Saddened to hear this morning of Walter Gretzky’s death yesterday at the age of 82. Son Wayne posted a message late last night announcing the news on Twitter. The Toronto Star has an obituary of the world’s most famous hockey dad here, and Kevin McGran weighs in with a fond collection of Wally stories — along with a lovely image of the man himself in what always seemed like his natural habitat, the storied backyard rink back home in Gretzkytown, Brantford, Ontario.
Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.
Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.
Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.
I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:
For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.
When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.
He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.
In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.
They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.
So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.
Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.
Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.
A version of this post appeared on page 129 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.
We know where hockey really lives: out the kitchen door, in the January cold, on the ice of our backyards, poured out by parents from a hose to freeze overnight. That’s where our Gretzkys forge their gifts, not to mention those of us whose only claim on the game is simple frigid passion. So the mythology says, at least, and it’s a beloved one. Now, in a warming world, outdoor rinks are increasingly at risk. A dire 2015 study projects that by 2090, the “skateability” of plein air rinks in Toronto and Montreal will have declined by 34 per cent. Maybe there are more pressing planetary threats, but this is one that skates to our very core. Of all the existential challenges facing hockey, from concussion crises to declining youth enrolment, this one seems a specially poignant threat: if the very ice won’t last, how can the game?
(Image: © Stephen Smith)