the nhl’s first finn, only almost a leaf, was also the coach who didn’t get the gold in 1936

“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.

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed at the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street in December of 1926. From left to right, they are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey. A few months later, when Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided the St. Pats would now be Maple Leafs, Pudas’ NHL career was over, and he was back in the Can-Am loop. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9948)

 

special k

May 18 was a Wednesday in Helsinki in 1960, as it was elsewhere, too, but never mind them, it’s Finland we’re interested in here, for the purpose of observing Jari Kurri’s 60th birthday — here’s to him. His high-scoring, Hall-of-Fame career included stints right-winging for Jokerit and with Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Anaheim, and Colorado in the NHL, though of course it was as an Oiler in Edmonton, often at Wayne Gretzky’s side, that he had his heydays. He won five Stanley Cups and a Lady Byng Trophy, captaining the team to … wait, what? Kurri captained the Oilers?

Well, no, not according to the team’s own accounting. Doesn’t seem quite right to me, but the fact remains that you won’t find him listed in the list the Oilers make available in their media guide. There and in most other listings, you’ll see that in Kurri’s decade as an Oiler, four non-Finnish players wore the C: Blair MacDonald, Lee Fogolin, Gretzky, and Messier. But it’s true, too, that in the fall of 1988, captain Messier was suspended for six games for the damage he did with his stick to several teeth belonging to Rich Sutter of the Vancouver Canucks. During Messier’s absence, Kurri wore the C. He did it with aplomb, too, scoring a hattrick against Pittsburgh in his debut as skip, and leading the team to a 5-1 record overall. Is that service not deserving of, I don’t know, some sort of recognition or, um, asterisked notation in the Oiler annals? An added oddment: Kevin Lowe and Glenn Anderson were Edmonton’s assistant captains for the 1988-89 season. Kurri didn’t get an A until the following year, his last with the team, when he replaced Anderson. So when Kurri got his (brief) battlefield commission in ’88, he was promoted from the ranks.