Tabletop: Red Wings defenceman Black Jack Stewart catches up on the day’s news in the Detroit dressing room during a rubdown from team trainer Honey Walker, circa 1946.
When Black Jack Stewart played his defence on the left side for the Detroit Red Wings, a lot of the time Bill Quackenbush was on the right. I’ll let Stewart tell you where he got his nickname:
I bodychecked some fellow one night and when he woke up the next day in the hospital he asked who’d hit him with a blackjack.
He couldn’t remember the player’s name. In other tellings of the tale, it was his own dark visage and disposition that got him the moniker. He was a devastating hitter, says the Hall of hockey’s fame, to which he was inducted in 1964. His online bio there also includes the words: complete package, rock-solid, poise, work ethic, excellent stamina, brute force, and subtle clutching and grabbing. He played a dozen NHL seasons in all, the first ten for Detroit, then the final two for the Chicago Black Hawks, where he was the captain. He won two Stanley Cups with the Red Wings; three times he was a First Team All-Star.
Best-Dressed: Stewart featured in a three-page fashion spread in the February, 1948 edition of Sport magazine. “In picking out the leisure wardrobe he is wearing on these pages,” readers were advised, “Jack looked for about the same things most men want in their Winter garments. He kept his eyes open warmth, comfort, and up-to-date styling.”
He never argued with referees. “I figured,” he said, “for every penalty I got I used to get away with around 19.” He carried one of the heaviest sticks at the time he played, in the 1930s and into the ’40s and ’50s. People remembered his bodychecks in Detroit for years after he was gone: when Howie Young played there a decade later, they said he hits almost as hard as Black Jack Stewart. Stewart’s philosophy? He said this:
A defenceman should bodycheck if possible, picking the proper spots and making sure that he gets at least a piece of the opposing player. But it isn’t wise to go in there with the sole idea of bodychecking everything on skates.
Some dates: born in 1917, died 1983, on a Wednesday of this date, when he was 66. The love he had of horses was nurtured in Pilot Mound, Manitoba, where he grew up on the family wheat farm. He went back home to work on the farm in the off-season when he was in the NHL. Later, after he’d hung up his skates, when he was making a living as a salesman for a Detroit lithograph firm, he was a judge for the Canadian Trotting Association.
He’d always remember the day a teenager showed up in Detroit in the later ’40s, fuzzy-cheeked, name of Gordie Howe, with no great fanfare. “We knew he had it all,” Black Jack said, looking back:
He showed spurts of being a really good one. But I think he held back a little that first year. He didn’t seem relaxed enough. But of course he overcame that after he’d had a couple of fights.
There weren’t too many ever got by Black Jack, someone who knew from trying said. I guess he had a little bit of feud with Milt Schmidt of the Boston Bruins: so he said himself. Something else Stewart said was that every team had two players who were tough, for example for Chicago it was Earl Seibert and Johnny Mariucci.
Here’s a story, from ’48, about another Red Wing rookie, the great Red Kelly, who was in his first year in the NHL, a 20-year-old fledgling. That January, driving in downtown Detroit, Kelly made an illegal left turn and hit a car belonging to one John A. Watson. Summoned to traffic court, Kelly appeared before Judge John D. Watts with his teammate Stewart standing by him to argue his defence.
Kelly’s license, it turned out, was Canadian, as was his insurance. Convicted for the improper turn, Judge Watts gave him a suspended sentence and told him to pay $52 in damages to Watson.
“You had better get another attorney before you go to jail,” the magistrate was reported to have told Kelly regarding Stewart’s courtroom efforts. “This man sounds more like a prosecutor.”
Watts did ask Stewart to make sure that his teammate paid the damages and secured a Michigan license. “I’ll see that he does both,” Stewart is said to have promised, “if I have to break his neck.”
The proceedings came to jocular end. “I fine you two goals,” Judge Watts told Kelly, (laughingly, according the Detroit Free Press), “and you’d better deliver them tonight or I’ll have you back in court tomorrow.”
Stepping Out: Stewart’s wool overcoat (with zip-out lining) would have set you back $55 in 1948. His imported capeskin gloves? A mere $7.
Detroit did dispense with the New York Rangers at the Olympia that night, by a score of 6-0, but Kelly wasn’t on the scoresheet. The team, the Free Press noted, “left for Canada shortly after the game.”
Alertness on face-offs was, to Stewart, a cardinal rule. That’s what he said in 1949, when he and his fellow All-Stars were asked to share their hockey insights.
When it came to off-ice conditioning, Stewart said he tried to go walking as much as he could. “I eat foods,” he added, “that my system has been used to and at regular hours. I go easy on pickles and pastries. A steak dinner is the thing not less than three hours before playing a game. I aim at eight hours’ sleep nightly. As for alcoholic drinks, leave them strictly alone — the best they can do for you is ruin your health.”
Smoking? “A boy who is really serious about coming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday,” Black Jack Stewart said.