Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.
By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”
McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”
Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.
Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.
But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.
O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”
O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.
Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”
In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.
Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.
Vaclav Nedomansky was 30 years old in the summer of 1974, a star centre for Slovan Bratislava and captain of the Czechoslovakian national team, when he took his family to Switzerland for a holiday. They did some paperwork while they were there, applying Swiss authorities for asylum and, subsequently, to Canada for status as landed immigrants.
“The office in Berne is not a busy one,” a Canadian immigration official commented at the time, “and because of this, his application was processed quickly. He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”
“Czechs’ Gordie Howe” the Toronto Star called Nedomansky when he signed that July for the Toronto Toros of the WHA. He played two seasons in Toronto, then another pair in Alabama when the Toros moved and became the Birmingham Bulls. In 1977 he jumped to the NHL where he divided six seasons between the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and St. Louis Blues.
On Monday, Nedomansky will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Guy Carbonneau, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov, as well as builders Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.
With the Hockey Hall of Fame set to announce its 2109 class today, the hour is now for all those with an impassioned plea or petition for a player who might have been, to date, overlooked or grievously slighted. Who have you got? Jennifer Botterill or maybe Kim St. Pierre? Sven Tumba, Alexander Maltsev? You could make a reasonable argument for Herb Cain or Lorne Chabot, even if the Hall probably won’t any time soon. What about Kevin Lowe? Theo Fleury? Paul Henderson’s name comes up annually; this year, on the January day he turned 76, he even got a birthday boost from Canada’s House of Commons when MPs unanimously resolved to “encourage” the Hall to induct him ASAP “in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canadian hockey and its history.”
One cold night last November a distinguished panel of hockey pundits played the Hockey Hall parlour game at a rink of renown in midtown Toronto. In front of a small audience not far from the ice of St. Michael’s College School’s Arena the panel parleying who should be in the Hall of hockey’s Fame but isn’t featured historian Todd Denault; Ken Campbell, senior writer for The Hockey News; Steve Dryden, senior managing hockey editor for TSN and TSN.ca; and Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons.
While there was some due given builders who deserve the Hall’s attention — Cecil Hart, Claude Ruel, and Bill Tobin got mentions — most of the talk was of players. Male players — arguments for outstanding women candidates like Maria Rooth or Kim Martin weren’t on the table.
There was plenty of discussion of just how measure greatness and of what constitutes a Hall-of-Fame career. It’s particularly difficult, the panelists agreed, to evaluate players from the distant past — “guys,” as Steve Dryden put it, “you haven’t seen.” Does Sid Smith deserve a place, with his three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940s and ’50s, two Lady Byngs, and a First Team All-Star selection? What about Herb Cain of the wartime Boston Bruins, the only player in history to have led the NHL in scoring not to have been elevated to the Hall?
Statistics tell a certain tale but not a complete one: how, for instance, do you properly appraise the career contributions of defensive defenceman (cf. the unrecognized likes of Lionel Hitchman, Bob Goldham, and Kevin Lowe) or of forwards who made a name as tenacious checkers and penalty-killers (hello, Claude Provost and Guy Carbonneau).
And what about Henderson? When his name came up, as it always does, the hero of the Luzhniki got both a hard nay and a robust yay. He was, Steve Simmons said, no more than a very good NHLer who had a great week in Moscow in September of 1972. Maybe so, but to historian Paul Patskou’s way of thinking, the cultural significance and legacy of his Summit Series performance is more than enough to earn him a place.
As the evening went on and the panelists made their presentations favouring particular players whom the Hall has (so far) failed to call up, the names of the missing kept coming: Lorne Chabot, Bernie Nicholls, Theo Fleury. Steve Dryden argued Keith Tkachuk’s cause while Simmons flew the flag for Rick Middleton.
Todd Denault made a compelling case for J.C. Tremblay, Montreal’s stellar defenceman who was a First Team All-Star in 1971 and helped Canadiens win five Stanley Cups. Asked once by Denault for the name of the one player he thought deserved a place in the Hall, Jean Béliveau didn’t hesitate to name Tremblay. Béliveau did, of course, serve on the Hall’s Selection Committee from 1981 to 1995, so it may well be that he did his best to make it happen. Tremblay jumped to the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA in 1972, and was one of the players dropped from the original roster of the Canada’s Summit Series team for that reason. At the confab at St. Mike’s, there was speculation that maybe the politics of a lingering bias against the WHA may have affected Tremblay’s chances for getting the Hall’s call.
But maybe not. What we do know is that deliberations by members of the Selection Committee are more or less opaque, and for all the clamouring we do here beyond the confines of their consultations, clamour is mostly what it amounts to. Still, once you’re committed to reading the runes, it’s hard to stop. Along with your Cains and Chabots and Provosts, the recognition that J.C. Tremblay fails to get may just be a matter of time: it’s 40 years now since he retired.
Starting in 1998, the Hockey Hall of Fame did have a category for Veteran Players that saw the likes of Buddy O’Connor, Fern Flaman, Clint Smith, Lionel Conacher, and Woody Dumart plucked from the far past. But since that was curtailed in 2000, the Hall’s view of the past has dimmed. Willie O’Ree’s induction last year came 57 years after he played in the NHL, but he’s something of a special case, and thereby an outlier. Beyond him, only twice in the past 19 years have players who’ve been retired more than 30 years been inducted. In 2006, Dick Duff was recognized 34 years after he’d stowed his skates, and the gap was the same in 2016 when Rogie Vachon finally got the call.
(Images: Hockey Media & The Want List)
It’s possible (if not probable) that when the Hockey Hall of Fame proclaims a new class of inductees on Tuesday of next week, Buddy Maracle will be among them. Maracle, you’ll maybe recall, was Mohawk, from Ayr, Ontario, and seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. His stint with the New York Rangers in 1931 was short (just 15 games), and he died in 1958, facts that would appear to argue against his recognition by an institution that favours prolonged NHL service and doesn’t, these days, tend toward posthumous choices. It’s the case, too, that while Maracle seems to have been a very good player, he wasn’t a great or generational talent. His claim, should it succeed, would be akin to Willie O’Ree’s: if Maracle were to be honoured, it would be as a hockey pioneer.
It could happen. A comprehensive nomination package did go to the Hall in Maracle’s name earlier this year (brief disclosure: I contributed a supporting letter). And Maracle’s story has been gaining more and more attention across the hockey world and beyond. If it wasn’t exactly a secret before 2017, it was fairly obscure and threadbare.
That started to change when Fred Sasakamoose was named a member of the Order of Canada as that year ended. Deserving as that vice-regal acknowledgment was (and by no fault of Sasakamoose’s), the messaging that went along with it was insistently erroneous as institutions that should have known better — looking at you, Rideau Hall and the NHL — blithely identified Sasakamoose as having blazed a trail that, in fact, Maracle had already blazed two decades earlier.
As a matter of history, the oversight wasn’t a good look for the NHL. The league might have attended to their lapse quickly and unobtrusively — maybe as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative they launched in February of 2018 to promote diversity and inclusion in the game.
If nothing else, Maracle’s story is a fascinating one that highlights just how hard it was for an Indigenous athlete to make his way to the top of his sport in the 1920s and ’30s. Instead, the league continued to ignore Maracle. Over at their editorial department, a February, 2018 profile of Fred Sasakamoose on NHL.com re-upped the notion that the distinguished former Chicago Black Hawk is “the NHL’s first Indigenous player.” I guess that’s still the official line: more than a year later, the story hasn’t been corrected.
The fact that Sasakamoose seems to have, in fact, been the third Indigenous NHLer (after Maracle and Jimmy Jamieson) isn’t any slight on him or the remarkable things that he’s achieved in his life. It’s possible that the NHL believes that by highlighting — or even acknowledging? — Maracle’s story they might discomfit or embarrass Sasakamoose, and that’s why they’ve kept quiet.
If that’s the case, I don’t think it really makes sense. Facts are facts and flouting them does no-one any good. Media mentions of Fred Sasakamoose don’t always, now, automatically identify him as the first Indigenous NHLer. But it’s also true that the word on Maracle isn’t widespread, and keeps not showing up in newspapers and magazines and online. Assuming that the NHL knows and is assiduously interested in being true to its own history, many in the media do still take the league’s lead in ignoring Buddy Maracle.
Exhibit A: in March, when the NHL’s Canadian media partners from Sportsnet took their Hometown Hockey show on the road to Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Maracle was left, unaccountable, out of the picture. It was a remarkable day and an historic one: the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s broadcast in Plains Cree of the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes marked the first time that an NHL game went to air in an Indigenous language.
And on an occasion so fully focussed on the future, present, and past of Indigenous hockey, the man who blazed such a crucial trail was entirely, inexplicably absent. Buddy Maracle didn’t rate so much a mention during Hometown Hockey’s extensive coverage that day.
It may be that when the Hockey Hall announces its 2019 class on Tuesday we’ll learn that Buddy Maracle’s time has come, along with — who else’s? Maybe will Reggie Leach, the first Indigenous superstar, finally get his due? Or Rick Middleton? I might bet on Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards making the cut, if I were betting. And, no question: Hayley Wickenheiser. Is this the year Andy Moog gets the call, or Tom Barrasso? What about Seth Martin, J.C. Tremblay, Claude Provost, Lorne Chabot? And then, of course, there’s the perennial clamour for Paul Henderson.
It’s worth saying that the Hockey Hall of Fame is a sovereign state, independent of the NHL, and that it (in theory) thinks and acts for itself, makes its own choices, follows its own stars. I’m not suggesting that if Maracle and his story don’t break through next week it should be seen in a nefarious light. What it will mean is exactly this: his nomination didn’t get enough votes.
Whatever happens, the Hall has quietly shifted its narrative in the past year. Pre-2018, if you’d steered your way over to the Hall’s extensive online biographical dictionary of all-time NHLers, here’s what you would have read for Fred Sasakamoose:
and Buddy Maracle:
I can’t say just when the change was made, but it’s been several months now since the Hockey Hall of Hall adopted a new line and started informing visitors on their respective player pages (Sasakamoose’s here and Maracle’s here) that while “Fred Sasakamoose is among the first Indigenous people to appear in an NHL game,” “Henry Elmer ‘Buddy’ Maracle holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous person to appear in an NHL game.” So that’s some kind of progress.
With the Hockey Hall of Fame announcing its 2018 class this afternoon, Martin Brodeur is the name that fans and pundits alike seem to be settling on as a sure bet. Other candidates thought to be up at the front of the pack include Martin St. Louis and Daniel Alfredsson. There’s talk that hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree, 82, might be in, too — maybe, the word was yesterday at NHL.com, he could be inducted as a builder for his quiet energy and devotion he’s put in as an ambassador for inclusion and diversity with the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative.
For a piece that went up yesterday at The New York Times, I’ve been talking to and writing about Indigenous hockey players recently. Fred Sasakamoose was one of the first to play in the NHL, and I don’t know why he wouldn’t be in the conversation, too. I’m not sure whether Sasakamoose, who’s 84, has even been nominated, but I hope so: given his tireless work with and advocacy for Indigenous youth over the years, he’s as worthy a candidate as O’Ree.
Then there’s Reggie Leach. You’ll recall, maybe, the effort that the great John K. Samson organized to press the case for the Riverton Rifle to be welcomed into the Hall. In 2010, there was the song Samson recorded that doubled as a petition, both of which went by the name http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/.
In 2013, Samson put together a well-argued application supported by a very complete statistical package and accompanied by endorsements from, among others, novelist Joseph Boyden, Ian Campeau (a.k.a. DJ NDN) of A Tribe Called Red, writer Stephen Brunt, and Wab Kinew, who was then Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. Samson and some of his friends would eventually go in person to deliver the whole bundle, song and stats and supplications, to the Hall’s very doors.
That’s worth watching, which you can do below, even if the whole enterprise was in vain: as of this hour, Reggie Leach still isn’t an Honoured Member of hockey’s Hall of Fame.
Talking to Leach, who’s 68 now, this past January, I asked him about that. He said that he was aware of continued efforts by friends and fans of his across the country who are still intent on convincing the Hall that the time is now, but that he doesn’t worry much about whether the call comes or not.
“I don’t get involved with it,” he told me from his home Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, near Little Current, Ontario, on Manitoulin Island. “I’m just happy that there are people who think that I should be in there. To me, that’s a great honour. They’re my Hall of Famers, those people. If I don’t get in, I really don’t care, because I think it’s mainly where you come from and who you played for that matters — stuff like that.”
(Top image: cover of John K. Samson’s 2010 ANTI- EP “Provincial Road 222”)
Paul Henderson ascended to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1995. Two years later, he and a famous goal he scored in 1972 were commemorated with both a stamp and a coin. Governor-General David Johnston welcomed him as a member of the Order of Canada in 2012, the same year he also got a star of Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto. A year later he returned to Ottawa to receive Hockey Canada’s highest honour, the Order of Hockey in Canada. The International Ice Hockey Federation elevated him into their Hall of Fame in 2013. In 2014, he added the Order of Ontario to his CV, which by then already featured an honorary doctorate of Divinity from Toronto’s Tyndale University College and Seminary. Queen Elizabeth II has been been generous, bestowing a Golden Jubilee Medal (2002). The rink in Lucknow, near where he was born in western Ontario, has a Paul Henderson Hall, and he has streets bearing his name in Erin Mills and Mississauga. Canada’s Sports Hall of celebrated him a second time in 2005, when it recognized the heroics of the entire Team Canada ’72. And if you’re reaching back that far across the calendar, is it worth mentioning, too, that in October of that momentous year, Henderson topped a national popularity poll organized by Labatt’s Breweries? Around the same time he won the Life Saver of the Month Award. Labatt’s gave him a car. From the candy company, he got a trophy and something described in contemporary accounts as a home entertainment console.
All of which is to say: Paul Henderson, Hero of the Luzhniki, hasn’t been without honour in his country. What he also hasn’t been — glaringly, annually — is inducted into hockey’s holy pantheon, the Hall of Fame.
It’s not as though there hasn’t been a clamour about this — noisily, annually, there has. There will no doubt be more today, as the Hall announces its 2016 inductees, which could include up to four players, along with two builders and an on-ice official. Will Eric Lindros be called to join the 268 players, men and women, whose names are already enshrined? Paul Kariya? Mark Recchi? What about Vinny Prospal, who’s in his first year of eligibility? Is it Theo Fleury’s time, and/or maybe Jeremy Roenick’s? If Henderson, who’s 73 now, doesn’t make the cut, the roar from aggrieved fans might be more than usual: with all due respect to those accomplished players, the roster of likely candidates is seen as a bit of a weedy one compared to years past.
What’s keeping Henderson out? When it comes to the choice of its honorees, the Hall is famously opaque in its operations, and the selection committee doesn’t deign to discuss its decisions. Most of us would tend, I bet, to Stu Cowan’s view, which is that Henderson’s career as a whole is seen by the Hall’s gatekeepers as having been too narrow for a fit within its lofty environs. In the 1,128 games Henderson played in the NHL and WHA, he recorded 388 goals and 399 assists for 787 points. “Not necessarily Hall of Fame numbers,” Cowan wrote in 2012 in Montreal’s Gazette. And yet:
There’s no doubt that Henderson scored the most important goal in Canadian hockey history in Game 8 of the Summit Series. In fact, he scored the winner in the last three games, giving him a team-leading seven for the series. When Canada really needed a hockey hero, Henderson answered the call.
Does the Hall have no sense of (and place for) Henderson’s importance as a cultural and historical icon? I guess not. At this point, it’s hard not to take the Hall’s Hendersonlessness as some kind of statement somewhere on a spectrum ranging from confident self-assurance all the way to lockjawed contrariness. Either way, nobody’s going to tell them who deserves one of their fancy rings.
As for the man himself, Henderson says that when he travels the country, nine out of ten people he meets tell him he oughta be in there. That’s from The Goal of My Life (2012), a memoir he penned with an assist from Roger Lajoie. Nice to hear the support, but (Henderson says) he’s at peace:
I was a good NHL player, but I don’t have the numbers or the All-Star status or major trophy wins to be a candidate. I feel there are many retired players more deserving than me who still haven’t been inducted.
Or as he told Stu Cowan in 2012: “I wouldn’t vote for me.”
(Photo: Frank Lennon/Library and Archives Canada, e010933346)