Canadien forward who was no stranger to life on the rails during his seven seasons in Montreal. "Ralph was dozing with his shoes on, so the time was right for a hot foot. I think it was the first time Ralph ever wore the suit. Claude Provost snuck up on him and gave him the hot foot. Well, doesn't the flame ignite the cuff of his pants! Ralph had knee-high socks on, so it burned right up his pant leg. Did he let out a scream! It ruined the whole suit.."
As with today's plane travel, falling asleep on a train often meant damage to a player's wardrobe, as defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot discovered during another train trip with the Canadiens.
"Jean-Guy was wearing a white suit with white buck shoes," Ferguson recalls. "He fell asleep, so we stole his shoes and autographed them. There were always hijinks, always something going on. Some of the craziest things happened on the train. The initiation of the Montreal rookies always took place on the train – always."
For passing the time, all NHL clubs had similar hobbies. While Ferguson may remember Jean Beliveau, the stately team captain, always with a book in hand when boarding a train, for the rest of the squads around the Leaqgue, the decks of cards came out. Different games, but always cards.
"There was always a game of gin or bridge going on," Ferguson said. "It always seemed to be the Super Bowl of gin during the trips.
"Henri Richard, Claude Provost and Jean-Guy Talbot were the bridge guys. The gin players were myself, Ralph Backstrom, Gump Worsley and Bugsy Watson. We weren't allowed to gamble, so there was no poker. During one train trip in a snowstorm, I remember playing gin for 27 straight hours.
The Detroit Red Wings were no different than the Canadiens when it came to passing the time.
"Bridge was our game," recalls former Red Wing and longtime NHL executive Max McNab. "Four players would start out with a game in September and you paid up in March. You kept a running score for the whole year. The next season it would be hearts. Jack Adams didn't approve of poker. I'll tell you the bridge games got intense. Ted Lindsay was the same at cards as he was on the ice. He was no joy to play with."
Ferguson believes traveling by train helped foster greater camaraderie among the players, even if it did cost the occasional piece of clothing. McNab also remembers train travel as a time for camaraderie, learning and lots of shaving cream as a member of the Red Wings in the late 1940s.
"When I came up as a rookie, I learned so much on the train," McNab said. "After a game, the players would congregate in the smoking car. There was an area where the players cleaned up and shaved and there were a lot of mirrors. I remember players diagramming plays on the mirrors with soap, pointing out where they were when a goal was scored.
"You learned more at these discussions than you can imagine," McNab said. "If you had a question, you talked to the vets. It was quite a learning experience. At the rink, everyone was busy, so this was the time to analyze a win or a loss. It also fostered more togetherness on the team.
"Now, we are so advanced in our advance scouting," McNab said. "In those days, you didn't have videotape and you didn't have to do as much pre-scouting because you played the same team so many times. You knew what you were up against."
Muzz Patrick is another man who spent many hours on the ice and aboard trains. Patrick played for the New York Rangers from 1937 through 1941 before returning for one additional season after World War II. He also served as the Rangers' coach in the mid-1950s and was the club's general manager from the 1955-56 season until the 1962-63 campaign.