lapses in the legacy: tallying up boston’s neglected captains

“Patrice Bergeron was meant to be a Bruins captain,” a former Boston teammate of his was saying last week, Martin Lapointe, emphasis on the meant and on the destiny. Is there anyone who pays attention to the NHL who’s going to dispute it?

Bergeron’s inevitable ascension to the captaincy came last Thursday, seven days after Zdeno Chara’s 14-year tenure sporting the Boston C ended when the lofty defenceman signed with the Washington Capitals.

Was a week enough to dissipate the regret associated with Chara’s departure? Maybe not quite, but the announcement of Bergeron’s succession still made for a proud picture to add to the gallery commemorating the Bruins’ 97-year history.

It was also very much of the fraught moment: players, coaches, and managers at TD Garden that day were all masked for the dressing-room ceremony that formalized Bergeron’s new role. Elsewhere, online, the team marked the occasion with a profusion of nouns and glossy graphics, the former (“Integrity. Humility. Resiliency.”) featuring in the latter.Bruins GM Don Sweeney threw in a few more in his statement.

“Patrice Bergeron exudes leadership, character, talent, will, and empathy,” Sweeney said. “We all know Bergy embraces the legacy of the Boston Bruins, as he will with the captaincy.”

Patrice Bergeron: Boston’s new  (but not 20th) captain.

Bergeron, who’s 35, is skating into his 17th season as a Bruin. He had his say, too.

“It’s very humbling. It’s a huge honour,” he offered. “There’s been some tremendous captains and leaders along the way, and some legends of the game, and as I said it’s an absolute honour and I’m going to try to keep bettering myself and learning and leading by example, but also trying to be me.”

All in all, then, a bright note on which to get the new season going in such a fraught time.

Yes, true — unless you’re talking hockey history, which Bergy and the Bruins were. From a hockey history perspective, last Thursday’s announcement was (at best) confused. It wasn’t Bergeron’s fault, and it doesn’t make him any less deserving of the Boston C, but it was — and continues to be — a bad look for the Bruins, who’ve been careless with their own history, inattentive to the detail of their rich past, and even willfully neglectful.

If they’re willing to revel in their history (and they should), they ought to take pains to get it right.

There have been, as Bergeron noted, tremendous captains and leaders along the way since Charles Adams took his grocery money and put the Bruins on ice in 1924. They should allbe remembered, and recognized.

Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Boston Bruins, as the team is content to claim. Somehow, somewhere the Bruins have forgotten — and duly erased from their records — the captaincies of at least six Bruins — and maybe as many as eight.

Included in those numbers are five (or six) Hall-of-Famers, some of the greatest names in the annals of the team.

How did this happen? It’s not entirely clear.

Are these mistakes that can be corrected? Easily.

Will they be? Hockey is full of surprises.

These are not contentious cases. The evidence backing up the claims I’m making on behalf of six (or eight) famous Bruins takes some finding, which is to say it involves a certain amount of steering search-engines through newspaper archives, which is to say, no, actually, not that much finding is required at all, just some persistence.

Other than that, it’s not controversial, or particularly difficult to decode. It’s pretty plain. I have it organized here at my desk, because, well, that’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing. I like to share, too, which is why I’ve offered this information I shuffled together to the Bruins in case they wanted to look at it and, you know, acknowledge their own, update the record.

There are errors and inconsistencies in the records of other NHL teams and their accountings of who captained them. Mostly, these are irregularities of the calendar, having to with when a certain player was appointed captain, for how long he served. With no other team (I’ve looked) is the forgetting on a scale that matches Boston’s.

There’s nothing sinister behind this. Part of it seems to be that the record has been faulty for so long that the gaps have worn down, grown over. It’s easy to accept antiquity as accuracy; it’s not just in matters of hockey history that errors get repeated over and over again to the point that they sound almost truthful. (It does happen in hockey history a lot, though.)

What’s baffling in this Bruins case is that the team seems to be so very much … not really interested. Give them that: there does seem to be a consistent commitment to indifference over the years.

“I’m not really in the know on this stuff,” Bob Bauer said when we talked a few months ago. “I mean, I know my dad’s career, but I didn’t know about the being overlooked as captain thing.”

He’s a lawyer in Toronto, Bob; his dad was Bobby Bauer, legendary Bruins, right winger on the Kraut Line, three-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy, Hall of Fame class of 1996. He died in 1964 at the age of 49, when his son was 17.

Maybe the younger Bauer could have followed his father into the NHL — Bob played at Harvard, for the Crimson, and later in Austria. “I didn’t think really — I thought I’d be more likely to be riding the buses in the IHL,” he laughed, “and that wasn’t really a pleasant thought for me, so that was kind of it.”

Bob Bauer knew his dad’s linemates well, Milt Schmidt and Woody Dumart. Knowing what Bobby achieved in the hockey, Bob worked, too, on compiling the nomination package that helped see his namesake inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in ’96.

But the fact that his father captained the Bruins in his last year in the NHL? That was news to Bob when I first got in touch by e-mail. “I went back and looked at what I had submitted [to the Hall],” he said on the phone. “It didn’t mention one way or another about him being captain that year.”

It’s true, though. Even though the Bruins fail to acknowledge it, Bobby Bauer was indeed captain of the team for the 1946-47 season, his last in the NHL.

There’s no doubt about this. The evidence isn’t cloudy, doesn’t leave room for other interpretations.

Bauer was 31 in ’46, heading into his eighth year as Bruin. Like many hockey players — like lots of his Bruin teammates — he’d interrupted his NHL career to go to war. Serving with the RCAF, he missed three full seasons before making a return to the ice in 1945. Back on skates, he helped the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final the following spring, though the Montreal Canadiens beat them in five games.

After the final game at the Forum Bauer tried to pack up his sweater, number 17, to take home as a souvenir. Manager Art Ross wouldn’t surrender it. “You’ll be using it next year,” he said.

Globe and Mail, October 17, 1946

He was right. In October, Bauer joined the rest of his Boston teammates in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Bruins convened to train for the upcoming season. It was on a Wednesday, the 16th, that Ross announced that number 17 would be the Bruins’ new captain.

“Bauer, often referred to as the ‘Brain,’ will make an excellent leader,” Boston’s Globe reported. “The Bruins will also have two alternate captains in the event Bobby is not on the ice during a dispute. These cocaptains [sic] are defensemen, Johnny Crawford, team leader the past few seasons, and Murray Henderson.”

It was a year of change in the NHL. Clarence Campbell succeeded Red Dutton as president of the league that fall. Rosters, reduced in wartime, expanded. Tweaks to the NHL’s rulebook saw changes to regulations governing penalty shots, broken sticks, and unnecessary roughness. New face-off dots were mandated and, as a safety measure, it was decreed that across the league, all gates leading to the ice now had to swing inwards.

Also, for the first time in NHL history, captains of teams got a letter for their sweaters. Never before had players actually worn a letter to indicate their role as captain or alternate. The effort to limit players crowding referees to complain and dispute calls had been ongoing over the years, and this new act of embroidery was another piece of that.

“One Captain shall be appointed by each team,” Rule 14 of the NHL Rulebook now stipulated, “and he alone shall have the privilege of discussing with the Referee any questions relating to interpretation of rules which may arise during the progress of a game. He shall wear the letter ‘C’, approximately three inches in height and in contrasting color, in a conspicuous position on the front of his sweater.”

If this new lettering aided referees at the time, now privileged with easy identification of players permitted to get in their grill, it also continues to abet historians and curious record-keepers alike. The first to wear an actual C in Boston, Bauer wore his front and centre, stitched in between the 1 and the 7 of the sweater he’d almost given up earlier in 1946. There’s no mistaking it in the Bruins’ team photograph:

It’s apparent, too, in images from games the Bruins played that year, like this one below, from Maple Leaf Gardens in March of 1947. That’s Bauer and his C lurking in front of Leaf goaltender Turk Broda. Leaf captain Syl Apps (his own C obscured) is down on a knee in the slot. Bruin winger Joe Carveth is the man with the puck.

If that’s not proof enough, then maybe could I interest you in the notation official NHL documentation for that same game, with Bauer and Apps annotated with Cs and Nick Metz and Gaye Stewart listed as alternate captains along with Crawford and Henderson?

As mentioned, I’m not the first to flag this, or to have tried to engage with the Bruins to point it out.

Others have written to the team to make the case over the years, or even phoned, cold-calling the TD Garden with the quixotic notion that somebody there might be curious.

Boston author and lifelong Bruins fan Kevin Vautour is one such optimist. For years he’s been trying to get the team’s attention and recognize Bauer’s captaincy. Vautour has collected (and shared) newspaper articles, program notes, photos of Bauer wearing the C. He’s not so much frustrated by the Bruins’ attitude towards their own history as he is flummoxed.

Okay, he is, possibly, a little frustrated. “Maybe they don’t care,” he hazarded in “Recognizing An Omission,” a 2008 article for the Society for International Hockey Research’s annual Journal. In that same piece he chronicled a call he put in to the team’s PR department, which someone named John gamely took, and from whom Vautour … never heard back.

Taking up the challenge last year, I made a little more … what? Not progress, exactly. After arrowing several e-mails into the Boston ether, I did eventually hear from Heidi Holland, the team’s director of publications and information, whose job it is to corral and compile all the stats and esoteric detail that goes into the team’s voluminous annual Guide & Record Book, the de facto official record of all things Bruin.

Team guides used to be published the old-fangled way, on paper, but now they’re only online. The latest edition, for 2020-21, went up before last week’s news, so if you scroll over to page 241, where the honour roll of Bruin captains is listed alongside the men who’ve managed, coached, and presidented the team since their start in 1924, you won’t find Patrice Bergeron’s name.

Nineteen others are there, from Sprague Cleghorn all the way through to Chara:

Boston Wrong: Boston’s register of captains, as listed in the team’s 2020-21 Guide & Record Book.

What about Bobby Bauer? How was the list sourced? Were the Bruins aware of Guide’s several absences and anomalies? Could I send along some corroborating evidence in the spirit of friendly good-faith remedial philanthropy?

I e-mailed my questions, then chased that e-mail with a few (exponentially irritating?) follows-up. In Holland’s perfectly gracious reply, I gleaned, if nothing else,that the reason the Bruins’ complacency when it comes to bygone captains seems as solid as it does may be largely Schmidt-based. Holland wrote:

This question has come up a couple of times over the past several years but unfortunately, I have no way of confirming it. The list of captains from earlier media guides lists John Crawford as captain in that season. The earliest media guide that I have is 1947-48 and Crawford’s bio in that book only says that he has “been captain or assistant captain of the Bruins in recent seasons.” Bauer does not have a bio in that guide.

When the subject first came up, I asked Milt Schmidt (as the only person who was active at that time) if he remembered Bobby being named Boston’s captain and he did not have any recollection that he did.

Makes sense, I guess — other than the abundance of proofs that don’t rely on the memory of the altogether eminent and venerable Schmidt, an institution unto himself, who captained, coached, and GM’d the Bruins in his day, and, right up until his death at age 98 in 2017, remained a beloved icon in and around the team.

Especially since, as it turns out, Bauer isn’t the only Bruin great to have somehow vanished off the historical ledger.

Waiting to hear back from Holland, I kept on shaking the archives, as I tend to do, to see what might fall from the branches. One of the more instructive items I came across was from Montreal Gazettecolumnist Vern DeGeer writing in 1961.

He’d been talking to Ken McKenzie, the co-founder of The Hockey News who also served as the NHL’s long-time publicist. It was thanks to McKenzie’s research that DeGeer was able to report that Chicago’s Black Hawks was the club with the most captains in its history to date, with 18. (Almost but not quite right: Chicago is another club who’ve forgotten a leader or two. But maybe that’s another day’s post.)

The captaincy-confusion seems to have been general. While Montreal’s Canadiens have subsequently righted the record, the Gazette was at in ’61 confident that new Habs skipper Jean Béliveau counted as the team’s ninth captain since the founding in 1909, when in fact he was the 16th.

Remarking on the Bruins, DeGeer alluded specifically to the scattered state of Boston records. According to McKenzie, team records of the captaincy were so lacking that they only included six names and reached back no further than 1939 and Dit Clapper.

“The Boston publicity department,” DeGeer lamented, “hasn’t been able to track down names of any earlier leaders.”

I don’t know — maybe the modern-day Bruins can find some comfort in knowing that 60 years ago, the record was already wanting.

Back in the present, I was a little affronted, I suppose, when Heidi Holland didn’t invite me to send along my Bobby Bauer findings. So along with DeGeer’s article, I didn’t send them.

I guess I was feeling a little sheepish, too, as though it were my fault that the more I juddered the archives, the more the captains missing from the record seemed to multiple.

By then, gazing back beyond Bauer through the 13 seasons before he got the C stitched onto his solar plexus, I found that five other famous Bruins had somehow been effaced from the record.

When I’d first e-mailed the Bruins, I’d been ready to pronounce that Bauer was the Bruins’ seventh captain, which meant that Zdeno Chara came 20th in the succession. Actually? Bauer is (confirmably) the 12thman to have led the team. Given that, Patrice Bergeron is at the very least the 26th captain in Boston Bruins’ history. Depending on your interpretation of a later situation from the 1960s, he could be the 28th.

Either way, that’s a big helping of oblivion. As a team proud of its history you’d want to get that looked at, you’d think.

It was at some point during the 1931-32 NHL that Art Ross made a decision that’s key to the story of the Boston captaincy and its missing protagonists. Just how Ross reasoned this isn’t clear — I haven’t seen it explained, at least — but the Bruins’ coach and manager decided that, in the future, the team would pick a new captain each season.

Hired to launch the expansion Bruins into the NHL in 1924, Art Ross steered his team that first year without naming a captain. (Vern DeGeer speculated in 1961 that if he hadchosen one, the likeliest candidate would have been left winger Herb Mitchell, sometimes said to have been the first player ever signed by the Bruins as well as — maybe not coincidentally — Ross’ brother-in-law.)

Ross did name a leader in 1925, making Sprague Cleghorn the team’s first captain. At 35, Cleghorn was an old Montreal friend of Ross’, as well as a wily, much-scarred — and all-too-willing-to-scar — veteran who, in the five years before joining Boston, had played in four Stanley Cup finals, three times on the winning side.

Cleghorn captained the team for three seasons. To start the last of these, 1927-28, Ross, ever the innovator, named a 25-year-old Lionel Hitchman as his deputy — vice-captain, he called him. This was an NHL first, as far as I know.

“Sprague Cleghorn,” Ross explained to the Boston Globe, “continues, of course, as the Bruins’ captain, but Hitchman a year ago was the regular starting defenceman with [Eddie] Shore, and he will be the playing captain of the team when he is on the ice. Cleghorn will continue to have the entire supervision of players’ conduct as team captain, and when on the ice he will make all decisions.”

Like Cleghorn’s, Hitchman’s stint as captain lasted three years. In his first year at the helm, 1929, he led the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup. In 1930, slowed by injuries, Hitchman tried to relinquish his role. Ross wouldn’t hear of it, convincing him to stick with it for one more season.

As the manager told it in 1931, the team picked his successor in their dressing room at the Montreal Forum the day before they opened the season against the Maroons. Hitchman nominated 30-year-old defenceman George Owen, with Eddie Shore seconding the motion. The resulting vote was unanimous. Owen himself missed the election: he’d stayed back in Boston to tend tending to his business, joining his teammates for the game next day.

Dit Clapper was next. He was 25. “The likable right winger yesterday was elected to lead the Bruins,” the Globeheralded in October of 1932, “continuing the policy of selecting a new captain each playing season.”

By his biographer’s account, Clapper’s inauguration involved a ceremonial shower of snow and ice-shavings in the Boston Garden dressing room.

As far as the Bruins are concerned, Ross’ one-off policy ended the following year, with Clapper re-upping and continuing on as captain for five further seasons, through 1937-38.

As with Bobby Bauer, that’s where their history is wonky.

Boston Globe, November 7, 1933.

The policy didn’t expire: in early November of 1933, in Quebec City, where the Bruins convened their training camp, 27-year-old Marty Barry was anointed captain.

He was expected, I suppose, to lead by example — nobody could have been expecting him to rule by oratory. The Globe sketched the scene as his captaincy was announced. “Barry, who never utters a word in the dressing room, as usual had nothing to say, but his playmates insisted, so Marty stood up and made the longest speech of his career. ‘Thanks fellows,’ then he sat down.”

Barry was the first of four captains from the 1930s who are now forgotten by the Bruins. Nels Stewart, 31, came next, a 32-year-old Eddie Shore after him, Hall-of-Famers both. Next was Red Beattie, who was 30.

The announcements of these appointments are all there in 90-year-old print, not just in the Boston papers, but across North America as, year by year, the merits of Boston’s new captains were duly discussed.

In 1934, the Globe noted that Bruins’ goaltender Tiny Thompson had been in the running alongside Stewart, but that coach Frank Patrick “felt a goalie-captain tends to slow up the game in case of disputes on the ice. In 1935, extolling Shore, the Globe reminded readers that Boston captains were appointed (by Ross) rather than elected, and that their term lasted just a year.

Boston Globe, October 25, 1934.

That policy was in fact finally coming to its end. Cooney Weiland, 34, was the new captain in 1937 and kept the job for a second year, during which he also served as Art Ross’ assistant coach, and so might deserve a double measure of credit for the fact that Boston claimed the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1939. (Not to rain on that parade, but I have to report that the Bruins have their dates wrong on Weiland, crediting him with just a single year as captain instead of his two.)

Weiland’s 1939 retirement opened the door for a return to the captaincy by Dit Clapper, now 32, starting into his 13th season as a Bruin. He lasted five seasons this time around, raising a Stanley Cup in 1941.

And the Bruins … well, the Bruins have him staying on through to 1946-47, after which (they assert) John — a.k.a. Jack — Crawford stepped up.

No.

It was the fall of 1944 that Clapper handed over the captaincy to concentrate on his duties as Boston’s playing coach. Yet another long-unacknowledged name took his place: 32-year-old Bill Cowley.

It was after Cowley that Crawford got his turn as captain, and while the Bruins give him credit for four years’ service in the role, he actually only lasted one. Bobby Bauer was next, as mentioned, followed by his (forgetful) friend and linemate Milt Schmidt.

There are other kinks in the Bruins’ list as you go on, mostly to do with dates, nothing on the scale of the gaps that mar the ’30s and ’40s. A corrected list of the entire span of those first decades and the captains who (actually) reigned is here for your consideration, in case you’re interested. Eventually I’ll add in the later decades and highlight some of the confusions and anomalies therein.

For now, let’s just preview a single, significant one of those.

If you study the Bruins’ master list, you’ll see that they declare “No Captain” for the years 1967-68 through 1972-73. Johnny Bucyk’s name appears on either side of this chasm in the captaincy, before (1966-67) and after (1973-74 to 1976-77).

Why so?

It’s complicated and (in this later case) open to some interpreting. I’ll spare you most of that here, focussing (for now) on the first of those No-Captain years, 1967-68, if only because I have a fairly explicit explanation at hand of what went on that year.

Again we go to the Boston Globe, for whom reporter Kevin Walsh was on the Bruins beat as a new NHL season, the first of the expansion era, approached in October of 1967. Here’s Walsh’s lede from a piece headlined “Three Captains Leading Bruins:”

The big ‘C’ Johnny Bucyk wore on his uniform a year ago that designated him as team captain of the Bruins has been retired. He now wears an ‘A’.

Coach Harry Sinden was happy to explain the spelling correction. He and his GM had were opting in this new hockey age for co-captains — that’s the word that he and (none other than) Milt Schmidt were using.

“We decided,” Sinden said, “the important duties of the captain would be shared among Bucyk. Ted Green, and Phil Esposito. All share equally the responsibility of captain.”

Bucyk, he reported, was all aboard. “He thinks it’s a good idea.”

Divided C: The 1967-68 Bruins, featuring co-captains (and GM Milt Schmidt).

“If the league rules allowed it,” Sinden went on, “we would have three men on the ice wearing a C. We may eventually have a captain but right now we will have three players share the duty.”

“We are the first team in the league to have co-captains,” he added, perhaps as a nod of trailblazing respect to Art Ross, “and I feel it’s a good idea.”

So, then: do Ted Green and Phil Esposito deserve to be tallied in the catalogue of Boston captains? Is the proper total 28 rather than 26?

As well as it might have worked at the time, the decision to divide the captaincy in three clearly posed a problem for the team’s records-keepers who, maybe, decided that “No Captain” was simpler that Co-captains. I suppose it’s an easier solution than having to annotate and explain, even if annotating and explaining might better reflect and even honour the team’s history.

I’m satisfied to offer Green and Esposito up for debate. It’s true that they never wore the C for Boston, so it makes a sort of sense that they’re not counted in the overall tally of Bruins captains. Does it, though? By Harry Sinden’s description here, they were captains of the team just as much as Johnny Bucyk was before and after he shared his title.

As for the earlier others, I don’t see how Boston can continue to ignore them. With all due respect to Milt Schmidt’s memory, proof of the Bruin captaincies of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Eddie Shore, Red Beattie, Bill Cowley, and Bobby Bauer is available and confirmable.

It’s time to elevate their distinguished names to the register up alongside Patrice Bergeron’s.

Captains Three: Three B defenceman, all of whom led the team in their early decades. From left, Eddie Shore, George Owen, and Lionel Hitchman.

2 thoughts on “lapses in the legacy: tallying up boston’s neglected captains

  1. Great post! One little detail shows Bill Barilko on the scoresheet identified as wearing #21 for the Leafs in 1947, not his now-retired #5. And, I hate the Bruins.

  2. Congratulations Stephen. Some really dogged research.
    Now if you, SIHR Members, Hockey Historians, the New York Times could do similar dogged research and answer these 3 questions:
    Q1 Who was “The First” Native American / Indigenous Hockey Player in the NHL?
    Q2 Who was “The First” Native American / Indigenous Hockey Player in the Winter Olympics?
    Q3 Why does USA Hockey and the NHL fail to honor this Native American in the same way they do African Americans?
    Hints at TaffyAbel.com

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