men o’ the north: barrels of speed and classy stickhandling, and weight is their middle name

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As the NHL looks ahead to its centenary in 2017, the last week of 2016’s December marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the final dysfunctional season of the NHA, its now lesser-known and largely unloved predecessor. As the First World War entered its fourth ruinous year, the National Hockey Association opened its 1916-17 with six teams, five of which might be fairly classified as conventional franchises along with an entirely unlikely sixth. Joining Montreal’s Canadiens and Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa’s Senators and the Toronto Blueshirts on the eastern Canadian ice that winter was a team representing the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Raised in Ontario’s near-north and headquartered, originally, at North Bay, the battalion adopted the moniker Northern Fusiliers, a name that served the hockey team, too, along with Men O’ The North and just plain Soldiers. The story of how a team of Canadian infantry was (briefly, while it lasted) one of professional hockey’s powerhouses is a fascinating one that I wrote about recently in The New York Times. It’s one I’ll be reconnoitering in greater detail here, too, starting with (why not) the team’s first foray on ice ahead of the season’s opening. The NHA schedule had been published, with league play due to get underway on Wednesday, December 27. Across the league, rosters were still taking shape and indeed at the end of November, a nasty string of disputes over players had thrown the 228th’s participation into doubt. That was out of the players’ hands: they just wanted to keep skating.

The Soldiers hit the ice for practice at the Arena on Mutual Street in early November, the earliest Toronto pros had ever started their preparations in the city hockey history, some said. Even then they were being touted as favourites to win the championship of the NHA barely a month after their application to join the league was accepted.

Apart from the quality of their roster, it would be the fittest by far. The Ottawa Journal acknowledged the advantage that all the teams were calculating:

with a summer’s military training under their belt and with them doing gym work now as well as getting in an occasional practice on the ice, [the 228th] is bound to be in the best possible condition when the season opens.

From the NHA’s point of view, adding the 228th as a franchise made the straightest kind of sense. These were, after all, some of the best players in the land. They also lent the league patriotic cover during a time in which the debate about whether professional sports should be carrying on as usual was a real and active one.

And yet even after the Soldiers came aboard, their place in the league remained unsettled through November. Not all of the NHA’s civilian teams were willing to cede the hockey rights to players who, before they’d donned khaki, had been on their books. Canadiens seemed resigned to having lost Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara, and Amos Arbour to the khaki, but Toronto and its contentious owner Eddie Livingstone wasn’t as serene when it came to Duke Keats, Archie Briden, and Percy LeSueur. Wrangling over Keats in particular would nearly scupper the 228th’s NHA plan altogether, and it wasn’t until the end of November that the Northern Fusiliers finally backed down and ceded Keats and Briden to the Blueshirts.

Even so, the line-up as it was shaping up in the months ahead of the season’s opening was an impressive one. “The 228th Battalion could present as strong a team as ever played in the NHA,” Ottawa’s Journal was telling readers as early as September. Sergeant Percy LeSueur, 34, was pencilled in as the goaltender, a two-time Stanley Cup winner destined to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Baz O’Meara also called him, in 1944, “the handsomest man who ever stood in front of a corded cabin.”) The brothers (and fellow lieutenants) McNamara (a.k.a. the Dynamite Twins) manned the defence. Slated for the attack were Sergeant Goldie Prodgers, Lieutenant Art Duncan, Amos Arbour, and Gordon Meeking.

In November, the team snapped up Eddie Oatman, who’d starred at centre for the 1915-16 season with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds, the team the Montreal Canadiens had beaten to claim the Stanley Cup. The 228th already counted three members of that Canadiens team in its ranks in Arbour, Howard McNamara, and Prodgers.

As The Toronto News told it, the latter pair travelled to Oatman’s home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to persuade Oatman to forgo a return to the west coast. Why not join their campaign, instead? There would be controversy, later, regarding the terms of Oatman’s agreement with the battalion, and indeed whether he’d enlisted in the Army at all. He had, signing his attestation papers on November 1, with teammate Jack Brown standing by as his witness. According to the News, upon their arrival back in Toronto, the recruiters and their star catch made only the briefest stop at the 228th quarters before heading for Arena ice, where Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone watched the “Big Five” (the McNamaras, Prodgers, Oatman, and Keats) “take a whirl on skates.” Prodgers for one was reported to be “as enthusiastic as a schoolboy;”

now that Oatman has been added to the ranks, he can see nothing but another championship before they go overseas.

When the Soldiers weren’t skating, they were working out under the direction of Sergeant Frank Carroll’s direction at the West End YMCA at the corner of Davenport and College. Carroll, a former boxer with a Canadian welterweight title to his name, was a trainer of some repute in Toronto sporting circles. He’d tended the Toronto Blueshirts when they won the Stanley Cup in 1914 as well as working a summertime job for the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s AA International League. After the war, he’d take on the same role for Toronto’s inaugural NHL team, the Arenas, where his brother Dick was coach.

Given all the trouble the 228th got into regarding the propriety of icing a professional hockey team and the permission to do so, it’s worth noting that the battalion did seek permission through the chain of command before getting involved in celebrating an Allies’ Carnival at the Arena in early December. Organized by the 204th (Beavers) Battalion, it featured as its centerpiece a hockey game in which the 228th deploying against a select military team drawn from the 204th and other battalions quartered at Toronto’s lakeshore Exhibition grounds. Organized and led by a former OHA star, Lieutenant Herbie Birmingham, the All-Stars counted a ringer, too, in their ranks: Bruce Ridpath, the first captain of Toronto’s original NHA team and a Stanley Cup winner with Ottawa in 1910-11.

A crowd of 5,000 were on hand for the game. The referee was Harvey Sproule, another future coach of the NHL Arenas. In this, the Soldiers’ first test, they passed colourfully, and with pomp. “The 228th can hardly be improved upon,” decided the correspondent from Toronto’s World.

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With Sergeant LeSueur away in Ottawa instructing a musketry course, North Bay’s own Howie Lockhart shared the net with Jack Brown. Sergeant Prodgers and Lieutenant Howard McNamara opened the game on the defence. Starting up front: Amos Arbour, Sergeant Duke Keats, and Lieutenant Art Duncan. Waiting a turn on the bench the Soldiers had Eddie Oatman, Lieutenant George McNamara, Jack Brown, and Roxy Beaudro.

A local MPP dropped the puck to open the proceedings. Just for good measure, there was a second and slightly more elaborate ceremony to open the third period. That’s when His Excellency the (new) Governor-General arrived, Victor Cavendish, the ninth Duke of Devonshire, along with a vice-regal party that included his wife and two young daughters. The family hadn’t been in Canada a month; this was their first hockey game. The crowd cheered, and Army bands, the 228th’s among them, struck up the national anthem. The Duke dropped oversaw another ceremonial face-off, and the game started afresh.

The rout had been on for a while by that point.

The 228th had cruised to a 4-0 first-period lead and added two more goals in the second. They scored a further four in the third.10-0 was the final score. “Goldie Prodgers,” said the World, “was the big noise. He tore from end to end and the poor All-Stars were tired trying to chase him.” Eddie Oatman and Howard McNamara both collected hattricks, with brother George adding a goal of his own, along with Prodgers, Keats, and Arbour. “The All-Stars were showing signs of distress,” The Toronto World commiserated, “and it was rather tame at the finish.”

The young Cavendishes, Lady Maude and Lady Blanche, were said to have taken a keen interest in the action, while the Duke himself was reported to be greatly interested in the speed and dexterity of the players.

By mid-December, the 228th had 63 of the country’s best amateur players on the books, if they did say so themselves, which they did. Toronto papers were happy to pass on the news, noting that in addition to the NHA team, the battalion was icing teams in five local amateur leagues.

On Saturday, December 16, 1916, the 228th took to the ice again for another exhibition game. The opposition this time was a team of NHA All Stars — nominally, at least. In fact, it was an augmented edition of Eddie Livingstone’s Toronto Blueshirts, garbed in Toronto blues. Joining the local likes of Ken Randall, Harry Cameron, and Corb Denneny were Canadiens’ stars Newsy Lalonde and Didier Pitre along with Quebec’s Jack Marks.

“There was no weakness anywhere on the 228th team,” The Winnipeg Tribune reported. The Toronto World was willing — eager, even — to go further: “Saturday night they looked to be the greatest aggregation of puck-chasers that ever stepped on the arena.” Among their weaponry? “They have barrels of speed, team play, all are classy stickhandlers, and weight is their middle name.”

Arbour, Oatman, and Prodgers were the regular forwards, and the McNamaras started on defence in front of Howie Lockhart. The Daily Star deemed Prodgers one of the best men on the ice, even if his name didn’t show up in the scoring summary. “Displaying some nifty stick-handling and showing a great burst of speed,” he was alleged to have been responsible for three if not four of the military goals.

For the All-Stars, Noble did as well as any of them and was on the ice longer than all. “Shows a wicked shot,” noted The Globe. “It was his first pro game, and he made good.” Denneny looked the best conditioned.

Again the Northern Fusiliers scored in double digits, posting a 10-3 victory. Eddie Oatman helped himself to another hattrick, and Amos Arbour got one, too. The World: “The way those boys went down made the fans gasp.”

Lalonde and Pitre let it be known that so far they’d only been on skates twice ahead of the game and admitted to being in poor condition. Other than those, they weren’t offering excuses. Lalonde was truly impressed: the Soldiers were hard as nails. A most surprising team, he said: it would take the very best in the league to take their measure.

The crowd was small and (in The Globe’s eyes) showed very little enthusiasm. According to the Daily Star, what the fans liked best about the Soldiers was every one of them tried all the time. They never loafed. “This may be attributed to military training and their desire to do their best all the time for the glory of the battalion. With such a spirit among the players, the success of the team is assured.”