Time has forgotten all about the hip checking defenseman, and in its wake skates a lot of carefree forwards admiring their stickwork.
Things were much different in the 1950s and ’60s when “watch out for Leo Boivin” became a common mantra as NHL coaches prepared their forwards for Original Six matchups. When you cut, cut to the middle, the coaches would advise. That was code for “don’t get caught between the boards and Boivin.”
They just don’t make blueliners like him anymore. That’s due mainly to the evolution of hockey from plodding to poetic. From brawn to brilliance. That’s not to say Boivin was a butcher carrying the puck. He just knew what his calling card was, and he was never shy about using it.
Boivin topped out at 5-foot-8 and 183 pounds, and he came by his nickname, ‘Fireplug,’ naturally. He learned to skate on the outdoor rivers and ice surfaces of Prescott, Ont.
“I wasn’t tall as a kid, and I knew I wasn’t going to be tall as a man, so I worked on my physical game,” said the soft-spoken 88-year old Boivin, who resettled in Prescott following 30 years in the NHL as a player, scout and coach. “I worked on my hitting a lot. The hipcheck became a science to me.”
Boivin had just turned 17 when he was signed by the Boston Bruins in 1949 and spent two seasons playing for the junior Port Arthur (Ont.) Bruins. His rights were traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1951 shortly after Stanley Cup-winning goal hero Bill Barilko went missing and was presumed dead.
Boivin spent one season with Pittsburgh in the AHL but became an NHL regular with the Maple Leafs in 1952-53 as a 20-year-old. Boivin’s defense mate the next two seasons was future Hall of Famer Tim Horton. Later in his career, Horton said Boivin was the toughest defenseman in the NHL to beat 1-on-1.
A 1954 trade sent Boivin back to the Bruins, where he established himself for the next 12 seasons as the most explosive hipchecker of his era, perhaps in the history of the game. “Timing,” Boivin said, when asked about the science of the hipcheck. “It was all about timing it properly. If your timing is a little off, it can turn into a hit to the knee, or what they think is a blatant hit on the knee.”
Boivin said he and Bruins defense partner Bob Armstrong would work on the hipcheck with one another regularly in practice, pulling back slightly before the point of impact to keep each other healthy. Boston’s ‘Hipster’ from the 1960s also played alongside fellow defense stalwarts Allan Stanley, Fern Flaman and Doug Mohns.
Some historians say Boivin was the link between the Eddie Shore and Bobby Orr eras in Boston. Boivin was never an NHL all-star, and in only one season did he receive any votes for the Norris Trophy, finishing a distant fifth in 1960-61. Boivin split his final five seasons between Detroit and expansion franchises Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
The art of the hipcheck never left his arsenal, even in his final season at 37.
“I remember we had a rookie by the name of Walt McKechnie in 1968,” said Tom Reid, Boivin’s defense partner at times for two seasons in Minnesota. “Leo would say to him very politely, ‘Walter, please don’t try those silly dipsy-doodle moves on me in practice. I don’t want to hurt you.’ Well, the kid pushed his luck, and next thing you knew Leo drilled him into the boards with his hip. Poor Walt was limping around for weeks.”