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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buddy maracle, in 1931: swept through everybody to leave cude helpless with a wicked shot

Lestermen: The New York Rangers line up in 1931. Back row, from left they are: Bill Cook, Butch Keeling, Frank Peters, coach Lester Patrick, Ching Johnson, Buddy Maracle, Joe Jerwa, Bill Regan. Front, from left: Bun Cook, Paul Thompson, Murray Murdoch, Cecil Dillon, Frank Boucher, John Ross Roach.

Out now in The Hockey News online and at the newsstand, paywalled in both places — my profile of Buddy Maracle and the case for recognizing him as the NHL’s first Indigenous player. He was 27 and a minor-league veteran when the New York Rangers called him up from the Springfield Indians. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” a column in The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.” Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit on February 12, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night, and also failed to score in New York’s next two games. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on February 22, the Rangers cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period; in the third, Dillon returned the favour when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone major-league goal. One newspaper accounts rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

He would notch two more NHL assists. In a March 3 game against Boston, he abetted Bill Regan on a third-period goal, the only one the Rangers scored in a 4-1 loss. March 17, he helped on another Dillon goal in the Rangers’ 3-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. In four playoff games that year, Maracle registered no points, took no penalties.

Not all of his achievements were logged for the statistical archives. In a March 7 game against the Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens, his penalty-killing caught the fancy of the local cognoscenti. By Bert Perry’s account in The Globe, Maracle “gave quite an exhibition of ragging the puck while [Ching] Johnson was off, displaying stick-handling of a high order that merited the applause of the fans.”

(Image: New York Rangers)

the nosebleeds

Overview: From up in the gallery, the gods, the nosebleeds in New York’s third Madison Square Garden, the one Tex Rickard built, here’s the view you’d have looking down nearly 80 years ago on the Rangers doing battle with the Chicago Black Hawks. Madison Square is a guess — the loudspeaker over centre ice looks like the one they had there in 1937. That’s the date on the photograph, November 13, 1937. Of course, Chicago was in Toronto that night, and this isn’t Maple Leaf Gardens, so I’m taking the date as being that of publication rather than a proof of when the photograph was taken. November 11, 1937, Chicago was in New York, and they won, 3-1, in front of a crowd of 16,000: I think that’s the one we’re seeing. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stuck all round it. The Hawks got a goal from Mush March that night, another two from Doc Romnes; Cecil Dillon scored for the Rangers. Mike Karakas was outstanding, I know from reading, in the Chicago goal; Dave Kerr, in the Ranger net, didn’t rate a mention. Ott Heller took a misconduct: he tapped referee Mickey Ion (said a hometown reporter) but Ion took it as a malign push.

Overview: From up in the gallery, the gods, the nosebleeds in New York’s third Madison Square Garden, the one Tex Rickard built, here’s the view you’d have looking down nearly 80 years ago on the Rangers doing battle with the Chicago Black Hawks. Madison Square is a guess — the loudspeaker over centre ice looks like the one they had there in 1937. That’s the date on the photograph, November 13, 1937. Of course, Chicago was in Toronto that night, and this isn’t Maple Leaf Gardens, so I’m taking the date as being that of publication rather than a proof of when the photograph was taken. November 11, 1937, Chicago was in New York, and they won, 3-1, in front of a crowd of 16,000: I think that’s the one we’re seeing. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stuck all round it. The Hawks got a goal from Mush March that night, another two from Doc Romnes; Cecil Dillon scored for the Rangers. Mike Karakas was outstanding, I know from reading, in the Chicago goal; Dave Kerr, in the Ranger net, didn’t rate a mention. Ott Heller took a misconduct: he tapped referee Mickey Ion (said a hometown reporter) but Ion took it as a malign push.

rangers, habs: a speedy, smashing battle

As the New York Rangers prepare to face the Montreal Canadiens in their NHL conference final, maybe there’s just time for a quick look in, via British Pathé, on a 1936 meeting between the two teams packaged for European viewers. Home at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won this December 21 meeting at by a score of 5-3, thanks to an (unsudden-death) overtime. A few glosses on the game:

• The Canadiens (8-6-2) were top of the Canadian section of the eight-team NHL (Montreal Maroons and New York Americans were still alive, that year) while the Rangers’ comparable record (8-5-3) had them second to Detroit on the American side. When the playoffs rolled around, the following March, it was the Red Wings who prevailed, beating Montreal and then the Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.

• Starting this night for Montreal were 41-year-old George Hainsworth in goal (in for Wilf Cude) with Walter Buswell and Babe Siebert on defence. Howie Morenz was at centre between right winger Johnny Gagnon (second in NHL scoring) and, on the left, Aurèle Joliat. Among the spares were Pit Lepine and Georges Mantha. Cecil Hart was the coach.

• For the Rangers, coached by Lester Patrick, it was Dave Kerr in goal with Art Coulter and Ott Heller on the blueline, fronted by Neil Colville with his brother Mac to the right and Alex Shibicky on the left. Spares included Frank Boucher, Phil Watson, and Cecil Dillon.

• Odie Cleghorn and Babe Dye were the referees. With the tie, the teams completed a ten-minute overtime.

• The New York Times:

The game was a speedy, smashing battle in which many penalties occurred, and the crowd of 14,000 hockey fans followed the action with unbounded enthusiasm.

• Watch the face-offs (right at the start of the reel and at 0:41) with the centres lined up sidelong.

• The Flying Frenchman (in the Times’ styling) went up 2-0 but the Patrickmen stormed back in the third.

• “We should have won 2-1,” Cecil Hart carped afterwards, “for Lynn Patrick was in the crease when he scored that last-minute tying goal. It should never have been allowed.”

• Montreal’s Joffre Desilets opened the scoring in the second (1:04). “A hard shot,” reported Harold Parrott in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, though you can’t really see that in the footage. British Pathé’s commentator does his best: “Canadiens’ Desilets gets the ball and streaking forward — shoots!” Note the lack of congratulatory celebration after the goal — just the goalscorer skating almost bashfully away. There’s a fleeting view, too, of Morenz.

• Stratford’s famous Streak was back that season with the Habs after a sad two-year odyssey that took him to Chicago and then, briefly, to these very Rangers. Back in Montreal, he may have lost a step or two of speed, but as of this late-December night, he stood eighth in the league in scoring with a goal and 10 assists in 16 games. A little more than a month later, he went down in home game against Chicago with his left leg fractured in four places. Just over a month after that, he died in Montreal’s Hôpital St-Luc.

• The Daily Eagle on Joliat’s goal (1:22): “A characteristic solo by [sic] Aurel Joliat, the ageless little wonder in the black hat, made it 2-0 in 18:24 of that same second period.” The Times: “The Habitant mite was in the thick of every play while he was on the ice, and his expert poke checking saved Hainsworth a lot of work in goal.”

• You can’t really see the legendary black hat — I can’t. There’s a quick glimpse of Montreal Babe Siebert wearing a helmet (1:25) — along with, on the back of his sweater, the number one. At 32, he was in his first year with the Canadiens. After a stellar, scoring career as a left winger with the Maroons and Rangers, he went to Boston where Art Ross shifted him to defence. He played three seasons paired mostly with Eddie Shore, though the two of them supposedly never talked, on or off the ice, because of a longstanding feud. Traded to Montreal when Ross decided he was past his due date, he ended the season as a first-team All-Star and won the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP. Continue reading