Dmytro (Metro) Prystai
Born: November 7, 1927 (Yorkton, Sask.)
Died: October 8, 2013 (Wynyard, Sask.)
Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame (1989)
Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame (2004)
Saskatchewan Hockey Hall of Fame (2012)
Game Four of the 1952 Stanley Cup finals. The Red Wings are at home before 14,454 screaming partisans at the Olympia, including a fishmonger who is carrying an octopus intended for the family dinner table. Detroit enjoys a domineering 3-0 lead in games after having swept the Maple Leafs in four straight in the semifinals.
The Red Wings are packed — the Production Line of Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, and Ted Lindsay cranks out goals like their fans make automobiles. They are backed by the likes of Red Kelly and a talented teenager named Alex Delvecchio. Meanwhile, Terry Sawchuck plays every minute of every game and completes the season boasting a goals-against average of 1.90. He is even stingier in the playoffs, having yet surrendered a goal in three home games.
The game is not yet seven minutes old when forward Metro Prystai fires a shot from 25 feet out that eludes a screened Gerry McNeil in the Montreal goal. The way Sawchuk’s playing, even the Canadiens know that lone goal might be enough.
Late in the second period, Prystai fires a tough shot that McNeil blocks, but the goalie cannot recover to stop Glen Skov from shovelling a rebound past him. In the continuing celebration that follows, an octopus comes flying from the stands before landing near the Detroit blue line. No one yet knows it, but a fan’s exuberance is the beginning of a tradition now in its seventh decade.
The Canadiens are frantic now, desperate to stave off what seems inevitable, when Prystai grabs a loose puck before rushing headlong toward the opposing net. “Prystai sparkled on a solo dash that left McNeil bewildered,” the Toronto Star reported the next day. Sawchuk would get the shutout, his fourth in the playoffs, all at the Olympia, while the Red Wings cruised to an unprecedented eight-game playoff sweep and the Stanley Cup with a 3-0 victory.
The uncontested star of the final game was a 5-foot-8 forward known as Marvelous Metro to the fans and Meatball to his teammates.
Dmytro Prystai was born on Nov. 7, 1927, in Yorkton, Sask., to Annie and Harold W. Prystai, Ukrainian Catholics who would have seven children. He played every sport he came across, though hockey and baseball were his favourites.
Metro Prystai (pronounced MEE-troh press-TIE) played peewee and bantam hockey in his hometown when pursued by the junior Moose Jaw Canucks. The boy attended Catholic school and one of the Christian Brothers told the recruiter it was unlikely his strict parents would permit Metro to move away.
“We lived in an old log house and they came over and talked to my mother,” Prystai recalled last year. “She said, ‘OK, you can take him, but you can’t pay him too much money, and he has to go to church and to school.’ And away I went.”
After playing a handful of games with the senior junior club at age 16, Prystai joined the Canucks in 1944-45. The sharp-shooting forward was known for a hard-checking game. He skated for the Canucks for three full seasons, losing the Memorial Cup finals in four straight to the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors in 1945, when Metro was just 17. Prystai led the Canucks back to the finals against St. Michael’s in 1947, though the Toronto team again won the trophy. In 15 games of Memorial Cup play, he scored nine goals and added 17 assists to lead all players.
Harry Painting, sports editor of the Lethbridge Herald, hailed Prystai as Metro the Great and the Yorkton Flash. “Prystai stole the show,” Painting told his readers after one four-goal, three-assist performance against Lethbridge. “He figured in every goal and his every appearance on the ice brought thunderous cheers from the crowd. He was too much hockey player for the locals, combining blinding speed, an elusive shift, smart stickhandling and uncanny accuracy.
Prystai’s performance as a junior was so sterling the Chicago newspapers touted him as a future star before the Black Hawk property had even played a single National Hockey League game. The Chicago Tribune touted the 19-year-old prospect as being a better player than Rocket Richard and “at least 50 per cent better than Elmer Lach.” In Toronto, Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman helpfully pointed out Lach was in hospital at the time with a fractured skull.
The rookie skipped a year of junior eligibility to join a woeful Hawks squad, though one which boasted Saskatchewan connections in the brothers Max and Doug Bentley from Delisle; goaltender Emile (The Cat) Francis from North Battleford, who had played junior with Metro in Moose Jaw; and, in coach Johnny Gottselig who lived in Regina after his family emigrated from Russia. Gottselig would not last the season behind the bench. In what would be his last home game as coach, his bright rookie forward sniped two goals in 32 seconds against Sugar Jim Henry in the New York Rangers net as the last-place Hawks cruised to a 7-1 victory.
Prystai concluded his first NHL campaign with seven goals and 11 assists in 54 games. He scored 12 goals the following season, in which the Hawks again failed to make the playoffs, before becoming a star in the 1949-50 season. He was placed with Bep Guidolin and Bert Olmstead, another former Moose Jaw teammate who, incidentally, hailed from the hamlet of Sceptre, Sask. The trio was known as the Boilermakers Line, a nod to their blue-collar style of hard work paired with physical toughness. Prystai notched 29 goals, trailing only Richard, Howe and Sid Abel. The Hawks missed the playoffs yet again.
In the offseason, the Hawks and Red Wings swapped nine players in a blockbuster deal which was the largest in NHL history to that time. The Hawks got Harry Lumley, Black Jack Stewart, Al Dewsbury, Pete Babando and Don Morrison in exchange for Sugar Jim Henry, Bob Goldham, Gaye Stewart and Prystai.
“I was disappointed because it looked like the Hawks were an up-and-coming organization,” Prystai told the Globe and Mail’s Paul Patton in 1987, “but Detroit had so many good players that, after a while, I was happier then heck.”
The trade was hailed by the Canadian Press wire service as a success for Detroit, as Prystai “gives the Wings what they need most — a young, first-class centre.” Detroit saw in young Prystai, only 23 but already seasoned by three NHL campaigns, a replacement for veteran Sid Abel.
The new acquisition filled several different roles in his years with Detroit, mostly playing right wing, but slotted in to fill on any line. “They used me as a swing man because I could play all three forward positions,” the left-handed shot said. He was paired with Lindsay and Howe, on a checking line with Marty Pavelich and Tony Leswick, and later with youngsters Delvecchio and Johnny Wilson.
On Oct. 8, 1950, Prystai played in the first of what would be three All-Star Games for him. (As defending Stanley Cup champions, Detroit got to play the game at the Olympia against a squad of all-stars from the other five NHL clubs. Detroit’s new centreman scored a goal and two assists as the Cup champs manhandled the all-stars, 7-1.) Late in the season, Prystai limped off the ice with a leg injury. He was being examined in the dressing room by a doctor when Detroit general manager Jack Adams barged in. “Get dressed and get back out there!” the boss ordered. Prystai took a short spin on the ice before once again limping off. He was diagnosed with a small fracture to his upper right leg. He returned in time for the playoffs, notching a goal in three games to go with 20 goals in 62 regular season games.
Prystai notched his third successive season with at least 20 goals in 1951-52, culminating in the unprecedented eight-game playoff sweep and Prystai’s Cup-winning goal.
His goal production decreased in following seasons as he was used more as a checker and role player. He placed his name on the Cup a second time in 1954 when Leswick’s floating shot from the point deflected off Doug Harvey’s glove into the Montreal goal in overtime of Game 7.
The stocky forward was 12 games into his fifth campaign with Detroit when, two days after his 27th birthday, he was traded back to last-place Chicago for light-scoring Lorne Davis. Owners and the NHL brass colluded in deciding to strengthen the weaker clubs with second-tier players from the top clubs, a move criticized by by players and sportswriters in Detroit. Prystai’s fellow Red Wings were reported to be “angered and hurt” by what they regarded as a “shotgun trade.” That the owners of the successful Red Wings franchise and the sad-sack Black Hawks franchise were related only served to further tensions between players and management.
The Detroit Free Press ran an eight-column banner headline reading: Norris syndicate tips its hockey hand. “Is big time hockey a legitimate sport, or just a family syndicate?” asked sports writer Marshall Dann.
“Prystai was handed to the Chicagoans in a surprise manoeuvre which even caught general manager Jack Adams by surprise. Adams, who built up Red Wings for 28 years and authored all previous trades, was told of this one only after it had been completed.
“Prystai was shipped away as Marguerite and Bruce Norris, sister and brother owners of the Detroit club, rushed to the aid of the Chicago team, owned by James D. Norris, a brother.”
Not even the acquisition of Prystai could change the fortunes of the Hawks and less than two years later the rugged forward was returned to Detroit for Ed Sandford. Prystai suffered a broken leg and was demoted to the minors for the first time since joining the NHL. In Edmonton, he broke the same leg after crashing into a goal post. After spending the summer in a cast, he returned to the Flyers only to break the same leg for a third time when bodychecked by defenceman Don McLeod of the Victoria Cougars only four games into the season. He spent his 31st birthday in Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.
The leg injuries ended his playing days. In 11 NHL seasons, he recorded 151 goals and 179 assists in 674 games.
He then coached the minor league Omaha Knights for a half-season, a short stint which included a bizarre incident. Immediately after losing a game against St. Paul Saints by 7-1, the Knights were ordered to play an overtime period to settle a disputed game from earlier in the season. Prystai refused to allow the Knights to take the ice, so St. Paul’s Howie Hughes took the face-off uncontested before skating down the ice to score on an empty net. Prystai was suspended by the president of the International Hockey League. The team fired him days later. The Knights were in last place with an 8-28 record. Prystai was replaced as coach by general manager Mud Bruneteau, remembered then as now for scoring the goal to end the longest overtime game in NHL history.
In June, 1960, he was signed as manager and coach of the Moose Jaw Canucks, the junior team on which he had launched his own career. He later became a scout for the Red Wings in Western Canada.
During his hockey playing days, Prystai worked as the club professional at the York Lake Golf Course in Yorkton. He also organized the semiprofessional Yorkton Cardinals baseball team, whose roster included childhood friend Stan Obodiac, who would go on to become the well-known publicist for Maple Leafs Gardens.
Away from sports, he worked in the real estate business and owned an insurance business with his first wife, the former Evelyne Peppler, whom he had met while recovering from a broken leg. He later became a car salesman in Wynyard.
Prystai was predeceased by his first wife, who died in 1986, and by a daughter, Merrill, who died in 1987. He was also predeceased by his second wife, the former Mavis Helen Tulloch (née Evans), who died in May, as well as by three brothers, George, Peter and Bill, a former Yorkton city councillor. He leaves a brother, Harry, and sisters Mary and Stephanie, as well as three sons and a daughter from his first marriage, and his second wife’s two sons.
Before his death, Prystai collaborated on an ebook biography and an audio book with Frank Block. The works, expected to be released later this year, are intended to gain some deserved recognition for Prystia, who was overshadowed by such Hall of Fame teammates as Howe and Lindsay.
The Yorkton Cardinals infield in 1954 included (from left) Bob Winters, Metro Prystai, Stan Obodiac, Steve Yaholnitsky, and Vern Pachal. Photo from http://www.attheplate.com.