• Earl Fowler

The past leaves a calling card

Earl Fowler

Of the hundreds of hockey, baseball, Beatles and Monkees trading cards that were once my proudest possessions, I’m down to one.

Precisely what happened to the well-loved scrapbooks bearing the cards is a mystery locked in the black maw of the past.

One version of history has my long-suffering mum or dad ruthlessly deciding to clean out my unruly closet while I was away at college. In a parallel universe, which a friend swears is what actually went down but of which I have no recollection, I lent my cards to him for safekeeping the year I headed east to graduate school — only to have his fastidious mother toss them at the first opportunity.

Whatever. In a tragedy repeated at millions of homes of erstwhile mid-century North American boys, the trading-card collections disappeared — along with the early-edition Marvel and DC comics, the Mad and National Lampoon magazines.

One likes to imagine that some of the sports cards from the 1950s and ’60s that one amassed would be worth serious money today. I remember reading that a 1953 Parkhurst Jean Béliveau rookie card in mint condition sold for more than $22,000 almost a decade ago.

But the truth is that with the exceptions of former Detroit Red Wing Alex Delvecchio and former New York Rangers Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell (why they stand out in the memory labyrinth, je n’ai aucune idée), none of the faces come back to me.

Oh, wait. Bobby Rousseau. I was a Montreal Canadiens fan from birth, and I loved Bobby Rousseau.

Still, it was the Beatles cards I dug most, especially the black and white ones with the iconic signatures I learned to copy before newfangled colour reproductions brought us fame-weary, more jaded editions of the Fab Four.

By the time the Monkees — the Prefab Four — came along, I was buying the card packets mostly for the tiny stick of pink gum. And to see just how long Michael Nesmith was going to stick with that unfortunate green tuque, of course.

(Also, was it just me, or was that gum devoid of all flavour after 20 seconds? Like a lot of things in life, it smelled better than it tasted. Absolutely useless for blowing bubbles.)

Anyway, I was sorting through family photo albums the other day when a solitary hockey card spiralled to the floor. I immediately recognized Jimmy Roberts, an unspectacular defensive specialist who spent much of his NHL playing career with the Canadiens, shadowing other teams’ top scoring threats.

The sometime defenceman, sometime right winger scored only 126 goals in his 1,006 regular-season games over 20 years, but had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup five times between 1965 and ’78, when he hung up the skates.

The onetime Peterborough Pete was no slouch as an NHLer, playing in three All-Star Games. But he was cut from different sweater wool than a Lafleur or a Gretzky, and did his job to perfection if fans barely noticed him — or the stars of the other teams.

I have no idea where the Roberts trading card came from or why it hung around all these years, but the weird thing is that I have kind of a personal connection with the man, who was 75 when cancer claimed him in 2015. Not that I ever met him.

I had finished one program at Western University (then the University of Western Ontario) and was about to embark on another in the spring of 1977, when I found myself with a couple of weeks off and an invitation from a friend in Montreal to visit the métropole for the first time.

Just in time for the playoffs.

The sight of the two main escalators of the Forum, ingeniously lit to resemble two giant crossed hockey sticks, brought tears to my eyes.

My friend knew a guy who knew a guy who knew an usher, and the next thing I knew, crisp bills (mine) had crossed hands and we were being waved through the gates and into the standing-room euphoria of hockey’s greatest shrine.

The smoke was so thick my eyes teared up again, but that might have been because I was in the presence of a Montreal lineup that included such luminaries as Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Steve Shutt, Peter Mahovlich … I could go on … and yes, Jimmy Roberts, the oldest man on the team, then enjoying his final kick at the Cup. That dominant 1976-77 squad is regarded by many as the greatest team in NHL history.

The opponents that evening, I believe, were the New York Islanders, whom the Canadiens bounced from the semifinals before sweeping Boston in the final. Honestly, I don’t remember.

I do vividly recall that every time Lafleur touched the puck, the crowd went wild. And I remember Roberts scoring maybe the goal of his life — and perhaps the final goal of his career — on what I can still picture as a short-handed breakaway, though I’m not prepared to swear an affidavit as to the reliability of the vision.

I would go on that night to get rip-roaring drunk at Toe Blake’s Tavern on Ste-Catherine St., a men’s-only establishment (am I right in remembering it as a bit of a dive?) where I learned the immortal French words: “Je veux pisser.”

More than 40 years later, suffering from unrelenting nocturia (look that baby up; who knew there was a word?), I don’t find the sentiment nearly as amusing.

But I haven’t lost my fondness for the man who wore No. 6 for the Canadiens with such honour and integrity. I was thrilled to revisit the memory and the era when Jimmy Roberts dropped back into my life.

It got me thinking: Can my rediscovery of the old cookie jar full of Coke bottle caps featuring mug shots of Canadian Football League players from the 1960s be far behind?

I’m pretty sure I had at least eight Gene Gaines.

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