of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

hitch hype

nels & hitch

Headcase: In the aftermath of Ace Bailey’s career-ending head injury in December of 1933, NHL players tried on, tested, and (some of them) took up protective headgear. The man who took Bailey down, Eddie Shore, famously donned a fibre helmet when he returned to the ice following a suspension. Here, in January of 1934, a couple of his Bruin teammates show off the same model that Shore would make famous. Left, prone, is Lionel Hitchman, with Nels Stewart on the right. (AP)

Joe Primeau said he was the toughest player he ever faced. The big fellow, you sometimes see him called in contemporary dispatches (he was 6’1,” if only 170 pounds), as well as a fearless blocker; this lone hockey wolf; and the stone wall on which Montreal’s hopes were dashed.

Toronto-born, defenceman Lionel Hitchman got his NHL start with the old Ottawa Senators, but it was with Boston starting in 1925 that he made his name, pairing with Eddie Shore on the fearsome Bruins’ defence for years not to mention captaining the team to its first Stanley Cup in 1929. “There is no smarter hockey brain than Hitchman’s,” an admirer in the press wrote in 1931, “and there isn’t a man playing with a bigger heart in the sport.”

Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? That’s been a pertinent question without a good answer for some years, and it’s one that the estimable Dave Stubbs has taken up this week. Stubbs, late of Montreal’s Gazette, now resident columnist and historian at NHL.com, makes the case in a column, here, calling for the wrong to be righted. Which calls for more, differently spelled hears: hear, hear.

The list of those overlooked by the Hall is a long one, of course, in which Hitchman’s name lines up with … Well, in the matter of Hall absentees, the question isn’t one of where to start, it’s where you stop. Lorne Chabot, Paul Henderson? Claude Provost, Reggie Leach? What about Rogie Vachon, and Herb Cain? Why aren’t they in?

Is the Hall listening? Inscrutable at the best of times, the selection process doesn’t seem to favour candidates from the distant past. So maybe Leach and Henderson ascend before Chabot (who retired after the 1936-37 season and died in 1946) or Hitchman (retired 1934; died 1968)? Maybe.

Meanwhile, while we wait, a few further Hitchman notes:

• He wasn’t first the first Boston captain, but he was the second. Dave Stubbs suggests that the Bruins played their first three years without a skipper when in fact they were only leaderless on the ice for their inaugural season, 1924-25. In the fall of ’25, manager Art Ross brought in veteran marauding defenceman Sprague Cleghorn, who was the captain for two seasons ahead of Hitchman, who you’ll see sometimes referred to as vice-captain in newspaper accounts from that time.

• Fred, as he was often called — he was born Frederick Lionel in 1901 — Fred was often injured, of course; in other words, he was a hockey player. In 1924, still an Ottawa Senator, he was rushing the puck at the Montreal net when Canadiens’ Billy Coutu hit him and he went down, a stick must have done the slicing, he was prone on the ice and had to be carried off with a big gash on his forehead. He returned to the Ottawa bench, with a big plaster on the wound, but didn’t play again that game. In 1928, he was pretty sure he’d broken a shoulder bashing up against the New York Rangers, though x-rays showed it was only separated, and he was back on the ice after missing just a single game. In 1930, teammate Eddie Shore hoisted a puck to clear it but hit Hitchman in the jaw instead, fractured it. That put him out for a while. When he returned, for the playoffs, he was wearing a helmet — though a different one, I think, than the one pictured above.

He had a poor season the following year. The jaw hadn’t healed as it should have, got infected, and (as Victor Jones explained in The Daily Boston Globe) “this poison running through his system is what has been responsible for his mediocre play.” Another report mentioned the unhappy effects of “the puss [sic] in his teeth roots.”

• Hitchman resigned the captaincy ahead of the 1931-32 season. He’d tried to do it a year earlier, during that off-season of his, but Art Ross wouldn’t let him. Not sure how much he was going to play, or at what level, Hitchman was insisting now. This was the year, too, that NHL president Frank Calder made it clear that no longer would managers (looking at you Messrs. Ross and Smythe) be permitted to talk to referees during games, only captains would be able to remonstrate. Ross had appointed Cleghorn and then Hitchman as his captains; this time, he decided to let the players to elect a successor. Hitchman nominated another defenceman, George Owen, and Eddie Shore seconded that, and so it was. Ross said he was so pleased by this that he vowed that all his future captains would be chosen democratically rather than be handpicked by him.

• A 1929 rumour had him going to the Montreal (along with $50,000) in exchange for Howie Morenz. Canadiens manager Cecil Hart was quick to douse that one. “Put this down,” he said, Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.” That would prove to be true, strictly speaking: after a short odyssey that took him to Chicago and New York, Morenz did of course return to Montreal, where he died a Canadien in March of 1937.

Other rumours circulated the year of his jaw infection. Was he headed to Detroit to succeed Jack Adams as manager of the Falcons? Other whispers had Hitchman going to Montreal in the fall of 1931 in exchange for Tommy Cook, a pair of young brothers called Giroux, and cash. This time it was Bruins’ owner and president Charles Adams who did the kyboshing. “It is not the policy of the Bruins to sell any player who is of value to the club.”

• So he played on. I don’t think he ever returned to his old form, though. In January of 1934, the Montreal Gazette was reporting that “his days of effectiveness as a player were numbered,” the only question was would he hang up his skates to take a job as an assistant coach under Art Ross or head down to steer the minor-league Boston Cubs? The Bruins weren’t going to make the playoffs, but they still had eight games remaining. They were already missing Eddie Shore, still serving his suspension for ending the career of (while nearly killing) Toronto’s Ace Bailey. On the night of February 22, Hitchman played his final game, going out in style — that is, “Lionel Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden saw the Bruins lose 3-1 to the Ottawa Senators after a ceremony in which the man of the moment received plaques and cheques and flowers and a chest filled with silverware. His parents were on hand, too, and they were rewarded with their venerable son’s sweater and stick.

• The Bruins did retire Hitchman’s number 3 that night. Just about a week earlier Conn Smythe had vowed that no other Maple Leaf would ever wear Bailey’s number 6 again, so that would seem to make Hitchman’s the second number to be taken out of circulation in professional sports. In Hitchman’s case, the retirement seems to have taken some time to stick. Myles Lane wore Hitchman’s 3 at some point in 1934, and it was back on the ice a couple of years later, worn (if only briefly) by both Bert McInenly and (below) Flash Hollett.

In the 1940s, Hollett got Eddie Shore’s number 2 when the legendary Bruins’ defenceman moved on, under stormy circumstance, to the New York Americans. Some fans in Boston were outraged, said the Shore’s 2 should be withdrawn post haste with even more (as one Shore loyalist wrote) ceremony than Hitchman’s 3.

The Bruins did eventually get around to it, but not until 1947, the year they also retired Dit Clapper’s number 5.

Boston players lobbied hard, apparently, in 1938 to get Ross to honour Tiny Thompson’s number 1, but Ross refused. Thompson was still playing, for one thing — he’d been traded to the Detroit Red Wings to make room for young Frank Brimsek — and, two, Ross was said to be worried about running out of numbers.

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Flashman: Flash Hollet poses, Hitchmanesque, in his Boston 3 in 1935. As a Bruin, he also wore 2, 8, and 12. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)