A few years ago Shack did learn to write some, a skill that comes in handy for signing autographs. But he left school for good when he was 14 to become a butcher's apprentice. The job paid him the sum of $60 a week. Shack's talent for skating soon brought him an offer from the Guelph ( Ont.) junior team, at a cut in pay. The pay may have been less ($20 a week), but Eddie had long since decided that playing hockey was a fine way to make a life, so he signed on. His debut was sensational. He was one of the top scorers and the penalty leader, earned a number of uncomplimentary nicknames having to do with his nose and gained a reputation as a very colorful fellow.
The New York Rangers, who sponsored the Guelph team and hence had first crack at Eddie's services, were delighted with his progress. In 1958 Shack was brought to New York with all the unrealistic fanfare a team starving for wins can muster. "If Shack doesn't get the Rangers into the playoffs," said one club official, "no one can," and the press was quick to hop on the euphoria wagon. "The next superstar," was the way one headline writer labeled the newcomer.
Understandably, the New York fans were fully braced to witness incredible feats of scoring, skating and all-round derring-do in the tradition of Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Admiral Bull Halsey. When Shack fell somewhat short of such expectations, the response was right out of The Bronx. But if Shack was not especially helpful at winning games, he at least kept the customers interested. "I never take my eye off him," said New York's then General Manager Muzz Patrick. "I never know what Eddie is going to do next, and I don't think he does either."
When Ranger Coach Phil Watson left the team under a cloud of defeat at the end of the season, he took with him an ulcer which he ever after called "his bleeding Shack." Eddie kept right on as always. When not racing off on completely irrelevant tangents, he was hellbent on demolishing some unsuspecting opponent for the most obscure reasons. Alf Pike, the coach who replaced Watson, particularly recalls a game in Detroit. "Shack belts somebody," Pike explains, "and off he goes—two minutes. I swear it seemed like two seconds, then he comes out of the penalty box and-goes clear across the ice to belt somebody else. Damn near put him through the boards. Back he goes to the penalty box." Such antics were undeniably exhilarating for the paying fans, but did nothing for a coach's nerves or the Rangers' won-lost record. Desperately eager to see the last of this problem child, Ranger Manager Patrick finally convinced Toronto that there was gold in Eddie's skates—if only someone could make him hold still long enough to get at it.
Punch Imlach knows hockey talent as well as any man in the business, and he knew that Shack was no superstar. He knew also that the newcomer was unlikely to mend his ways just because he had changed uniforms. But if the Toronto coach knew what Shack could not do, he knew also what this curious clown could do.
"Sometimes we can get pretty lifeless out there," Punch said of his crowd of skilled and precise stickhandlers. "Eddie may be just the guy who can stir things up." Eddie was eager to do just that, and in his own bizarre way he became an exciting and effective member of the Toronto team. In any game it would take him just one turn around the ice to infuriate whatever member of the opposition he had not just dumbfounded, and a number of opponents renamed the game "Get Shack." As team after team devoted its entire effort to the annihilation of one right wing, the Maple Leafs found themselves with unique opportunities to score goals. As soon as Eddie showed signs of discombobulating his own teammates beyond recall, Imlach would yank him.
Toronto's conservative air makes a London tearoom appear like a Ringling Bros, production, but the fans there loved Eddie. "I spill my beer every time he comes on the ice," said one regular customer dressed in spats and bowler and carrying an umbrella. And Shack's teammates felt much the same. But when the Leafs blew the first round in the playoffs last year, Coach Imlach decided that Eddie had to go. "We can't afford a clown anymore," was the way he put it, and Shack was shipped to Rochester.
Eddie was so unhappy he decided to quit hockey forever and concentrate on building up his growing portfolio of stocks (he has been shrewdly advised by a Toronto mining magnate). Besides, he said, "I have these hands," meaning that he had learned the butchering trade well and could live on it, but the Rochester manager convinced Shack to stick around for a couple of weeks when the new season began, on the chance he might get traded to another big league team. Eddie agreed to stay two more weeks. Two weeks later to the day Punch Imlach gave Eddie his call.
The Toronto coach was not really overjoyed to see Shack again, but with the Leafs in such a sorry state he was ready to try anything. "But damn it all, Eddie," he pleaded, "no more clowning around. You play the game my way or out you go. Understand?"
For a while Eddie seemed to understand perfectly and, surprisingly, he even managed to be in the places a right wing is expected to be. But despite this superficial reformation, Shack is still Shack. For instance, a week or so ago he set up rookie Brit Selby, who had been suffering from a bad ankle, for a goal against the Black Hawks. It was a pretty piece of work, and the score sent Eddie racing exuberantly across the ice to salute his teammate. Trouble was, Shack as usual was too exuberant. He crashed headlong into Selby, knocking him down and re-injuring his ankle. Selby was out for the next three games. "Hardest check of the night," noted one reporter next morning. But all Coach Imlach could say was: "Eddie, Eddie, Eddie."