lapses in the legacy: checking in on boston’s still-forgotten captains

Special Ed: The epic Eddie Shore, as seen in a Boston Garden program from March of 1936.

If the measure of NHL success is whether or not your team hoists the Stanley Cup to finish a given season, then Patrice Bergeron’s first campaign as captain of the Boston Bruins was a flop.

The season itself wasn’t so dire. The Bruins, you’ll recall, finished third in their division, the old MassMutual East, accumulating 73 points, which was good enough for tenth overall in the NHL’s regular-season standings — just three points behind the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Boston won their first-round playoff series, dismissing the Washington Capitals in five games. Then, of course, they faltered, losing out in six to the frisky New York Islanders.  

Historically, in the annals of Bruinly seasons going back to the team’s founding in 1924, Bergeron’s first as captain rates … fairly well. Measured by the percentage of points earned during the regular season, Bergeron’s Bruins (who went 33-16-7 in wins/losses/overtime losses) come in at .652, which ties them for 21st on the chart showing 96 seasons played to date. 

That’s well behind the Bruins best season, 1929-30, when the team compiled a .875 record in Lionel Hitchman’s second year as captain. But it’s better than a whole raft of other Boston seasons, including those in which some of the greatest names in team history took over as captain. 

Nels Stewart’s 1934-35 Bruins registered a .604 record before departing the playoffs in the semi-finals. Red Beattie’s 1936-37 team put together a .552 record, losing out in the quarter-finals. Bobby Bauer oversaw a .525 Bruins season in 1946-47; his Bruins lost in the semi-finals. Eddie Shore? He led Boston to a .521 record in 1935-36 and then out of the post-season in the quarter-finals. Marty Barry and Bill Cowley fared worse still: their respective teams, from 1933-34 and 1944-45 respectively, show points percentages of .427 and .350. Cowley’s team failed to get through the semi-finals; Barry’s missed the playoffs altogether.

Six times the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup in their history; it’s not unreasonable to imagine Patrice Bergeron raising a seventh during his tenure as Boston captain. Until that happens, he can take solace (maybe?) in the fact that the team he plays for actually acknowledges his captaincy.

It’s the least the Bruins could do, of course, though not (for the Bruins) so straightforward as you might think. Because while Boston does celebrate (and proudly) Bergeron’s role as team captain, the team still doesn’t allow that Barry, Stewart, Shore, Beattie, Cowley, and Bauer preceded him in the role. 

Yes, it’s back to that refrain again, which is to say, this one

To sum up, quick-like: at some point in the Bruins’ 97-year history, the team has mislaid a prominent chunk of that history, somehow overlooking the captaincies of at least six of their most famous players. Bergeron isn’t the 20th man to captain the Bruins, as the team is content to claim: he’s the 26th (or possibly the 28th).  

Red Beattie captained the Bruins in 1936-37, as noted in a Garden program from that season; according to the team’s erring record, it was Dit Clapper.

It’s not clear when exactly the forgetting originated, just that it’s well-entrenched and, now, widespread: the team’s erroneous record-keeping has become the standard for a bevy of (mostly otherwise) reputable online registers of hockey history. I could go on (and have) about the team’s carelessness when it comes to its own rich past. I took an interest in Bobby Bauer’s unacknowledged captaincy in 2019, following where others, like Bruins historian Kevin Vautour, have gone before. Finding evidence of Bauer’s tenure wasn’t hard, and before long I happened on references to all the others — Barry, Beattie, Shore, Cowley, et al — who’ve been ignored. 

I first contacted the Bruins in December of 2019 to ask about this and (politely) to offer to share my files. I’ve previously quoted the response I got, but it’s worth repeating here. It was Heidi Holland I heard back from, the Bruins’ the team’s director of publications and information, and thereby the gatekeeper of the team’s history, statistical and otherwise, as enshrined in the team’s annual Guide & Record Book.

Focussing on Bobby Bauer’s claim, she 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.

Fair enough, I guess … if also fairly dismissive of the idea that there just might be proofs out there that go beyond Milt Schmidt’s memory.

News of Bobby Bauer’s appointment reached the pages of Herb Ralby’s Boston’s Globe on October 17 of 1946.

Evidence of the overlooked captains has been out there, of course, for going on 90 years, available for the finding by anyone, including club employees, willing to bother to take the initiative to look for it. I keep coming across references in my archival wanderings, as do others, like Kevin Vautour and Jeff Miclash, a researcher in Burlington, Ontario, who’s working on a book about the Bruins in the 1930s. At this point, we have a regular online marketplace going where we gather to share newfound references to the snubbed captains and roll digital eyes at the Bruins’ ongoing oblivion. It was this past January, as Patrice Bergeron inherited the C, that I piled up the evidence and made my case in that puckstruck.com post of mine. I cc’d that to Heidi Holland and several other interested parties attached to the team without hearing anything back. At the risk of annoying these same people, I got back in touch in July, in the quietude of Boston’s post-season, in the interest of getting the record straightened out in time for the upcoming season. The response, again, was … none. 

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the Bruins are doubling down on the institutional inattention to detail that’s prevailed to this point. The end of their willful neglect of this history of theirs might well be on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet, or access it on our browsers. 

Because here’s the thing: as a new NHL season approaches, the Bruins will be, in the next few weeks, unveiling their 2021-22 Guide & Record Book. It’s entirely possible that the team has tidied up the register of captains altogether quietly, on their own, righting the record that’s been wrong.

I’ll be happy to see it; I’ll salute their diligence. Meet me back here when — if — that happens. 

Meantime, I’m happy to barge back into the question of just how the Bruins came to not remember that Bobby Bauer and Eddie Shore et al. served the team as captains. The answer is probably lost for good, actually — but maybe can we narrow in to take a look at the timeline of the neglect?   

In that e-mail of hers, Heidi Holland mentioned the 1947-48 Bruins guide as the earliest edition she’s seen. That’s the one with Milt Schmidt on the cover, proudly wearing his C in the centre of his sweater. I haven’t tracked down a copy of that one, but I do have in hand the guide published ahead of the previous season, 1946-47 — that is, the one over which Bobby Bauer presided as captain. 

It’s hard to discern just how involved the team was in this producing this 64-page booklet that bears the subtitle “The complete story of a great hockey team” on its opening page. Compiled by a pair of Boston Globe sportswriters, Harold Kaese and Herb Ralby, it was promoted and sold through the paper (35 cents a copy, plus another five for postage), I’m surmising that it was a Bruin production through and through. I think it may be the very first Bruin guide to have been published, though I can’t confirm that. It’s packed with player profiles, historical rosters, team records — all the usual fodder you’d expect, if not (notably) a comprehensive listing of team captains. 

There’s no mention, in fact, of any captain in this ’46-47 guide. As the Bruins erringly tell it, defenceman John (a.k.a. Jack) Crawford skippered the team that season, continuing in the role he’d had the previous year. As I’ve noted before, Bauer had changed his mind about retiring in the fall of 1946, rejoining the team for one more campaign. On October 16, he was named captain of the team.

The Bruins guidebook pictured above was published a month later, on November 13. I’m speculating here, but my guess is that it was already in production when Bauer was crowned. That would explain why his captaincy isn’t mentioned.

Game for a little more esoterica? I thought so. The NHL had an official guide of its own in the 1940s. Overseen by a former newspaperman from Vancouver, Jim Hendy, it had been keeping scores and stats since the early 1930s. By the start of the 1947-48 season, it had split into two publications: Who’s Who In Hockey, which compiled active player data, and the Official Guide and Record Book, overseeing the NHL as a whole as well as minor and amateur leagues. 

It’s the latter of these booklets that’s of interest here: specifically, the write-up on page 37 and the photograph following on page 56. The former commemorates the winner of the 1947 Lady Byng Trophy: “Bobby Bauer, Boston Bruins’ great little captain.” 

The latter, reproduced here, shows Bauer front and centre, proudly wearing the C denoting his rank between the 1 and the 7 on his sweater. As previously noted, the 1946-47 season was the first in which letters were added to NHL sweaters to denote captains and their alternates. Bauer’s deputies show their As here: Murray Henderson standing tall beside coach Dit Clapper and, seated three places to Bauer’s left, then-former captain Jack Crawford. 

One last (for now) thread from the fabric. Fast-forwarding through the decades, we find the Bruins heading into the NHL’s 1973-74 season looking forward to their 50th anniversary. This is duly noted on the cover of the team guide they published that fall:

A gallery of remarkable hockey players on that cover, you’ll agree. Of the 11 depicted, all but four (goaltenders Frank Brimsek and Tiny Thompson, along with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito) served with distinction as Bruin captains.

And yet two of them shown here — Bill Cowley and Eddie Shore — are still (then as now) missing from the historical record.

Their captaincies, along with those of Marty Barry, Nels Stewart, Red Beattie, and Bobby Bauer, are plain facts, despite what the Bruins recall. What the ’73-74 guide tells us is that the neglect that still seems to be in place goes back at least 48 years. The proof that the team was getting it as wrong in 1973 as it was in 2021 is on page 38:

Error Page: Boston’s overlooked captains have been missing from the record for at least 48 years, dating back to the team’s 1973-74 Official Guide.

What this may also illuminate is the how — and the who — of just what happened here. I don’t mean to be casting blame, or getting anybody into historical trouble, but, well, um, the man in charge of the ’73-74 guide was, somewhat remarkably, one of the men who’d collaborated on that ’46-47 edition, 27 years earlier. 

Herb Ralby was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe starting in the 1930s, when he was in his early 20s, and he was on the job until 1970, when he left journalism to join the Bruins full-time as the team’s director of publicity. (He died in 1994 at the age of 81.) Ralby was on the scene, that’s to say, going back all the way to the time Eddie Shore’s tenure as captain, and even reported on Bobby Bauer’s tenure (below), well before he took charge of — and didn’t repair — the Bruins’ not-so-well-tended history that nobody since has bothered to set right.  

Stitches In Time: News you can use from a Herb Ralby column in the Boston Globe from November of 1946, a quarter century before he became the Bruins’ director of publicity.

 

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