jim henry: sweet as sugar, gritty as a spinach salad

Born on this day in 1920, Sugar Jim Henry got his start as an NHL goaltender as a 22-year-old when he leapt straight from amateur hockey to took charge of the New York Rangers’ net in the fall of 1941. Dave Kerr had retired and Henry, Winnipeg-born, had spent the spring of the year backstopping the Regina Rangers of the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League to an Allan Cup championship. Henry played all of New York’s 48 regular-season games that first year, leading them to a first-place finish overall. (Toronto, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, beat the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs.) The following year Henry interrupted his Ranger career to enlist and serve in (while tend ing occasional goal for) both the Canadian Army and, subsequently, the Royal Canadian Navy. Postwar he made his NHL return as a Chicago Black Hawk before catching on as a Boston Bruin. That was him, of course, in the famous photo, shaking hands in 1952 with a just-as-battered Maurice Richard. Henry died in 2004.

The photo here dates to early in 1942 when Henry featured in a newspaper exposé syndicated across the United States in the cause of demystifying hockey goaltenders and their gear. Readers learned that Henry’s equipment weighed a total of 35 pounds and cost US$130. Also: “His is a task demanding keen muscular coordination, the eyesight of an eagle, the dexterity of a young gazelle, and the grit of a spinach salad.”

The nickname? It went back to his early days, apparently. The standard story is the one on file within the Hockey Hall of Fame’s registry of player profiles:

As a toddler growing up in Winnipeg, he used to waddle next door to visit some girls. “They’d dip my soother in a sugar bowl,” he recalled, “So the girls gave me the name ‘Sugar.’ Then I couldn’t get rid of it!”

Variations on that theme have been proffered over the years:

Sugar Jim Henry, the Brandon netman, gets his unusual nickname through his great love for anything alluringly sweet.

Winnipeg Tribune, March 23, 1939

Maurice (Winnipeg Free Press) Smith says ‘Sugar’ Jim Henry, former New York Ranger netminder, got his nickname because he had a craving for brown sugar when he was a schoolboy. His mother used to feed him bread and brown sugar when he came home from school. Smitty comments: “He thought he earned it because of his ability to turn in a sweet job in the nets.”

Nanaimo Daily News, April 10, 1944

Goalie ‘Sugar Jim’ Henry got his nickname for his love of sweets.

• Floyd Conner, Hockey’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Wicked Slapshots, Bruising Goons and Ice Oddities (2002)

The nickname, Sugar Jim, came from his fondness for brown sugar, particularly on cereal.

• Steve Zipay, The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New York Rangers (2008)

With his hair slicked back neatly around a part on the side, Jim Henry was deserving of the nickname ‘Sugar Jim.’ He was a sweet guy and a sweet goaltender in the most positive sense of reach word.

• Stan Fischler, Boston Bruins: Greatest Moments and Players (2013)

Henry addressed the matter himself in a Toronto Daily Star profile soon after he beat the Leafs in his 1941 NHL debut. Andy Lytle:

He became known as ‘Sugar’ because he loved to get a piece of bread and turn the contents of the family sugar bowl upon it.

“I could eat prodigious quantities,” he recalled. “I’m still fond of it. But now I take it mostly in cubes.”

He was still explaining it almost 50 years later when The Globe and Mail caught up to him for a “Where Are They Now?” segment, though the story had shifted next door once again. “I was always in the neighbour’s sugar bowl,” he gamely told Paul Patton in 1988.