Archive for April, 2014

Norm Ullman - 1964-65 Topps Tall BoysNorm Ullman was about to have the best season of his career.

He’d finish second overall in both goals (42) and points (83), place second in voting for the Hart Trophy (MVP) and be named to the First All-Star team at centre.  For a guy whose card notes him as “long regarded as one of the most underrated players in the NHL, ” it was quite the coming-out party.

I think that centre might be the hardest position at which to gain recognition.  There are always so many strong ones in the league that very, very good players can spend their entire careers in the shadows.  I see Ullman as somewhat akin to a Dale Hawerchuk, who would have been a perennial All-Star had he not been playing at the same time as guys like Gretzky and Lemieux.  The centres of the sixties included the likes of Jean Beliveau, Stan Mikita, Henri Richard, Alex Delvecchio, Dave Keon.  Phil Esposito would appear in 1964-65 and own the latter part of the decade.  It’s rather hard to get noticed amongst that crowd, particularly when your game is about steady excellence rather than explosive play.  When I see Ullman playing in an old game, he’s smooth, polished, subtle.  He doesn’t always jump out unless you’re paying attention.

Norm broke in with the Wings in 1955.  In his second season, following an injury to Alex Delvecchio, he found himself centering a line with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay.  He responded with 52 points and was eighth overall in assists.  When Lindsay was sent to Chicago in 1957 for daring to start a player’s association, Norm, then just 21, was promoted to a full-time job as number-one centre as Delvecchio shifted to the left wing.  It was heady times for a young kid and he played well.

Norm would become a mainstay on the Wings.  He was durable and a lock for 20-30 goals every season.  (He only missed 20 once between 1957-58 and 1973-74.) He could be moved around from line to line and it didn’t seem to impact his performance.  He was top-ten in scoring eight different times.

Late in 1967-68, the Wings were playing badly and in need of a shake-up and the Leafs, who had been in first place in January, were in free-fall.  A major shake-up was in order as Toronto tried to save its season and Detroit tried to retool.  Norm, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie went to Toronto in exchange for Frank Mahovlich, Carl Brewer, Pete Stemkowski and a young kid named Garry Unger.   Ullman had 17 points in 13 games and the Leafs won most of them, but it was too little, too late.

As a Leaf, Norm carried on just as always.  Head coach Punch Imlach called him the most talented centre he’d ever had.  He maintained about a point-per-game clip until the middle of 1973-74, when a young Darryl Sittler rose to prominence and took the lion’s share of the ice time.  After a disappointing 1974-75, he moved to the WHA and the Edmonton Oilers.  It was a natural fit for Norm, a native Albertan who had played both junior and minor pro in Edmonton.  He put in two more solid years before calling it a day at age 41.

By the time he left the NHL, Norm was the fourth-highest scorer in NHL history, trailing only Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Stan Mikita.  Part of this comes from the fact that he broke in just after the extension of the schedule to 70 games and the dead-puck era of the early 1950s, but even it is just fourth amongst his peers, it was still an accomplishment of note. ( Of the top ten all-time scorers in 1974-75, only Howe broke in before 1950. The growth of the schedule from 48 games in the 1930s and 40s to 70 games basically eliminated all the early players from the record books.)

In the last number of years, a more advanced form of statistical analysis has come to hockey, aided by an explosion in the amount and variety of data available for analysis.  I’d love to have that sort of data available for this era.  The performance of the greats shows up in the awards they won (for the most part), but there are a whole host of players just a tiny step behind that are basically lost.  There’s no real way to measure the difference between an Ullman and a Beliveau or any ot the other great centres in history, and that’s a shame.

Norm Ullman - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys back

Camille Henry - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys

Camille Henry’s playing weight was 145 pounds.  It is claimed on the card that this would sometimes range all the way up to 150, but that may have been the difference between being in and out of skates.  It’s not clear.  At one weigh-in in 1965 he was 138, but asked the team not to post it for fear of embarrassment.

Typically, when a player is really small, his survival (perhaps literally) in professional hockey is dependent on him being really, really fast.  Henry’s nickname, “Camille the Eel” would suggest as much.  The odd thing is that he wasn’t.  He didn’t skate particularly well at all.  His nickname came from the same sort of ability that Wayne Gretzky had – the ability to find an open space in the scoring areas and never be hit directly while doing so.  Henry was elusive with great hands and this enabled a pro career that spanned 1953-70.

Born in Quebec City, Camille burst onto the public stage in 1953-54 with the Rangers.  He scored 24 goals as a 21-year-old, which doesn’t sound like a ton, but in the dead-puck era of the early 1950s, this was good enough for sixth overall.  He won the Calder over Montreal’s prize rookie, Jean Beliveau.  (In fairness, Beliveau only played 44 games and wins this in a walk if he played a full season – just based on points per game.)

Someone with a lot of time on their hands determined (since the NHL didn’t track this officially yet) that 20 of those 24 goals came on the power play.  Certainly, for someone lacking speed and size, that was the best time to find open ice.

The Calder win didn’t seem to settle the minds of the Rangers’ brass on Henry and they stuck him in the AHL for most of the couple of seasons. His scoring ability eventually won out, though, and starting with the second half of 1956-57, he became one of the Rangers’ most effective scorers for most of a decade.  If he dressed for at least 50 games, Henry was a lock for 20 goals.  He bettered 25 goals five times, twice scoring 30-plus.  He peaked at 37 in 1963.  He was a top-ten goal scorer six times in his career and was named to the Second All-Star team in 1958, the same year he won the Lady Byng for gentlemanly play.  He probably deserved a few more of those trophies as only once in his career did he top 10 penalty minutes in a season.

The Rangers disposed of most of their veterans in the mid-1960s and retooled.  This saw Henry shipped to Chicago in February, 1965.  Chicago was much more heavily-stacked up front than New York and Henry’s numbers dipped.  He spent more time in the minors.  When expansion came in 1967-68, a lot of veterans made NHL reappearances.  Henry surfaced again in New York, then spent his remaining NHL days in St. Louis.  He finished with 279 goals and 528 points in 727 games – all good totals for the era.

He coached briefly, but struggled with health issues (diabetes) which tied into financial issues.  He was beneficiary of a nice settllement from the NHL when the Eagleson/pension suit finally reached its end, but didn’t really get to enjoy it for long.  He died of complications from diabetes in 1997 at age 64.
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