My brother, Gus (as we call him in the clan), was born on April 21, 1951 — the night that Bill Barilko scored a goal in overtime to win the Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In those days, fathers did not go into delivery rooms but they were expected to pace the waiting room. Our father, James Bernard Scanlan, was not at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston for Gus’s birth: he was at that game in Toronto.
In the years to follow, J.B. would make a point on Gus’s birthdays of telling the story of the goal — where he was sitting, the fedora and suit he was wearing, the jubilation that was felt in Maple Leaf Gardens following the goal by the doomed defenceman (Barilko’s death in a plane crash that summer would inspire The Tragically Hip song “Fifty Mission Cap” in 1992). Later that night, as the story
goes, Pop raced for the train back to Kingston and he hopped on just as it was pulling out of Union Station.
It speaks to the importance of hockey in our family that my father was at that game. Many years later, J.B. had a black and white photograph and write-up of the goal surgically removed from a coffee-table book and then framed. In Gus’s basement, that photo now graces the wall opposite his own paean to hockey: a rare collection of 42 hockey sticks once used by players who scored 500 or more goals in their NHL careers. Pop died in 2009, and Gus wishes he were still alive to see the collection so artfully displayed. Most sticks lean almost vertically, their shafts tucked into grips on the wall, their blades set into pucks whose centres have been mechanically sliced a half-inch deep. A bronze plaque fronts each blade and signals who owned that stick.
Occupying pride of place are 10 sticks arranged horizontally. I’ll list their erstwhile owners from the bottom up: Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Stan Mikita, Johnny Bucyk, Phil Esposito, Frank Mahovlich, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. These 10 men were the first to score 500 goals.
On the day in late October that my son Kurt and I were there to see the new collection, my brother was giddy. The stick he insisted I handle first was The Rocket’s. “The first time I picked it up,” he told me, “I felt this charge. I know it sounds mystical but…”
Several aspects distinguish the Richard stick. One is the tape job: when I tape a stick (Gus likewise), I am stingy — covering the blade with the minimal amount of tape, with each vertical line of black tape half an inch from the next. Not The Rocket. A mere eighth of an inch separates his lines. And his stick shows signs of wear at the heel of the blade. Unlike modern pros who toss their pricey composite sticks after failed scoring attempts, old-time players coddled their wooden sticks. Was the thick tape meant to protect the stick and give it longer life? Finally, the shaft bears the stamp of its seller: Raymond’s Sporting Goods Store in Montreal. In this day of corporate suppliers and sports franchises, this detail seems quaint.
Gus listed three threats to his treasured sticks: sunlight, humidity and oil from human hands. The basement setting keeps out harsh light and a dehumidifier handles the damp. As for threat number three, my brother said, we were all free to touch the sticks — as long as we wore the white cotton gloves that were there in abundance.
“I thought about putting the sticks behind glass,” Gus said, “but I wanted people to be able to touch them and feel them. I didn’t want that museum feel.”
Since the sticks have been installed, Gus and his wife find themselves coming down to the basement to watch television or to read. He can’t resist peeking out of the corner of his eye towards the stick collection and saying to himself, “That’s Mario Lemieux over there… and Gordie Howe… and Wayne Gretzky…” Not them, of course, but lumber these rink gods fussed over. The collection has brought my brother much joy, more than he could have imagined. “There has not been,” he says, “one moment of regret.”
The genesis of the collection lies with our father. Gus had wanted to procure some special memory of him, and he caught wind of the fact that the Stanley Cup ring owned by Teeder Kennedy — one of J.B.’s favourite Leafs from the old days — was being sold. Gus joined an online auction being conducted by Classic Auctions out of Montreal but when the ring sold for more than he was willing to bid, he forgot all about it. The auctioneers, though, didn’t forget about him.
There soon came in the mail a glossy magazine detailing hockey treasures for sale, including this particular set of 42 sticks — 15 of them autographed. The reserve bid was $1,000. Bidding got underway one evening in June and Gus stayed in the game until about 1:30 a.m. when he tossed down his final bid and went to bed. When he got up at 5 a.m., there was an email that read: “Congratulations! You’ve won!”
When eight long cardboard boxes later arrived via Purolator, Gus set about opening each one. “It was like Christmas,” he said, “only better.” He spent hours examining each stick, seeing who had the shortest one (Jari Kurri of the Oilers and Johnny Bucyk of the Bruins), who had the longest (Mats Sundin of the Leafs), who had the nicest penmanship (Jean Beliveau). Most players used black tape but Gilbert Perrault, Michel Goulet and Luc Robitaille all used white tape. (Is it a Québécois thing?) Gus marvelled at the variety — the weight, the lie, the knob, the brands — Easton, Sherwood, Koho, Northland, Hespeler, Titan, CCM. He thought of all the time he himself had spent in stores choosing a new stick, checking for springiness and curve, then taking it home to cut it to just the right length and taping it just so.
The task then was to find a place to display the sticks, and the basement seemed the natural location. Gus contacted a filmmaker and longtime friend who had launched a new career in home renovation. Like everyone who has come into contact with the collection, she immediately recognized the sticks as works of art. To accommodate them all, one wall in the basement had to be removed and a great many alterations made. In fact, their cost far exceeded the cost of the collection. “It’s like buying an antique car,” Gus laughs, “then getting it home and discovering it won’t fit in the garage.”
Planned are several parties focused on the sticks: his son and daughters are tracking down clips of the moments when the 42 players scored their 500th goals.
Gus plays old-timer hockey with a friend of former Edmonton Oiler Glenn Anderson, who fell just short of the 500-mark. He got 498. But Gus points out that one night (in the spring of 1996, when Anderson was at the end of his pro career), he played with their old-timer bunch and potted two goals. Gus has a notion of calling up the NHL commissioner to set the record straight…
There is also a “Scanlan” wing in Gus’s basement, where one of my old wooden Sherwood sticks has a place alongside those of my four brothers. I buy Sherwoods because they’re cheap and, strange to say, to honour the old Scanlan homestead in Scarborough — on Sherwood Avenue.
Gus has no idea when the sticks in his collection were used. But imagine this: Maurice Richard was playing for the Canadiens the night Barilko scored. What if the stick he used that night — the night my brother was born — now rests in Gus’s basement?