Sometimes fate gives us a unique convergence of moments. Some might say they’re purely coincidental — that, in any other circumstance, it would have played out differently, devoid of meaning. But in some instances, we can just choose to ascribe some deeper meaning to the situation. Tonight might be one of those rare occasions.
Although the Canucks anointed tonight “Mattias Ohlund Night” for the banal reason that it was the one time this season that the Tampa Bay Lightning — the only other team for which Ohlund played during his 909 game NHL career — were in town, the date carries with it a special significance. It fits that the player who shares the record for most Babe Pratt Trophies as the Canucks best defenceman (four – with Jyrki Lumme and Doug Lidster), should be enshrined in the Ring of Honour on December 16. Babe Pratt, for whom the eponymous award is named, passed away on this date, 28 years ago.
Unlike Pavel Bure, Fred Hume, or Fred “Cyclone” Taylor, Walter “Babe” Pratt’s connection to the city of Vancouver is a little less obvious to the average Canucks fan (or Vancouver resident, for that matter). He wasn’t a Rocket from Russia, a former mayor, or a legendary player who had his name branded across a franchise of sporting goods stores. But he was a former NHL hockey player – and a damn good one, too.
Pratt was born in the small Manitoba community of Stony Mountain in 1916, a town known for little else other than being the birthplace of Babe Pratt. Pratt worked his way up to the NHL during the Great Depression with the New York Rangers, where he played a little over eight seasons before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He enjoyed his best seasons with the Leafs, winning the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP in 1944 when he scored 57 points in 50 games – a record for defensemen that would stand for 16 seasons.
His tenure in Toronto hit a bit of a snag in January 1945, when NHL President Red Dutton suspended Pratt for betting on games. Although the league reinstated him later that season — and he returned to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal against Detroit — Conn Smythe sold Pratt to Boston in the offseason, where the former Hart Trophy winner would play just 31 games before going on to finish his career in the minors. He played three seasons with the New Westminster Royals of the old Pacific Coast Hockey League, which explains how he came to reside in the Vancouver area. Eventually, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.
Babe – as the nickname might suggest – lived large. He was as well-known for his hockey skills as for his drinking and womanizing. Lester Patrick, the rookie general manager of the Rangers in 1940-41, once fined Pratt $1,000 for stumbling, drunk, through the team train at 3 am (no small amount in those days). Patrick said he would refund Pratt his money if the defenceman managed to stay sober through to the end of the season. Pratt’s streak of sobriety coincided with a lengthy losing streak for the Rangers, at which point Patrick attempted to renegotiate the deal.
“Babe,” said the Hall of Fame manager, “I think maybe I was too harsh. Maybe the odd drink’s ok, after all.”
Pratt, however, held up his end of the bargain for the remainder of the season, despite pleas from his teammates to fall off the wagon. There was a sense of bitterness towards Pratt for his newfound sobriety. The Rangers realized they played better with him half-sloshed than completely dry. Sure enough, the Rangers would fail to repeat as Cup champions that year, as well as for the next 53 seasons.
When the Canucks entered the NHL in 1970, Pratt joined the organization as a goodwill ambassador. His son, Tracy, also played for the WHL Canucks and from 1973-76 with the NHL Canucks. He was always good-natured and could regale sports writers and young hockey fans with stories of yore. He was also nearly always good for a quote or two.
On December 16, 1988, Babe Pratt collapsed in his press lounge chair during the second period of a Calgary Flames-Vancouver Canucks game at Pacific Coliseum. Paramedics rushed him to Vancouver General Hospital but were unable to resuscitate him. At the age of 72, the larger than life Pratt had succumbed to a heart attack.
Vancouver players would wear a patch with the word “BABE” on their uniforms for the remainder of the 1989 season. The Canucks organization would also rename the Premier’s Trophy after Pratt prior to the 1989-90 season in honour of the club’s best blueliner. Tonight’s Ring of Honour inductee, Mattias Ohlund, would win that Trophy four times.
And Pratt, ever the gambler, would leave hockey fans with one last treat that fateful night. Every game, the members in the press lounge would place money in a pool to guess the correct attendance at the Coliseum. On the evening he passed, Babe was announced the winner of the small $16 prize. Of course, unlike the $1,000 he recouped back in 1941, he would not be around to collect it.
With files from the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen, and Montreal Gazette