Smoke got in our eyes

Updated: Apr 23

Earl Fowler

Mike Bossy, 65, lung cancer. Guy Lafleur, 70, lung cancer. Both dead in a week. Both hockey superstars and wonderful men.


You can’t say with certainty that smoking killed them, of course. But as a 2012 article in Sports Illustrated on tobacco use in the National Hockey League noted:

Hockey might very well have had a higher concentration of puffers than any other sport. And not just the plumbers lit up. Many of the game's all-time greats were heavy smokers.

If you ever saw the Montreal Canadiens' Hall of Fame winger Guy Lafleur away from a rink, chances are he had a cigarette between his right thumb and forefinger.

Mike Bossy, the Hall of Fame sniper who helped the New York Islanders win four straight Stanley Cups, smoked while answering postgame questions from reporters, as E.M. Swift's Sports Illustrated story from May 1983 documents.

Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux smoked well into his brilliant career, but finally gave it up, perhaps due to his scary bout with Hodgkin's Disease.

Chicago's Denis Savard scored 473 goals during his 18-year Hall of Fame career despite a habit that was estimated to be at least a pack a day. His Blackhawks linemates, Steve Larmer and Al Secord, also were said to be big smokers, which contributed to their nickname of "The Party Line" although Secord recently told SI.com that he never lit up.

[Coach Mike] Keenan tried to get Savard to stop, and did for a while. "But his play went way down. He was going through withdrawal. He went back on them," the ex-coach says.

I was born a few years after Lafleur, a couple before Bossy. And like a lot of people in that age bracket or older, I spent the first nine months of my life happily dividing cells and sucking on nascent appendages while my mom pumped a package of Player’s into her womb every day.

Everything I’ve done since then to ravage my health — including inhaling several wildfires’ worth of second-hand smoke in classrooms, bars and newspaper editorial departments back in the day — has been gravy. Though a lifelong nicotine abstainer, I’m considering having an image of the iconic Player’s Navy Cut sailor etched into my headstone.

Flashback: I am five and on my first fishing trip. Uncle Keith, whom I adore, is sucking back Sportsman after Sportsman while I pore over the exhilarating fishing scene on the amber Sportsman package. In the image, a man is reeling in a prize sports fish as another manoeuvres it into a net. They are wearing checked shirts and jaunty Bing Crosby-style fishing hats. Just like my dad and Uncle Keith.

On CBC-TV on Saturday nights after the hockey game, our pet Juliette sings wholesome paeans to Player’s, the show’s sponsor. The lyrics about Player’s and pleasure going together rhyme, give or take, with “mildest smoking ever.”

Tobacco commercials were everywhere — first in black and white, and then in living colour — in that simpler, happier time.

“What could be more refreshing than Newport menthol cigarettes?” asks an announcer in one of those reassuring 1950s radio announcer voices. “Newport refreshes while you smoke. Because only Newport has a fine white filter, menthol and mint, and a blend of great tasting tobaccos. Clean, cool pleasure you won’t find in any other cigarette.”

Cut to orgasmically inhaling, shirtless hunk and disposable blond babe with impossibly white teeth somewhere off the rugged intersection of Eden and Shangri-La.

“Want to give up strong-tasting cigarettes? Treat your taste kindly with Kent. Want to give up harsh-tasting cigarettes? Treat your taste kindly with Kent. Want to give up rough-tasting cigarettes?”

Cue ear-wormy jingle and show smiling sophisticates touting cigarettes between first and second fingers: “Smoke Kent. The micronite filter cigarette. Remember. The finer the filter, the milder the taste. Treat your taste kindly with Kent.”

A coincidence, I suppose, that my parents chose the K-name for my baby brother. “For the best combination of filter and good taste, Kent satisfies best.”

The Joey Bishop Show was brought to NBC and later to CBS viewers by Newport Filter Cigarettes. Here’s a routine from the early ’60s sitcom:

Writer: “Hey boss, I just wrote a great shaggy dog story.”

Bishop, reaching for a box of Newports: “Let me hear it.”

Writer: “A dog asks a clerk for a carton of Newports. So the clerk says: ‘You mean the cigarettes with fine white filters, menthol and mint and great-tasting tobaccos?’ And the dog says: ‘Yeah, and the crush-proof box.’ Then the dog says to the clerk: ‘Don’t tell me you’re not surprised to have a dog order a carton of crush-proof Newports.’ And the clerk says: ‘Sure, I’m surprised.’ ”

Bishop, about to take a lengthy drag on a great-tasting Newport, cuts off the writer with: “They usually come in and order the King Size.”

Writer, deflated by the anticipation of his punchline: “Son of a gun.”

Cue laugh track.

“Newport. More refreshing to begin with. More refreshing all the way.”

All the way “to an early grave” was what the tagline they didn’t add, though the tobacco companies had known how lethal their products were and suppressed that information with an iniquitous campaign of deception for decades, of course. All the while they were carefully designing cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.

Here’s an ad for “York Imperial Size Cigarettes. York Imperial Size Cigarettes.” Because things stick better in our heads with repetition:

Handsome middle-age white (goes without saying) dude with a bespoke suit and fetching haircut is out on the town, dining in a fancy restaurant and drawing elegantly on a York Imperial. “People will notice what you’re smoking when it’s York. People will notice what you’re smoking because it’s York,” the announcer intones.

The man is with an attractive woman, presumably his wife, but casually looks over his shoulder and spots a fur-wearing siren in pearls who could be Natalie Wood’s sister. She is fondling a box of York Imperial Size Cigarettes (size matters). And she is looking back.

“People will notice what you’re smoking when it’s York. People will notice what you’re smoking because it’s York.” Bombshell gently turns box sideways and places it on the table. Cut to closeup of male hand holding York-labelled cigarette horizontally. “The cigarette that’s longer than king size. Longer than any other leading cigarette.”

Holy crap! I think my Bic just flicked.

“So York travels the smoke farther to improve smoking taste,” the announcer explains. “York has no filter. York uses its new length instead of a filter to make rich tobaccos taste mild.”

Wait. I thought filters were good. And “travels the smoke farther”? Backward run sentences until reels the mind. We now return you to our sponsor.

Wife’s in her own ecstatic cloud so York guy steals a quick second glance at the, ahem, other woman. Titillating the erogenous zone of her lips, she is performing slow fellatio on an extra long cancer stick. With rich tobacco flavour flowing from the top of her perm to the fuck-me shoes we can only imagine, she inhales all of our hero’s attention with a second come-hither look. “York Imperial Size Cigarettes. York Imperial Size Cigarettes.”

Here’s one from Bedrock, which has to be seen to be believed:

Barney and Fred are leaning on their stone fence as Wilma uses a fast-chewing saurian herbivore to cut the Flintsones' lawn. In the Rubbles' adjacent yard, Betty is pounding the dust out of a gargantuan animal hide.

Fred: “They sure work hard, don’t they Barney?”

Barney: “Yeah, I hate to see them work so hard.”

Fred: “Me too. Um, let’s go around back where we can’t see ’em.”

Barney, sitting next to Fred around back: “Hey, we ought to do something, Fred.”

Fred: “OK. How’s about taking a nap?”

Barney, pulling a box out of his shirt pocket: “I got a better idea, Fred. Let’s take a Winston break.”


Barney holds up the alluring Winston box for all to see. Especially the under-12 fan base.

Fred, grabbing a ciggy: “That’s it! Winston is the one filtered cigarette that delivers flavour 20 times a pack. Winston’s got that filter blend.”

Barney, waving his smoking torch of flavoured freedom: “Yeah, Fred.”

Wilma pushes the lawnmower past the satisfied pair.

Barney: “Filter blend makes the big taste difference and only Winston has it.

Up front where it counts.”

Barney holds up a supersized Winston to illustrate his point. “Here, ahead of the pure white filter.”

With a mixture of envy and irritation, Betty and Wilma take a break and glare at the layabouts.

Barney: “Winston packs rich tobaccos specially selected and specially processed for good flavour in filter smoking.”

Fred: “Yeah, Barney. Winston tastes good like a …”

“The girls” arrive with scowls and tools for their men, signalling an end to this idyllic break.

Fred, holding a mop and smiling: “… cigarette should.”

All is forgiven later when we see Fred lighting “America’s bestselling, best-tasting filter cigarette” for a comfortably seated Wilma.

Fred: “Winston tastes good like a (he flicks his lighter twice) cigarette should.”

Remember that smell of your parents’ lighter fluid? Just wafted over me.

“After all, to make it in Canada, you’ve got to know the country. We do. Marlboro. Great Canadian tobacco. Great Canadian taste. Try one.”

Du Maurier. John Player Special. The Macdonald Lassie and her Export “A” filters. Peter Jackson. Pall Mall. Viceroy. Vogue. Reach for a Lucky Strike instead of a sweet.

Betty Davis in that impossibly romantic scene in 1942’s Now, Voyager, telling Paul Henreid they can never be lovers again. “Shall we just have a cigarette on it?” He puts two smokes from her engraved box into his mouth, lights both and hands her one. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon,” she purrs as their smoke mingles into the swelling Max Steiner score. “We have the stars.”

Twenty-year-old Lauren Bacall vamping into 45-year-old Humphrey Bogart’s erotically charged room a couple of years later in To Have and Have Not. They’d keep on smoking and flirting through The Big Sleep and Key Largo until esophageal cancer snuffed out the tough guy at age 57.

Anne Bancroft exhaling a plume into Dustin Hoffman’s face after he exacerbates that painful hotel-room tryst by leaning in to plant a wet one on her in The Graduate. Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct. “What are you gonna do? Charge me with smoking?”

Ah, smoking in the movies. As All the President’s Men’s Hal Holbrook once said in a parking garage and a carcinogenic cloud of mystery: “Follow the money.”

Sorry to be so long-winded, but let’s follow the money through the deep penetration of the North American (primarily) male psyche by extensive sports-event sponsorships and the co-opting of sports heroes. Back to the Sports Illustrated article:

New York Yankees greats Joe DiMaggio (Chesterfield) and Mickey Mantle (Camel and Viceroy) appeared in cigarette ads. Arnold Palmer, who was no John Daly, smoked all the time between shots in golf tournaments. Former San Diego Chargers coach Tommy Prothro sucked in three packs of Camels a day, regularly lighting up on the sidelines. Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver had a closer he nicknamed "Full Pack" after the number of gaspers Weaver would fire up in the dugout while Don Stanhouse was pitching out of late-inning jams.

Even broadcasters were smokin' in those days. Legendary Boston Celtics radio man Johnny Most's neglected Kool once set his pants on fire while he was on the air during a game.

During the Second World War, a special duty-free variant of the Macdonald Gold Standard was distributed to Canadian troops to boost morale. Pretty much all the veterans returned hooked. The Nazis hadn’t got them, but the resulting cancers would eventually claim tens of thousands.

There was nothing new about this. The same strategy worked for the tobacco companies in the First World War. The American Doughboys, too, had returned from that war addicted to nicotine.

To overcome the resistance of women to the stigma of smoking, associated with sex workers and strident (as they were parodied) suffragettes in the early part of the last century, the Madison Avenue Machiavellis hired by Big Tobacco cynically and successfully linked nicotine addiction to sexual liberation and equality.

Remember those Virginia Slims ads in magazines? “It took Marjorie Taylor 25 years to get the courage to smoke in front of her husband. It took Mr. Taylor 25 seconds to pack his wife’s bags.” Scan below to hot blonde in hot pants, holding a sleek Virginia Slim: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”


Depending on the distance to the nearest cemetery, that is.

There were warnings, of course.

Upon discovering in 1983 that he had inoperable lung cancer, a shockingly thin Yul Brynner stared directly into the camera for a sobering public service announcement that ran after his death in 1985.

“Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke. Whatever you do, just don’t smoke,” he said in a raspy voice. “If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer. I’m convinced of that.”

Brynner had started smoking when we was 12. Though he had managed to quit in 1971, he was often featured in promotional photos before his illness holding a cigarette. He was 65 when he died.

Canadians of a certain age will remember a series of animated ads produced by the National Film Board for the Department of National Health and Welfare in the early 1970s.

The script for my favourite: “Do you love hard? What a man. Do you drive hard? What a champion. Do you work hard? What a hero. Do you play hard? What a guy. Do you smoke hard? What a slave.”

But for Baby Boomers growing up in blue-hazed living rooms all over North America, this was pretty thin gruel compared with the temptation to light up in vain attempts to emulate the sexual, rebellious appeal of Dylan or the Stones or Joni Mitchell or Klute-era Jane Fonda.

That was the world you and I and the young Mike Bossy and the young Guy Lafleur glided into so gloriously (admittedly, they had better slapshots). Back to SI:

"In the province of Quebec, I used to go see some junior games a lot, and you couldn't see the ice. The whole rink was covered in smoke, it was amazing," says Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who coached the Canadiens from 1971 to 1978. "The French, they just smoked more, and when they came to Canada they took that with them. It was just the culture.”

Guy Lafleur was one of the greatest players of his generation despite his pack-or-two-a-day habit, say some who played with him. Bowman says that Lafleur regularly smoked a cigarette between periods.

"He'd smoke in the (hotel) room, but always in the bathroom," says former Colorado Avalanche great Joe Sakic, who shared hotel quarters with Lafleur on the road when the two were teammates on the Quebec Nordiques during the final two seasons (1989-91) of The Flower's career. "I told him he didn't have to do that. I mean, I was in awe of him. He could have done whatever he wanted. But he always insisted."

Now Bossy’s gone and the Flower’s gone and the tobacco industry, while continuing to push traditional cigarettes, is increasingly using social media, stealth marketing and sponsorship of extreme sporting events to market electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products.

Vaping: Your ticket to fun, sexiness, sociability, social status, health, wealth and athleticism.

Be like Mike.


What was it Lafleur once said? Oh, yes.


“Play every game as if it is your last one.”


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