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ALLAN MAKI

Nostalgia for a nicer NHL Add to ...

In his home, in green-and-blue plaid pyjamas, he sits in an easy chair across from his wall of memories. There’s a framed photograph of him with Wayne Gretzky. There’s one of the Hockey Hall of Fame building autographed by the greats. There’s a photo of the Calder Trophy he won as the NHL’s top rookie in 1946. There’s a photo of an early Madison Square Garden and another of him on the ice during a full-scale brawl with the Montreal Canadiens.

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Playing for the New York Rangers, he is on the fringe of the fighting where, true to his nature, he is playing peacemaker, holding back a charging foe. Then as now, Edgar Laprade has always been a gentleman. Because of that, he’s not sure he likes the NHL any more.

Not the game, he clarifies. He still loves the skating, the shooting, the deftness of a good pass. Today’s players are fast and big. They’re also violent; prone to elbowing one another in the head or ramming each other into the boards from behind.

“The basic game hasn’t changed that much,” Laprade says, his eyes sparkling. “What’s changed is the people who play the game … the players have become more mean.”

At 92, he is the oldest living member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, born the same year the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series and scientists confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity. And since 1993, the year of his induction, Laprade has flown to Toronto to attend the annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony and be remembered for having played with and against some of the greats.

But this weekend, Laprade is staying put in the house he bought in 1945 using his $5,000 NHL signing bonus. It’s getting too hard for him to travel and, honestly, he’d rather watch his two great-grandsons play hockey at nearby Grandview Arena. They have girls on their team. Laprade thinks that’s wonderful.

“The hockey I like is the ladies’ hockey at the Olympics,” he says before telling how he took a bunch of 2010 Hockey Hall of Fame calendars featuring inductee Cammi Granato, autographed them then gave one to all the girls on his grandsons’ teams. So they could dream big dreams.

Skillful play was how Laprade etched his place in hockey history. He was smallish, fast, an elusive scorer who never stopped skating. And clean? He played 500 NHL games, scored 280 points and collected just 42 penalty minutes. Three times, he played an entire season without being penalized. In three other seasons, he finished with two minutes. Little wonder he earned the Lady Byng Trophy in 1950 along with his fourth invite to the NHL all-star game.

“When I was with St. Mike’s, we had passes at Maple Leaf Gardens and I’d go watch the Rangers and see [Laprade]” said Rudy Migay, the Thunder Bay-born centre who spent nine seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “He could skate and he wasn’t that small – 5 foot 8. Back in those days, there weren’t that many six-footers. If there were, they usually couldn’t skate or handle the puck and played defence.”

Laprade was set to play in the 1940 Winter Olympics after helping the Port Arthur Bearcats to the Allan Cup title as Canadian senior champs. The Olympics, however, were cancelled because of the Second World War and Laprade enlisted in the Army. He played in the Winnipeg Services League and later in the Kingston Hockey League, where he was pursued by both the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens.

He signed with the Rangers because of the money. He was 26, old by NHL rookie standards, but eager to settle in.

“I lived at the Belvedere Hotel close to Madison Square Garden (then between 49th and 50th Streets). We’d get off the train after a 16-hour ride and guys would have to take the subway to Long Island where they lived,” said Laprade. “I walked to the hotel … I saw a lot of musicals on Broadway. I had friends give me tickets to Guys and Dolls, Carousel. It was fun.”

So were the games, although playing against Gordie Howe was never easy.

“I never liked Gordie. Even his own linemates, like Ted Lindsay, didn’t like him. He wasn’t that clean of a player. He was a good player; you can’t take that away from him,” Laprade said. “But he elbowed me once for no reason.”

When his NHL career ended in 1955, the Rangers wanted him to coach in their system but Laprade argued he didn’t have the patience. He returned to Thunder Bay to live in the only house he has owned and raise his three daughters. He later operated a sporting goods store, Percente and Laprade, and carried on after his wife Arline died in 1987. To fill the void, he often gathered with other former pros, such as Migay, Pentti Lund, Ben Woit and Arnott Whitney, to share stories and past glories. The sunshine boys of hockey.

These days, the oldest living member of the Hockey Hall of Fame still misses the game, but only the version he played when contracts were small and the players didn’t seem as mean as they do now. Under the television stand in front of his wall of yesterdays sits a stack of cards with Laprade’s image on them. Dutifully, he signs every card when the requests come for autographs, and come they do – from Poland, the Czech Republic, Japan, all over the world.

“People remember,” he’s told.

He smiles wearing plaid pyjamas.

“It’s nice to be remembered,” he said.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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