(Editor’s note: Special thanks for another terrific guest blog from our friend George Grimm. If any of you guys want to volunteer to do a guest blog, this is a really good time of year to do one … training camp is still a month away. If you’re interested, drop me an email at email@example.com)
Reminiscing with Teddy Irvine
By George Grimm
Teddy Irvine was the kind of gritty, character player that every team needs, no matter what era you’re talking about. He was a relentless checker, had good speed for a man of his size (6-2, 195 pounds) and most of all, wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves to protect his teammates. He was one of my favorite Rangers of the Emile Francis regime and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Teddy from his home in Winnipeg.
Edward Amos Irvine was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Dec. 8, 1944. He started playing hockey when he was five or six years old on the creeks, ponds and roads near his home.
After three seasons with St. Boniface of the MJHL, Teddy was signed by the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately he only saw action in one NHL game with the Bruins during his four seasons in the Boston organization, most of which was spent in the Central Hockey League.
Irvine’s break came in 1967 when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the Expansion Draft. In 207 games with the Kings, Teddy scored 44 goals and added 59 assists along with 101 penalty minutes.
Ted was known as a guy who would stand up for his teammates, and it was a fight that directly led to Emile Francis acquiring him from the Kings in exchange for Real Lemieux and Juha Widing on Feb. 28, 1970.
Did you expect to be traded?
“No. I wasn’t expecting it and I’d have never expected to be traded to an Original Six team if I did get traded. But I guess what turned my career around was when I played for the Kings and I got in a fight in St. Louis with Bob Plager and Noel Picard. I was fighting them both at the same time and Emile Francis happened to be at the game and he saw that I was on my own against those two big sluggo’s and he went and got me right away.”
What was it like playing for Emile Francis?
“It was outstanding! I got traded near the end of the season. I was in Toronto with the Kings and had to meet the Rangers in Detroit. Emile made sure my family got to New York safe and sound and the following year when I made the team he was kind enough to lend me some money so we could buy a house. He was a gentleman and very understanding. He was very good to work for and a lot of us guys from that team always feel bad because of all the guys that should have had a Stanley Cup ring, it should have been a guy like Emile. He treated us so well and put his heart and soul into the Rangers. He was a good guy to play for. I was just down in New York about three weeks ago, we played in that Ranger golf tournament and they honored our 1971-72 team. Emile couldn’t make it because his wife’s not doing that well, but he did a phone call-in and a video and it was really nice to see him and hear him talk again.
“And I’ll tell you about negotiations. People ask if we had lawyers in those days. We didn’t need them because we dealt with Emile Francis. I was making $15,000 when I came to New York and Emile said you can’t live on that so he gave me a two-year contract for $19,000 a year. That first year I got 20 goals and went to see him in training camp in Kitchener. I said ‘Emile I had a pretty good year and I’d like to renegotiate.’ He said ‘Teddy, you’ve got another year left on your contract. What are you gonna do if I don’t sign you?’ I said ‘there’s an investment company in Canada that said if I don’t play hockey they’d take me on right away.’ He asked me the name of the company, I told him and he reached across the table, shook my hand and said. ‘Good luck; they’re a good company!’ So I looked at him and sort of said ‘uh oh’, But he started to laugh. He said, ‘We think you had a good year too. What do you think you’re worth?’ I said ‘$25,000.’ He said ‘that’s a lot of money.’ I said ‘I know, I know.’ So he said ‘Well we’ve been thinking about it and we’re gonna give you $27,500 for each of the next two years.’ So I walked out of the room and said ‘I think there’s something wrong here. I think I was supposed to ask for $30,000’.”
What was your role with the team?
“Well, when I first got there I was intimidated playing for the Rangers because of all the names. I think I got one goal in about 20 games, so when I went to training camp the next year I knew that I would have to work. I didn’t know what role I would have on that team. But at that time Emile was very good at designing the kind of hockey club he wanted. There was the Ratelle line that scored goals and you had the Fairbairn, Vickers and Tkaczuk line that was kind of a checking and scoring line. Then he put (Pete) Stemkowski, (Bruce) MacGregor and I together as a pure checking line and I found out very quickly that I could play that type of game. And because of my love for the guys, I wasn’t afraid to drop my gloves to be part of that team. So Emile found a role for our line and we’d start a game and end a game. The beauty of that hockey club was that every guy on that team knew what each other’s job was. So if we held a team to no goals, a guy like Jean Ratelle would tell us how great we played even though he might have gotten a hat trick. So we really respected each other and our jobs and it made it very easy to play in New York because we all knew what out roles were. As for me, I knew I could score some goals, but I also knew that checking was important and I also knew that standing up for the guys was important so I found my role very quickly.”
Were those Ranger teams a tight knit group?
“Very, very tight. Like I said we had just gotten together and from the G-A-G line with Hadfield, Gilbert and Ratelle to Tkaczuk, Vickers and Fairbairn and Stemmer and myself to the defense and Giacomin and Villemure we were very close as a group. We had a lot of fun together. We played some good hockey together and we played for each other. We were a very close bunch of guys and we’re still close to this day.”
You assisted on Pete Stemkowski’s triple overtime game winner against Chicago in Game 6 of the 1971 semifinals. What are your memories of that game?
“I had pretty good speed and I got in the corner pretty quickly. Most of the time, out of the corner of your eye you knew where your centerman was. I threw it to the front of the net and Stemmer deflected it in. It was just one of those bang-bang plays. But interestingly enough, outside Madison Square Garden there’s a picture of all of us crowed around, Dale Rolfe and Stemmer and when my son, Chris Jericho who’s a former wrestler with the WWE wrestled at the Garden, he would always show the guys the picture on the wall as you leave the dressing room. ‘There’s my dad, he set up this goal.’ But you never see me in that picture, all you see is my skate with the number 27 on it. So they always kid him and say ‘where’s your dad?’ and he says ‘there’s his skate.’ But that was very special. Those were the type of games where they’d tap you on the shoulder and say your line was up next and you say ‘Oh my goodness’.”
You were certainly appreciated by your peers. Your teammates gave you the Player’s Player Award in 1973-74 and the New York Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers association gave you their first Good Guy award in 1975.
“When you get away from the game and look back at some of the things you’ve done and when I look at the fact that it was the first year that the writers set up that award and I remember Denis Potvin won it for the Islanders. It was a tremendous honor and the Player’s Player award with the Rangers, it’s the same. Because when your teammates vote you a valuable guy on the team, that was special. Those years in New York, I was so lucky because I won the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award (1974-75) for my work with the Special Olympics and that led me to start the Manitoba Special Olympics years later.
“So many good things happened to me in New York and I got some wonderful letters from the writers when I retired. Hugh Delano sent me a wonderful letter about my role with the Rangers. The sportswriters were very good to me. The only guy who didn’t care for me was Stan Fischler. He said I was a mediocre hockey player who never reached mediocrity (laughs). But I respected the guys for their work and it was a honor to win that award.”
What do you consider the highlights of your career?
“To make it as a pro was a highlight and to play for the New York Rangers no doubt about it was the highlight of my whole career. The fans, the town, the teams, the emotions of playing on the road, the brawls we had with Boston and Philly and Montreal. For us it was so exciting to be able to perform at that level. Losing the Stanley Cup can’t be a highlight but winning that fifth game in the Boston Garden (1972) was really special. Even to this day to go back to New York and people remember you and respect you. Playing in the NHL is great, but to play for the Rangers in a city like New York was the most memorable.”
What were your most memorable fights?
“It’s funny, my son‘s friend is putting together a DVD of 15 of my fights. But you stand up for the guys. I mean Larry Robinson just wailed me and he’s one of the nicest guys and he keeps saying that he’s sorry that he had to punch me so many times. If you see the tape on Youtube it’s funny because Gilles Marotte tried to jump on us, but Robinson moved me and Marotte just goes flying through the air like Superman and missed us altogether. My son said, ‘Well at least you didn’t fall down.’ I had some good scraps with Gerry Korab and Pierre Bouchard knocked me out with one punch, but just standing up for the guys was part of it and we stuck together pretty darn good. It was just reactionary. I was never a great fighter but you learn how to stand up for your teammates. John Fergusson gave me a compliment when he said I was the only guy on the Rangers who stands up for his teammates. So that was very special that he saw it and respected it.”
How did you feel when were traded to the Blues?
“Pretty devastated. We had lost to the Islanders in overtime the previous year and you see the dismantling of the team. But when Jerry Butler, Bert Wilson and I got traded (June 1975 in exchange for John Davidson and Billy Collins) it hurt. Dennis Ball was the GM in St Louis and they had high hopes for us. But we got to St. Louis and it was a good bunch of guys but it wasn’t such a together team as we had in New York. So you realized how good you had it in New York and we’d go back to the Garden to play the Rangers and there was a real emptiness. It was pretty much the end of my career because there just wasn’t the same camaraderie and emotion, when you went into other team’s buildings. So that was the downfall of my career, I just didn’t have a spark after that. Because in New York I had a role and the guys respected me for it and I respected them and to this day we talk about not winning that Stanley Cup and how close we were. All the guys say ‘boy I sure wish we could have won it together.’ You think you’re gonna get back to it but you just don’t. But I was blessed to play the game and blessed to play that many years and I still don’t touch the Stanley Cup because I haven’t earned the right.”
Any thoughts about the league’s concussion problem?
“I still do some radio work up here for the Winnipeg Jets and you try to analyze it, but the guys are so big now and so fast and talented. But there’s no doubt that the equipment, the elbow pads and shoulder pads are weapons now. And I don’t find that the guys have a lot of respect for the other guys. When I hear them say, ‘I didn’t see him there,’ you see everything that’s on the ice and it’s so easy to flip an elbow. We played without helmets, but we had our sticks down, and they say the glass is harder now when you bounce off it. But the elbow pads themselves are like rocks and the guys’ heads are snapping now much more than they ever did before. I hate to see it but the hitting from behind still goes on and I don’t understand that in this day and age with all the penalties and all the fines. Guys still hit from behind, then blame the other guy for not turning his body. But we talk about that. Maybe we did have concussions, I don’t know. I don’t remember the guys getting their heads snapped like they are now and they go down like rocks and these are big guys 6-foot-5, 6-6, 250 pounds getting floored like that is hard to believe. When we played it was more shoulder to shoulder and we didn’t hit from behind because if you did your own teammates would give you heck. And of course the elbow pads we used were like paper, like the shin pads. We put cotton batting behind the shin pads because they weren’t protective enough. So it’s the size of the guys, the equipment, the conditioning and the speed of the game. I go down to ice level and these guys really do fly for big men. I guess the ice surface isn’t big enough for them.”
What are you doing these days?
“I have a company, ‘Retirement Income Solutions’ and that scares people because I handle their money and I played hockey without a helmet! My partner is Jordy Douglas who played a little in the WHA and I still do some radio work for the Winnipeg Jets, stay in touch with the game, still see the guys, still skate with the alumni.”
How is your family?
“We’re really blessed. Our son Chris is in Florida, he’s a wrestler and he has a band he travels the world with. He’s got three little ones, my grandkids. And my daughter’s down in San Diego and she’s got two little ones. We get a chance to see them and hopefully they’ll come up to Winnipeg for Christmas and have an outdoor skate. Our health’s good, we’re lucky and we’re really blessed.”
(For the record, Ted Irvine scored 86 goals and added 91 assists along with 478 penalty minutes in 378 regular season games as a Ranger. He led the team in penalty minutes in 1970-71 (137) and 1973-74 (105). He also contributed 10 goals and 18 assists in 60 playoff games with the Rangers and led them in penalty minutes (20) during the 1973-74 playoffs. Overall in 724 NHL games with the Kings, Rangers and Blues, Teddy scored 154 goals with 177 assists along with 657 penalty minutes.)
Any final thoughts about your Ranger career?
“I still remember the fans in New York, ‘Hey Irvine ya bum!’ I loved it! I absolutely loved it! We had a lot of fun and great, great memories””
George Grimm is the former publisher of Sportstat, The Ranger Report and columnist for the Blueshirt Bulletin. He currently writes the Retro Rangers column for Insidehockey.com and is working on an oral history of the Emile Francis era New York Rangers.
Photo by Getty Images.