this week in 1951: frank boucher turns 50, redraws the nhl rink

Let’s Stick Together: Frank Boucher, in the middle, poses with two of his elder brothers in 1928. George (a.k.a. Buck) Boucher, at left, won four Stanley Cups with Ottawa’s powerhouse Senatos in the ’20s and went on to coach the Boston Bruins; Billy, on the right, spent most of his career with the Montreal Canadiens before signing with New York’s Americans.

Frank Boucher’s legacy as an altogether upright and admirable citizen was already well-established in the fall of 1951 as the NHL prepared to launch into its 34th season on ice. Scion of a famous Ottawa sporting family, he’d served as a constable in the RCMP before starting into a stellar career as a pro hockey centreman for Ottawa’s original Senators, the old PCHA Vancouver Maroons, and (most notably) New York’s Rangers.

Elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958, Boucher had helped engineer Stanley Cup championships for the Rangers in 1928 and ’33, combining superlative skills with good graces, such that he was awarded the Lady Byng Trophy seven times in eight years in the NHL’s first decades. The respect for fair play he learned, he always said, from his hero, the original winner of the Lady Byng, Frank Nighbor. Boucher took as coach of the Rangers in 1939, and served a decade in the job. By 1951, he was concentrating on his role as the team’s GM — and on refining the hockey that was playing out on NHL ice.

Born in Ottawa in 1901 on a Monday of this past Thursday’s date, October 7, Frank Boucher found himself turning 50 this mid-century week in ’51. He was with his team at training camp in Guelph, Ontario, working with Rangers’ coach Neil Colville to evaluate his team’s talent and, ever an innovator, tinkering with the tenor of the game.

Rangerswise, Boucher considered his team to be 25 per cent better than it had been the previous year, when the Rangers had finished fifth — out of the playoffs — in the six-team NHL.

“The big difference will be in offensive power,” he told Al Nickleson from the Globe and Mail. “Now we have more fellows who can put the puck in the net. One of the new ones, Gaye Stewart, can help us plenty. The team is in much better shape than at this time last year. Centre Ed Laprade looks better right now than he has for the last three seasons and shows no effect from the leg he fractured last winter.”

If the previous season had been a write-off for the Rangers, it did include, for Boucher, at least one rewarding night. In February of ’51, ahead of a Madison Square Garden meeting with the Chicago Black Hawks, the Rangers celebrated Boucher with a generous testimonial. Bill and Bun Cook, Boucher’s old Ranger linemates, were on hand, along with Murray Murdoch, another Ranger original. New York mayor Vincent Impelliterri presented Boucher with the keys to a brand-new black 1951 Studebaker sedan, paid for by fan subscription.

Other gifts included a typewriter (from New York’s hockey writers); a tool chest (from the St. Paul Saints, a Ranger farm team); a pen-and-pencil set (from the MSG Corporation). Ranger captain Frank Eddolls and his Ranger teammates chipped in for a television — and a 5-1 win over the Black Hawks.

In September, as the off-season dwindled away, Boucher was back in the news, advocating for the NHL to institute an amateur draft. The league didn’t get around to doing that, of course, until 1963; in the meantime, as the longtime chairman of the NHL’s Rules Committee, Boucher was doing his best to streamline (and possibly even improve) the game the league was unleashing on the ice day-to-day.

Try Out: Frank Boucher coached the New York Rangers rom 1939 through 1949 before he stepped back to focus on the job of GM. Here, circa the early ’50s, he measures up defenceman Allan Stanley.

By the first week of October, with the opening of the new season just a week away, Boucher’s mind was on the perennial challenge of how to keep players focussed on playing the hockey they were of capable of rather than concentrating on straying outside the rules to thwart their opponents.

A pre-season report from Guelph noted that he was telling his own players to cut out “hacking, slashing, boarding and other illegal tactics.”

“No particular person is to blame for the type of play that is spoiling the game,” he expounded. “The rules haven’t changed. The only thing needed is for the referees to call the play according to the book, and this rough stuff will be cut out.”

Boucher maintained that the rules committee was all for a crackdown. “Spectators like a good tough check, if it is clean, and the fans, players, club officials, and referees should be told that any rules infractions will be penalized. Then we’ll see some hockey.”

Unleash the league’s stars, Boucher implored. “[Montreal’s Maurice] Richard would be a truly great player if he didn’t have a couple of guys draped around him during a game.”

There’s no record of any official NHL response to Boucher’s opinionating — none that I’ve been able to unearth, anyway. League president Clarence Campbell was focussed on a project of his own: replacing the two 20-foot face-off circles that traditionally flanked NHL nets at either end of the rink with a single one, 30 feet in diameter, directly in front of each goal.

A decade had passed since the NHL’s introduction of the ten-foot circles. They’d been introduced to augment the face-off dots that had been in place since 1937 at the same time as the penalty-shot circle was erased from the high slot. The new-old face-off circle was described in press reports as Campbell’s “brainchild.” It quickly proved unpopular.

Campbell’s motive for refiguring each zone with a single central face-off circle? “It is his idea,” Windsor Star columnist Doug Vaughan explained, “that it will provide spectators with a clearer view of what takes place, livelier action, and prevent a lot of the old jamming along the boards.”

Frank Boucher didn’t agree. “Suicide,” he called it. The central face-off circle was, he said, unfair to goaltenders. “Also,” he argued, “the new circle will only prolong something we have long been trying to eliminate. At least under the old system the teams spread out for a face-off. Now they gang up in a huddle in front of the goal.”

Toronto Maple Leaf managing director Conn Smythe was with him. “In sport,” he ventured, “you want rules that won’t prevent the better side from winning. But you also them so that the better side doesn’t get the advantage of a rule. This new circle gives the advantage top the better team which can put on the pressure and keep the puck in there.”

“A goalie can make a great save, but can’t get rid of the puck before the whistle blows. Then, under this new plan, he’s actually penalized because the face-off is made directly in front of him. That’s not right.”

NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss watched a couple of pre-season games in which the new circle was deployed and came out as another naysayer. “I was for it at first,” he said. “But now, in the last two games I’ve seen, the players seem to be getting on to it, and it’s not working out the way we had hoped.”

Major changes in the rules needed approval from all six teams. “It won’t get it,” Boucher said of unanimous support for Campbell’s plan. Never mind settling for the status quo, Boucher had his own variation to offer: keep the two face-off circles on either side of each net but enlarge them from 20 to 30 feet across.

The Rangers quickly put the expanded circles to the test in a pre-season game against the Black Hawks in Guelph. In Toronto, Smythe had them drawn in at Maple Leaf Gardens for a Leaf scrimmage. Both goaltenders, Turk Broda and Al Rollins, declared them a success.

Clarence Campbell, too, came around. He agreed that his idea posed problems for goaltenders. “We don’t want any rule which makes a good team better at the expense of its opponent,” he conceded. All six team were in favour of Boucher’s fix, Campbell said; it was duly adopted for the new season.

rod gilbert’s number 7: like a cardinal’s hat at st. patrick’s cathedral

Amid New York Rafters: This LeRoy Neiman portrait of the late Ranger great Rod Gilbert dates to 1976, near the end of Gilbert’s distinguished career with New York. In October of 1979, the Rangers retired Gilbert’s number 7 where (as per this subsequent caption of Neiman’s) it hung “like a Cardinal’s hat at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.” It was no fault of Gilbert’s then — and it’s no disrespect to his legacy now — to mention that the Rangers somehow forgot to honour that same 7 for the first Ranger to don it (in 1927), the inimitable (and possibly best-ever Ranger) Frank Boucher. Then again, the team has made a strange tradition of overlooking its earlier stalwarts, and any time the Rangers get around to retiring Bill Cook’s number 5 and his brother Bun’s 6 wouldn’t be too soon. Recognitions for Murray Murdoch, who wore 9 before Andy Bathgate and Adam Graves, and Ching Johnson, a long-serving 3 before Harry Howell, wouldn’t be out of place, either.  

ching johnson and his highly educated hip

“With his balding head gleaming under the lights,” Deane McGowen wrote in a New York Times obituary in 1979, “the 6-foot, 210-pound Mr. Johnson would carry the puck down the rink like a runaway locomotive at full speed. There were few opponents who dared to impede his progress.”

Nobody called him Mr. Johnson: though first and officially labeled Ivan Wilfred, he was nicknamed early on and certainly as an NHL defenceman was only ever really known as ChingJohnson. Today’s his birthday: he born in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 7, 1897.

Johnson served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, as a driver for the 3rd Division’s ammunition column. The record of his military service testify that he acquired both a social disease and a Good Conduct Badge in France before he was demobilized in 1919.

He played some hockey in Belgium before he came home, after the Armistice, he was among a group of Canadian soldiers who “satisfied their hankering for the blades and sticks with games on a pond in front of a chateau outside Brussels.”

That’s according to Damon Runyon, the writer, of Guys and Dolls repute, who was also a hockey fan and sometime (what else could he be?) Runyonesque hockey columnist in the late 1920s

Johnson had signed on with the New York Rangers by then — was, in fact, one of the long-serving original Rangers, along with Frank Boucher, Bun and Bill Cook, and Murray Murdoch, whose numbers the team has somehow failed to retire. (Johnson’s was 3.)

He played 11 seasons in all with the Rangers, plus an extra one at the end of his career with the Americans across town. The Rangers won two Stanley Cups during Johnson’s tenure. He was named to the NHL’s First All-Star Team twice, in 1932 and ’33. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958.

Here’s Runyon’s perspective on Ching Johnson and his predilection for bodychecks from a 1927 column:

Weighing 211 pounds, splendidly distributed in bone, muscle, and skin of healthy glow, he believes firmly in the efficacy of a hip movement that combines the dexterity of Gilda Gray’s shimmy and the potency of a battering ram. In a game against the Chicago Black Hawks, he floored five men — all but the goalie, who cannot be charged on without fracturing a rule — through the medium of his highly educated hip and sheer driving power.

eddie shore and that old-time … agriculture

Reap Rep: Eddie Shore on his binder at the farm near Duagh, Alberta, at point in (probably) the early 1930s. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-4293)

Glenn Hall’s barn took its place in hockey history in the fall of 1966, the year he bought his farm in Stony Plain, Alberta, a half-hour’s drive west of Edmonton. That was the year Hall, then in his mid-30s, told the Chicago Black Hawks he was retiring. “When someone called one day,” Hall recalled a few years later, “my wife was home and answered the phone and said I was out on the farm painting the barn.” While the man they called Mr. Goalie returned to Chicago that same fall, and went on to play five further seasons with the St. Louis Blues, the barn took on its own life as a tale that was told perennially — still is — to explain why Hall was delayed for training camp: he had to paint his barn.

“I only tried to retire twice,” Hall, a native of Humboldt, Saskatchewan, tried to clarify in the 1970s. “The other times I had permission to be late for camp so I could get the crop in.”

Hall, now 89, still lives on the property in Stony Plain, where that barn, which is red, looks over the land. Its story is still favoured in hockey folklore.

Not so well remembered is the farmland 45 minutes away to the northwest that became a regular focus of the hockey world 30 years earlier, when another Saskatchewan-born hockey superstar, one of the most famous figures of the NHL’s early years, was in the habit of announcing he’d just as soon farm his fields than play defence for the Boston Bruins.

Today, on (probably but possibly not) Eddie-Shore’s birthday, a visit to his Alberta acreage.

First, regarding the birth: mostly you’ll see it dated to November 25, 1902, which a Tuesday 118 years ago. And that does seem to be all in order, given that it’s a date that Shore himself cited on such serious documents as his 1942 U.S. military draft registration. The 1985 record of his death in Massachusetts also names November 25.

And yet, as conclusive as that seems, the Province of Saskatchewan’s record of Shore’s debut in 1902 lists … November 23, a Sunday. Hard to say whose the error might be, especially since we do have evidence of a certain odd coyness on Shore’s own part — that’s to come, a little further on.

In the meantime, happy birthday, belated or not, to the Edmonton Express.

That nickname took some geographical liberties, of course: whatever the date, Eddie Shore was born 850 kilometres and a province to the east of the Alberta capital, in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, northeast of Regina. The former Kate Spanier was his mother, Thomas John — T.J. — his father.

When Shore was eight, the family moved about 50 kilometres north and to the west where, as Michael Hiam tells it in Eddie Shore and That Old Time Hockey, his 2010 biography, T.J. would eventually be farming a property of some 70,000 acres, with 400 head of horses and 600 of cattle on it, while annually producing 100,000 bushels of wheat.

So Eddie was farm-tested from an early age, which is also to say farm-forged. He was taming ponies at the age of nine, Hiam writes. At 12, he was driving four-horse teams to the grain elevator in Cupar. Shore was an expert roper at 15; by the time he was 16, he was riding herd on thousands of cattle.

Boy Cowboy: Eddie Shore at the age of 13 (and steed). The signature came later. (Image: Classic Auctions)

He later told a Boston sportswriter about nearly freezing to death in that era, riding herd one winter when temperatures had plunged to minus 61 F. In his own words:

I say 61 because our thermometers register to 60 below and they all broke. I had to drive 23 head of cattle 32 miles for my father.

There was sort of a trail about three feet wide and with the snow three feet deep on both sides the cattle stayed in file all right. We jog trotted them so that they wouldn’t freeze and got off the horses every once in a while so that we wouldn’t.

On the way back I started to freeze and just a little way from home my horse fell down. I didn’t realize it until then but I was partly frozen. My legs were frozen in the shape of the horse.

You could freeze to death in a very short time there and freezing would be a pleasure. Just a pleasant numbness but I wasn’t that far gone, and it was pretty painful, coming to and getting on the horse again.

Shore’s survival on the trial eventually allowed for his burgeoning hockey career to get him to Melville, Saskatchewan, in the early 1920s. From there he continued on to Regina, then to Edmonton, where he skated for the WHL Eskimos in 1925-26, before taking his talents to Boston in 1926.

Dealmakers: NHL President Frank Calder and Eddie Shore meet on the ice at Boston Garden in the late 1930s. (Image: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library)

It didn’t take Shore long to establish himself as one of the NHL’s biggest (and unruliest) stars. He’d help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup in 1929 and another in ’39, and in the decade between those championships he won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player four times.

In the Edmonton news, May of 1928

In 1928, he got back to the land. The Bruins had bowed out of the playoffs in early April, dismissed by the New York Rangers, eventual Cup champions. May brought news that Shore had bought himself an Alberta spread, paying $16,400 for Albert Elliott’s farm, just beyond Edmonton’s northern city limits. Though in Shore’s day the name of the locality was often misrendered in press reports as Daugh, it was in Duagh that Shore set himself up as a farmer. (The slip is not only historical: Michael Hiam’s biography gets it wrong, too.)

Sizewise, Hiam reports that the property was 640 acres, and some contemporary accounts agree with that, too, though in fact it was a half section, 320 acres.

I don’t know what salary Shore was getting from the Bruins at this point. The $9,000-a-year that the Montreal Maroons were paying defenceman Dunc Munro was reported to be the NHL’s highest salary in ’28 — though there was also some talk that year that these same Maroons had signed Canadian Olympic star Dave Trottier for $12,000.

If Shore was taking in something less than that, he had been doing well enough the previous summer to have decided to give up his summer job back in Melville, where he’d been shovelling coal for the Canadian National Railway going back to when he was playing senior hockey there. (The end of the 1926-27 NHL season had, it’s true, enriched Shore by $2,000 in bonuses.)

For a view of the set-up at Duagh, we’ll trust to a plucky reporter from the Edmonton Journal who paid a visit in the summer of 1929.

The Bruins had won the Cup that spring, but Shore wasn’t resting much at all, let alone on any laurels. He was toiling hard, “enjoying 10 to 12 hours work every day on his farm.” He had 170 acres sown to wheat that year, and his barnyard roster included 14 horses and 400 chickens. He was just getting started, though:

Eddie is planning to have one of the finest farms in the entire district. He will have a beautiful bungalow, a big ribbed roof barn, an ideal machine shop, and there will be everything on the land that any successful farmer should have.

“It will take time,” said Eddie when he was talking to the Journal representative. “But in two years time I should have all the buildings up that I am planning.”

“Then I will have sufficient cattle, Holsteins, most likely; not very many horses, because machinery is better; plenty of chickens, pigs, and everything else.”

Shore got married that year, to Kate Macrae, a former basketball star with Edmonton’s mighty Grads. Their son, Edward Jr., arrived a year later.

By 1933, Michael Hiam reports, Shore had cultivated a “model farm,” featuring a modest house, a small barn in the Pennsylvania Dutch style, and “a picturesque windmill.” He had a hired man to help with the work and to run the place while he was away playing hockey. His line-up now included hogs, cattle, turkeys, ducks, chickens, workhorses (Percherons and Belgians), and “a prized Guernsey bull named Taywater Warrior.”

Playing his own particular brand of surly and, occasionally, near-fatal hockey, Shore continued to cut a swath through the NHL from his winter base in Boston. Summers in Duagh, he found time amid the call of crops and livestock for golfing (he shot in the 70s); baseball (he played outfield for the Professional Pucksters, a team that included NHLers Leroy Goldsworthy and brothers Neil and Mac Colville); and saving lives (in 1938, he dove into the Sturgeon River near the farm to rescue three swimmers in danger of drowning).

Glimpses of life on the farm reached the hockey world now and then. In 1937, for instance, Shore confided that he’d given up sowing wheat in favour of barley. “Can’t miss with that crop,” is what he told Andy Lytle of Toronto’s Daily Star, “with beer guzzled all over the country.”

Often, though, when the farm at Duagh made its way into the hockey pages of newspapers it was because Shore wasn’t happy with what Boston manager Art Ross was offering to pay him. Glenn Hall may have joked about painting his barn as a negotiating tactic; Eddie Shore’s Albertan hold-outs in the 1930s don’t seem to have amused anyone involved.

In October of 1933, when Shore was a no-show at the Boston training camp in Quebec City, it was initially reported that he was “delayed by harvesting.” Art Ross had already advised Bruin beat reporters a couple of times that the team’s star defenceman was “expected next week” before the Edmonton Journal dispatched a reporter to Duagh in early November, just six days before the Bruins were set to open their season in Toronto.

Shore was busy butchering a 300-pound hog when Ken McConnell arrived. “Sure, I’m a holdout,” Shore told him. Boston had initially offered him a satisfactory contract, he said, only to turn around and reduce their offer by $2,500 when he was a little late getting to Quebec. “I am not going to take it.”

Idle Idol: A reporter who visited the Shore spread in the fall of 1933 found Boston’s superstar defenceman butchering a hog. Also on hand: Shore’s wife, the former Kate Maccae; his son, Ed Jr.; the family house; the big old barn.

Would he quit hockey?

“If they don’t want to meet my terms,” Shore said, “why, I’ll stay here. I have everything I need right here. I don’t have to play hockey any more.”

In light of the inconsistency mentioned earlier regarding Shore’s birthdate, the next quote McConnell got is interesting. As it appeared, with McConnell’s parentheses:

“I am only 30 — have a birthday some time in this month [he would not name the date] and I figure I should be able to play NHL hockey for another seven years at least — Bill Cook of the New York Rangers is 39. But it’s entirely up to the bosses of the Bruins. I am standing pat.”

The next news of the negotiation came on November 9, the following Thursday. The Bruins were in Toronto that night, preparing to open their season Shoreless against the Maple Leafs. And Shore? As Boston’s Globereported that the team’s other prominent dissenter, Cooney Weiland, had signed his contract, word from Alberta was that Shore was practicing with the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos, for whom Duke Keats presided as the playing coach. The word from the ice? “He looks good.”

Also: Shore was headed to the foothills of the Rockies for “a big game hunting expedition.”

Friday’s update: with a defensive corps consisting of Lionel Hitchman and a trio of rookies and journeymen, the Bruins had succumbed to the Leafs by a score of 6-1. That was front-page news in Edmonton insofar as in the same breath the Journal also declared that Shore and the Bruins had settled their differences.

The family headed east, and on the Monday, Shore was in Montreal to meet with NHL President Frank Calder. As often happened in those years, the team had handed its holdout problem over to the league, and so it was with Calder that Shore did his final dealing. In exchange for his signature, he was reported to have successfully secured the $2,500 that the Bruins had initially offered.

Shore made his debut in Boston the following night, though he couldn’t help his team find a win, as the Bruins fell to their third successive loss to start the new season. They never really turned it around that season, finishing the ’33-34 schedule in last place in the four-team American Division, out of the playoffs.

International Harvester: Eddie Shore works the land. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-5202)

In 1934, Shore seems to have been delayed by an actual late harvest. He made it to camp by the end of October, signing a contract (the Edmonton Journal reported) for the NHL maximum salary of $7,000.

In subsequent years, Shore showed up more or less on time in the fall, when the time came to trade in threshers for hockey sticks.

“Word drifts through from the Maritimes,” Ken McConnell advised in 1936, by which time the Bruins had shifted their training camp from Quebec to New Brunswick, “that Eddie Shore has definitely signed a brand new contract with the Bruins and so that trifling matter is settled for this year at least.” (As it turned out, Shore would miss more than half of the season’s schedule, suffering from sciatica.)

The cut in pay Shore seems to have taken in ’37 reflected that shortened season, from what I can tell. When he stopped in to see Frank Calder in Montreal that fall, trouble seemed to be brewing, according to Calgary’s Herald. “The league prexy, when he heard that Shore wanted to make an appointment with him, naturally thought that Eddie was having contract trouble again. Imagine his surprise when Eddie appeared and said nothing about contract but simply asked Calder for permission to play with the All-Star team in the Howie Morenz benefit game.”

The Bruins convened their camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in ’38, and Shore, who was coming off another Hart-Trophy-winning season, hit the ice there in “prime condition.”

“I have never felt better,” said the 36-year-old veteran. “Every day for the past two months I have been working from dawn to dusk harvesting wheat, and then, to prove to myself I was in shape, I drove the family over the road from Edmonton to Boston, making the trip in a bit more than five days, and that’s no rest cure.”

With a full camp and a slate of exhibition games behind him, Shore finally saw the contract the Bruins were offering in early November, and when the Bruins boarded a train for Toronto and the opening game of the season, Shore stayed home.

All he wanted was to be paid like he was back in 1936-37, he said, before he’d agreed to a cut. “I was offered a slight raise and promised a share of the gate receipts,” he said, “but I was not satisfied with those terms.”

And so the stalemate was on. As Art Ross handed his problem once again over to Frank Calder, the Bruins revived their tradition of starting their season in Toronto. This time, with rookie Jack Crawford tabbed to fill Shore’s skates, the Bruins beat the Leafs 3-2.

Shore missed four games before he struck a deal with Calder. “Old Man Shore has signed,” he told reporters in Boston with a smile. The deal was said to be for $7,000: $6,000 in salary plus $1,000 if the Bruins made the playoffs (they did, winning the Stanley Cup, to boot). This was $500 more than the Bruins had originally offered. “The only extra promise we’ve made Shore,” Art Ross advised, “is that he’ll be paid for the four games he’s missed.”

The following year, 1939-40, was the one in which Shore might be said to have worn out his welcome in Boston. He’d bought the AHL Springfield Indians by then, furthering souring his relationship with the Bruins, who ended up trading him in early 1940 to the New York Americans, for whom he played the last ten games of his tempestuous NHL career.

And the farm at Duagh? “Mr. Eddie Shore, whose business interests are all in the east, has instructed us to sell his Half-Section of Land, northeast of the city,” read the ad that Edmonton realtors placed in the Journal in the fall of 1943. “His own words: ‘Sell, lock, stock, and barrel.”

The price was $20,000 — at first. Over the course of the year that followed, more ads appeared, with lower prices. I don’t know what the farm at Duagh sold for, in the end, but this is the last of the pitches that I’ve seen, from the fall of 1944:

 

 

mixed-up confusion

The Detroit Red Wings were up on top of the American Division in the first week of January in 1936, ahead of the Rangers by a point when they went to New York to play. A crowd of more than 10,000 was on hand to watch. Despite the Red Wings’ tendency to defend, the clash was exciting enough. That’s what Joseph C. Nichols wrote in The New York Timesclashexcitingenough. He said that Ching Johnson, who hailed from Winnipeg, was sterlingon defence for the Rangers, and in attack, too, and came within an ace of tying it. But that was late in the third period.

First, earlier, Pete Kelly, a son of St. Vital, Manitoba, scored for Detroit. The Blueshirts were pressing — charged without stint. Frank Boucher, from Kemptville, Ontario, was in on this, with Cook brothers on the wings, Bun and Bill, from Kingston. They couldn’t break down Detroit’s Normie Smith (Toronto): he wouldn’t break. Herb Lewis (Calgary) added a second goal for the Red Wings with Johnson on the penalty bench for hooking.

This was the second period now. Then came the sequence we’re seeing here: Ranger left winger Butch Keeling dashed in across the Detroit line. He was from Owen Sound, Ontario; that’s him, above, with the part in his hair and the stripy-taped stick. Pete Kelly is with him. This whole sequence lasted just a few seconds. Mix-up is the word in the original caption describing what happened: Kelly barged Keeling into the net, Normie Smith, in his cap, got the puck. I’m pretty sure that’s a young Bucko McDonald from Fergus, Ontario, in the last frame, with the helmet. Kelly went off for holding. Nichols:

The Rangers moved all their skaters forward. After several futile thrusts had been directed at the net, Johnson took Brydson’s pass and scored in 11.29.

Glen Brydson that would be, from Swansea, Ontario. 2-1. In the third, the Red Wings iced the puck when they could, which worked. The Rangers had some chances: Johnson by the post; Keeling on a long drive; a couple of hard raps from Bill Cook. That’s all, though.

Butch Keeling died on a Monday of this date in 1984. He was 79. Melvillewas the name he was given, but he was a butcher’s son in Owen Sound, and so he got his nickname early on. After making his NHL debut in 1926-27, the year the Toronto St. Patricks transformed into the Maple Leafs, he played ten seasons for the Rangers, helping them win the Stanley Cup in 1933.

cook nook

Breadman: Born in Kingston, Ontario, on a Friday of this date in 1903, Bun Cook was an original Ranger, skating the left wing on New York’s prolific Bread Line alongside fellow Hall of Famers Frank Boucher and his own older brother, Bill. That the Rangers still haven’t got around to retiring their numbers — 6, 7, and 5, respectively — remains a wrong that ought to be broadcast far and wide — and then duly righted. Bun played a decade in New York before the Rangers sold him in 1936 to Boston, where he played the final year of his NHL career. That’s him on the right here, lacing up with Bruins’ teammate Ray Getliffe. He went on to coach, steering the AHL’s Providence Reds and Cleveland Barons, before retiring to his hometown. Bun Cook died at 84 in 1988. He was elected to hockey’s Hall in 1995. (Image: © Richard Merrill, Boston Public Library)

coming up rosebud

He was 25 in 1918 when he signed up to go to the war with the Fort Garry Horse, 5-foot-8-and-a-quarter, according to his army Attestation Papers. His eyes were hazel, his hair was dark, his complexion fresh. He was Single and Presbyterian. And while Dick Irvin told the Canadian Expeditionary Force in that last year of war that his Trade or Calling was Salesman and Butcher, he was also an accomplished hockey player who’d already played a year as a professional centreman with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds. Irvin, who died at the age of 64 on a Thursday of this date in 1957, may be best remembered nowadays as an NHL coach, winner of four Stanley Cups, but he was counted as one of the best players of his generation, too, in his day. The photograph here dates to his second stint with Portland’s Rosebuds, which came in the old WHL in 1925-26. The following year he joined the fledgling Chicago Black Hawks. At 34, he served as the team’s first captain and finished the season second in the list of the NHL’s top scorers, a point behind Bill Cook of the New York Rangers. Dick Irvin suffered a fractured skull in his second NHL season, and that led to his retirement as a player in 1928-29 as well as the start of a coaching legend.

(Image: Oregonian/Barcroft Studios. Oregon Journal; Lot 1368; Box 371; 371N5905)

the goalkeeper is generally favoured (they keep a special ambulance for him)

Though it’s dated to 1933, I’m going to venture that this short and magnificent British Pathé newsreel of the antique New York Rangers is in fact a little older than that, and that the show of scurrying, leaping, and colliding that the players enact for the cameras goes back to either 1926-27, the team’s first season in the NHL, or its second, 1927-28.

Though it’s unusual to see them skating at full fling, many of the original Rangers who figure in the action here are unmistakable, whether it’s Frank Boucher steaming in on Ching Johnson, or Bill Cook going after the puck when Boucher goes flying in another sequence. Who’s the defender on the latter play? His sweater shows number 12, which in those initial Ranger seasons belonged to Leo Bourgault. It’s the goaltender who would seem to confirm that this is footage of earliest Rangers. While the camera gives us a good gaze at his gear, it doesn’t linger on his face. The cap you see in the long shots is familiar, and the stance, too, which is to say the crouch he assumes waiting for the play to approach. And yes, Lorne Chabot, who guarded the Ranger nets for most of their first two seasons in the NHL, did sport the number 2 on his sweater. It’s only towards the end of the clip that you get a good look at Chabot’s long, mournful mug. Crashing the net are wingers Murray Murdoch (#9) and Paul Thompson (#10).

Whether or not there was a special ambulance waiting for him, Chabot was famously unfavoured in April of 1928, during the second game of the Stanley Cup finals, when a shot by Nels Stewart of the Maroons caught him in his unprotected eye, and he was taken to Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. That was the night the Rangers’ 44-year-old coach, Lester Patrick, took an emergency turn in the net — more on that here. With Joe Miller taking Chabot’s place for the remainder of the series, the Rangers won the Cup. Chabot never played another game for the Blueshirts. Convinced that his career was over, the Rangers sent him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for John Ross Roach. Far from finished, Chabot played another decade in the NHL before he retired in 1937. Only 11 other goaltenders in NHL history have recorded more career regular-season shutouts than Chabot’s 71.

perhaps some day: hockey’s early, battered goaltenders and the long wait for a better (non-baseball) mask

“All his teeth were loosened:” Not long after John Ross Roach posed in a baseball catcher’s mask in 1933, he was cut, contused, and concussed while going barefaced into the breach in the Red Wings’ net.

Last Friday was November 1 and therefore an auspicious anniversary in the history of hockey preventatives: it was 60 years to the day that Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender Jacques Plante decided that he’d played enough barefaced hockey in the NHL. Cut by a puck shot by Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers that night in 1959 at Madison Square Garden, Plante left the game bleeding badly. When he returned to the ice, he was wearing a mask over his stitches and bandages. Clint Benedict had experimented with a mask (or masks) back in 1930, of course, but it was with Plante that the practice of goaltenders protecting their faces became commonplace in the NHL.

That’s not to say that throughout the rest of hockey history goaltenders weren’t constantly thinking about mitigating the damage being done to their faces. Baseball’s catcher’s mask originated at Harvard University in the 1870s, and it makes sense that hockey players might reach for a handy one of those come wintertime.

Eric Zweig has written about Eddie Giroux experimenting in 1903 with just such a mask. Giroux would go on, in 1907, to win a Stanley Cup with Kenora, but this was four years earlier when he was playing for Toronto’s OHA Marlboros. A shot by teammate Tommy Phillips cut him in practice, and so he tried the mask, though it’s not clear that he wore it in an actual game.

Same for Kingston’s Edgar Hiscock, who had his nose broken playing for the Frontenacs in 1899. He was reported to be ready to don a “baseball mask” in the game that followed, though I haven’t seen a corroborating account from the actual game in question. Mentioning Hiscock’s innovation beforehand, a local correspondent weighed in:

This is a new idea, and one which, perhaps, will create some amusement among the spectators at first, but yet there is not the least doubt of it being carried into effect, as something should be worn by goalkeepers to protect the head from the swift shots of some hockey players.

Is Hiscock’s the earliest recorded instance of a goaltender sporting a mask? That I’ve come across, yes — but only so far, and not by much. A goaltender in Calgary donned a baseball mask in an intermediate game a couple of months later.

Hockey players and pundits were constantly discussing the pros and cons of masks throughout the early years of the new century. There was talk in 1912 around the NHA (forerunner to the NHL) that it might be time for goaltenders to protect their faces, though nothing ever came of it. In 1922, the OHA added a provision to its rulebook allowing goaltenders to wear baseball masks.

We know that Corinne Hardman of Montreal’s Western Ladies Hockey Club was wearing a mask a few years before that. And in 1927, while Elizabeth Graham was styling a fencing-mask while tending the nets for Queen’s University, Lawrence Jones was wearing a mask of his own to do his goaling for the Pembroke Lumber Kings of the Upper Ottawa Valley Hockey League.

“Keeping both eyes on the elusive rubber disk is a decidedly more difficult matter than watching a pitched or thrown ball in baseball,” the Globe explained in 1922 in noting that catcher’s masks weren’t generally up to job that hockey goaltending demanded from them. On that count, nothing had really changed since Eddie Giroux considered a baseball mask 20 years earlier. “He wore it at a couple of practices,” the Globe noted then, “but found it unsatisfactory owing to the difficulty in locating shots from the side.”

If you’ve dug into hockey-mask history, you’ll recognize that as a refrain. Goaltenders who, liked most of us, would rather not have exposed their heads to hurtling puck and errant sticks and skates chose to do so because nobody had invented a mask that would allow them to see well enough continue their puckstopping at the level they were used to.

I don’t know whether we can properly understand the bravery and hardiness of the men who tended the nets in the early NHL, much less the suffering. Hard as it may be to quantify, I’m ready to declare that the 1920s and ’30s were the most damaging era ever for NHL goaltenders. Lester Patrick’s unlikely turn in the New York Rangers’ net during the 1928 Stanley Cup finals came about because his goalie, Lorne Chabot, nearly lost an eye when Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons caught him with a backhand. Chabot was back in net, mask-free, to start the next season.

It’s just possible (if not entirely probable) that in 1929, a year before Clint Benedict debuted his mask, George Hainsworth of the Montreal Canadiens tried one of his own after a teammate’s warm-up shot to the face put him in hospital. The history of goaltenders contused, cut, and concussed in those first decades of the NHL is as grim as it voluminous — and that’s before you get to the part about the frontline goalies, Andy Aitkenhead of the New York Rangers and Canadiens’ Wilf Cude, whose NHL careers seem to have been cut short by what might today be diagnosed as PTSD.

All of which is to say that goalies needed all the help the protection they could get in 1933, which is when this photograph dates to. At 33, John Ross Roach was a cornerstone of Jack Adams’ Detroit Red Wings, and while he was the oldest player in the NHL that year, he wasn’t showing any signs of flagging, having started every one of Detroit’s 48 regular-season games in 1932-33. He was still in his prime when a photographer posed in a mask borrowed from a baseball catcher. The feature that it illustrated does suggest that Roach did experiment with a similar set-up in practice, though he’d never tested it in a game.

Roach’s problem with the catcher’s mask was the same one that Eddie Giroux had encountered 30 years earlier: it obscured a goalie’s sightlines. Playing under the lights in modern rinks only compounded the problem. “The mask creates shadows under artificial lighting that do not exist in sun-lit ball parks,” Jack Carveth’s Detroit Free Press report expounded, “and Roach wants no shadows impairing his vision when fellows like Charlie Conacher, Billy Cook, Howie Morenz or dozens of others are winding up for a drive 10 feet in front of him. Perhaps some day in the not too distant future a mask will be made that will eliminate the shadows. Until such a product arrives, Roach and his fellow workmen between the posts will keep their averages up at the expense of their faces, having the lacerations sewn up and head bumps reduced by the skilled hands of the club physician.”

Detroit took to the ice at the Olympia on the Sunday that Carveth’s article ran. Montreal’s Maroons were in town for an early-season visit (which they ended up losing, 3-1). Other than a second-period brawl involving players and fans and police, the news of the night was what happened just before the fists started flying. Falling to stop a shot from Montreal’s Baldy Northcott, Roach, maskless, was cut in the face by teammate Ebbie Goodfellow’s skate, and probably concussed, too. “His head hit the ice,” Carveth reported, “and he was still dazed after the game was over.” Relieved for the remainder of the game by Abbie Cox, Roach went for stitches: three were needed to close the wound on his upper lip.

The Tuesday that followed this, December 12, is one that lives on in NHL history for the events that unfolded in Boston Garden when Bruins’ defenceman Eddie Shore knocked the Leafs’ Ace Bailey to the ice. The brain injury Bailey suffered that night ended his career and nearly his life.

Roach was back in the nets that very night for Detroit’s 4-1 home win over the Chicago Black Hawks. Any ill effects he was suffering weren’t mentioned in the papers. But two days later, on the Thursday, Roach was injured again when the Red Wings played in Chicago. This time, he fell early in the third period when a shot of Black Hawks’ winger Mush March struck him in his (unprotected) face. Once more, Roach was replaced, this time by defenceman Doug Young. Roach took on further stitches, seven to the lips, five more inside his mouth. “All his teeth were loosened,” the Chicago Tribune noted. He was checked into Garfield Park Hospital and kept there while his teammates caught their train home.

Roach ceded the net to Abbie Cox for Detroit’s next game, the following Sunday, but he was back in the Tuesday after that, shutting out the Americans in New York by a score of 1-0. But while he did finish out the calendar year as the Red Wings starter, playing three more games (losses all), that would be all for Roach that season. Just before the New Year, Detroit GM Jack Adams borrowed the aforementioned, yet unbroken Wilf Cude from Montreal, announcing that Roach was being given two to four weeks to “rest” and recover from his injuries.

No-one was talking about post-concussion syndrome in those years, of course. “He has given his best efforts to the club,” Adams said, “but he has been under strain and his recent injury in Chicago, when seven stitches had to be taken in his face, combined to affect his play.”

By the time Roach was ready to return, Cude was playing so well that Adams didn’t want him, and so the former Red Wing number one ended up the year playing for the IHL Syracuse Stars. Roach did make it back to the NHL for one more turn when, still unmasked, he shared the Red Wings’ net with Normie Smith. Adams would have kept Cude, if he’d been able, but he’d played so well on loan to Detroit that Montreal manager Leo Dandurand called him home to serve as Canadiens’ starting goaltender for the 1934-35 season.

Fashion Forward: Could it be that hockey players might one day actually protect their heads? The case for protection came into stark focus in December of 1933 after Eddie Shore ended Ace Bailey’s career. Modelling football helmets here are (left) centre Russ Blinco of the IHL Windsor Bulldogs and his goaltender, Jakie Forbes. At right, Forbes wears a modified (and just how puck-proof?) baseball mask.

 

frank boucher: his noodle is packed with hockey savvy

Breadliners: Frank Boucher between his long-time Ranger wingers, brother Bill (right) and Bun Cook.

Here’s to Frank Boucher, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on a Monday of this date in 1901, one of the greatest centres the NHL has ever seen, even if — outrageously — the league forgot him when it dreamed up an anniversary list of its 100 best players in 2017, and despite the fact — are you kidding me? — that the Rangers have only seen fit to recognize the number Boucher wore in New York, 7, in Rod Gilbert’s honour.

Frank was one of four Boucher brothers to play major-league hockey: in 1923, while he was starring for the PCHA’s Vancouver Maroons, his elder brother Buck was anchoring the Ottawa Senators’ defence while two other siblings, Billy and Bobby, were forwards for the Montreal Canadiens. Following a two-year career as a constable with the Northwest Mounted Police, Frank had made his professional debut with Ottawa before making his way west to Vancouver. When the western league dissolved in 1926, Boucher’s rights were sold to Boston. It was on Conn Smythe’s short-lived Ranger watch that Boucher came to the Rangers before playing a single game for the Bruins. Having made his debut in New York in 1926, he soon found himself skating between brothers Bill and Bun Cook on the famous “Bread Line.”

With their help, New York raised two Stanley Cups, in 1928 and 1933. Seven times he won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player, and by the time he retired (for the first time) as a player in 1938, he was the NHL’s all-time leader in assists. Succeeding Lester Patrick as coach of the Rangers in 1939, he steered the team to another Stanley Cup in 1940. He wasn’t quite finished playing: in 1943, aged 42, he returned to the Rangers’ line-up for 15 games. Elected to hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1958, Frank Boucher died in December of 1977 at the age of 76.

Arranging a Boucher miscellany, I’d make sure to mention:

• His adjectives. If you look him up in old newspapers, you’ll find that these included scintillant (1925) and burglarious (1923). The latter refers to his skill in stealing pucks from opponents, the art of which he studied playing alongside the master himself, Frank Nighbor, when they were teammates in Ottawa. Hence Boucher’s nickname, Raffles, borrowed from the novels of E.W. Hornung, and most eagerly applied by newspapermen when Boucher was playing in Vancouver. As the local Sun explained in 1924, “The original ‘Raffles’ was the most gentlemanly burglar known to fiction and Vancouver’s ‘Raffles’ is the most picturesque and polite puck thief in hockey.”

Here’s Ed Sullivan hymning his praises in a 1931 syndicated column — yes, that Ed Sullivan:

Boucher has been up in the big leagues of hockey for ten years now. He could stay up in the top flight for ten additional years. Even if his speed were to desert him, Boucher could get by on his smartness. His noodle is packed with hockey savvy.

• Boucher’s recollection that the contract that manager Tommy Gorman of Ottawa’s (original) Senators signed him to in 1921 paid C$1,200 for the season — about C$17,000 in today’s money. “I leaped at the chance,” he later recollected, “little knowing what a terrible year was in store for me. I spent practically the whole season on the bench.”

The problem was the Ottawa line-up. In front of Clint Benedict’s goal, the Senators lined up Frank Nighbor, Punch Broadbent, Cy Denneny, Eddie Gerard, and Frank’s brother Buck. “They were all 60-minute men. In those days you didn’t come off the ice unless you were carried off.”

Dey’s Arena in Ottawa was, in those years, unheated, so along with fellow spares Billy Bell and King Clancy, Boucher petitioned Gorman and coach Pete Green to allow them to wait in the warmth of the Ottawa dressing room until they were needed. Management wasn’t keen on that, but they did finally relent, installing a buzzer system by which the bench could call forth replacements as needed. Boucher:

One buzz meant Clancy, two buzzes meant Bell and so on. So, for the balance of the season we sat in the dressing room, in full uniform, playing cards, with the roar of the crowd and the stamping of feet over our heads.

• The circumstances under which Boucher came to own the original Lady Byng Trophy in 1935. Nighbor was the first to win it, in 1925 and again in ’26, followed by Billy Burch in ’27. Boucher was next, and next, and next, and … next. Joe Primeau relieved him of his crown in 1932, but the following year Boucher was back for another winning run, this one lasting three consecutive years.

After Boucher won his seventh Lady Byng in 1935, Ottawa Journal columnist Walter Gilhooly wrote an open letter to the trophy’s donor patron respectfully suggesting, well, “that the cup be withdrawn and your trustees be instructed to turn it over to Frank Boucher to become his permanent possession” as a “well-earned keepsake of his time and his achievements in the National League.”

And so it happened. Within a week, the wife of Canada’s erstwhile governor-general had written from England to express her desire to see it done. NHL President Frank Calder saw to it. That’s how a new Byng came to be born in 1936, when Doc Romnes of the Chicago Black Hawks was voted the winner. We’ll never know whether, on merit, Boucher’s reign should have continued: having collected the original trophy for his mantelpiece, Boucher voluntarily withdrew his name from consideration for future Byngs.

• A partial inventory of the swag presented on “Frank Boucher Night” in February of 1951, when the Rangers celebrated the man and his service to the club at Madison Square Garden.

“Boucher had enough gifts to make a jackpot on a radio quiz program,” the Globe and Mail reported. “The fans gave him a 1951 Studebaker, the team a television set. The hockey writers presented him with a typewriter. His hometown friends at Mountain, Ont., contributed an oil burner for his farm.”

• A coda: in 1962, February, fire swept through the farmhouse, burning it to the ground. Boucher was in Regina, where he was serving as commissioner of the Saskatchewan Junior League; his son Earl and family escaped the flames. Not so Boucher’s hockey mementoes, most of which were destroyed, including the original Lady Byng Trophy.

The cause of the fire was thought to be mice chewing through electrical wires.

Bench Boss: Frank Boucher, hatted at left, coaches the New York Rangers to a Stanley Cup championship in April of 1940 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. On the bench before him, that’s Neil Colville (6), Muzz Patrick (15), and Alex Shibicky (4).

best in show

The promise the cover seems to make doesn’t quite pan out — Liberty’s slate of picks of the best of the NHL’s best doesn’t, in fact, include a single Montreal Maroon. One does feature in the jury the magazine convened in 1936 to do the selecting, so maybe that counts for something — Maroons’ captain Cy Wentworth joined a distinguished panel that also included coaches Clem Loughlin (Chicago Black Hawks); Red Dutton (New York Americans); Sylvio Mantha (Montreal Canadiens); and Frank Patrick (Boston Bruins); along with fellow captains Hap Day (Toronto Maple Leafs); Doug Young (Detroit Red Wings); and Bill Cook (New York Rangers). In a feature article that advises under the headline that it’s going to cost you 12 minutes and 35 seconds to read, their picks are revealed. Allowing itself a little latitude on left wing, the jury decided this way:

Goal
Tiny Thompson (Boston)

Defence
Eddie Shore (Boston)
Ching Johnson (Rangers)

Centre
Frank Boucher (Rangers)

Left Wing
Paul Thompson (Chicago) or Busher Jackson (Toronto)

Right Wing
Charlie Conacher (Toronto)

About the Charlie Chaplin Jinx, fyi: in a mere seven-and-a-half minutes I learned that a couple of Liberty’s writers had a theory on why several actresses who’d starred in movies with and/or got married to Chaplin didn’t end up succeeding in Hollywood. It wasn’ta jinx at all, they felt: “a much more likely explanation of why Chaplin’s leading ladies have not gone farther is that he doesn’t pick them for their acting ability.”

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge of assembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand that young Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

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