Orland Kurtenbach was a big, burly center who supplied grit, muscle and protection for his teammates during the early years of the Emile Francis era.
Born on September 7, 1936 in Cudworth, Saskatchewan, Kurt began his hockey journey with the Prince Albert Mintos of the SJHL in 1953 and was signed to a “C” Form by the Rangers.
He was named the Western Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year in 1957-58 and made his NHL debut with the Rangers in 1960-61, registering six assists in ten games. But he was left unprotected by GM Muzz Patrick and claimed by the Bruins in the 1961 Intra-League. He then saw action with Boston and Toronto before being re-claimed by Emile Francis in the 1966 Intra-League Draft, giving the Rangers some much needed size up the middle. .
At 6-foot-2 and 195-pounds, Kurt was bigger than the average NHL’er at the time and had a reputation of having the ‘Fastest Fists in The National Hockey League’. He fought the heavyweights of the day including John Fergusson, Ted Green, Terry Harper and Ted Harris but the term “Enforcer” didn’t sit well with him.
Orland Kurtenbach: “I didn’t look for fights. I think the word ‘enforcer’ denigrated my game. That was designated by the press and the media. I came out as a top scoring junior. When I got to Boston I played eventually with Dean Prentice and Andy Hebenton and I got lots of ice time. When I got to New York, Jean Ratelle was hurt and I played with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield and I was up in the scoring. But in the old six team league if we played a game in Montreal on Saturday we’d come home and play them again on Sunday so if there were any beefs the night before it would continue. But that wasn’t my designation, I didn’t like it.”
Indeed, Orland’s highest penalty minute total was 91 in 1963-64, his first full season in the NHL with Boston. And as his reputation grew, fewer opponents were lining up to take him on. When he did fight however, the speed and power of his fists became even more apparent due to the white cotton gloves he wore under his hockey gloves because of an allergy. .
Orland Kurtenbach: “When I was wearing the CCM gloves I got a rash from the dye and it got worse and worse. Dave Balon had the same thing. So in order to try to confine it I talked to the trainers and I wore white gloves in order to keep it from spreading. But I was allergic to the dye in the leather.”
In 1966-67 with Jean Ratelle recovering from spinal fusion surgery, Orland centered a line with Rod Gilbert and Vic Hadfield and scored 11 goals with 25 assists. The next season when Ratelle returned to the lineup Kurtenbach was moved to a checking line with Ron Stewart and Reggie Fleming and once again had a strong season, scoring 15 goals with 20 assists. Unfortunately, Kurt underwent his own spinal fusion early the next season and appeared in only two games. He returned for the 1969-70 season but had trouble keeping up with the pace of the game and knew his days as a Ranger were numbered.
Orland Kurtenbach: “There was a draft that year and Emile called me in and told me ‘I absolutely cannot protect you’. And I really didn’t play much for the two years prior to that. One year I had gone to Omaha to try to get into shape. But I could not skate. I couldn’t bend over and push off. So I came back and I had the fusion surgery prior to Christmas, performed by Dr. Yanagisawa who had operated on Harry Howell, Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle. I was in a back brace for six months. Then I started getting in shape. I ran every day. I went to training camp and I was a step behind everybody. And Emile played me with the Rangers one night and Buffalo the next. This went on for two weeks and camp broke and I went back to Buffalo for two weeks. I didn’t start getting my legs back until the end of the season and then Emile started playing me again. So I talked to Emile. There were two clubs coming in, Buffalo and Vancouver. I had played for Punch Imlach in Toronto and gotten along well with him but he had me playing in more of a defensive role and the other team was the Canucks and I had played for Bud Poile in San Francisco in 1962-63 and got lots of ice time, I think I led the team in scoring. So I told Emile I wanted to go to Vancouver to make my home. My wife was from there and that’s where we wanted to bring up our family, and it really worked out well for me.”
Big Kurt was claimed by the Vancouver Canucks where he became their first team captain and recorded back-to-back 20-goal seasons as well as being selected as MVP by the fans in his first three years. However injuries began to slow him down and Orland retired following the 1973-74 season.
Kurtenbach then moved into coaching, first with Seattle and then Tulsa of the CHL where he won the league championship and was named Coach of the Year in 1976. He then moved up to coach the Canucks from 1976-78.
Today Orland is bothered by some aspects of the game.
Orland Kurtenbach: “As a coach and teaching hockey schools, you teach a guy how to take a guy out at an angle to the boards. You go in the same direction he’s heading and knock him off the puck, to get the puck but not to kill the guy. There’s a moral aspect to this game. You don’t hit a guy when he’s down or hit him from behind. It’s disturbing to watch and it’s a problem.
When I played in San Francisco in 62-63 the Oakland Raiders had a center named Jim Otto. I can remember what a great player he was. He was a big guy 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and I remember there was an article about him recently and he wasn’t able to get out of bed because of the concussions and all. When I was in Tulsa and my son was playing high school football they had ex-pro’s there teaching those kids how to tackle at the knees and so I took him out of that. I was coaching a Junior A club out here and the kids are pretty exuberant when they’re 16-20 years old and they want to make the NHL. And one of our players ran a guy from behind into the boards. And I said I don’t want to see that again. If you do that it’s on your conscience for the rest of your life if the guy has a broken neck. I don’t want to be part of that. So don’t do that while you’re playing for me.”
Despite playing his entire career as a forward, Kurt once played goal in a minor league game while with Buffalo in 1958-59.
Orland Kurtenbach: “In the final game of the year our goalie Marcel Paille got hit with the puck right between the eyes and his face swelled up and he couldn’t go back in goal. We didn’t have an extra goaltender in those days so there was a goaltender who came over from Fort Erie every practice and every game waiting for a chance to play in the event that Paille got hurt. So the last game of the year he didn’t show up. So there we sat in the dressing room with about two minutes left in the first period. Freddie Hunt was the General Manager at the time and he came in and said well unless one of you guys want to go in goal we can’t go on. So I wasn’t playing very much, we had a very good club and I wasn’t getting the ice time I was getting when I was in Vancouver (WHL) and I was quite unhappy with the situation. So I stood up and said ‘well, if I can’t get on the ice one way, I’ll get on another, so I’ll go in goal.’ And I think I played 42 minutes and I allowed five goals on 30 shots or something. But we had a good hockey team that year.”
Kurt also has fond memories of playing for Emile Francis
Orland Kurtenbach: “He was the start of the farm system. He was progressive. He had a very good idea of what a farm system should be and he brought that to New York, because I think at that time Toronto and Montreal dominated in that area. I thought he was progressive. He came in and initiated a new system from what we were used to and I thought as a future coach here’s something I can use and emulate. He did a great job. He was good for hockey. He was fair with everybody. Back then the monetary end of it wasn’t great but I remember when Rod Gilbert signed a new contract for $105,000. That was three years at $35,000 a year so everybody said ‘holy shit!’ Prior to that Emile had everybody between 20 and 30 thousand dollars. And nobody discussed the financials because we were all so embarrassed. Now it’s available and I think it’s straightened out a little bit in terms of what your value is based on, what you’ve done and not what the club was gonna offer you. Like they used to blackmail the players but that was the hockey business back then.”
Orland Kurtenbach was a solid, dependable, two-way hockey player. In 198 games as a Ranger, Kurtenbach recorded 30 goals, 61 assists and 191 penalty minutes. In 15 playoff games he scored two goals, with four assists and 50 penalty minutes. In 639 NHL games with the Rangers, Bruins, Maple Leafs and Canucks, Orland registered 119 goals and 213 assists along with 628 penalty minutes. He was also willing to stand up for his teammates when needed. But as he often said, “I’d rather be known as a 20 goal scorer than a fighter.”