“They are stepping along nicely,” Al Pudas said that day, having put his team though their paces ahead of their opening game. It was 1936, February. The 36-year-old coach was confident. “This is the strongest club I’ve ever had,” he said.
Spoiler alert: Pudas, who died on a Thursday of this date in 1976 at the age of 77, didn’t get the gold medal he, his team, and all of Canada was expecting. Maybe you know the story of the ’36 Olympics, which were in Germany, and how they ended Canada’s golden hockey streak. There’s more on that, here and here, if you’re interested. What we’ll say here is that to that point, teams sporting the maple leaf on their sweaters hadn’t lost a game let alone a gold medal in four Olympics, going back to Antwerp in 1920. Also, this: the fact the fact that the ’36 team could only manage silver wasn’t really Pudas’ fault.
Before he was a coach, Pudas was a referee. Before that he played, mainly on the wing. He did most of his skating in the ’20s, for teams in Port Arthur, though the fact that he was summoned in late 1926 to the NHL means that he was the league’s very first Finnish-born player: born in Siikajoki in Finland in 1899, Pudas had emigrated to Canada with his family before he turned two.
Pudas was playing right wing for the Windsor Hornets of the Canadian Professional Hockey League in December of 1926 when the Toronto St. Patricks signed him. They brought in left winger Butch Keeling at the same time. Both made their debut in a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins at Toronto’s Arena Gardens. Pudas wore number 14 during his short stay with Toronto, which lasted just four games. By mid-January of 1927 he was back in the Can-Am with Windsor, which means that he was only almost a Maple Leaf: it would be another month before Conn Smythe and his partners swooped in to acquire the team and switch the team’s identity almost overnight.