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Original Issue

Hockey in a Slapstick Style

Jean Baptiste Pusie clowned his way into a brief fame as a hockey player. But then the laughs grew hollow

Hockey has had its share of implausible characters, but for unlimited lunacy on ice nobody has matched Montreal-born Jean Baptiste Pusie. A husky French-Canadian defenseman with an immense ego and a low-comedy accent, Pusie made his debut in the autumn of 1930 at the Montreal Canadiens' training camp.

Coach Cecil Hart was startled when the 20-year-old rookie entered his office, introduced himself, vigorously pumped his hand and declared: "Meestair 'art. Pewsee weel be zee greatess. Heet's 'ockey playairs like me dat weel make dis game pop-u-lair."

Hart admired the youngster's off-ice exuberance but he detected two serious flaws in his playing technique. Pusie's heavy shot worked only when he had ample time to lower his head for a protracted wind-up. And his stick-handling was based on the notion that opponents never were closer than 10 feet to him. When Jean Baptiste skated, his eyes remained glued to the puck.

"Ship him to London for seasoning," Hart suggested to Manager Leo Dandurand, "and see what happens."

Pusie was depressed when he joined the London, Ontario, Tecumsehs of the International League but confident that he would yet be an NHL star.

In his first home game Pusie was fed a lead pass and broke into the clear. This was a perfect opportunity for Jean Baptiste to fire his unusual shot. He wound up in the classic style and hit the puck so hard it yanked the goalie's mitt from his hand. Both puck and glove sailed into the net.

Before the goalie could move, Pusie dived into the cage, retrieved the glove and presented it to the goaltender with a low bow. He held his opponent's bare hand up to the crowd, carefully counted the fingers and said: "Dey are all dere. You are luck-y." He replaced the glove and condescendingly patted the goalie on the back.

"Pusie then leisurely strutted to center ice, a one-man parade, and the audience went wild," wrote the late Bill Roche, assistant sports editor of the London Advertiser.

The word got around that Pusie played an amusing kind of hockey, and London's arena was jammed for the next game. The crowd had come to see Jean Baptiste, and when the home team was awarded a penalty shot, fans demanded that Pusie take it. "I had no choice," said Coach Clem Loughlin. "He already owned the joint."

Only Pusie and the opposing goaltender remained on the ice. For a few seconds Jean Baptiste remained sphinxlike in the center of the rink, glaring wide-eyed at his enemy. Then he let out a shriek and dashed frantically toward the net. When he reached the penalty shot line, he drew back his stick. The goalie tensed for the shot but Pusie never fired. He stopped short, spraying the goaltender with ice shavings. Then, placing stick and gloves on the ice, he skated to the goalie, courteously shook hands and returned to center ice.

Again Jean Baptiste began his rush, wound up for the shot and, this time, fired. But he had miscalculated. The puck dribbled off his stick and lazily rolled to the goal line, an absurdly easy stop. The goalie, however, was so mesmerized by Pusie's overture he remained transfixed as the puck rolled past him into the net.

"Pusie dashed to the goalkeeper, who was still stupefied," said Roche, "and kissed him on both cheeks. That woke him up. He grabbed his stick and went for Pusie's head. Too late. Pusie already was strutting back to center ice on his way to fame as a hockey comic."

Following his season at London, Pusie moved to Regina in the Western Canada League. His most notable performance that season was a bit of philanthropy during a game in which Pusie's team was winning 18-0, every goal having been scored by Jean Baptiste. With just minutes remaining, Pusie began another rush. Only this time he abruptly wheeled at center ice, skated back toward the Regina goaltender and fired the puck into his own net. "Sorry," he explained, "I feel bad about dat poor team."

Despite his shenanigans, Pusie still was aiming for an NHL berth. In 1932-33 he led the Western League in scoring, while playing for Vancouver. The New York Rangers purchased him, but the best he could do was score two assists in 19 games. "As a character, he was wonderful," recalls Frank Boucher, a member of the Rangers at the time, "but he didn't have enough ability."

A year later he was acquired by the Boston Bruins, played a few games and was dispatched to their farm club, the Bruin Cubs.

A nonconformist

Pusie's lifelong ambition to play in Montreal finally was realized in 1935 when the Canadiens purchased him from Boston. He scored two assists but was remembered for other things. "The players weren't fond of him," says Elmer Ferguson, columnist of The Montreal Slur. "He had a bad habit of never taking a bath. He was a crazy sonofagun and not good enough for the NHL."

Jean Baptiste wound up with St. Louis in the American Association as garrulous as ever. At times he defied everyone on the ice—including his own teammates—and then challenged any or all of the fans to battle. When the club was winning, he'd grow a beard and often comb his hair in the midst of a game, or pause to chat with the fans.

After the Canadiens dropped him, it became apparent even to optimistic Jean Baptiste that he was a failure. His comedy became overly conscious, strained and sad. "He was at his best," said Roche, "in the early days when his stuff was spontaneous. He finally carried things too far and got into trouble tangling with the fans and the police."

Pusie retired from hockey in 1942 and died of a heart attack in Montreal on April 23, 1956. He was 45.

"You really had to be in the rink to believe what he did," says Boucher. "His split-second timing and crazy face movements were as good as a vaudevillian's. But in the end, you'd have to say he was a tragic guy. Too bad. If he was half as good on the ice as he was funny, he'd be in the Hall of Fame."