Hockey Central

Life in the Dressing Room

One of Hockey's Most Astute Observers on the Game's Inner Sanctum

A very small percentage of the world's population ever visits, let alone uses, a dressing room. Actors and actresses use a dressing room to change into a particular character. Athletic teams use a dressing room to change into a uniform. The room itself has no character and no personality until you add players, a training staff and a coach. Then it becomes a team's inner sanctum. Players come together. Strategies are plotted. Differences are resolved. When things are going well, there can be no place you'd rather be. When they are not, you would rather be any place else.

As a youngster, one might use a change room to put on or remove the appropriate equipment before or after your games or practices. When the day's activity is done the young players heads home, carrying his or her gear. For several years, I carried my hockey equipment from home and boarded a streetcar that would take me to the Ravina Gardens, Varsity Arena, Icelandia or the Royals — the four indoor arenas that serviced Toronto's youth hockey community. Once you arrived at the arena, you were directed to a dressing room. After the game you reversed the procedure. This all took place during the 1940s before the city sprawled into the distant reaches of suburbia.

During the winter months many minor hockey games still were played outdoors, and in my case outdoor games were played at Withrow Park in Toronto's Riverdale neighborhood. For outdoor games I usually would change into my hockey equipment in the family living room, walk to the park carrying my stick and skates, and use the change room there to put on my skates. And then one day, it happened! Not only did I make the Junior B Weston Dukes, but — just as importantly — I was given my own spot in a permanent dressing room. At this particular magic moment, I no longer was responsible for transporting my equipment to and from the arena. That responsibility was assumed by a trainer. I no longer had to buy my own sticks, skates or any other hockey gear. After a practice or a game, I hung up my equipment and left the dressing room with both arms empty.

After playing our home games for two years at the Weston Arena, I then moved into a new dressing room in the northeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens when I became a member of the Toronto Marlboros. (That particular room was used as a lounge by Leafs wives and girlfriends.) Three years later, in 1955, I turned professional. This time I only had to move about 30 yards south to my new dressing room, which had housed the Toronto Maple Leafs since 1931. I had visited the Leafs dressing room nine years before as a 10-year-old on March 2, 1946. My uncle had won a "guess-the-score" contest and, as a result, I was able to attend a Leafs home game as a guest of Ed Fitkin, who was sports director for radio station CHUM and would later become public relations director for the Leafs. Mr. Fitkin picked me up at my house on Sparkill Avenue and then we watched the Leafs defeat Chicago 9-4. After the game I was taken into the dressing room. The players were all in a hurry. They were adjusting ties and they all wore fedoras. And then the dressing room was empty. The equipment had been packed in trunks and was on its way to Union Station. The players were heading to the station to catch a train for an out-of-town Sunday game. Almost 10 years later, on Saturday, October 8, 1955, the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room became my dressing room.

The entrance to the Maple Leafs dressing room has been in exactly the same location since 1931. However, the interior has gone through many changes over the years. In 1955, once inside the door you would pass the entrance to a long narrow storage room on your right and then a left turn brought you into view of the main dressing room area. The room, almost square, had a wooden floor and the players' benches extended along the east and west walls. To the left there was a small medical room and in the far corners there were the washrooms and showers. There was also a stick rack with about 20 slots holding each player's sticks. Directly opposite the stick rack was a similar, smaller structure with 20 slots that served as out mail boxes. Overhead, above the players' bench on the east wall, were plaques depicting the names, management, wins, and losses of each Leafs team since 1931. On the north wall just outside the medical rooms was a plaque with the names of Leafs who had made all-star teams and another one with the players who had won individual awards. These historic plaques gave this otherwise very plain room its character.

This was our room for 35 games, practices and playoffs. For the other 35 games of our schedule we used the visitors room seven times a year in Montreal, Chicago, Boston, New York and Detroit. These five dressing rooms on the road were the epitome of "no frills." The visitors' room at the "G-aa-den" in Boston and at the Olympia in Detroit were both quite small. In Boston, the dressing room was not only small and antiquated but also frequented by rodents. It carried a putrid odor when the circus came to town. The small dressing room in Detroit was both adjacent to and separated from the ice by a spectator lobby. The visitors room on the north side of the old Madison Square Garden was large and spacious. At the Stadium in Chicago, the dressing room was adequate but we had to climb 13 steps four times per game to get to ice level. The Montreal Forum had the nicest visitors dressing room and it was just a few steps from the ice surface. Thirty-five times a year we entered these bare rooms just prior to a game. Within a half-hour after the game, the room was naked once again.

As a player, you share the room with your teammates. As a coach, the room becomes "yours." As a player, you listened. As a coach, you urged, lectured, badgered, pleaded, cajoled — whatever was necessary to arouse the athlete. The coach controls the dressing room, decides the time of meetings, decides when and if the media may enter, outlines his strategy, and by doing these things the dressing room reflects his personality. In my first four years with the Leafs, the dressing room's personality changed annually. Between 1955 and 1958 we had four different coaches, starting with King Clancy and followed by Howie Meeker, Billy Reay and then Punch Imlach. I can remember just after Imlach became coach. Stafford Smythe made a rare appearance in the dressing room and told us that if we didn't start making some progress and start winning some games he would have no alternative except to trade players instead of replacing coaches.

I would describe the dressing room atmosphere on game nights from 1955 to 1965 as rather serious. There were always rumors that the coach had a couple of one-way train tickets direct to the minors for those who didn't take their jobs seriously. We had talented veterans like George Armstrong, Red Kelly, Ron Stewart, Bert Olmstead, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton and Allan Stanley, and was also had some mature young players. In those years each player negotiated his own contract in September. At age 20, you had the responsibility of haggling with a more experienced general manager over your salary and bonus clauses (both personal and team). Each year you negotiated one contract while the g.m. handled 35 such discussions and each year you tried not to repeat the negotiating errors you realized you made the year before. There were no agents, and, as a player making major decisions on your own behalf, you became wise rather quickly. This is not to say that players didn't have fun before or after practice and that a lot of clowning around didn't take place. We seemed to have more fun when the team was playing well.

On a typical game day at Maple Leafs Gardens during the 1950s and 1960s, players would start arriving in the dressing room shortly after 10 a.m. The team meeting would begin at 11 o'clock and prior to its start, each player had two major responsibilities. The first was to go for a brief skate on the ice to make sure that your skates had been sharpened properly. The dress code was skates, suit or slacks and a blazer, plus shirt and tie.

The second responsibility was to "doctor" up at least three sticks and have them ready for game condition. The team meeting would just be a formality, discussing the visiting team's strengths and weaknesses and reviewing our own responsibilities. The only thing we would do on game day was look after our tickets.

Good team chemistry seems to be a prerequisite for on-ice success. In the dressing room, which can become a refuge from the outside world, each player did his own thing. Bower, Pulford and Armstrong would head to the washroom for a cigarette; Olmstead would whittle away on his stick with his Swiss army knife; Eddie Shack, restless, would wander in and out of the medical room; Horton and Kelly would fall asleep. And then it would be time to exit through our dressing room door. Bower would lead us out to the ice where we would perform in front of 15,000 spectators and perhaps two million more on TV.

After most games, there was an entourage of visitors into our dressing room. They usually could be classified as well-wishers, hand-shakers or autograph-seekers. However, after one game, I can recall that we had only one visitor. In April of 1963 and April of 1964 we won the Stanley Cup, but in between — on January 18, 1964 — the last-place Boston Bruins came to town and beat us 11-0. After the game, the dressing room was like a morgue. Then, perhaps the best hockey fan the Leafs ever had became the only visitor to enter the room. The late Wilf Snowden operated the special time clocks that kept track of individual player's ice time. He sauntered through the dressing room, sat down between Bobby Baun and myself and uttered, "those lucky buggers." I could hardly contain myself and responded: "Wilf, how can you call them lucky? They beat us 11-0."

You hear many stories about dressing room characters, "Shackie" hadn't become one yet — Ed feared Imlach and became a very desirable tension-breaking character and was in demand, moving from Toronto to Los Angeles to Boston to Pittsburgh, and then back to Imlach in Buffalo. But my favorite story about a character in the dressing room involves Peter Mahovlich. The Montreal team was exhausted and resting prior to a Stanley Cup sudden-death overtime period and "not a creature was stirring." Peter quietly asked his reserve goalkeeper Ken Dryden, "do you have any nude pictures of your wife?" Ken, a little embarrassed, replied: "Of course not." Then Peter asked, "do you want to buy some?" Minutes later, Montreal scored to win another playoff game.

Nowhere else during my playing and coaching career did I ever experience the comfort and closeness I felt in the Maple Leafs dressing room. This is because I never spent as long a period in any other dressing room. As a coach for 12 years after my playing career, I never had a feeling of permeance — probably because I never spent more than three years as coach of the same team. That happened with the Laurentian Voyageurs, who played their home games at Sudbury's town arena. There, the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey Association were the top team and, as a result, we used the visitors dressing room for three years. For the next three years, I coached in the World Hockey Association and in each of those years we were the number-two tenant. In year one, we were the Ontario Nationals and played at the Ottawa Civic Centre. We did have a very comfortable dressing room though, as we played second fiddle to the junior Ottawa 67's. The next year, the Nationals became the Toronto Toros. We practiced at George Bell Arena in Toronto's west end and used the visitors dressing room. We played our games at Varsity Arena, where we were now second fiddle behind the University of Toronto Varsity Blues. Even though all are home games were at Varsity, not once did we practice there. The following season the Toros moved to a new location, but with home games now at Maple Leaf Gardens I don't have to tell you who the top tenant was. I was involved in designing the Toros dressing room in the northwest corner of the Gardens. The old Toros room used to house the visiting NHL teams.

During my three years as a coach in Europe I really experienced the life of the gypsy. In 1971, I moved to Stockholm in September and coached the Swedish national team. I met the players on a Thursday. Friday we flew to Kosice, Czechoslovakia. Saturday we began an eight-day training camp. After returning to Sweden, the players reported to their respective elite teams in the Swedish League. For the next two months I scouted the league and it was my responsibility to select the 18 best players to represent Sweden at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.

I visited a lot of dressing rooms during this time but did not have my own. For our training period in Sapporo, we did not have a permanent dressing room and our games were played at different venues. We played Finland for the silver medal at nine o'clock in the morning. The group that really earned their keep during this time was the training staff, who were constantly packing and unpacking.

When I coached the Italian national team for two years, the feeling of impermanency continued. Once again it was my job to scout te elite first division teams and select an all-star squad that would become the national team that represent Italy at the IIHF's C Pool World Championships. Only two of the elite teams played under a roof — the other 10 played on outdoor surfaces. The Italian coaching experience was very challenging, especially in the dressing room. The national team was composed of 10 Italian players and 10 players of German ancestry. The Italians, naturally, communicated in Italian and the Germans in German. Very few players spoke or understood much English, though some could converse in French. For two years I coached through an interpreter.

I can remember just prior to the C Pool gold medal game in Copenhagen against Denmark that I purposely kept my pep talk very brief, just emphasizing one major offensive tactic and one defensive tactic. My pregame speech lasted about 25 seconds, then my interpreter, Juliano, had to tell the players in their language just what I had said. He spoke for five minutes. When I asked him what he said, he told me that he knew I had forgotten a few things that he thought they should be reminded of. To this day I do not know the content of his translation. Language had not presented a serious problem for me in Sweden because most players there had learned English as a second language in school. But there was one exception — Borje Salming. Borje had been born and raised in northern Sweden, just south of Lapland, and spoke only Swedish.

Late in my coaching career I was with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL. Several players were high school students and we would practice and have team meetings after school hours. On several occasions I would have one of the dozen meddling owners phone me at home prior to supper, questioning some of the comments I had made a few hours earlier. The team trainer was a human tape recorder. There is a strong belief in the sporting fraternity that things said and done in a dressing room should be strictly "off the record." I do not necessarily find this totally true, but I do believe that all players should use discretion when discussing dressing room events.

In the modern parlance, hockey players refer to their inner sanctum simply as "the room." Character players and team leaders are said to be "good in the room." On reflection, the only room that has provided real memories for me — mostly pleasant — was the one at Maple Leaf Gardens. All the others I visited as a player and a coach appear as a blur on my mental computer. The last memorable occasion in my room took place on April 25, 1964. We had defeated Detroit 4-0 in game seven to win our third consecutive Stanley Cup title. For some reason, I was in no hurry to leave the room (not knowing at the time that I never would again be in there for a playoff game). I hadn't played much during the series, but because of injuries Imlach was forced to use me on left wing with Dave Keon and George Armstrong for games six and seven. In those games I was +4 — not bad for a "weak defensive player." I was busy taking photos and socializing with teammates, experiencing a combined feeling of total exhaustion and total satisfaction. The next thing I knew, the room was empty and the Stanley Cup was sitting by itself on a small white table. I was surrounded by the plaques with the names of former Leafs — Clancy, Conacher, Primeau, Apps, Schriner, Kennedy, Broda, Klukay, Bentley, Barilko .... I was alone but enjoying the company. I left the dressing room and carried the Stanley Cup over to the Westbury Hotel, where Bobby Baun was hosting a party.

I was traded to Detroit in May of 1965. Twenty-six years later, I returned to my dressing room for the first time. The Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni were playing an oldtimers' game against the Montreal Alumni. It was March of 1991. As Leaf alumni, we were assigned the Maple Leafs dressing room to change. I felt like an intruder or a trespasser. My room was somebody else's now.