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Thursday September 6, 2012

Habs winger one of the speediest skaters

Diminuitive forward 'made Leafs' fastest look as if they were standing still as he scooted away from checks'

Special to The Globe and Mail

Little Norm Dussault, a speedy forward for the Montreal Canadiens, was skating toward the Chicago net when stopped by a crushing check delivered by defenceman Bill Gadsby.

For several minutes, Dussault lay motionless on the ice, the action halted while attempts were made to revive him. He was carted off on a stretcher to the visitors' dressing room at the Chicago Stadium for an examination before being rushed to Saint Anthony Hospital, where he stayed for several days in March, 1948.

The concussion he suffered was one of several injuries endured during a four-year National Hockey League career, an occupational hazard for one of the smallest men in the game.

Dussault, who died on Aug. 28, at the age of 86, was a quicksilver skater with a reputation as a backchecker and playmaker. His mad, headlong rushes made him a fan favourite in Montreal. He also had a knack for scoring decisive goals, especially late in a game.

He is listed as standing 5 foot 8 and weighing 165 pounds, but accounts from his playing days have him two inches shorter and 15 pounds lighter. English-language sportswriters called him "the mighty mite" and dubbed him Scootah, a jocular rendition of Scooter, but the nickname that stuck was borrowed from a comic-book character. Dussault was known as Ti-Nomme, a diminutive for petit homme, French for little man, typically spoken with affection as a father to a son.

Born on Sept. 26, 1925, in Springfield, Mass., where his father worked as an iceman, Joseph-Normand Dussault moved at 2 with his family to Sherbrooke, Que. At 20, he joined the Baltimore Clippers for a season before returning to his home province to skate for the Victoriaville Tigers.

A 35-goal season in 1946-47 led to an invitation to the Canadiens' training camp, where he competed against 15 forwards seeking a coveted spot on the roster. He returned to Victoriaville, scoring 24 goals in the first 31 games of the following season. Just after Christmas, the Canadiens invited him to join the club for a three-game trial. General manager Frank Selke offered a contract after just two games.

Dussault stayed with the club for four seasons, frustrating ones for the Canadiens, who failed to win a Stanley Cup during his tenure.

His size made him a target for opponents in a sport where intimidation can overwhelm skill. Early in his time with Montreal, the great Maurice (Rocket) Richard offered advice during a train trip. "Don't be afraid," he told Dussault. "Nobody on the ice has a gun or a knife." The tiny player also knew he could count on tough, 6-foot-2 defenceman Émile (Butch) Bouchard should he need backup.

The employing of roughhouse tactics depended on a rival actually catching Dussault on the ice.

"He made Leafs' fastest look as if they were standing still as he scooted away from checks," Red Burnett of the Toronto Star wrote after one game.

The innovative sports trainer Lloyd Percival tested NHL stars before declaring the three fastest skaters in the league to be Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins, Max Bentley of Toronto, and Dussault. He retained his reputation even after suffering an ankle injury in his sophomore campaign.

Coach Dick Irvin placed Dussault on left wing on a line centred by Billy Reay with Leo Gravelle, whose nickname was Gazelle. The zippy trio was known as the Lightning Line.

For the 1950 playoffs, Dussault joined the Canadiens' top line with Richard and Elmer Lach. The Rangers managed to hold the Rocket to a single goal in five games, though Dussault ripped three shots past New York goalie Chuck Rayner during the series. He also added an assist before Montreal was eliminated.

Dussault suffered a broken bone in his back after crashing into a net in March, 1951. His rights were sold later that year to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, a senior team in a league featuring many former and future NHL stars, including a young Jean Béliveau. Dussault closed out his senior career in Sherbrooke.

In 206 NHL games with the Canadiens, he scored 31 goals and added 62 assists. He wore sweater No. 22, later to be worn by such players as Don Marshall, infamous tough guy John Ferguson and sharpshooting Steve Shutt.

In summers, Dussault patrolled centre field for the Sherbrooke Athletics of baseball's Provincial League. After the ballpark burned down, he played elsewhere in Quebec, including in Lachine.

NHL players in his era were not well paid, as he earned just $8,500 in his top season, though Dussault enjoyed one memorable and unexpected payday. In a tight game against the Leafs, coach Dick Irvin addressed the players in the dressing room between the second and third periods, urging them to defeat their rivals. With just 61 seconds left on the clock, Dussault scored the winner in a come-from-behind 2-1 victory.

"That's a big goal, Norm," the coach told the sweaty player after the game. "Here's $100." He counted out the reward with 10 $10 bills. Dussault split the windfall with his linemates.

Dussault died of pneumonia at hospital in Sherbrooke. He leaves his wife, Jeannine (née Lemay), a son, a daughter, and three grandchildren.

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