Archive for June, 2014

Orland Kurtenbach - 1964-65 Topps Tall BoysNo matter how many teams there are in the league at a given moment, there will always be players who seem to get buried – guys who could score at every level, but get stuck behind other players or get slotted into roles that never really let them develop.  If they never get that chance to shine, they get labeled as yet another guy who never panned out.  If that chance does appear, though, it can be pretty special.

Marty St. Louis might be the most famous current example of this.  A waiver-wire pickup by Tampa years ago, the smallish bit-player from the Flames became one of the best scorers of our era and became the oldest Art Ross winner a year ago at age 37.  In this set, Ab McDonald fits that description and Phil Goyette will, as well.  A third player who enjoyed a brief period in the sun late in his career when finally given an offensive role was Orland Kurtenbach.

Orland was a big guy with the reputation of being one of the best fighters in the game.  He was never near the league penalty-minute leaders, so presumably the rep was enough to ensure he didn’t have to do it all that often.  I do know he had some famous battles with Terry Harper.

A Saskatchewan kid, Orland played his junior in the SJHL and turned pro with the Vancouver Canucks of the WHL in 1957-58.  In three seasons with them, he put up solid numbers and was generally near a point-per-game player.  (One year with the AHL’s Buffalo Bisons didn’t go so well.)  It was enough to get him a 10-game call-up from the Rangers in 1960-61, where as a 24-year-old rookie he put up six assists in ten games.

Boston acquired him in the 1961 Intra-League draft, though he’d spend most of the next two seasons in the minors.  An 87-point season with the WHL’s San Francisco Seals in 1962-63 punched his ticket back to the NHL, where he’d stay for the balance of his career.

In the NHL, though, Orland always was stuck behind other centres.  His role seemed to be fixed as third-line centre and tough guy.  Through several seasons in Boston, one in Toronto and a handful with the Rangers, this was always the case.  It wasn’t that he played badly – he put up double digits in goals three times and twenty-plus assists four times between 1963-64 and 1967-68 and was always a contributor – it was just a limited role.

A serious back injury limited him to just two games in 1968-69 and required spinal fusion to correct.  He’d only play sparingly in 1969-70 and posted the worst offensive totals of his career.  Pushing 34 years of age and apparently in decline, he was exposed in the 1970 expansion draft and was chosen by the Vancouver Canucks.

Orland was named the Canucks’ first captain and the return to the site of his WHL success was a tonic for him.  The chance to finally play a scoring role and see real power-play time didn’t hurt, either.  For the first time in his NHL career, he scored better than a point per game, scoing 20 goals and 53 points in 52 games.  He followed this with his second 20-goal effort in 1971-72, scoring 61 points in 78 games.  Age and injury caught him after that, and after two shortened seasons, he’d call it a career after 1973-74.  He would serve a season and a half as head coach of the Canucks, from mid-1976-77 through 1977-78.

Orland Kurtenbach - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys back

I always love the cards that describe the players’ off-season jobs.

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Charlie Hodge - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys

There are a lot of things that have changed about hockey in the past 50-odd years and while many are inarguably for the better, one thing that I do miss is the small goaltender.  Modern goaltenders are incredibly efficient and there is a certain technical beauty to the way they play.  Older, smaller goalies were just a lot more fun.  In order to cover the same amount of net, they had to play a lot further out and this demanded a lot more movement and action.  It was really exciting to see a great save and there were lots of them.  I went into this in more depth a number of years ago.  I don’t think it’s any less true today.

Now, even by the old standards, Charlie Hodge was a small goalie.  At 5’6″ and 150 pounds, he’s about 7-8 inches shorter and 50-60 pounds lighter than a modern goaltender and he’s over a foot shorter than Tampa’s Ben Bishop.  I never got to see him play, but he must have been a hoot.  To play as long as he did and as well as he did, he had to have been agile, lightning-quick and aggressive.  Any short goalie who didn’t play that way usually added the adjective “former” to their description.

Charlie spent most of the 1950s as the #2 goalie in the Habs system.  Given that the starter was Jacques Plante and most teams tended to run their goalies for full 70-game seasons, this meant that he spent all his time in the minors save for the occasional injury to Plante.  When he did get to play – 14 games in 1954-55, 12 in 1957-58, 30 in 1960-61, he always gave a good account of himself.  His 2.47 GAA in 1960-61 actually led the NHL.  Inevitably, though, Plante would return and Hodge would go back to the AHL.

In 1962-63, Plante was injured and missed 14 games and rather than bring up Hodge , the Habs went with youngsters Cesare Maniago and Ernie Wakely.  For Charlie, the writing must have seemed to be on the wall.

Funny things happen, though.

After the ’62-63 season ended, Plante was traded to the Rangers in a swap of starting goaltenders (amongst a bunch of other players).  Gump Worsley came over in the deal and was expected to be the 1963-64 starter, but he was injured early on.  The call went out for Hodge, now 30, to fill in.

He was brilliant.

He led the league with 8 shutouts, posted a 2.26 GAA, won the Vezina Trophy (goalie for team with fewest goals against) and was voted to the second All-Star team.  It was Worsley who would have to fight his way back into the lineup.

As the 1960s progressed, the goalie tandem became more common and Hodge began to split time with the Gumper.  They combined to win the 1965-66 Vezina along with Stanley Cups in 1965 and 1966.  The arrival of expansion and the emergence of a young Rogie Vachon (also a rather short netminder) finally pushed Hodge out the door.  He became an Oakland Seal for three seasons and then an original Vancouver Canuck in 1970-71.  He retired following a contract dispute prior to the start of the 1971-72 season.

 

Charlie Hodge - 1964-65 Topps Tall Boys

Charlie wasn’t really that wide.