Reminiscing with Donnie Marshall
By George Grimm
Donnie Marshall came to the Rangers along with Phil Goyette and Jacques Plante in a blockbuster June 1963 trade that sent Lorne “Gump” Worsley, Dave Balon, Len Ronson and Leon Rochefort to the Montreal Canadiens.
Marshall, who was 31 years old at the time of the trade, had been property of the Canadiens since he was a teenager playing for the Junior Canadiens of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. He turned pro in 1952 with the Cincinnati Mohawks of the IHL and made his debut with the Canadiens during the 1954-55 season. Used mostly as a defensive forward, Marshall won five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960 with the Canadiens. But by 1963 the Canadiens were in the midst of a dry spell, having not won a Stanley Cup in three years and were looking to shake things up, hence the big trade with the Rangers.
The smooth-skating Marshall became a key contributor to the rebuilding of the Rangers when Emile Francis took over as general manager in 1964. He was a steady and versatile performer who was comfortable at all three forward positions and provided experienced leadership as one of the Rangers assistant coaches.
How did you initially feel about the trade to the Rangers?
Donnie Marshall: I was driving my car when I heard about it, not the nicest way to hear about it. I guess it was a surprise because I had been born and brought up in Montreal and it would have been nice to stay there. I wasn’t happy to leave Montreal because we had such good hockey teams there. I had been in Montreal for nine years. But if I wanted to keep playing hockey that was part of the deal and I had to go where I had to go and it was New York. To leave Montreal and go to any other team, it made no difference where. It was a change, but something to look forward to and make the Rangers better.
From a hockey standpoint, how different was New York from Montreal?
DM: The whole atmosphere about hockey was different in New York. In Montreal it was all hockey, hockey, hockey. They had their good base of fans in New York that were very rabid and wanted the team to do well, but as far as going on the ice, Montreal had a system and you had to play your style within their system and I thought in New York, the players played their way and there was no real system to the way they played.
How did things change when Emile Francis took over?
DM: It started to feel like management was interested in the players, interested in getting better. Emile started to put in a system of things we should be doing on the ice when we got out of our end zone with the forechecking and all. It became more of a system and you could play within that system. It wasn’t much different than what they did in Montreal. When you got the puck you usually had an idea of where everybody was supposed to be. You didn’t have to start looking for them. You could play your particular style, as long as you stayed within the system. Emile also thought highly of his players and he wanted them to be comfortable playing in New York. It’s a big city and a lot of players came from small towns in Canada.
How did it feel when Emile made you an assistant coach along with Harry Howell?
DM: It was an honor. It showed that he had confidence in me and it made you feel good. It meant that you couldn’t slack off because you had a higher position and it was interesting really.
How did your role change when you came to the Rangers?
DM: In Montreal I was used defensively much more than in New York. They had so many high scoring forwards in Montreal. I had a problem starting out in Montreal, my first year after playing in the American League I broke a bone in my leg in training camp and it set me back. I started late in the season and the lines were fixed. So I ended up being a defensive forward, killing penalties and those things and it just seemed to carry on. In New York they needed offense and in the minors I was always a good offensive player and so I picked it up in New York better than I did in Montreal.
You played on one of the best lines in Rangers history ‘The Old Smoothies’ with Phil Goyette and Bob Nevin. What made that line so effective?
DM: It was pretty easy to play with them. Phil Goyette was excellent with the puck and if you could get into position he could get the puck to you. Bobby Nevin was just a good up and down player, good offensively and good defensively. They both were smart hockey players and it was easy to play with them.
Did you enjoy playing in the Old Madison Square Garden?
DM: That was fine. But you better play well and you better put out because the fans were looking right down at you and if you weren’t doing what you should they’d let you know. But they do that in every city anyway. I had friends that used to go to the Old Garden and they liked going there. They were so close to the ice.
What about Iceland, the little practice rink with the aluminum boards above the old Garden?
DM: It was different playing in that little rink upstairs (laughs). It wasn’t the best for the team but that’s what you had and that’s what you had to do. But it was small and it wasn’t good for the hockey team.
I read that you played baseball in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in 1950 as an 18-year old outfielder with a Canadian All Star team. You hit a triple off the right field wall.
DM: They had a junior baseball league in Montreal and I played and they sent an All Star team down to play in Brooklyn. I liked playing baseball, it was a good game. I enjoyed it.
Did you ever think of pursuing a career in baseball instead of hockey?
DM: No I don’t think so. At that time, baseball was an American game and hockey was a Canadian game. I don’t think baseball scouts looked for baseball players in Canada at that time. The player would have to be exceptional. I played mostly to keep in shape.
What was it like playing with Rocket Richard?
DM: Let’s put it this way, it was good to be on the same team as him. He was such a competitor. He loved to score goals. Loved to win, wanted to win and he made you want to win as well. Give him the puck from the blue line in and he was pretty good. He was strong. But at that time there were so many good players on Montreal. They had junior hockey leagues in the Province of Quebec and Montreal owned all of the players. There was no draft when we were coming up and you signed a “C” form when you were about 16 and then you belonged to them and I think they signed everybody in that league.
Tell me about playing with Jacques Plante.
DM: I played a lot of years with Jacques Plante. I played with him in Buffalo in the American League, I played nine years with him in Montreal and then when we came to the Rangers. And then the last year I was in the league we were both playing for Toronto. I thought he was an excellent goalkeeper. He was very innovative. He was one of the first to go behind the net to stop the puck and the first goalkeeper to wear a mask. I remember the night he put the mask on, we were playing in New York and he really got hit. He was really cut open and he put the mask on and went back out there. He was a good goalkeeper but just a different personality. He was a bit of a loner. But all goalies are a little different but maybe they have to be to play that position.
What’s it like winning the Stanley Cup?
DM: It was very good (laughs). It’s like anything you do or any game you play, you want to win and you’re suitably pleased and happy when you do win. In any endeavor when you come out on top you’re happy. But we did it five times in a row and that was pretty good. My first year in the league Rocket got suspended for the playoffs and we didn’t win, but if he were playing it was very possible that we would have won that one too. But that’s water under the bridge. To win is good. To win at anything is good. I was very pleased, very happy.
What are your thoughts about the current NHL?
DM: I think the players are much bigger and stronger and the ice surface is too small for them. The players in the early 1960’s were about 190 pounds and now they’re 230 pounds and the ice surface is the same size. They’re just too big for the ice surface. It’s the same for the NFL too, the field is the same size that it’s been forever and the players are a lot bigger. Basketball players are bigger; all the young people are bigger. I would like to see a bigger ice surface.
Do you think the players respect each other as much as they did when you were playing?
DM: Well we played each team 14 times, seven at home and seven on the road and now you might play each team once at home and once on the road, not that often. You just don’t know the players, and with the helmets and face guards they’re the enemy but you don’t see the enemy, at least not often enough. When you play teams 14 times you know the players, you knew what they did and how they reacted and there was more respect for the players because we played them so often. We knew everything about them. We knew everything about each other.
(Donnie’s best season as a Ranger was in 1965-66 when he scored 26 goals with 28 assists. In 479 games with the Rangers over seven seasons Marshall scored a total of 129 goals and added 141 assists while accumulating only 40 penalty minutes. He also added three goals and five assists in 15 playoff games. He was claimed by Buffalo in the 1970 expansion draft and retired in 1972 after playing in Toronto for a year. In 1,176 games for Montreal, New York, Buffalo and Toronto, Marshall scored 265 goals with 324 assists and 129 penalty minutes. In 94 playoff games he recorded eight goals and 15 assists along with 14 penalty minutes.)
What did you do when you retired from hockey?
DM: I had an interest in a firm that sold mechanical transmission products and I did that for a number of years and retired from that and moved to Florida with my wife. But we still go back up to northern New York state and I still go back to Montreal every once in a while and play golf with some of the old players. So life has been good.
(Donnie Marshall was the kind of player who made those around him better. He was a mentor to the younger Rangers and young fans as well.
In closing I mentioned to Donnie that one night many years ago I was standing outside the players exit at the Garden getting autographs and asked him if anyone else was still in the dressing room. He told me that once I saw (trainer) Frank Paice come out then everybody was gone.)
DM: So I saved you from standing around longer than you had to on a cold winter night. That’s good!
Yes it was very good Donnie, and so were you.
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.