Formed this month in 1937, the all-black St. Catharines Orioles played two seasons in the OHA’s intermediate Niagara District Hockey League. As Stephen Hardy and Andrew Holman write in Hockey: A Global History (2019), the players were all members of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines. The hockey team was the brainchild of several local (white) businessmen, including Harold “Touch” Woods, a prominent advocate of amateur sport who owned Dominion-Consolidated Transport, a trucking company. Outfitted in orange-and-black uniforms, the Orioles played a shortened schedule their first year on the ice, losing four and tying one of their five games. They went winless the following year, too, finishing the 1938 schedule 0-8. They featured, from time to time, in Toronto newspapers and beyond as a novelty; the coverage was, often, openly, racist. “Occasional individual plays earned praise,” Hardy and Holman write,
such as Hope Nicholson’s blistering shots or the frenetic skating of George “Ninny” West, “a whole show in himself.” But nothing would have convinced reporters that the Orioles were the real deal. Modern hockey — white hockey — involved speed, system, and science, the attributes the Orioles sorely lacked. Their white opponents, such as the Thorold Arena team that defeated them 9-2 in March 1937, all seemed to have “too much finish.” That the Orioles could not win against all-white teams must have been interpreted by readers as a convenient confirmation of the popular “truth:” real hockey was the brand of hockey fashioned by the all-white NHL.
Born in Penetanguishene, Ontario, on this date in 1894 — it was a Friday there, then — Bertram Orion Corbeau was better known in his hockey-playing years as just plain Bert, as well as by his distinctive nickname: Pig Iron. His mother was Fanny; his father, Francois, made a busy living as a carriage-maker, undertaker, and furniture-store owner, and later, in the 1920s, served as mayor of Penetanguishene. A defenceman whose adjectives included sturdy (1916), husky, and blond backwoodsman (both dating to 1917), Bert Corbeau signed with the NHA Canadiens in 1914, helping Montreal win a Stanley Cup in ’16. He worked the Canadiens’ blueline in the team’s earliest NHL years, before Montreal sold him to the Hamilton Tigers ahead of the 1922-23 season. Traded the following year to the St. Patricks, he played his final four NHL seasons in Toronto. It’s a dubious distinction, but noteworthy all the same: in 1925-26 he became the first player in NHL history to amass more than 100 penalty minutes in a single season (he finished with 125 that year, just ahead of Nels Stewart of the Montreal Maroons, who had 121.)
Corbeau went on to serve as an NHL referee and, subsequently, as a minor-league coach in Ontario and with Atlantic City of the Eastern U.S. Hockey League. Bert Corbeau drowned at the age of 48 in September of 1942 when the 75-foot launch he owned and was piloting in the waters of Georgian Bay on Lake Huron capsized. Vern DeGeer remembered him in the pages of The Globe and Mail the day after the shocking accident, in which a total of 25 men died. “Although the barrel-chested, sandy-haired son of Penetanguishene was one of the roughest and toughest of the men of iron that jolted and jarred their way through major pro puck competition in the gory era of the sport,” DeGeer wrote, “Corbeau was a thoroughbred campaigner. Friend and foe respected the raw courage of the man.”