First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.
Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.
This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.
He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.
But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.
This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.
Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.
The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?
There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:
The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.
Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.
Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.
Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.
Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.
His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.
On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.
Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.
You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.
Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)
Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.