Which Welsh sportsman has made the biggest impression overseas? John Charles in Turin? Ian Woosnam at Augusta? Colin Jackson in Stuttgart and Seville? Gareth Edwards on the rugby fields of New Zealand and South Africa? Or was it Jack Evans in the ice hockey stadia across North America? Owen Morgan has dug around and states the case for the man they called “Tex”.
If I had been asked a month ago who I believed was the most influential sports person to hail from my native Amman Valley, three names would have sprung to mind.
Global rugby superstars Gareth Edwards and Shane Williams would probably have vied for the title with former Wrexham, Everton, Swansea City and Wales goalkeeper Dai Davies putting in a valiant, but unsuccessful, bid on behalf of the round ball game.
Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen’s Edwards was unofficially regarded as the greatest rugby union player on the planet, while Williams officially held that title in 2008 when he was voted World Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, Glanaman’s Davies enjoyed a long and distinguished playing career which featured spells in the old First Division with Everton and Swansea City, not to mention 52 caps for Wales.
The former Wrexham keeper was probably the most recognisable Welsh-speaking footballer of his generation and did much to promote the language – as did Edwards and Williams.
But a recent Facebook post celebrating the birth of ice hockey star Jack “Tex” Evans in Garnant, the home village of Williams and All Black-conquering Wales skipper Claude Davey, introduced a new challenger for the crown of the Amman Valley’s most influential sportsman.
Granted, Evans’ name is not a household one in Wales . . . not even in his home village.
As a self-confessed sports nut, who has lived in the Amman Valley since 1970, I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t aware of Evans’ exploits until alerted to the aforementioned Facebook post by my wife.
In my defence, while I follow the results of the Cardiff Devils ice hockey team, I have little or no knowledge of the game in North America, where the top players are superstars.
So I decided to investigate a little further.
While Evans is a virtual unknown in the land of his birth, cross the Atlantic and there is a very different tale to tell about the man who was christened “Tex” on the other side of the “Pond” because of his unusual accent.
In ice hockey-mad North America you will not only find Evans’ name listed shoulder to shoulder with the all-time playing legends of the game, but also amongst its most influential coaches.
Google Jack “Tex” Evans and a series of websites bearing names such as “Greatest Hockey Legends” and “Hockey Gods” will feature his details.
Evans was born in the Amman Valley mining village on 21 April 1928.
However, these were difficult times in the Carmarthenshire anthracite mining communities and many families decided to emigrate to North America.
When Evans was four years old, his parents Luther and Janetta travelled to Liverpool from where they sailed to Quebec.
The family settled in the Canadian town of Drumheller which was enjoying the coal mining boom in the province of Alberta.
When he arrived in Canada, Evans only spoke Welsh, which is how he eventually gained the nickname of Tex, according to Jay Russell, curator of the Atlas Coal Mine in Drumheller.
“The reason why they gave him the nickname ‘Tex’, was because he was very deliberate speaking with English so he could speak it properly and people thought it was a bit of a drawl, they thought he sounded southern,” claims Russell.
The Welshman didn’t lace up his skates for the first time until he was 14 but he soon made the Drumheller Miners team where he developed a reputation as a hard-hitting defenceman.
Due to his initial difficulty with English Evans had a reputation as a man of few words, earning him the nickname of “The Quiet Man”. However, he let his immense strength do his talking on the ice.
“Guys hated going into the corners with him because he was such a hard checker,” said Russell.
“There’s a legend that it was like getting hit by a boulder when you went into the corners in Drumheller.”
By the time he was 20, Evans was playing in the Memorial Cup – awarded annually to the Canadian Hockley League Champions – for the Lethbridge Maple Leafs.
His talents were soon spotted south of the border and he signed a minor league contract with the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League in 1948.
Success didn’t come immediately as Evans had to earn his stripes in the American Hockey League with the New Haven Ramblers.
But eventually the six-footer cemented his reputation as one of the game’s toughest players in the Minor Leagues before hitting the big time in the bright lights of the NHL when he established his place in the Rangers’ starting line-up.
In 1958, he joined the Chicago Black Hawks where he enjoyed his greatest success as a player.
— The Athletic Ottawa (@TheAthleticOTT) May 4, 2020
Having endured a 22-year drought, the Black Hawks won the 1961 Stanley Cup, the most prestigious prize in professional ice hockey, with Evans playing his part as one of the cornerstones of the team.
Although far more famous for his defensive work, Evans scored a brilliant individual goal against the Detroit Redwings in the championship-clinching game – his first score of the season.
But his biggest impact – literally and figuratively – had already come in the opening round of the play-offs against the reigning five-time Stanley Cup champions, Montreal Canadiens.
The Hawks finally ended the Canadiens incomparable dynasty, with Evans rocking Montreal’s giant Jean Beliveau – regarded as one of the 10 best NHL players of all time – with a thunderous, but perfectly legal, body check, which put Beliveau out of the remaining play-off matches and Evans into ice-hockey folklore.
It was that kind of physicality which earned Evans a fearsome reputation on the ice.
Some of his one-on-one encounters with opponents are the stuff of legend in a sport known for its hard men.
Although generally considered a hard but fair player, Evans’ prowess with his fists was once displayed in one of the world’s most famous boxing venues – albeit on the ice rather than the canvas.
Writing about renowned Canadian hockey tough guy Gordie Howe, New York hockey writer Stan Fischler once recalled: “Only two players that I know of ever fought Gordie Howe to a draw. Fred (Ferocious) Shero in 1946-47 and (Jack) Evans a decade later.
“Throughout his career, Jack played a quiet, tough defense, often teamed with (Hall of Famer) Harry Howell.
William John Trevor Evans aka “Jack Evans” and “Tex”, was born in Garnant, Wales.
— Chicago Tafia 🏴 (@ChicagoTafia) March 29, 2019
“One of the few players unafraid to take Tex on in a bout was Howe, and they slugged away for a couple of minutes in the left corner of the old Madison Square Garden — resulting in a perfect draw. I watched the bout from Section 333, Row E, Seat 5 of The Garden’s End Balcony.”
Another of Evans’ infamous encounters came in a minor league game, this time with Edmonton Flyer Larry Ziedel, who apparently had a penchant for swinging his stick at opponents’ heads.
Lorne Davis, of the Edmonton Flyers, told the hockey news in 1958: “Evans and Zeidel stood off about four feet and started swinging at each other. Finally they broke the sticks over one another’s head.
“Then they started to spear each other with the jagged ends. Both caught about 19 stitches. The ice was covered in blood. It was terrible.”
This, of course, was in the days before ice hockey players wore helmets.
We talk about rugby’s hard men here in Wales. Where would a man like Evans have ranked had he stayed in his native country and taken up the oval ball game?
In a playing career that ran from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, the Welshman played 752 NHL games for the Rangers and the Black Hawks.
The Black Hawks wouldn’t win the Stanley Cup again until 2010, the year Evans was inducted into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame.
The left-hander played a further 800 games in the minor leagues for teams as diverse as the Victoria Cougars, Buffalo Bisons, Los Angeles Blades, Vancouver Cannucks, California Seals and San Diego Gulls, before and after his NHL career.
The Amman Valley man’s retirement as a player at the age of 45 wasn’t the end of the legend of Jack “Tex” Evans.
Named in the NHL All-Star team as a player, Evans then started a career as a hugely influential coach in 1972.
At the helm of the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in the Canadian Hockey League, Evans won the coach of the year accolade three times as the team enjoyed three first place finishes and two play-off championships in the Central Hockey League.
Once again his success drew the attention of the NHL where he spent eight years coaching the California Golden Seals, Cleveland Barons and the Hartford Whalers.
The 1985-86 NHL campaign saw Evans lead the Whalers to arguably the most successful season in their history.
The lowly franchise qualified for the 1986 Stanley Cup play-offs where they beat the Quebec Nordiques 3-0 in a best of five game encounter to gain the one and only play-off victory in the franchise’s history.
Next up were the mighty Montreal Canadiens, who the Whalers took to the final match of the best of seven series, only to be beaten by an extra period winner.
Although the big silverware may have eluded him as a coach, Evans earned plenty of respect from his players, many of whom have gone on to coach in the NHL themselves.
A recent article on The Athletic sports website shone the spotlight on Evans’ legacy as a coach.
— Atlas Coal Mine NHS (@AtlasCoalMine) January 15, 2015
Six of the 31 current NHL head coaches played for Evans: Rick Bowness in Dallas; Dean Evason in Minnesota; Joel Quenneville in Florida; the Edmonton Oilers’ Dave Tippett; Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia; and the Montreal Canadiens’ Claude Julien.
Many of Evans’ other former charges are assistant coaches in the NHL, while two others are general managers.
Julien, who as a coach has won the Stanley Cup, the Jack Adams trophy for the NHL’s Coach of the Year and an Olympic gold medal with the Canadian national team, cites Evans as an important influence on his career.
“Jack Evans is probably the pro coach I talk the most about,” said Julien, now head coach of the Canadiens. “He was unique in his way. I had so much respect for the guy.
“He was quiet and he would let you play, but he had a demeanour in that if you didn’t do what he wanted to do, you knew you were in trouble. He didn’t have to say anything. He had a great presence.
“He was a real soft-spoken guy, but he was tough,” Julien told the Athletic. “When you look back at the history of Tex Evans as a player and all that, he was as tough as nails, and he looked like he was as tough as nails. But he had a demeanour about him that you respected.”
Not that Evans would boast about his escapades as a player. Julien only found out about the stick fight with Ziedel while reading a newspaper article sitting across the aisle from his coach during a flight with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles.
“The story said they both got stitched up and returned to the game,” said Julien. “You know, all the years I knew him, he never spoke about that incident. But you could see it in his face, his sense of toughness.”
Another Jack Adams award winner and former Canadian Olympic coach, Dave Tippett, said of Evans: “Jack was a stoic man, very honest, methodical, an old-school guy.
“Playing for him and later being his assistant coach was an eye-opener for me. He had this ability to have the right people on the ice at the right time.”
Evans was seen as an innovator who also had his eccentricities as a coach, including wearing gardening gloves instead of hockey gloves when he took charge of training sessions.
“I was never brave enough to ask him (why),” Columbus Blue Jackets assistant coach Paul MacLean, who played for Evans in the St. Louis Blues’ minor league system, told the Athletic.
It’s unlikely Evans would have told him as he continued to be a man of few words as a coach.
“He barely talked at all. The first 15 minutes of practice was all hand signals,” recalled broadcaster Ray Ferraro, who played for Evans in Hartford in the mid-1980s. “He’d stand at the blue line, and that’s how you knew practice was starting.”
As players skated in circles to warm up, Evans would gently tap the line with his stick, the cue for his players to go all out to the next blue line, or around the zone behind the net to the line. It all depended on where he was standing, everybody understood what he wanted.
Eventually, he’d hold up a hand and twirl his finger to indicate he wanted the players to do the exercise in reverse.
“If you talked to 15 guys who played for him, they’d all speak very fondly about Tex,” added Ferraro.
MacClean certainly speaks highly of his former coach. “He allowed you to establish your own way of playing,” said MacLean.
“He would put together lines and defensive pairs with people he thought were complementary, but he wouldn’t tell you to play a certain way. He’d put you with people he thought you could play with.
“Then, you as a line had to figure out the rest. It really put the responsibility on the players. Maybe that’s where (the coaching inspiration) comes from. You had to use your own mind, you had to work with others.”
Evans may have been a man of few words, but he knew how to make them count. When he spoke people listened. He once summed up his coaching philosophy succinctly.
“A hockey team is like a bird. If you hold your hand open it might fly away. If you hold it too tightly, you might kill it. All you can do it is cup it softly and hope it doesn’t shit in your hand.”
Evans may have been quietly spoken as a coach, but that’s not to say he had lost the feistiness he had displayed on the ice.
When Connecticut reporter Randy Smith accused Evans of being a liar over an incident involving his team, the coach allegedly grabbed the unfortunate scribe and, according to one newspaper account, “bounced him off the wall”.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) May 24, 2020
In total, Evans coached 1,238 professional ice hockey matches – 614 of them in the NHL.
Sadly, he died of prostate cancer in 1996, one of only four Welshmen to have played in the NHL, the others being Cy Thomas from Dowlais, Barry-born Wilf Cude and the most recent, Cardiff-born Nathan Walker, who grew up in Australia.
Evans may not have played rugby or football for his native Wales, but he certainly made a name for himself in his adopted home on the other side of the Atlantic.
The man known as “Tex” undoubtedly earned the right of an honourable mention in the sporting history of his rugby and football mad home valley, along with the likes of Edwards, Williams, Davies, Davey and many others.
The Welsh NHL Hall of Fame:Cy Thomas (August 5, 1926 to January 2, 2009) was a professional ice hockey player from Dowlais. He played 14 NHL games for Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks.Wilf Cude (July 4, 1906 to May 5, 1968). Goaltender from Barry. Played 10 seasons (1930-1941) in goal for Philadelphia Quakers, Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens. In those years ice hockey goalies did not wear face masks.Cude’s family relocated from Wales to Winnipeg, Manitoba in search of employment and he started playing ice hockey there.Jack Evans (April 21, 1928 to November 10, 1996). Born Garnant. Defenceman. Played for New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks between 1946 and 1972.HIs family emigrated to Drumheller, Alberta in his youth. Only spoke Welsh when he arrived in Canada and when he learned English spoke with an elongated drawl that earned him the nickname ‘Tex’. Started playing ice hockey at the age of 14 and quickly became a leading junior league D-man. He was a member of Chicago’s 1961 Stanley Cup winning team and played in the 1962 NHL AllStar game in Toronto.Nathan Walker (born February 7, 1994). Aged 23. Cardiff-born forward who has played for Australian club Sydney Ice Dogs and HC Vitkovice in the Czech Republic plus North American teams Youngstown Phantoms, Hershey Bears and South Carolina Stingrays before Washington Capitals.