'Clear The Track': How NHL's Eddie Shack Topped Toronto's Music ChartsPlay
This story is part of Only A Game's 2019 Thanksgiving Leftovers Show. Find the full episode here.
In the fall of 1965, a producer for the CBC — that’s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation — went to a Toronto Maple Leafs practice to look for an NHL player willing to sing on a Christmas album for kids.
He found goalie Johnny Bower.
And just to give you an idea of how much of a big deal Bower was, he won three consecutive Stanley Cups with the Leafs between '62 and '64 and another in '67 for good measure. The Canadian government put his photo on a stamp in 2004.
So, anyway, Johnny Bower recorded "Honky the Christmas Goose" in November of 1965 — with his son and some neighborhood kids singing along:
And as soon as the song was released, it started climbing the Toronto music charts.
Right around this same time, Brian McFarlane was just a year into his 28-year stint with Canada’s most popular weekly program, "Hockey Night in Canada."
As "Honky the Christmas Goose" climbed the Toronto music charts, Brian had an idea. And it involved one of his favorite players, a forward nicknamed "The Entertainer."
"Eddie Shack was a rambunctious, colorful player who dashed all over the ice and bumped into his opponents," Brian says. "And he bumped into his own players and his goaltender."
I tried to find some highlights from Eddie Shack’s career. But when I searched online, all I could find were fights. Dozens and dozens of them.
That winter, Eddie Shack was on his way to a 26 goal season. And that’s when Brian approached Eddie with his big idea.
"I said, 'Eddie, I'd like to write a song about you,' " Brian says. "And he's, 'I don't care what you do.' "
At the time, Brian and Eddie were friends. But because of this moment — this seemingly inconsequential moment — the pair’s relationship would become strained. And it would stay that way for decades. But, back to our story:
"So, I wrote, 'Clear the track/here comes Shack/he knocks 'em down/he gives 'em a whack/he can score goals/he's found the knack/Eddie, Eddie Shack,' " Brian says. "I'm not a musician — know nothing about music — but my brother-in-law had a doctorate in music, so he dashed off the song. I wrote the words. We hired a group. Looked like the Beatles, but they weren't nearly as talented."
They were called “The Secrets.” Brian approached them after a show at the Toronto Pressman’s Club and offered to pay them $500 to record the song he wrote for his friend, Eddie Shack.
"When we booked RCA Victor Studios to do the recording and my brother-in-law heard them in the studio, he came over and he said, 'Brian, they're not very good,' " Brian says. "I said, 'Well, Bill, how would I know? I'm not a musician, but they're good enough, maybe.' "
Never mind the band’s talent, or lack thereof, Brian had the perfect plan to debut his new song. See, he was the person responsible for producing the vignettes that would air on national television during the first intermission on Hockey Night in Canada. And he figured, why not feature “Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack” during the next Maple Leafs broadcast?
"I suggested we have the musicians on the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens," Brian recalls. "I was going to put them all in No. 23 sweaters — Shack's number — and have them playing and singing on the ice, but that got vetoed down. My boss said to me, 'We'll just play some film of Eddie Shack skating back and forth and bumping into people and play the song in the background."
Topping Toronto's Music Charts
The song debuted in February 1966. And, even without the musicians promoting it live at center ice wearing No. 23, “Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack” was an instant hit — quickly climbing to No. 1 on Toronto’s music charts – and staying there for two weeks.
"Well, I was astonished to see it climb the charts and become No. 1, ahead of the Beatles and The Rolling Stones," Brian says. "I always thought the other side, 'Warming the Bench,' was just as good. But when you do a record, I found out, the B-side never gets played. It's always the A-side."
Brian was thrilled with his song’s success. Eddie was not.
"And he harassed me for the next 30 years, saying, 'You never paid me any royalties,' " Brian says. "And I said, 'Eddie, you don't get any. You gave me permission to write the song. And you're not featured on the song.' Mr. Shack even went to my boss one day and tried to get me dismissed from my job because I wouldn't pay him. But he was quite willing to ask me for free records to give away to his friends."
"Now did he ever have as good a season as he had that year?" I ask.
"No. After that 26 goal season, he had other 20 goal seasons. Eddie couldn't seem to hold his place in the NHL with one team for very long," Brian says. "I know in Boston, when he played there, he was selling hats as an avocation. In the summer months, he was working for some hat company. And he criticized the team owner in Boston for wearing the — well, excuse the word, but the 'crappiest' hats in the world. And, of course, he was traded to L.A. about six weeks later. So I don't think the owner liked the comments he made about the hats he was wearing."
I haven’t been able to independently confirm that Eddie Shack tried to get Brian McFarlane fired. But this part seems to be verifiably true: Eddie was traded to L.A. after disparaging the Bruins owner’s hats.
But back to Brian McFarlane and those royalties.
"He never did get any payment and, frankly, neither did I," Brian says. "Thirty years went by. And I said, 'I wonder why I never got any royalties.' So I called some music union and asked, and they said, 'Well, it's far too late for that, Mr. McFarlane. Would you take a thousand dollars?' I said, 'I absolutely would!' "
As for the friendship between Brian McFarlane and Eddie Shack?
"We both mellowed in time, and we’re back on speaking terms now," Brian says.
We left multiple messages for Eddie Shack, trying to get his perspective on this story. We never heard back. But just last week, Eddie appeared on a Canadian podcast called "Writers Bloc" to promote his new book.
And before the hosts could even finish introducing him and his co-author, Eddie launched into the song. Eddie Shack is quite clearly still proud to have been the subject of a song that spent a couple of weeks at Toronto’s No 1.
So, it all turned out all right for Eddie Shack and his old friend Brian McFarlane. But what about “The Secrets,” the band Brian paid to record the song?
Well, it turns out that they were in no way proud of their No. 1 hit.
"So they changed their name to "The Quiet Jungle," and they grew long beards, and they wore turtleneck sweaters, and they didn't want any association with Eddie Shack and the song. And it’s the only song they'll ever be known for."
Brian McFarlane is a former commentator for "Hockey Night in Canada." He’s written 93 books on hockey. Our original story on Brian McFarlane and the Scotiabank Hockey College aired on Feb. 9, 2019.
This segment aired on November 30, 2019.