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From the Archives: Fern Gauthier Couldn't Shoot the Puck in the Ocean

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but when it came to Detroit Red Wings forward Fern Gauthier, you couldn't tell the fiction from the truth. Stan Fischler looks back at a story from the old magazine, 'Blueline'.
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They say that truth is stranger than fiction, but when it came to Detroit Red Wings forward Fern Gauthier, you couldn't tell the fiction from the truth.

And the vice was versa.

This was all about a stunt pulled off during the 1946-47 season which I learned about from my copy of Blueline Magazine which is a story within itself.

Suffice to say that I began subscribing to Blueline thanks to learning about it via my weekly The Hockey News. As it happened, Blueline was the brainchild of The Hockey News' co-founder, Will Cote.

Few in or out of the hockey journalism business knew much about Cote because his THN partner, Ken McKenzie, was the face -- and self-publicist -- of the publication. The diffident Cote was the behind-the-scenes guy and had no problem with that role.

While he was at it, building The Hockey News as "The Bible" of the sport, Cote felt there was a need for a monthly hockey mag and went about the business of creating it, editing it and selling it.

For a 15-year-old hockey cashew like me, Blueline was like the icing on The Hockey News' cake. I couldn't wait for my monthly issue of Blueline because Cote did it right. He lined up the best NHL beat writers --not to mention other free-lancers -- and delivered a beautiful blend of NHL stories. One of them was a sidebar-of-sorts that preceded the bigger pieces but still was as captivating as any profile.

That sidebar is presented here because it became a classic of hockey lore.

It was about a French-Canadian stickhandler from Chicoutimi, Quebec who launched his NHL career with the Rangers during the 1943-44 (World War II) season, where he scored a reasonable 14 goals.

A year later -- now with the Canadiens -- Gauthier burnished his reputation by increasing his red light output to 18; a fact that inspired Red Wings manager Jack Adams to trade for the up-and-comer.

But now the war was over and due to stiffer competition, Fern's goal production steeply dropped to nine; which happened to be much better than what happened during the next (1946-47) campaign.

In a nutshell, Gauthier couldn't score a goal.

And as the weeks peeled off and Fern's slump turned into a SLUMP, the media took notice and one of them was Lew Walter, the Wings' beat man for Hearst's broadsheet, the Detroit Times.

"Fern was an All-America in practice," wrote Walter, "but just couldn't get that puck in the net when the game started."

Analyzing poor Gauthier's goal-less campaign, Walter suggested in print that

Fern couldn't shoot the puck into the ocean even if he was standing at the water's edge with a pail of rubber disks. But since Detroit is nowhere near any ocean, Plan B had to be launched.

Word went out that when the Red Wings next visited New York for a game against the Rangers, Gauthier could say hello to the Atlantic and deposit a few pucks into its briny deep. Lew Walter thought that would be a nifty move.

Normally, Walter's witty fantasy would have been forgotten as an innocuous column item unworthy of a follow-up. But this was nothing of the kind.

As it happened, the Rangers' intrepid publicist, Stan Saplin, happened to read Lou Walter's quip about Gauthier. The wheels turned in Saplin's head and out of it came a brainstorm which he passed on to a Madison Square Garden colleague.

"What if -- when the Wings come to New York -- we take Gauthier down to Battery Park right at the edge of the water and see if he can shoot the puck in the ocean."

When Saplin's pal nodded approval, the Rangers tub-thumper phoned Fred Huber, Jr., his Red Wings' PR counterpart with his nutty idea. Never one to shoot down a good story, Huber approached Gauthier and outlined the battle plan.

Now those of us who've been on the hockey beat for a while know that a player like Gauthier had all the reasons in the world to tell Huber to go jump in the ocean along with this cockamamee script.

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Except that he didn't. "Being a great guy," Saplin later told me, "Fern agreed; no questions asked."

And so, when the Detroiters next came to The Big Apple, Saplin led a hockey expeditionary force down to the Big Pond, otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean. At the Battery pier, a pail of pucks awaited the divine moment.

Witnesses included Fern's teammates, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Marty Pavelich. Not to mention a photographer and Saplin who later wrote the attached story for Blueline magazine. Now, let's get back to the question:

Could Fern Gauthier or couldn't Fern Gauthier shoot the puck in the ocean from the Battery Park pier?

Ah, the answer depends on who you choose to believe. The version that I favor -- how could I not? -- goes like this:

Poor Gauthier fanned on his first two tries and here's how:

1. On the initial shot, a passing seagull -- thinking it was a gift biscuit -- nabbed the puck in thin air and the rubber never hit the water.

2. On the follow-up drive, the puck eluded the ocean because it landed on a passing barge.

3. Fern shoots! (splash) he scores!!

As for the other version, it's quite possible that the three observing Red Wings wanted to cover up for their teammate; and would deny that Fern whiffed on the first pair of shots.

That's possible as well as Walter not wanting to embarrass a fine hockey player willing to go along with this jape. Whatever the case, you have a choice. But this much is certain about Fern Gauthier, as Walter concluded in the story. You, the reader, basically have a choice.

If you believe that Fern failed on his first two shots, you have one of the all-time hilarious hockey stories to be told forever.

If you believe Lew Walter -- that he deposited every hunk of rubber -- then you know why the word apocryphal was invented.

Either way, I love the way Lew Walter closed this puck parody:

Fern proved not only that he could put the puck in the ocean, but also that he was a good sport by entering into the spirit of the rib!

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