He’d just been named one of game’s three stars, so he decided to show the fans some flair. He swiped the hat off an usher’s head, placed it on his own and hopped on the ice. He delivered a pretty pirouette. He hopped back off the ice, placed the hat back on the usher’s head and was gone. The crowd roared.
That was Eddie Shack, a player so charismatic and beloved that a song written about him once topped the Canadian pop music charts. He was known more for his trademark cowboy hat, bushy mustache and TV commercials than for his play. They called him ‘The Entertainer’ for a reason. The NHL had never seen a personality quite like his. It was a painful loss for the game when Shack, 83, passed away Sunday after a battle with cancer.
Shack’s early life trajectory wasn’t what most people call normal, and that was fitting for him. Growing up in Sudbury, Ont., he dropped out of school at a young age and spent much of his life functionally illiterate. He worked in a butcher shop until he tried out for the Ontario Hockey Association’s Guelph Biltmores. He quickly made an impact as a bruising power forward with a nose for the net. By his fifth and final season there, he averaged exactly two points per game.
Shack ended up signing with the New York Rangers and debuting for them in 1958-59. He spent the first few seasons of his career with them, but his stardom really ignited when he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and quickly became a fan favorite as a third-line agitator.
Shack was underrated for what he accomplished on the ice. He was big for his day at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. He was a fast skater and a hard hitter. He finished second in the NHL in even-strength goals in 1965-66. He cracked the top 10 in game-winning goals five times. He won Stanley Cups with the Leafs in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 and scored the Cup-winning goal in 1963. Shack bounced around later in his career with stops in Boston, Los Angeles, Buffalo and Pittsburgh and is one of nine players in NHL history to score 20 goals with five different teams.
“He was an impact guy,” said retired goaltender Eddie Johnston, who played with Shack for the Boston Bruins and the Leafs during Shack’s second stint with Toronto. “He was a big guy. Once in a while, we had him on the power play, and he would get right in front of the goalkeeper and screen him. He might give you the impression that he had a smile on his face, but he was very competitive. When he came to the bench, if you weren’t doing your job, he let you know we’ve got to pick it up.”
His lively personality made him a feisty competitor who started but finished plenty of on-ice altercations. He was unafraid to drop the gloves with mean customers such as Gordie Howe, whom Shacked famously knocked out twice. Shack’s big dressing-room presence also made him a momentum-changer for his teammates.
“He was very well liked,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, a retired NHL goalie who played two seasons with Shack for the Penguins. “Very well respected. When he arrived on the scene, you knew he arrived on the scene. Everybody was happy to see him. Everything lightened up at that point. He was a funny guy. He was serious in the games when he had to be.”
“He always would say something to you and make you laugh,” Johnston said. “Just walking in a room, he took control of it.”
Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler joined the Leafs in 1970. The team was still full of icons who had won the Stanley Cup as recently as 1967, and when Shack rejoined the Leafs for 1973-74, he fit right back into the family. Shack and Sittler would go snowmobiling on off days. His wife Norma and Sittler’s late wife Wendy became friends. Sittler has a treasure trove of Shack memories from their time together. As Sittler remembers it, Shack would rib goaltender Johnny Bower about the two of them having their own songs. Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack by Douglas Rankine and the Secrets hit No. 1 in 1966, and Bower’s Honky the Christmas Goose was a sensation in 1965.
What always amazed Sittler was Shack’s hold over the crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens, as he displayed one game near the end of his career when coach Red Kelly wasn’t playing him.
“In the Gardens, you could stand up right behind the bench and kibitz with the crowd, so Eddie started getting the crowd saying, ‘We want Shack!’ Pass it on. ‘We want Shack!’ ” Sittler said. “Next thing you know, the section behind the bench is chanting, ‘We want Shack!’ Eddie called Red Kelly ‘Leonard,’ and he turned and said, ‘Leonard, you hear that? They want me.’ ”
As Rutherford recalls, every time Shack took the ice, all eyes were on him, wondering what he’d do next. Off the ice, he stood out just as much, especially because he had the cowboy hat on so often. It was like an extension of his soul.
“One thing you knew about the hat: you left him alone when he had it on,” Johnston said. “You didn’t go near him or bother him.”
The hat was much more than a decoration, however. As Sittler explains, Shack would have players and celebrities sign it. Once it was full of signatures, Shack would sell it to raise money for charity. Then he’d start the process over with a new hat. That was Shack: fun-loving on the surface but a deep and kind person underneath. Shack parlayed his gregarious manner into being an ad pitchman for anything from the Pop Shoppe to Schick razors to Esso, but he spent just as much time raising awareness about illiteracy in his post-playing days, giving speeches to students at schools. Shack had many layers.
He left a lasting legacy on anyone who played with him, and many former teammates stayed in touch with him for years after he retired. Sittler would regularly see him in North Toronto, adding, with a laugh, that he’d hear Shack before he saw him, as Sittler would often walk into a store and find Shack chatting up some strangers. Shack owned a golf course for a while and, as Rutherford remembers, Shack was extremely proud of it.
“Every time I’d come in to play, he’d show me what new things he’d done to the golf course.” Rutherford said. “I had a friend of mine come to play with us one day. They’d worked hard building this new tee in one of the holes, and it was absolutely perfect, like the carpet in your living room, no dirt on it. Eddie said, ‘Why don’t we be the first ones to play on this tee?’ My buddy gets on the tee first, and he must’ve taken a two-foot divot. I’ll never forget the look on Eddie’s face, this beautiful new tee.”
Those who knew Shack speak about him with an unmistakable warmth. Even with his death so fresh, they can’t mention him without being reminded of a funny story. And that’s probably how Shack would’ve wanted it: he was a friend to many and an entertainer to the end.
“He was good to everybody,” Rutherford said. “He would see somebody, and he would make people feel comfortable, he would make people feel good, he would make them laugh. And it didn’t matter whether he knew them or you were his best friend. He was just a special guy.”