duke keats enraged and other tales: a wandering history of irene castle mclaughlin and the chicago black hawks

Ireman: Duke Keats as a Chicago Black Hawk, circa 1927.

It’s 80 years since Major Frederic McLaughlin schemed to end the tyranny of Canadian hockey domination by turning his Chicago Black Hawks all-American. I wrote about that in The New York Times not long ago. I would have liked to have expanded there on McLaughlin’s background and his marriage to Irene Castle, not to mention her hockey history, but I’m willing to do it here instead.

William F. McLaughlin starts selling coffee in Chicago in the 1860s. This isn’t a beverage history, but if it were, this would be the part that mentions how he helped to revolutionize the way Americans prepare their coffee at home. When W.F. dies in 1905, an elder son, George, takes over as president of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee while Frederic, younger, steps up as secretary and treasurer. Frederic is 27. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s already making a name for himself as a crack polo player for the Onwentsia Club in Lake Forest, Illinois. Accounts of his exploits on the turf remark on his supreme horsemanship, his daring, his fearlessness.

He gets married in May of 1907, at noon, to Helen Wylie, in Baltimore. “One of the surprises of the seasons,” The Chicago Tribune calls it. Not even a year later The Washington Post alerts readers: “The supposed domestic trouble of the McLaughlins is a frequent subject of gossip.” The Tribune’s sources suggest that the trouble stems from (i) McLaughlin refusing to give up “old haunts and friendships” and (ii) his wife spending too much on clothes. McLaughlin denies that they’re divorcing — his wife, he says, just spends a lot of time in Baltimore, visiting her mother. In 1910, the couple does divorce. Mrs. McLaughlin isn’t in court when her husband, alleging desertion, files suit, so he’s the one who does the talking.

Judge Lockwood Honore: Are you living together at the present time?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: How long have you been separated?
McLaughlin: A little over three years.
Judge: Did you leave her or did she leave you?
McLaughlin: She left me.
Judge: Did you know she was going?
McLaughlin: Yes.
Judge: Did you request her to leave?
McLaughlin: No, sir.
Judge: During the time you lived together, how did you treat her?
McLaughlin: All right.

The divorce is granted. Mrs. McLaughlin doesn’t ask for alimony; she just wants her name back.

McLaughlin plays more polo, suiting up for the Midwick Country Club in Los Angeles when the weather’s wintry in his native north.

In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sends troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin summers there, serving in the Illinois National Guard as a sergeant of artillery.

A year later, the United States joins the war against Germany. McLaughlin secures a commission with the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, where he takes command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. The division trains in Chicago and then England before shipping out for the front in France — just in time for the peace that breaks out in 1918.

Post-war, Major McLaughlin goes back to selling coffee and playing polo. In photographs from this time, he wears a tidy moustache, and accessorizes his bowtie, mohair coat, and Homburg hat with an air of privileged impatience. He returns to Chicago society as one of “the prize ‘catches’ among American bachelor-millionaires.” That’s what the newspaper columnists note in 1923 when news of the Major’s secretive wedding begins to leak. He’s 46 now, living in what’s described as a “seven-room deluxe bachelor apartment” on the top floor of a former coffee warehouse on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.

Prizeworthy as he might be, he’s also the least famous member of his new marriage.

The new Mrs. McLaughlin is the old Irene Foote, from New Rochelle, New York. She’s just 18 when she gets married for the first time, in 1911, to the English actor and dancer Vernon Castle, who’s 23. Together they help generate the ballroom-dance craze that sweeps the United States as the First World War starts to quake. The Castles teach America the tango, the maxixe, the hesitation, the turkey trot. In New York, they opened a dance academy and a night club. They taught and toured and lectured. “They ruled completely,” a later review of their regency recalls. “They set America to dancing as a naturally temperate country had never danced before. Weightlessly she moved; without effort he spun her about; smart people adopted and fads bore their name.”

Irene is a movie star, too, and revered as America’s best-dressed woman. The bob haircut is an innovation of hers, along with the ankle-length skirt and the velvet headache band.

Frederic McLaughlin isn’t the only one duty calls: Vernon Castle, too, joins up in 1916. There will come a time for romanticizing this later, with passages in The New York Herald telling how he’s “led by a glorious discontent to lay down his life for his country.” In the meantime, he returns to his home and native land, where he volunteers for the Royal Flying Corps, is commissioned as a lieutenant, ends up commanding a squadron at the front. Serves with distinction — wins a French Croix de Guerre — before he’s transferred to instructional duty in Canada in 1917.

He nearly dies there, in a crash near Deseronto, Ontario, before he’s killed in a training accident near Forth Worth, Texas, in 1918.

His widow marries Captain Robert Tremain, an American aviator, three months later, though the match isn’t announced for a year after the fact.

In 1923, amid rumours that she’s angling to divorce her second husband, Mrs. Tremain insists that no, she’s not. Captain Tremain rushes to France, just in case, to woo her back, which he succeeds in doing, the papers report, with Al Jolson’s help. “If I ever get a divorce,” Irene says when she arrives (alone), Stateside, “it will be because I want to be single and not because I want to get married.”

That turns out to be not entirely true: she has a Paris divorce in hand when she says this, and in November, she and Major McLaughlin celebrate a quiet wedding at his Michigan Avenue apartment.

In December they sail away as honeymooners, from Seattle, on the President Grant. It’s supposed to be a six-month trip, but they’re back within two. Gossip, inevitably, attends their return. Some of the honeymooners’ shipmates are talking, and the newspapers are happy to take it all down. They report on Mrs. McLaughlin’s charm and poise, and how popular she is, along with her Belgian Griffon, Joy. The Major they find cold and aloof. Two weeks out, during a storm, in the middle of a round of mahjong, he’s reported to take offense at a stray comment by a New York silk salesman, whom he then knocks under a table with one punch.

There’s more trouble, supposedly, when they land in Japan, and Mrs. McLaughlin draws more attention than her new husband would like. Report on this run long, with plenty of detail, though not a lot of direct quotation. The couple cuts short their journey, returning home on the ship they’d come out on.

Canadian reporters rush to the deck for a comment when the ship docks at Victoria, B.C. In vain, as the Vancouver Daily World reports it:

While the ship’s orchestra played “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Major McLaughlin answered three questions with the terse “No, we will give no interviews.” Irene herself refused to speak at all.

Take that, if you want, as the first public evidence that she’s giving up her old life, retreating from the limelight, effacing Irene Castle in favour of Mrs. McLaughlin.

 

A New York columnist confides that the marriage is “a surprise, a shock, and a disappointment to Chicago society.” The feeling there, it’s said, is that the Major should have married further up the social ladder. His mother is reported to have opposed the match.

Happier Days: The McLaughlins head for Canada in the late 1920s.

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mclaughlin’s all-Americans: making the chicago black hawks great again

Newlyweds: Irene Castle and Major Frederic McLaughlin, circa 1923, the year of their marriage.

(A version of this post appeared on page D3 of The New York Times on June 12, 2017.)

Long before President Donald J. Trump turned a protectionist eye to the iniquities of Canadians, another opinionated American tycoon decided that he had had enough. Eighty years ago, the cross-border irritant wasn’t Nafta or softwood lumber. As Major Frederic McLaughlin saw it, Canada was flooding American markets with too many hockey players.

In 1937, his short-lived America-first campaign was all about making the Chicago Black Hawks great again.

Canadians have long and fiercely claimed hockey as their own, a proprietary technology that also happens to be a primary natural resource. But the game’s south-of-the-border veins run deep, too. The first organized American game is said to have been played in the 1880s at St. Paul’s, a prep school in Concord, N.H.. The first fully professional league was based in Michigan, in 1904, though most of the players were Canadian.

When the N.H.L. made its debut in 1917 with four Canadian teams, it counted a lonely three Americans among 51 players.

“The climate is not suitable for hockey in the United States,” Lester Patrick (b. Drummondville, Quebec), the longtime Rangers coach and manager, explained in 1928. Unfair as it might be, Canadian boys donned skates at age 3.

“They start skating from the ankles, then with the lower leg up to the knee and at maturity they skate from the hip,” Patrick said. “It is an evolutionary process of time.”

“The Americans,” he held, “start too late to develop a full-leg stride.”

None of that mattered, of course, when it came to the potential profitability of American markets. The N.H.L.’s sometimes rancorous rush south saw Boston’s Bruins as the first United States-based team to join, in 1924. Pittsburgh’s Pirates and New York’s Americans followed in 1925 before the Rangers debuted in 1926, along with teams in Detroit and Chicago.

In Chicago, McLaughlin emerged as the majority shareholder. The McLaughlins had made their fortune on the Lake Michigan shore as coffee importers. In the 1850s, most American coffee drinkers bought raw beans and roasted them at home. W.F. McLaughlin was one of the first to sell pre-roasted coffee. When he died in 1905, his elder son took the helm of McLaughlin’s Manor House Coffee with Frederic, the younger son, aboard as secretary and treasurer.

Harvard-educated, Frederic found fame in those prewar years as one of the country’s best polo players. In 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson sent troops to the restive Mexican frontier, McLaughlin served in the Illinois National Guard.

A year later, the United States went to war with Germany, and McLaughlin joined the Army’s new 86th “Blackhawk” Division, taking command of the 333rd Machine Gun Battalion. Trained in Chicago and England, the division reached France just in time for peace to break out in 1918.

Postwar, McLaughlin returned to Chicago society as a prized catch among bachelor millionaires. But he gained national attention after secretly marrying Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer and movie star revered as America’s best-dressed woman.

As president of Chicago’s N.H.L. team, he reserved naming rights, borrowing from his old Army unit’s tribute to an 18th-century Sauk warrior. From his polo club, the Onwentsia in Lake Forest, Ill., he plucked the distinctive chief’s-head emblem that still adorns Black Hawks sweaters.

“Oh, boy, I am glad I haven’t got a weak heart,” McLaughlin is reported to have said at the first hockey game he ever attended, in November 1926, just a month before Chicago’s NHL debut. His newly minted Black Hawks were in Minneapolis, playing an exhibition that featured Canadian men named Moose and Rusty and Tiny.

Stickmen: Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert (b. Kitchener, ON) consults coach Clem Loughlin in the mid-1930s.

McLaughlin and his fellow investors bought a ready-made roster to get their franchise going: 14 players who had spent the previous winter as the Western Hockey League’s Portland Rosebuds, men named Dick and Duke and Rabbit from Canadian towns called Kenora and Snow Lake and Mattawa.

While owners in New York and Boston hired old Canadian hockey hands to run their teams, McLaughlin decided he would do the job himself. Asked whether his team was ready to compete for a championship, he said, “If it’s not, we’ll keep on buying players until it is.”

The Blackhawks started respectably enough, making the playoffs in their inaugural season. Coaches came and went in those early years, while McLaughlin cultivated a reputation for ire and eccentricity. Still, after only five N.H.L. seasons, Chicago played its way to the finals. Three years later, in 1934, the Black Hawks won the Stanley Cup.

Key to Chicago’s winning formula was McLaughlin’s decision to replace himself with a veteran (Canadian) coach and manager, Tommy Gorman.

“I’m sending myself to the cheering section,” McLaughlin grinned, announcing his midseason surrender in 1933. “I’m convinced that I’m just an amateur in hockey. It’s been a case of the blind leading the blind as far as my influence on the team goes.”

The joy of victory did not linger. Gorman resigned, and Charlie Gardiner, the team’s beloved goaltender, died at 29.

Charged with the reconstruction was a former Black Hawk defenseman, Clem Loughlin, a son of Carroll, Manitoba. Hired in the fall of 1934, he was Chicago’s 11th coach in nine years. The team remained largely Canadian during his regime, with several talented American exceptions, including Doc Romnes and the goaltender who arrived in 1935, Mike Karakas.

A photograph promoting Loughlin’s 1936-37 squad bore the slogan “Lightning On Skates.” When the season opened, Chicago’s still largely Canadian roster struck for a pair of listless ties. Then they started losing in earnest. By Christmas, they had won only two of 16 games.

The new year brought no relief. Coach Loughlin threatened a shake-up and then shook, releasing center Tommy Cook, an eight-year veteran accused of “failure to keep in playing condition” and “lax behavior.”

The remaining Hawks won a couple of games before reverting to type. Mulched in Montreal, trimmed in Toronto, they returned to Chicago to lose again and solidify their hold on last place in the league’s American division.

That’s when McLaughlin announced that he had an answer, or at least a vision. Having already lobbied the N.H.L. to replace Canadian referees with Americans, he divulged his plan to shed the yoke of northern tyranny: within two years he would have only American boys skating for the Black Hawks. And he would be changing the team’s nickname to Yankees.

“I think an all-American team would be a tremendous drawing card all over the league,” McLaughlin said.

He was also said to be annoyed that his Canadian veterans rejected the daily calisthenics he insisted they needed.

“We’ve found out you can’t make athletes out of hockey players,” he declared, “so we’ll try to make hockey players out of athletes. Give me a football player who can skate and we can show this league a lot of hockey.”

He already had a so-called “hockey factory” up and running, with five prototype Minnesotans and Michiganders in training on the ice and at Chicago’s Y.M.C.A. These were men in their 20s named Bun and Butch and Ike. Plucked from quiet amateur careers, none of them had yet shown particular signs of stardom. In command was Emil Iverson, a former Danish Army officer who’d coached college hockey in Minnesota and — briefly — the pre-Gorman Hawks.

Meanwhile, the Hawks went to New York, where they hammered the Americans, 9-0. The Americans, as it happened, were almost entirely not — Roger Jenkins of Appleton, Wis., was the only exception. Chicago’s goals were all scored by importees.

Ridicule was brewing in Canada. John Kieran, a columnist for The New York Times, reported that the north-of-the-border consensus was that an all-American team would dominate at “the same time that the Swiss navy equals the combined fleets of the United States, Great Britain and Japan in total tonnage and heavy armament.”

Coach Loughlin stood by his boss. “It isn’t as silly as it sounds by any means,” he said. “I contend that most hockey players are made, not born.”

By March, the future had arrived. With the Hawks out of the playoffs, McLaughlin decreed that his five factory-fresh Americans would debut against Boston.

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It went well — for the Bruins, who prevailed by 6-2. The Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings wired Frank Calder, the president of the league, to protest Chicago’s use of “amateurs” while other teams were still vying for playoff positions.

Boston Coach Art Ross called McLaughlin a “headstrong plutocrat.”

“I have been in hockey 30 years,” he railed, “and never in its entire history has such a farce been perpetrated on a National Hockey League crowd.”

He demanded Chicago refund the price of every ticket —“that’s how rotten the game was.”

“I don’t know whether our constitution will allow the cancellation of an owner’s franchise,” Ross continued, “but if it does, I’ll do everything I can to see that the board of governors do it.”

Unsanctioned by the league, the Hawks went to Toronto, where loudspeakers blared “Yankee Doodle” as “the cash customers prepared for a comedy,” one correspondent reported. Ike Klingbeil of Hancock, Mich., scored a Chicago goal in a losing effort, though a Canadian critic deemed his skating “stiff-legged.”

The new-look Hawks got their first win at home, outlasting the Rangers, 4-3. That night at least, the Times allowed that McLaughlin’s experiment might not have been so far-fetched after all.

The Hawks themselves weren’t entirely contented. A New York reporter listened to a Canadian veteran on the team grumble about the new Americans. “We score the goals and make the plays and they do nothing but a lot of spectacular heavy back-checking,” he said, “but they get all the headlines and all the praise.”

Chicago lost its final two games, finishing a proud point ahead of New York’s even-worse Americans. When the playoffs wrapped up, the Stanley Cup belonged to a Detroit team featuring one American among 21 Canadians with names like Hec and Mud and Bucko.

Come the off-season, the Major gave Clem Loughlin a vote of confidence, right before the coach decided he preferred a return to wheat-farming and hotelkeeping back home in Canada.

Chicago’s five experimental Americans were released. None of them played another N.H.L. game.

The team’s new coach was appropriately unorthodox, for McLaughlin: Bill Stewart, born in Fitchburg, Mass., was best known to that point as a Major League Baseball umpire who carried a wintertime whistle as an N.H.L. referee.

McLaughlin’s wife sued him for divorce that summer, which may have distracted the Major from his all-American plan. In any case, Stewart announced that it was on hold, and the team would continue as the Black Hawks.

When the new hockey season opened, the team started slowly. By March of 1938, they surprised most pundits when they beat the Maple Leafs to win the Stanley Cup.

The trophy itself was absent from the final game, so the champions had to wait to hold it high. Eight of Chicago’s 18 players that season were Americans, men named Doc and Virgil and Cully, who had learned their hockey in Minnesota towns called Aurora, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake.

No N.H.L. champion would count more Americans until last year, when the Pittsburgh Penguins had 10.

(Note: Chicago’s NHL team was Black Hawks for the first 60 years of its history; Blackhawks became one word in 1986.)

 

exit strategy

First Round: Stan Mikita stows his clubs as he readies to teeing off at the Rolling Green Country Club in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in June of 1965. Entered as an amateur, the Chicago Black Hawks centreman was one of 157 hopefuls playing to qualify for the Western Open, and one of 107 who fell short.

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Dropping The Glove: Like this year’s Chicago Blackhawks, the 1962 edition of the team fell short in April in their campaign to win a Stanley -Cup. Those bygone Hawks did get further along the road than their modern-day counterparts, who were swept to a  first round exit by the Nashville Predators last night. If it’s any solace to anyone, the game the ’62 Hawks lost on April 22 at Chicago Stadium saw Toronto’s Maple Leafs win the six-game series and carry off the Cup. Making nice here, in the aftermath, is Toronto winger Bob Nevin with Chicago defenceman Dollard St. Laurent. (Image: Chicago Tribune)

not as yet typical wild-eyed canadian hockey fans

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One On One: Two-year-old Annette Dionne, wearing Boston Bruins colours, faces her Maple Leaf’d sister Yvonne at their Corbeil, Ontario, nursery in 1936.

The story of the Dionne quintuplets is a long one, and sad enough. The latest chapter, which Ian Austen narrated in The New York Times over the weekend, continues to unfold tonight when the city council in North Bay, Ontario, votes on the future of the tiny log farmhouse where 24-year-old Elzire Dionne gave birth to her seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh children on May 28, 1934.

It was just another house, then, in the village of Corbeil, just south of North Bay. After the birth of Mrs. Dionne’s instantly famous quintuplets, the Ontario government made the children wards of the province, and promptly put them on public display. By 1936, the restaurant and parking lots of Quintland dwarfed the family home children, where the children lived in a new nursery near a fenced playground featuring shade trees, sand piles, and a swimming pool where (as The Toronto Daily Star enthused) “the babies may be watched without their knowledge.”

That summer, another newspaper reported, upwards of 6,000 visitors a day paid for the privilege of spying on them.

Later, the original house later became a museum. In 1960, it was moved to a site on the edge of North Bay. The city owns the house now, but wished it didn’t. The museum has been closed since 2015 and the land beneath it has been sold for development. Unwilling to maintain the house, or to pay to move it elsewhere in the city, North Bay was looking to sell it down the highway, to an agricultural society in Strong, Ontario, where it would feature in a new pioneer village.

The two surviving quintuplets, Annette and Cécile Dionne, are 82 now. They’ve written to North Bay councillors to suggest that they have a “moral obligation” to maintain the home as piece a Canadian history. With that and the attention that the feature in the weekend Times has focussed, the city is considering a new plan. That’s the one they’re voting on tonight. If passed, it would see North Bay retain ownership of the house and pay for its relocation to a downtown site near the Discovery North Bay Museum.

While we wait on word on which way the vote goes, a review of the quintuplets’ hockey careers is (obviously) in order. We know (for instance) that Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie didn’t attend their first professional game until 1948, when they were 14.

The Chicago Black Hawks visited North Bay in October of that year to play an exhibition game against the Kansas City Pla-Mors of the United States Hockey League. The New York Times reported on that, too, which is to say it carried the Canadian Press dispatch of the proceedings, noting that the girls attended the game with their father, Oliva, along with several schoolmates, as guests of Hawks president Bill Tobin.

Chicago prevailed, 8-5, with Ralph Nattress and Gaye Stewart leading the way with two goals each. Emile Francis was in goal for the Hawks, with Al Rollins facing him from the Kansas City net.

Chicago coach Charlie Conacher and his Kansas counterpart, Reg Hamilton, presented the girls with sticks autographed by their players. As the night went on, North Bay mayor Ced Price treated the Dionnes to candied apples and popcorn.

“Though their large dark eyes flashed at times,” the CP’s nameless correspondent wrote, “the quints watched most of the game with little change in expression. They have not as yet become typical wild-eyed Canadian hockey fans.”

It’s not as if their guardians hadn’t tried. They’d been outfitted with hockey sweaters and mini-sticks for a photo op as far back as 1936, when they were just two. The Ottawa Evening Journal, among others, put them on the front page:

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born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

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Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967—that, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

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If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, and (almost certainly) many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

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Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Murray Balfour in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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Heir Time: Charlie Gardiner and son Bobby defend the Chicago net circa 1930. (Image: Classic Auctions)

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.