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Sermon from the Rock

Alex Faulkner and Newfoundland Hockey

If a Stanley Cup contender was searching for a skilled and confident center in the early 1960s, then the island of Newfoundland was probably one of the very last places it would have looked. There were good reasons for this: The province had no professional or major junior hockey teams; it had a small population, well under half a million; it was far away, unknown and unscouted—heck, it didn't even join the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association until 1965. But the most compelling reason may have been this: No Newfoundlander had played in the NHL. Ever.

Sure, Hall of Famer Moose Watson was born in St. John's (the island's capital), but this was in 1898—and he played his whole career in the senior league in Ontario. So, yeah, there were plenty of reasons why Alex Faulkner shouldn't have been a Detroit Red Wing. But he was.

The simple fact that he was the first Newfoundlander to break NHL ice guaranteed Alex a special place in his fellow islanders' hearts. Still, that alone doesn't start to explain the near reverence, the misty nostalgia "the blond bomber" conjures up even today. You see, Alex became—and not by his own choice—something like a socioploitical symbol.

When Premier Joey Smallwood guided Newfoundland into the Dominion of Canada in 1949, he did so largely by perpetrating the myth that it was too poor, sick and needy to stand on its own, which was partly responsible for the low esteem mainland Canadians would accord their new fellow countrymen. Faulkner's sudden ascent as a playoffs hero with Detroit in 1963 gave his people a much-needed burst of defiant pride. Finally, one of "our boys" had proved everyone wrong, had set every Newfie joke back on its ear.

The Faulkner story isn't just about one man, though. It's about two. In fact, it's about a whole family. Alex's older brother George was actually the first Newfoundlander to play professionally; younger brother Jack was the third to turn pro; the other two, Lindy and Seth, distinguished themselves in provincial senior hockey even though Seth had to stop early because of a badly broken leg.

The clan originated in Bishop's Falls, a small logging town in central Newfoundland where the boys were out playing shinny as soon as the ponds and the nearby Exploits River froze over in winter. George Faulkner recalls that their father would clear the ice on the river at night, then wake his sons before school the next day so they could get out for an early game. Local carpenters made them wooden goals; burlap sacks functioned as netting. "We used whatever we could get" as a puck, George remembers, but it was usually a thin slice of birch, skittish and hard to control.

These games may have been little but free-for-alls, but George believes they were crucial.

"We didn't know what we were doing; we didn't know the fundamentals. But we were out there doing them, especially skating and stickhandling. When you got the puck, you liked to keep it."

Moreover, with goalies who didn't wear pads, the boys rarely took shots. Playing a game of possession, they learned offense naturally.

Alex became a young star thanks to outstanding offensive skills—he could do everything well and with great intensity—and his first hint of big-league potential came in the late 1950s when the Boston Bruins came to the province to play exhibitions, including one against the young player's club in Grand Falls:

"We were waiting for the face-off, and Cal Gardner asked me. 'Have you ever considered going to the mainland?' I had no idea how I looked playing hockey, and I had no aspirations of playing [professionally]. Playing in the NHL was not something I grew up dreaming about because the dream was too far-fetched."

Still, if Alex needed proof you could go to the mainland and succeed, he didn't have to look far past George, who had gone to a junior tryout with the Quebec Citadelles in 1951 as the result of some luck and a break. Citadelles owner Frank Byrne had a brother who coached senior hockey in Grand Falls. Joe Byrne arranged for George and three other Newfoundland was to attend Quebec's training camp and George earned a place at center on the Junior B squad. He stayed home for the next year to work (in a pulp and paper mill), but he went back to play Junior A for the Citadelles in 1953, this time on left wing. The Quebec Frontenacs bought and merged with the Citadelles during the season, and the revamped Frontenacs stormed to the provincial league title.

George subsequently signed a B-form with the New York Rangers (which meant he had an automatic invitation to their training camp in 1954) but Montreal decided he was too good to play for a rival and obtained his rights. He attended three straight training camps with the Canadiens from 1954 to 1956, only to be denied a spot every time by the team's tremendous depth. And he wasn't the first Newfoundlander to reach that point: Copper Leyte (who played junior with Jean Beliveau) also attended three Montreal camps in the early 1950s. But, unlike Leyte, George turned pro with the Shawinigan Falls Cataracts, Montreal's affiliate in the Quebec Hockey League, and played there from 1954-55 to 1957-58.

He probably would have made the Rangers—a losing team—but George hardours no bitterness: "I didn't let it bother me. If they weren't going to deal me. so what? I had my four years [in the QHL]. I didn't regret anything. Being with the Canadiens and the success they had, it was pretty hard to break into that."

Still, he had some close calls. In the 1955-56 season, Montreal's Dickie Moore cracked a bone in his wrist. Instead of calling up George, another left wing, the team called up right winger Claude Provost (who had played for the Jr. Canadiens). And he stayed—for 1,005 games and nine Stanley championships. "I get tormented once in a while about it," admits Alex. "Why call up Provost, who wasn't a left winger?" Still, George is a more placid soul than this brother and says he understands the decision.

George actually had another chance that season but of a different kind: "When Dick Irvin Sr. left Montreal and went to Chicago to coach in 1955, he wanted to take a whole line—me, Claude Provost and Connie Broden—but the Canadiens wouldn't let us go. They called us the kid Line. We were pretty good, quick and fast."

His career in Shawinigan was hardly a lose, though. The Cataracts won the league title in his rookie season as George shone in the spotlight, recording seven goals and five assists in 13 playoff matches. Then Shawinigan faced off against the Edmonton Flyers—Western Hockey League champs—for the Edinburgh Trophy. George's squad defeated Glenn Hall, Johnny Bucyk, Norm Ullman and the rest of a talent-heavy team in six intense games. One highlight for George was a two-goal game against Hall. "[The championship] was a big thing for me. I was the first Newfoundlander to turn pro. I was doing what I liked to do and doing fairly well."

The Canadiens organization molded George into a superbly fit two-way player. "George was the best all-around player who ever played hockey in Newfoundland," states Alex, repeating a view that is widely held by the province's hockey fans. "He could play any position. I often said jokingly that I'd like to put a set of pads on him for just one game. He probably would have had a shutout." Don Johnson, former president of the Newfoundland Amateur Hockey Association and the CAHA, remembers him as a great skater. "If he had to jump three steps sideways and two backwards, George was the best in the business."

George returned home in 1958 and accepted a post as athletic director in Harbour Grace, a small town in Conception Bay. With strong financial backing from future premier Frank Moores, he formed the most famous team in the province's hockey history to date, the Conception Bay All-Stars, who immediately became known as the CeeBees. Alex and Lindy came on board in year one and George moved to defense so he could get a better view (he was the playing coach). In the next 10 years, the high-scoring CeeBees made it to nine provincial finals and won four titles. Fate intervened for George again in 1965. At a coaching clinic in New Brunswick, he was spotted in a pickup game by Father David Bauer, manager of Canada's national team. He wanted George to join up. George consulted with Moores, who told him, "You gotta go," and he stayed with the Nationals through the 1966 world Championships in Yugoslavia.

Though they wasn't as talented as the top European clubs, the Canadians were still undefeated in the tournament as they entered their third-last game against the Czechs, which they lost 2-1 when Czechoslovakia scored in the last minute. The referee disallowed two Canadian goals—one for no apparent reason except that the goal judge hadn't turned the light on, the other on a dubious penalty call—and hit Canada with 11 of the game's 15 penalties. Afterwards, the furious Canadians voted to go home but then changed their minds out of respect for Bauer. "It's time we quit the farce and play our own hockey," fumed coach Jack McLeod.

Canada lost its next game 3-0 to the USSR before beating Sweden to finish third and claim the bronze medal. With six markers, George led the team in goal-scoring at the tournament. Since he had not voted to go home after the Czech debacle, he was "very happy and very pleased about [the medal]." Once more he had gone where no Newfoundlander had gone before.

By creating the CeeBees—and recruiting Alex—George indirectly paved the way for the start of his brother's career in the pros. In late 1960, the CeeBees played an exhibition match against a St. John's senior team coached by ex-Maple Leaf Howie Meeker. Alex performed brilliantly, as usual—the previous season, the St. John's Evening Telegram reported that he had scored over 100 goals in exhibitions—but he didn't know he had a special observer. King Clancy, then Toronto's assistant manager, was visiting his old buddy Howie and promptly had a team representative call the Faulkners. The Leafs wanted both Alex and George, but the latter wasn't interested in leaving the province again. Alex flew to Toronto alone to practice with the Leafs.

So nervous before the flight that he couldn't eat anything but a couple of soft-boiled eggs, Alex was soon put at ease by the Leafs: "You have never seen a finer bunch of gentlemen on one team than what was on that Maple Leaf teams," he recalls with obvious respect. "They were fantastic to me. The first guy I ever skated with in practice was Red Kelly. He said to me, 'Don't ever let the opposition think that they're any better than you are.' Afterwards, I had a chat with [coach and g.m.] Punch Imlach, and he said, 'If you spend a year and a half in the American Hockey League, my bet is that you can play up here.'"

Toronto gave him a five-game tryout with Rochester in the American Hockey League and he signed a contract after his third game, in January 1961. With three centers ahead of him on the depth chart, he spent more time practicing than playing that season, but he needed it—the schedule was far longer and the pace a lot faster than in Newfoundland hockey. He laughs as he recounts that when his coach blew the whistle in practice to indicate that they all should slow down, he had to skate full steam ahead to keep up.

By his second season, the bomber was ready to explode. He earned a regular shift, and only a late-season injury — John Ferguson broke his nose in a surprise attack — prevented him from setting a team record for assists. He also played his first game with the Leafs in November but rarely saw the ice.

Then, in the summer of 1962, Toronto didn't keep him on its protected list and Detroit bought him. "I was more than happy about that, because Toronto had Dave Keon, Red Kelly, Bob Pulford and Billy Harris as their centers. I wasn't going to beat any of them." Detroit's top two centers (Alex Delvecchio and Norm Ullman) were more than good themselves, but Alex was impressive enough to make the third line. Alex played regularly in 1962-63 with Larry Jeffery and Bruce McGregor.

His game was toughened up again by this level of play. Alex recalls Gordie Howie, for example, who was notorious for his take-no-prisoners attitude. One day, the Wings played an exhibition against their AHL affiliate, Pittsburgh, and Alex's line dressed for the AHLers: "Gordie was going around his net with the puck, and I came up behind him, raised his stick and took the puck. He immediately stopped and knocked me down. When I fell, his stick was close to my head, and he took a knock at it, cutting me. When we were going on the bus afterwards, he grabbed my head and twisted it so he could see my cut. 'How many (stitches) did I get you for?' he said. 'Just three,' I said. With a grin, he said, 'Shucks, I thought I had you for more than that.'" In the playoffs, Andre Pronovost replaced Larry Jeffery on Alex's line, and almost any Newfoundlander over 40 can tell you what happened during those 11 games; unlike George's triumphs, virtually everyone could watch them on television. Alex scored three goals against Chicago's Glenn Hall (who might have been suffering from bad memories of George in 1955) in the six-game semifinals and two of them were game-winners, including the clincher in game six. Then he scored two goals in the finals against Toronto, one of which won game three in Detroit's only win in the series.

The irony is that Alex's line was a checking unit. Fast skaters with relentless styles, their job was to force turnovers. He recalls that Chicago scored one goal against his line; Toronto couldn't do it while he was on the ice.

When he came home that summer, Newfoundland proclaimed Alex Faulkner Day as a special holiday: "It was huge. I was scared to death. It was too big for me to handle. It didn't fit my personality, being this big celebrity. I was just playing hockey. But I've often said that it wouldn't have mattered who that first Newfoundlander was, the same thing would have happened. Looking back at it now, it was a fantastic time. We had a parade in central Newfoundland that went for miles and miles. In St. John's, they closed the schools and we had a ticker-tape parade downtown. We did the same thing in Conception Bay."

Premier Smallwood presented him with gold cufflinks; his wife received a gold locket.

The next season (1963-64) quickly brought Alex back down to earth. He broke his hand after nine games, missed six weeks, played three games, then destroyed his ankle ligaments. "Larry Jeffery speared me accidentally in practice. I never could push off with that foot until the next year." He tried to play during the playoffs, but he wasn't effective. Detroit lost an agonizing seven-game final to Toronto.

No Newfoundlander has come as close to winning the Stanley Cup since.

Detroit wanted him to start 1964-65 in Pittsburgh, but Alex wasn't interested in the rigors of minor-league travel that kept him away from home for long periods and he went back to the CeeBees for two years. He thought that a new team might want him when the NHL's expansion plans were announced, so he agreed to play for Detroit's Central Hockey League affiliate in Memphis. He had a remarkable season, losing the scoring title by only two points—and he claims the official scorers missed four—yet he wasn't drafted by any expansion club, "which is a mystery we didn't understand then or now."

Alex finished his career in the pro with three fine seasons in San Diego (the Red Wings' Western League team). He had recommended his brother Jack to the Wings and the younger Faulkner made the San Diego roster for two years, one with Alex. "I had great years out there," Alex says. "All the travel was by train and it was run just as professionally as the National League. I made more money than I had in the NHL." With bonuses, his NHL salary had never exceeded $14,500 a year.

At 5'9" and 160 pounds, Alex was hardly a giant, but he played fearlessly—"I could always play to the best of my ability, regardless of where it was and who it was against"—while avoiding confrontations. Once, in a WHL game against Portland, he flattened notorious fighter Mad Dog Madigan with a check. Furious, Madigan was looking for a brawl. Alex's response? "You know I'm not fool enough to fight you. But the next time you're in the corner with the puck, I'll be in there after it."

Both George and Alex remained so devoted to hockey that they continued to play as the senior level in Newfoundland into their 40s. They competed successfully in many oldtimers' events, most notably winning gold medals at tournaments in Denmark (1978) and Florida (1979) with Jack. Now in his early 40s, Alex plays in two Bishop's Falls leagues and tries to attend at least one oldtimers' hockey tournament a year: "I still look forward to it, but the grind is starting to wans a little bit. Sometimes in the middle of winter, when there's a snowstorm on, you think twice about going. But I always go and always feel better about going."

Aware that his legend in Newfoundland is even bigger now than it was during his career, Alex keeps a humorous slant on it: "I know without question that I was never as good as most Newfoundlanders think I was. But, what odds, let 'em think it."

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