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Original Issue

A reluctant dragon torments the Red Wings

Once a fire-breather for Toronto, Carl Brewer has returned from self-imposed exile as a most civilized defenseman for Detroit. The Wings want him meaner but realize he is the key to a playoff spot as he is

The first time he faced the hopeful Detroit press last October after signing with the all-but-lost Red Wings, Carl Brewer tried to make one thing clear. "The name," he said, "is spelled C-A-R-L, not M-O-S-E-S." That left the problem of who was Carl, really. A lot of people had been wondering since the day in 1965 when, as an All-Star defenseman for Toronto, Brewer simply walked out of the Maple Leafs' training camp and never came back. Brewer, then 27 years old, said he just wasn't prepared to pay the price of big-league hockey anymore; also, he had started worrying about the next Saturday night's plane ride on Monday. Hockey fans across Canada thought they knew a better reason: like many of the Toronto players, Brewer was fed up with Punch Imlach, the team's stormy, demanding coach and general manager.

A serious, introspective man with clear blue eyes, a large nose and thinning hair, Brewer returned to the University of Toronto, where he finished work toward a degree in political science. Then he went off to play for Canada's national hockey team and later became player-coach of a minor league team in Muskegon, Mich. On March 3, 1968 the Red Wings and Maple Leafs announced the controversial seven-player deal that sent Norm Ullman to Toronto in exchange for Frank Mahovlich. Detroit also was granted one year to sign Brewer to a Red Wing contract. Otherwise, his body would revert back to Toronto.

Reaffirming his reasons for quitting, Brewer turned the Red Wings down and departed to coach a hockey team in Helsinki. He returned early last year, however, and on March 30—a scant 30 minutes before the deadline—Brewer signed with Detroit, reportedly for $70,000. The contract probably made him the best-paid player on the Red Wings except for Gordie Howe (who is playing despite a painful case of arthritis which has drained power from his shots). And now at midseason it looks as if Carl had the Moses thing wrong. Somebody has led the Wings out of hockey's wilderness into contention for a playoff spot. Somebody named B-R-E-W-E-R.

"My wife and I loved Europe," he said last week. "Actually, we planned on remaining there, perhaps moving on to Sweden or Switzerland or somewhere. But when she became pregnant with our second child, we wanted to have the baby back in Canada, so we returned. That's the only reason we came back. When I quit four years ago I was quitting the NHL—not Toronto, not Punch Imlach or anything else. I returned to the NHL because Sid Abel [Detroit's coach and general manager] made me an offer I couldn't turn down."

Brewer insists he was surprised by the furor he caused by walking out on the Leafs. Only a Gordie Howe or a Jean Beliveau, he said, could have warranted the attention he was getting. Now he finds amusing the attempts so many writers and fans have made—and still are making—to figure him out. " 'Intelligent for a hockey player,' that's my favorite," he laughs. "Always there's that damning qualification."

Recalling the days when he was billed as the bad man of the NHL (he twice led the league in penalty minutes) Brewer said, "Writers would be apprehensive about meeting this fiendish animal. But after a game they'd come down, we'd talk and I'd see them calling me 'soft-spoken' and 'articulate.' All those penalties? Well, most of them were for holding, things like that. I told everyone it stemmed from childhood insecurity."

Brewer does not try to disguise the fact that he is not the same fiery player who in seven years helped the Leafs to a league championship, three second-place finishes and three Stanley Cups. Although his partner, Bobby Baun, did most of the heavy hitting, in those days Brewer was sneaky-tough. He used his stick to intimidate.

"I'm an intense person, and in such an atmosphere I played intensely," he said. "From the time I was growing up, it was hockey, hockey, hockey. When I was 19 the newspapers were already recording my every move, what I ate, what I did in my free time. I lived the game, so I lived winning. When I went over to Finland I took one look at what they were doing and said, this is all wrong. Their outlook was, one, it's a game; two, we're going to have fun; and three, we'll try to excel. I set out to show them how important winning was—but they wound up converting me. They feel if they do their very best, winning is secondary. I found out that that approach removed much unnecessary pressure from the game, and I wound up enjoying hockey more than I ever had before."

Brewer also enjoyed Muskegon. He cherished the long bus rides that every other minor-leaguer despises, because of the time they gave him to read, and he found it fulfilling to be a coach. "I could never coach in the NHL," he says, "because the players up here have been schooled so well all that's left for the coach to do is map strategy. In the minor leagues there's room for instruction, and there was in Finland, too. I draw a great deal of satisfaction from teaching the game of hockey."

In Detroit, Brewer is happy—for now. He lives in suburban Birmingham, within minutes of Mahovlich and Baun—his closest friends among the Leafs who preceded him to the Red Wings—and on the road the three are constant companions, as likely to be found in a museum or an art gallery as the hotel coffee shop. Brewer's fear of flying remains, but he is working on it, and the Red Wings let him take a train whenever the schedule permits.

"It's difficult, I know, for many people to realize just what someone goes through who has a fear of flying," he says. "It's not as bad as it once was, but it is still bad enough. On planes I do try to sit with elderly ladies or someone that I can talk to about flying. I find that by talking about it and occupying myself this way, it's not near the problem. This I know is selfish of me." As for the fans, they leave Brewer alone most of the time he is in public; this to him is the most relaxing aspect of playing hockey in the United States instead of Canada.

While Brewer is reasonably happy, some Red Wing fans are not. "All I know is that he's not the same out there," growls one longtime Red Wing-lover, who of course was previously a Brewer-hater. "I can remember the way his eyes flared. He'd cut somebody up as soon as look at him. But still he was always thinking, always ahead of everybody else upstairs. You could see it, and you wondered just who does this guy think he is. What made you maddest of all was his knack of goading our guys into taking a swing at him and getting a stupid penalty. Brewer would be laughing as the Leaf power play came over the boards. Now, though, he's different. He looks like so many of the Wings—too tame."

"I can't say I'm disappointed in Carl's play, because he's helped us," says Sid Abel. "He's helped us so much, in fact, he's the one player that we just can't lose for very long. Whenever we get in trouble in our own end the guys just look around for Brewer, because they know if they get the puck to him he'll take the heat off. Still, he's not playing with that old gusto, and I find myself wondering how good we'd be if he was."

While missing the playoffs the last three years, the Red Wings were getting murdered in their own end; there simply was no one who could handle the puck well enough to lead them out. Brewer has at least provided that, and as a result the Wings are now fourth instead of last and have given up 28 fewer goals than at the same time last year. The whole 1968 deal, in fact, has been sweet for Detroit. Former Wings Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith have only 17 goals to date for the Leafs, who are in last place, while Mahovlich, Garry Unger, Pete Stemkowski and Brewer have scored 53 for Detroit.

As for the alleged tameness of the Red Wings, it ain't necessarily so. What they have needed badly—and are getting this year from Ron Harris, a real basher—is some programmed recklessness. This is where Carl Brewer has also helped. "Brewer's greatest contribution, aside from getting the puck out of our end, has been his effect on Harris," says Abel. "Ron is one gutsy, hard-working fellow who isn't afraid of anything. In the past he hurt us with his recklessness, but now, with Brewer playing alongside him and talking to him, the other team always wants to know where Harris is before they do something fancy. Like I said, you've got to wonder how we'd be if Brewer was his old self."