The Birth of the Slapshot

I posted a piece here recently about local hockey history, and it prompted an odd question from a friend of mine.

Actually, it wasn’t a question from a friend. It was from my wife. Which is not to say that my wife isn’t a friend; she is. In fact, she’s my editor. But not a hockey buddy in any sense of the term. Because here was her question:

“What’s a slapshot?”

That goofy query — sorry, wife — was prompted by the earlier offering in which I’d posited that oldtime NHL star Doug Mohns, who once played for Boston and Chicago, though not at the same time, was “one of the developers of the slapshot in the 1950s.” And “what’s a slapshot?” is the type of question a wife is liable to ask.

Now first off, I’m not sure that slapshot should be spelled slapshot or slap shot. Because I looked it up in the dictionary … and it ain’t there. In either form. There’s slap and tickle (don’t ask), slap bang, slapdash, slaphead, slapjack, slapper (don’t ask, again) and the hyphenated slap-up. But no slapshot, or even slap shot, which surprises me. After all, it seems a common sports term, and there was even a movie of that title with Paul Newman, no less. But I guess the linguists at the Concise Oxford don’t get around too many hockey rinks these days.

Or even, apparently, back in Mohns’ heyday. Now, a lot of people think the slapshot came into prominence in the late 1950s with the ascent of Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion as a star Montreal Canadiens forward. Geoffrion allegedly got his nickname from the sound his slapped shots (there’s some new terminology) made along the boards during Habs’ practices at the old Montreal Forum.

But I’m here to tell you that it was Mohns who ought to get the lion’s share of the credit. Because along the hockey rink that was at the intersection of Bradford and Sauer, just above East Six Mile Road, in Detroit in the 1950s, the slapshot developed among our neighborhood hockey players at about the same rate it came into prominence in the “Original Six” NHL … meaning awfully slowly.

We didn’t get to see a lot of National Hockey League action in the old days, just an occasional Red Wings third period (that’s all they used to broadcast for a while in the mid-50s) or a full Detroit game during the playoff season, and then “Hockey Night In Canada” on Channel 9. What REALLY opened up the NHL to our prying eyes in those days was a special network series — can’t recall if it was on NBC or CBS — that brought us a nationally televised NHL game every Saturday for a while in the deep winter months of, oh, maybe 1956 to 1958. It didn’t last long, but it was so cool.

We watched those games religiously, tearing off our jackets and galoshes, throwing down our sticks and shin pads for a couple hours to take in the action. The host was a handsome dude named Bud Palmer, who was an energetic advocate of hockey. The neatest thing about the games was that our Red Wings were commonly featured on the national Saturday telecasts, since the Wings then were easily the most successful American franchise. Back in those days, Boston, New York, and Chicago didn’t know a puck from an over-easy egg. The NHL powers were the Red Wings and the Canadiens, period, and our Ted Lindsay-led team was all over those Saturday national broadcasts like a bad smell.

It was during those games that we saw the birth and development of the slap shot … as evidenced by Boston’s then-defenseman Mohns. (He later played forward for Chicago.) Bud Palmer used to tell us that Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion was, yes, also working on making the thunderous slapper — it’s a hard shot involving a high rotation and vicious swing of one’s hockey stick, wifey — a staple of the game. Slapshots were slow in coming, and rare in those early days. The NHL was a league of great skating and passing, with precision wrist shots leading the way. Nobody ever knew where a slapshot was headed, especially the goalies. So it was a rare weapon.

And that was the way we played it in the streets of Detroit. We didn’t have ice rinks, we had icy city streets in the days before salt trucks came to the neighborhoods. The “rink” at Bradford and Sauer stayed snow-covered and slick from January into March each year. We didn’t play in skates, but boots (okay, “galoshes” if you want to use that dreadful name) and in four or five jackets with scarves around our faces to protect against the worst midwest winds. Since we couldn’t move at speed, like our Bud-Palmered TV counterparts, we could stick-handle and pass like demons … since all our work had to be done at slow, if any, speed. And at that slow pace, trying slapshots was next to impossible. Plus, if you hit the freezing goalie, he might get cheesed and go home and the game would be over.

Ice blocks were the two “goal posts.” Concrete curbs walled our field of play; pucks flying over the curbs were out of bounds and brought a stoppage in the action. Our games always had to stop when a car approached … often smashing our goal posts as it exited the area. “Hey thanks a million, mister!”

But even then, on our city street rink as in the NHL, the slapshot was slow to develop in the 1950s. Mohns, it appeared to us, got it started, and Geoffrion helped it along. Bobby Hull did things with it in the 1960s that were almost obscene — just ask then-Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier, who was nearly beheaded by slappers from wickedly curved sticks by Chicago’s Golden Jet. But that was way in the future. Everything was slower, safer, more skilled and under control, in our prime and that of the NHL.

And so, Concise Oxford or not, the statement stands: “Doug Mohns was one of the developers of the slapshot in the 1950s.” Trust me. I was there.

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