The generally accepted belief is that John Brophy, who died last week at 83, was the personification of hockey’s roughhousing minor-league culture. And that the Brophy experience was faithfully depicted in the zany 1977 movie Slap Shot by modeling its aging career bush-leaguer Reggie Dunlop (played by Paul Newman) on Brophy.
No argument here. Especially since I had gotten a pretty good picture of the unfashionable, hardscrabble, traveling-circus low-minor leagues during a week-long, 1,500-mile bus trip with the Long Island Ducks in 1971. Our poor man’s magic carpet was a rickety old conveyance, retrofitted with bunks in the rear half. The players existed on fast-food stops, beer, Tums and cheap motels.
It happens that the irascible Brophy spent 18 years in that setting, half of that time with the Ducks, though he had just been traded—at 37—to the Eastern Hockey League’s Jersey franchise before I was assigned by Newsday to chronicle the team’s slog to EHL outposts in Charlotte, Greensboro and Johnstown, Pa.
That was the season before the NHL’s expansion Islanders materialized, so that East of Manhattan’s Rangers, the Ducks were the only professional (sort of) hockey outfit. They took their name from one of the Island’s oldest and most prominent industries; though now gone mostly bust, the production of Long Island ducks was an abundant blessing to restaurant chefs for decades.
What better fit those teams—and their rag-tag, underdog league—is the image of actual ducks, however calm they appear above the surface, working furiously underwater, out of sight.
My ’71 adventure, right from the start, took on the feel of a John Steinbeck short story, with a theme of fate and oppression, of downtrodden protagonists. It began in the parking lot of the Ducks’ home arena, a long-since demolished old barn, dark and drafty, in Commack, N.Y., on an early November Sunday morning at 10:30. (An hour late, because the bus wouldn’t start.)
The bus had been painted by a 16-year-old Ducks fan in the team colors or red, white and black, suggestive of a carnival wagon to Lorne Rombough, a 23-year-old Ducks forward, who recommended, “It should have pipes with music and balloons coming out of the top.”
Once in Charlotte, the team was departing its motel for practice, with players hanging out of the windows, when the back door of the bus swung open, scattering hockey sticks and other equipment in the road. Ducks publicist John O’Reilly, who also served as radio play-by-play man, was reminded of a TV sitcom about blundering U.S. soldiers in the Wild West. “We look like F Troop,” he said.
Rombough, whose half-season with the Greensboro team the year before theoretically qualified him to give bus driver Bill Smith directions to the two Carolina arenas, twice got the Ducks lost. On both occasions, there was a call from within the bus to team captain Butch Morris, a ninth-year league veteran: “Yeh, Butch. Get up here by the driver. We’re lost.”
Morris came to the rescue, while Rombough’s more accurate contributions were related to the spectator behavior the Ducks could expect. When he and his former Greensboro mates played at Charlotte, Rombough said, “The players on both teams used to stand back and watch the fans fight.”
During a game in Commack two weeks earlier, Charlotte’s Mike Rouleau had bashed Ducks goalie Guy DeNoncourt over the head with his stick, knocking out DeNoncourt and sidelining Rouleau with a three-game suspension. According to Morris, “Once Rouleau was suspended, he was just sitting in the stands throwing hockey pucks at the players.” And days after the incident, O’Reilly received a Halloween card signed by a Charlotte fan: “We are anxiously awaiting your arrival with chairs in hand.”
Still, the Ducks, in a league embodied by the fiery, bombastic Brophy, soldiered on. “You can’t make a career of this league,” said Morris, who was 28 at the time and said he was able to keep playing because he made more money as a steel worker in the off season (just as Brophy had sustained himself).
“Sometimes you get really low, after a couple of losses or a bad road trip,” Morris said. “But you snap out of it. Everybody in this league plays because he likes it. Because, let’s face it, the league doesn’t have much to offer. It’s a chance to move up. But how many players move up?
“It’s more of a hobby, really. If I were traded away from Long Island, where my other job is, I probably would quit hockey. I don’t’ know for sure, but I’d have to think seriously….”
Among the more introspective of those Ducks was Cornell (Corky) DeGraauw, a 20-year-old Dutch-born forward who had settled in the Toronto area and, just graduated from the Canadian Junior League, was married with an 18-month-old daughter.
“I can put up with this because I want to play hockey,” DeGraauw said one morning over breakfast. “I think most of the guys are disappointed to be here. They have been kept from higher leagues and they think they should be playing somewhere better than this.”
Nevertheless, DeGraauw decided, “On the bottom of the contract, it says, ‘P.S. The owner may void this with 48 hours’ notice.’ Let’s see. We have lost two straight games and that figures out to just about 48 hours. I’m glad to be here.”
DeGraauw’s quirky take on the travel situation was that “flying is OK, because it’s nice to look down at the ground that you’ve always seen before on maps, and see that there really isn’t a big red line which separates Canada and the U.S. But the bus…well, I like the card games, anyway.”
On the bus, beyond the handful of card players, team comedian Jean-Marie Nicol amused himself by tying the shoestrings of napping teammates to the seat chair legs, or threatening to sing when coach Ed Stankiewicz sought relief from general racket by turning off the radio. Michel Letourneau, a diminutive 20-year-old French Canadian who did not speak English, spent the entire trip quietly observing his surroundings, wide-eyed. “The guy is from the North Pole, where all the bears are white,” DeGraauw teased Letourneau, who in fact hailed from a small Quebec town at roughly the same latitude as Minnesota’s northern border.
Some veterans chose to pass the time by giving free haircuts to rookies, an act of hazing not exactly welcomed by the haze-ees. In the Charlotte game, Rombough lost a tooth and forward Bill Morris (no relation to Butch) needed three stitches near his right eye. Defenseman Phil Persia, proud of his prowess at fisticuffs, badly bruised a knee.
There were regional difficulties, too, for all those Canadian lads crossing the Mason-Dixon Line (on-sides?) for the first time. DeNoncourt, attempting to order a Coca Cola, was presented with a Mountain Dew. DeGraauw insisted he “knew better than to order Today’s Special.” Dan Tremblay, a 20-year-old from Manitoba, declared the mild weather unfit. “It has to be 10 below to play hockey,” he said.
Butch Morris, meanwhile, not only attended to on-ice duties, dealing with hockey’s curious version of Roberts Rules or Order—the eye-for-and-eye, punch-and-counterpunch aggressiveness—but also was something of a shepherd to teammates. When there was poor service at a restaurant along the interstate, Morris assumed the role of waiter, serving coffee to fellow players. When team trainer Bill Lumley fell ill at the end of the trip, Morris was the fellow who added the duty of skate-sharpener.
He was no John Brophy, the white-haired menace whose 3,840 career penalty minutes were 3,663 more than Morris’ total. “The best thing that ever happened to that guy,” Morris said of Brophy, “was that he was prematurely gray.” Morris’ rather crooked smile and slightly scarred face hardly were unique in the EHL, nothing nearly as dramatic as Brophy’s scraps with players, opposing fans and security guards.
But maybe I should have taken better notes on that trip, which was a metaphor for the sport’s penalty box if there ever was one, and thought in terms of a movie script. Sin Bin?