We are in the process of organizing a reunion featuring the Toronto Toros team that was a part of the WHA between the years 1972-79, including the team’s tenure not only in Toronto, but Ottawa and Birmingham. The fascination with this historical time in hockey is gaining a lot of traction and the interest in the reunion is beyond our initial expectations with over 30 former Nationals/Toros/Bulls committed to attend. While the storyline is ripe with drama and historical significance spanning defections, underage signings, outbidding NHL teams for players, it’s the stories uncovered behind the scenes while tracking down the players that I’m finding particularly interesting.
Rabbi Moshe Stern was stationed in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama named Mountain Brook, also home to a number of the players on the Bulls team that had relocated here after a few unsuccessful years in Toronto. Birmingham is mostly Southern Baptists and a very religious region but also had a diverse array of different religions. Rabbi Stern was one of the Chaplains assigned to the Bulls that entailed a chapel for players before games, but another of his duties consisted of an invocation (prayer) before each home game. He would walk out to center ice before the National Anthem and recite a religious passage to the crowd and players; that was a first of its kind in any sporting arena in the NHL, WHA or NBA.
Paul Henderson was a regular to Rabbi Stern’s chapels and became so fascinated with Judaism that he inquired about converting. Rabbi Stern pointed out the history of Christianity was something that Paul had some exposure to and maybe he should consider exploring further. Henderson after some soul searching listened to the wise advice, eventually becoming a born again Christian.
Rabbi Stern recounted during those days watching games spending a lot of time explaining the rules and nuances of hockey to the locals. He helped break one habit they developed consisting of clapping after the puck was iced by the Bulls, explaining that it wasn’t a good thing because it brought the puck back into their end.
He shared a story how one day with the Jets in town for a game after the morning skate he visited the Winnipeg dressing room. His son Tzvic who was seven at the time wasn’t feeling well and thought maybe he could find a souvenir to cheer him up. Bobby Hull agreed to meet him after practice with a stick signed to his son. After the Jets skate, Hull came out of the dressing room and directed the Rabbi to wait by the ice. Rabbi Stern stood by the player’s bench and while he waited for Hull, a man in a wheelchair rolled into the rink. Bobby greeted the gentleman, then preceded to lift him out of the wheelchair, sit the man down on the player’s bench and roll his wheelchair out on to the ice surface about halfway between the blue line and the goal line. Next Hull, who had changed in to a sweat suit and skates, picked the man up, skated out to the chair on the ice, sat him down, handed him a stick and placed about a dozen pucks around him. For the next 30-minutes the Rabbi watched in astonishment as the gentleman in the wheelchair shot pucks towards the net with Hull retrieving them and placing the pucks back beside the chair. The man had a grin from ear to ear and this kind act by Hull moved the Rabbi in a very endearing way. When the whole exercise was finished Rabbi Stern excitedly said to Hull that what he had witnessed was one of the most heartfelt acts of kindness he’d ever experienced and wanted to share this with the local press because this type of human-interest story should be told. But Bobby Hull would have none of that. While he thanked the Rabbi for his kind words, he went on to say he tried to do this in every city they visited but under no circumstances did he want any publicity. He swore the Rabbi to secrecy and outside of his wife, he’d never told a soul until me 38 years later. He jokingly thought enough time had passed.
Incidentally after the gentleman in the wheelchair left, Hull took Rabbi Stern into the dressing room that was now empty as the players had headed back to the hotel. He took a stick from the rack and showed the Rabbi how he prepared one for game condition, using a blowtorch to heat and bend the blade. Afterwards he taped and signed the stick to the Rabbi’s son.
Arriving home with the signed treasure for his son and a very touching story for his wife, that brought her to tears; his daughter reminded him she was a hockey fan also and why didn’t she get a stick. At the next Bulls game, after explaining his predicament with his daughter, star forward Mark Napier came to the rescue with one of his signed sticks, and both kids still have those prize keepsakes today.