Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.
Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.
Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”
In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.
I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”
Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.
In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.
What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”
“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”
“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”
Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?
Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.
With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:
Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.
In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.
Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”
According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”
The Chicago Black Hawks got a new goaltender to start the 1927-28 season. The only problem, for him and his team? When he tried to enter the country from Canada, American immigration officials refused to let him in: the United States had already taken in its annual quota for hockey netminders.
Well, not quite. But something like that. Charlie Gardiner did sign on with Chicago in 1927, and did find himself refused entry into the U.S., not because of his profession but due to his Scottishness.
Sounds like a tale for these times. Here’s how it went:
The year Chicago debuted in the NHL, 1926-27, they got their goaling from man known as “Eagle Eye,” long considered one of the best in the puck-thwarting business: Hughie Lehman. At 41, he was the league’s oldest goaltender, though that didn’t seem to slow him down: he played all 44 regular-season games that inaugural Chicago season, as well as both playoff games before the Hawks bowed out to Boston.
The season over, Chicago’s coach, Pete Muldoon, handed in his resignation to Chicago’s energetic owner, Major Frederic McLaughlin. Muldoon’s replacement, soon found, was Barney Stanley, erstwhile star of the Western Canadian Hockey League, and a man who also had a Stanley Cup championship to his name as a member of the 1915 Vancouver Millionaires.
Stanley’s previous job was as playing-coach of the Winnipeg Maroons of the American Hockey Association. That may have had something to do with the shopping Major McLaughlin did in the spring of 1927. In April, he paid $17,000 for Maroons’ stalwarts Cece Browne, Nick Wasnie, and Charlie Gardiner. The first two were left and right wingers, respectively, 31 and 25 years old. Gardiner, 22, addressed Chicago’s pressing need for a new goaltender.
“As it is well known,” The Winnipeg Tribune advised in reporting the transaction, “Hughie Lehman has had much trouble with his eyes. He is also anxious to retire from the game.” Not that the rookie would be left on his own: Lehman would stay with the team until Gardiner found, quote, his feet in the big time.
Along with the former Maroons, Chicago’s roster featured veteran captain Dick Irvin, speedy ’When the fall came, Barney Stanley convened his players in WinnipegThis towards the end of October for three weeks of pre-season training at the Amphitheatre. That didn’t go as smoothly as it might have: the team’s most dangerous scorer, Babe Dye, broke his leg and was forced to stay on in hospital when the team packed up to head south. November 15 they were due to open their season away to the Bruins, but they had a pair of exhibition games scheduled ahead of that, in Minnesota. They’d have just a day’s stop in Chicago before carrying on to Boston.
But before the Black Hawks could cross the border, the word from Washington came that Charlie Gardiner wouldn’t be admitted. I’m fairly certain that’s how it happened — from what I can glean from contemporary press reports, he wasn’t actually turned back at the frontier.
The trouble for the goaltender, as opposed to the rest of the Canadians on the Chicago roster? Though he’d grown up mostly in Winnipeg, he was born and spent his first seven years in Edinburgh, in Scotland. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported the hitch that had federal officials halting his migration:
Gardiner is a Scotchman, and the Scotch immigration quota has been exhausted for the next five years. Major Frederic McLaughlin, president of the Black Hawks, however, is trying to have Gardiner admitted under a six month permit. Gardiner has lived in Canada several years but he hasn’t become a citizen there.
While McLaughlin pursued the pertinent paperwork, the rest of the Black Hawks went on to Minneapolis to take on the AHA Millers. Tiny Thompson was the goaltender there, and he outduelled Hugh Lehman at the other end as the home team won by a score of 1-0.
Meanwhile, McLaughlin tried his case with Washington. His argument was that Gardiner should be admitted under the same conditions that applied to singers and (quote) other foreign entertainers under the provisions of the U.S. Contract Labor clause. Commissioner of Immigration Henry Hull took a look and it wasn’t long before a board of review determined that the goaltender had intended no fraud in trying to enter the U.S. The Black Hawks paid a $500 bond and Gardiner promised to renew his status at the end of the hockey season.
So he was in. No longer an alien, the goaltender who would soon enough be beloved in Chicago made his way to Duluth. His first NHL action on American ice came on Friday, November 11, 1927, when the Black Hawks met AHA defending champion Hornets in an exhibition. Gardiner’s NHL career would be outstanding, of course, though fleeting. He’d play just seven seasons, captaining the Black Hawks to their first Stanley Cup in 1934, before, weeks later, dying of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 29.
But on this night, in Duluth, he was just getting started. Dick Irvin scored a goal for Chicago in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie. Gardiner’s work was brilliant, said the man from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and his covering deft.