One of the players who attended Colleen Howe’s memorial service was Bryan “Bugsy” Watson, a former teammate of Gordie’s.
When Bryan approached Gordie to offer his condolences, Howe burst into tears and hugged Watson who had traveled from Virginia to attend the memorial service.
Seeing Watson made me think again of his famous role in the 1966 semifinals series between Detroit and Chicago when the then 23 year old Red Wing defenseman was assigned to “shadow” the great Bobby Hull, who that season shattered the 50 goal barrier with a frightening banana blade slap shot.
A few years ago I recalled that famous match up in an article I wrote on Watson for the Detroit Free Press.
After finishing fourth in the second to last year before the Original Six NHL expanded, the underdog Red Wings faced Chicago who they had beat only once in 14 meetings during the regular season. The previous year, the Blackhawks eliminated Detroit in the playoffs thanks largely to Bobby Hull’s eight goals.
Although Chicago was loaded with talent, including future Hall of Famers Stan Mikita and Phil Esposito, to succeed, the Wings knew they had to find a way to stop Hull, plain and not so simple. Other teams had attempted it during the season by assigning players to shadow the superstar and try to slow him down, but Hull was still able to score a record 54 goals.
Employing a “check and chase” strategy, Wings coach Sid Abel assigned forward Paul Henderson to “shadow” Hull in the first game of the semifinals. But after the Golden Jet netted the game wining goal in the Hawks 2-1 victory, Abel then turned to Bryan Watson, a spirited and gutsy young player not afraid to sacrifice his body.
Thanks to Gordie, Bryan Watson became “Bugsy” and before long he would make a career out of his unique ability to violently provoke opponents into joining him in the penalty box.
“When I played in Montreal, I saw how well Claude Provost had shadowed Bobby, and I had done it myself with the Canadiens”, Watson said.
Although 25 pounds lighter than Hull, the part time penalty killer volunteered to “shadow” the Golden Jet.
Teammate Bill Gadsby fondly remembered Abel’s words to Watson.
“Sid told Bugsy, ‘if Bobby Hull goes to the concession stand, you go with him and put the sugar in his coffee.’”
In the first ever nationally televised NHL game in the United States, the Wings annihilated Hull and the Hawks 7-0 in game 2 of the series at Chicago Stadium as Watson began his persistent pestering of the Golden Jet that lasted the rest of the series.
As Hull would begin his patented circle to gain skating momentum, Watson would skate small circles inside, hacking away at Hull at every opportunity. “I was awful to him and I drove him nuts,” Watson said. “I jammed the lanes so he could not do his big windup with the puck. I can’t tell you the things I said to him. I was never afraid of Bobby.”
When the series moved to Olympia Stadium for game three, Watson, by now a fan favorite, was indoctrinated into the tradition of Red Wings playoff hockey after he scored a goal in the 2 to 1 loss to Chicago that included 2 penalties each to Hull and Watson for penalties committed against each other.
“ I’ll never forget that goal, because after I scored, this slimy thing went flying over my shoulder and it scared the hell out of me,” Watson said with a laugh. “After the game, this guy who had seen the look on my face introduced himself as Fritz Cusimano and he told me how the octopus tradition had started way back with his family’s fish market.”
Watson added further insult to injury for Hull in the Wing’s 5-1 triumph in game 4 when his second goal of the series was followed by a thunderous ovation by a delirious Olympia crowd that had been roaring throughout the game during the Hull and Watson war. A chorus of “We want Watson” echoed throughout the old red barn. Afterwards, when Hull was asked if Watson was beginning to bother him, Hull quipped, “when he scores goals he does.”
With victories in games five and six, the upstart Wings eliminated the Blackhawks and headed to the Finals against Montreal thanks largely to the antics of Bryan Watson in shutting down Bobby Hull. (In the last Stanley Cup Final game at Olympia Stadium, the Canadiens won the Cup in the sixth game on a controversial overtime goal by Henri Richard.)
When the bell rang to end the Watson-Hull match, Bugsy came out on top.
For the semifinal series, Watson was banished seven times for infractions against Hull while Hull was penalized five times for misdeeds against Watson. The Golden Jet scored only twice, both times when Watson was on the bench. Bugsy’s two goals, which matched his regular season output, occurred with Hull on the ice.
“There’s no question that Bryan had a job to do, and he did it well,” said Gordie Howe.
I asked Gordie, what would have happened if Watson had ever played against him and was assigned be his shadow.
As usual, Gordie did not miss a beat.
“I would have first asked Bugsy ‘what flavor do you like, white tape or black?’”, said Howe.
“Bryan did a helluva job on Hull every game we played, but he paid the price,” Bill Gadsby says. “I remember Bugsy’s belly was all marked up with spear jobs, and his chest and ribs had welts all over because Bobby didn’t like what he was doing.”
Apparently, so much so, that Watson discovered years later that Hull still harbored bad feelings towards him.
“At an Oldtimers hockey game in Markham Ontario, Ted Lindsay, for kicks suggested that I skate over to Bobby and have some fun,” Watson said. “When Bobby saw me coming over, his big smile went to gloom and doom. I grabbed his stick so he couldn’t skate, and with that, he ripped it out of my hand and jumped over the boards, taking off his skates. I said to Teddy, ‘holy Jesus, you see what I mean?” When Watson nearly lost his hand in a chainsaw accident a few years ago, Watson heard that Hull remarked, ‘how’s the chain saw doing?”
These days, Bryan and his wife Lindy run their restaurant “Bugsy’s” in Alexandria, Virginia but once a year he somehow finds his way back to the Motor City.
“Detroit was the best sports city I have ever been in,” Watson fondly recalled. “The people were so wonderful to me. I had so much fun, I could hardly wait to get to the Olympia.”
And as for the ’66 semifinals, Watson said, “I know I had a lot more fun than Bobby did.”
© Bill Dow 2009. All Rights Reserved.