Hockey: The World’s Fastest — and Most Dangerous — Game

A friend of mine took his son recently to a Red Wings game at the JLA; it was a bonding opportunity for the two of them.

They were fortunate to have seats just seven rows from the ice area and behind the visitor’s net for two periods. The location is ideal when the Wings are on their game offensively, when they buzz the opponent’s goal and perform those magical split-second deflection shots from the point.

I recall coming into an appreciation of the speed — and the potential violence — of NHL games when I sat at mid-ice at the old Olympia back in the days of the Original Six. To see the players moving at the velocity they do, and to see them up-ended at high speed, with razor-sharp skate blades often flashing past in head-over-heels spills, can be a sobering sight. I thought I had an accurate appreciation of those speeds, and those dangers, until I sat rinkside one night in the early ’70s and watched former Wings superstar Marcel Dionne flash up and down the ice with stunning quickness. If he wasn’t the fastest player ever to wear a Wings’ jersey, I’m not sure who might be. And the idea of someone moving at Dionne’s speed, and being involved in an accident where blades and sticks suddenly go out of control, is a scary thought.

I happened to be at the Olympia, seated near the penalty box, just over the blue line from the opponent’s net, one night in early 1966 when the Wings were playing the Chicago Blackhawks. Wings defenseman Doug Barkley, one of the biggest and best young NHL backliners of his era, corralled the puck at the Hawk’s blueline and attempted to fire it back towards the Chicago net, to keep pressure in the opponent’s end. As he bent to control it, NHL veteran Doug Mohns — one of the developers of the slapshot in the 1950s — flashed up behind Barkley and attempted to lift the Red Wing’s stick to steal the puck.

Mohn’s fully missed Barkley’s stick, a rare whiff for a player of his calibre, and his own stick shot up and struck Barkley right in the face. The big defenseman — I recall him being at least 6 feet 2′ and about 215 pounds, large for a player in those days — went down like he was shot. The accidental play was perfectly — and sickeningly — visible from our seats about five rows back from the action. I’d seen a lot of hockey accidents, from both playing and viewing the game. A lot of damage from high sticks, a lot of bloody collisions, terrible cuts resulting from errant shots of hard-rubber pucks sometimes moving at 100 m.p.h.

This time the result was bad, nearly the worst. Barkley did not get up. As was customary, his teammates clustered around him, bringing white towels for blood control. But the ghastly truth wasn’t an awful cut or broken nose — Barkley had had his eye gouged by Mohns’ stick, and in that instant a promising NHL career came to a sickening halt, and Doug Barkley’s life had been changed forever. He had to be fitted with a glass eye, his hockey days forever gone. The shocking result was all over the morning paper the following day.

The awful Barkley incident was an accident worth remembering, especially when you see the speed and violence of professional hockey at close range. I’ve often thought it near-miraculous that truly severe hockey accidents so seldom occur. Certainly today’s equipment has helped the situation; with shielded helmets providing particular new protection — maybe even leading to over-confidence — for the players. Those improvements have changed the character and style of play. Things used to be much more, well … “elemental.”

I first attended a Red Wings game in 1957. It was St. Patrick’s night, to be exact, and the glorious Wings of Howe-Lindsay-Kelly were tangling with the legendary Montreal Canadiens of Richard-Beliveau-Harvey for first place in the NHL.

It was a magical night. My father and brother and I sat two … yup TWO … rows from the ice, in folding chairs at a corner near the Red Wings’ net, with young Glenn Hall between the pipes. The game not only seemed this close back then … it WAS that intimate an experience with the old chicken-wire walls separating the fans from the action on the ice. It wasn’t much separation. When the players flew backwards into that netting, it bulged out and over those of us at ringside. You could hear the grunts and groans of the players — AND the profanities, some uttered in French-Canadian — and often it seemed as though the guys were about to land right in your lap.

I was ten years old at the time, and my first Red Wings experience occured the same week that Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a cool full-uniform locker room pose. Early in the game, with the then-Production Line of Howe, Lindsay and center Dutch Reibel on the ice for the Wings, there was a dust-up in our end, right in front of us in fact … and Howe’s huge red and white jersey, with the big white number 9 bulging into the chicken wire, filled the space directly above me. Rocket Richard was shoving Howe into the netting. I couldn’t help myself. What the hell, I was ten.

As the players swore and shoved, and grabbed pieces of each other in such close proximity … I suddenly yelled — in a high-soprano shriek — “Hey Gordie!” I mean, come on, it was Gordie Howe … bigger than life, right there in front of me. My falsetto shout was surely lost in the din of the action in front of us. But I felt a tap on my leg. And I looked quickly over to see my big brother flash me a sober look, and make a quick and short shake of his head. His message was obvious. Don’t do that; it ain’t cool.

Well, those were innocent days. Times before I had any idea how nasty the game of hockey could turn without a second’s warning. Over the decades the Red Wings have, bizarrely, lost a total of three very promising defensemen to life-altering accidents on and off the ice. I was there to see one of them go down. I hope I do not witness the like again.