• Sal Maiorana

In Memoriam: Eddie Shack was always the entertainer

His Sabres career consisted of 106 games and he never played a full season in Buffalo, joining the club a third of the way through the inaugural 1970-71 season, and leaving it three-fourths of the way through 1971-72.

His number will never be retired, and he will never be enshrined in the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame, but Eddie Shack proved to be one of the most important players to ever wear the blue and gold, and it had nothing to do with goals, assists and penalty minutes.

“Shackie gave the team color,” Punch Imlach wrote in his book Heaven and Hell in the NHL. “He put the show on the road and the people in the seats. That first year, Roger Crozier, Gilbert Perreault, Reggie Fleming, and Eddie Shack made our team exciting. In effect, I have always thought they made the franchise.’’

Shack, one of the most colorful characters in Sabres and NHL history, passed away Saturday night, succumbing to throat cancer at the age of 83.

Shack, who stopped going to school after the third grade and reportedly never learned to read or write, was 15 years old and working in a coal mine and also at a meat market as a butcher when he tried out for the Guelph Biltmores of the Ontario Hockey Association. He made the team and for the next 25 years – 17 of those spent in the NHL – he made his living in ice arenas as a pretty decent player and a brilliant showman.

They called him Eddie the Entertainer because what people remember most are not the 1,047 games and 239 goals he scored in the NHL for the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Kings, Sabres, and Penguins, or the four Cups he helped Imlach and the Leafs win in the 1960s, but the way Eddie always entertained them.

“He reveled in that,” said Mike Robitaille, who played against Shack and with him briefly when their paths crossed in Buffalo. “He reveled in doing things that were different and he found ways to get attention. He was always the loudest guy in the locker room, and he was always relaxed. I’d be all tied up as tight as could be and he’d be laughing and having a great time and I was wishing I could be like that.”

Shack once said, “I only played half the season and entertained the other half.”

But the thing was, when he wasn’t being a comedian, he could actually play. He enjoyed seven 20-goal seasons including 25 in only 56 games when he came to Buffalo that first season 50 years ago.

“If he was dead serious and they gave him the ice time and he didn’t want to clown around so much and put a show on, he was an automatic 20-goal scorer,” said Robitaille. “He was big, and he could be intimidating, and he took on a lot of comers because everybody wanted a piece of him. But he stood the test of time.’’

Shack would be languishing on the bench contributing nothing on the ice, but he’d stand up and start waving his arms to get the crowd into the game, and they always responded. He’d hear chants in Maple Leaf Gardens of “We Want Shack” and the fans roared with delight when he did his little pirouette celebration after a goal or performed his mad dashes onto the ice if he was named one of the game’s three stars.

One time in the Aud, Minnesota goalie Gump Worsley was injured and needed a stretcher to take him off the ice. As the medics rolled it onto the ice, Shack lightened the mood in the place by hopping on and pretending to row a canoe.

Shack came to Buffalo in November 1970 along with another old Imlach crony from Toronto, Dick Duff. They were playing for Los Angeles at the time, and Punch summoned them from the Kings in exchange for Mike McMahon.

The story goes that Shack and Duff were at the airport bar in Los Angeles because their flight had been cancelled, and it gave them time to debate the pros and cons of joining the expansion Sabres. Shack finally stood up and said “Well, Duffy, will we go and pull that asshole Imlach out of another hole?”

They did, and then Shack unwittingly played an even bigger role in the building of the young Buffalo team the following season. It was Shack whom Imlach traded to Pittsburgh in March 1972 for Rene Robert, and at first it was not a popular move because the fans hated to see Eddie the Entertainer leave.

However, this guy Robert, who no one had heard of, who had scored just seven NHL goals to date, became the final third of the famed French Connection line, joining Perreault and Rick Martin.

Canadian broadcaster Ken Reid, who wrote a book about Shack, spoke to Erik Brady of The Buffalo News over the weekend, and he said of the Shack-for-Robert trade, “That was a steal of a deal. Eddie always says he should get full credit for the French Connection. And Buffalo was just the perfect place for Eddie to play. If you’re an expansion team, you’ve got to put butts in seats, right? So, if you can get a guy who scores 25 goals and puts on a show, what could be better?”