duke keats: more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played

Ante-Oiler: Duke Keats, star of Edmonton’s WCHL Eskimos and future Hall-of-Famer, takes a ramble through the Alberta countryside during the 1921-22 season. (Image: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-8095)

Debuting on this day in 1895, North Bay’s own Duke Keats. Actually, he was born in Montreal. His parents moved him to North Bay when he was three or four. Gordon, he was called then. His father was a baggageman for the CPR.

Hockeywise, I’ll begin, if I may, by revelling for a moment in the names of some of the teams he played for after his career got going in 1912: Cobalt O’Brien Mines, North Bay Trappers, Haileybury Hawks, Toronto Blueshirts. In his prime, he starred for the Edmonton Eskimos of the old WCHL. He’s part of the story of the (also North Bay’s own) 228th Battalion in the NHA. To review: Keats was big and he was brash, and early on friends of his saw something in him that made them think of a Royal Navy dreadnought, which is how he’s supposed to have acquired his nickname, from HMS Iron Duke.

Adjectivally, accounts of his on-ice exploits yield single words like wunderkind (dating back to his time playing in Cobalt) and longer phrases, too: greatest player to play in Edmonton before Gretzky (his days as an Eskimo through the early 1920s). “Baffling a whole defence by his craftiness” is a feat attributed to him; no player, it was said at his retirement in 1934, “could get through an opening quicker and no player was ever more deadly on the net.”

Edmonton Eskimos, 1925-26. Back row, left to right: Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Spunk Sparrow, Lloyd McIntyre. Front: Bobby Boucher, Bobby Benson, Herb Stuart, Art Gagne, Ernie Anderson, Johnny Shepard. (Image: Glenbow Archives, ND-3-3136)

In 1923, the Eskimos were the Western Canadian Hockey League champions and thereby advanced to meet the Ottawa Senators in the Stanley Cup finals, a sight I’d like to have seen. An Ottawa Journal preview of the two-game series described Keats as “a slow moving bird but a great stickhandler and shot.” Skating with him, the Eskimos had Helge Bostrom and Art Gagne and Bullet Joe Simpson. Ottawa, then, counted on Clint Benedict in goal, Eddie Gerard and Buck Boucher for the defence, Frank Nighbor, Cy Denneny, and Punch Broadbent going forward. For spares they had Jack Darragh, King Clancy, and Lionel Hitchman.

I don’t know whether that’s one of the best teams ever to play, just that Frank Patrick said it was. Nighbor was detailed to check Keats, and did it well, “blanketing” him according to a contemporary report, another of which took note of Keats finding his way to the Ottawa dressing room after it was all over to shake Nighbor’s hand and tell him “he was the greatest puck chaser in the game today.”

Keats was 31 by the time he migrated to the NHL in 1926, after the WCHL turned into the WHL, which didn’t last. He played with the Bruins for a season before a trade made him a Detroit Cougar. He scored the first hattrick in franchise history during his time there, which also featured the strange case (in 1927) of his swinging his stick at fans in Chicago, including Irene Castle McLaughlin, owner Frederic McLaughlin’s wife. More on that here; for our purposes here, we’ll just recall that Major McLaughlin decided he liked the cut of Keats’ temperamental jib, and traded to bring him to the Black Hawks.

In 1924, did I mention, when Keats still an Eskimo, he was fined $50 for climbing into the stands and threatening to attack a spectator. And in 1933 — he finished up his playing career back in Edmonton after a spell in with the AHA Tulsa Oilers — in 1933 he was served with a summons to appear in police court on a charge of fighting in public after a raucous game against the Calgary Tigers. So there’s that.

What else? Frank Patrick was a big fan of his, too. When Keats was named in 1958 to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Patrick made the case that Keats possessed “more hockey grey matter than any man who ever played the game.”

“He is,” Patrick asserted, “the most unselfish superstar in hockey.”

“He’s the brainiest pivot that ever pulled on a skate, because he can organize plays and make passes every time he starts.” If he’d had Newsy Lalonde and Cyclone Taylor playing on his wings, Patrick said, Keats “would have averaged 20 assists per game.”

Since we’ve brought Taylor into the mix, can we consider, finally, whether Keats once perhaps skated backwards all the way down the rink, stickhandling the whole way, defying opponents who tried to stop him and maybe even making them look like clumsy fools in the moments before he scored a fantastic goal that would have been wonderful to watch on YouTube and circulate among friends, if only someone could have bothered to invent YouTube in the early 1920s?

Answer: maybe so. We just don’t know. Cyclone Taylor is supposed to have achieved something of this sort in 1910, though the exact facts of that case and whether it was quite so spectacular is (as Eric Zweig has noted) not exactly clear.

With Keats, it’s definitely in the lore. Marty Klinkenberg mentions it in The McDavid Effect (2017) without any supporting detail or sourcing. The brief Keats obituary The Globe and Mail ran in January of 1972 ends with a similarly foggy allusion to it:

Playing centre for Edmonton in the early ’20s, Keats reputedly picked up the puck and skated backwards the entire length of the rink before scoring a goal against an opposing team.

In the second game of that ’23 series versus Ottawa, the Journal does have him stealing the puck from Eddie Gerard at the Senators’ blueline whereupon “he skated backward through the opposing defence, trailing the puck in the shadow of his body for a backhand shot.” But didn’t score.

Whatever fact lies beyond the legend may be forever lost. Blades On The Bay, Bruce and Kenneth Craig’s 1997 history of hockey in North Bay, gets us a little closer to an origin, but only a little. Bruce Craig quotes a local oldtimer, Doug McDonald, as he recalls his dad telling him about an exhibition game, possibly “up near Sault Ste. Marie.”

According to him, “Keats went through and scored and it was so easy that way that he went up and said he’d do it backwards and by geez he skated through them backwards and scored.”

 

we band of brothers

Blood Brood: For the first time in NHL history, four sets of brothers took the ice together in December of 1940. From left, Rangers Mac and Neil Colville line up with Lynn and Muzz Patrick, alongside Max and Doug Bentley of the Black Hawks, and Bill and Bob Carse.

There would be no gathering of the clans on this night in 1941 — not all of them, anyway, just some of them. In fact, by this point in the 1940-41 season, the brief era of the NHL’s greatest sibling assembly had already come and gone. There would be other nights of brotherly note in years to come, as when four Sutters took part in a 1983 game, but that wartime season was unlike any other insofar as four sets of brothers were on the ice together on several of the occasions when the Chicago Black Hawks battled the New York Rangers.

The Rangers, who were the defending Stanley Cup champions going in ’40-41, featured GM Lester Patrick’s boys that year, Lynn, 28, and 24-year-old Muzz, both born in Victoria, B.C. Also on the roster were Edmonton’s own Colvilles, 26-year-old Neil and Mac, 24. Chicago, meanwhile, had Edmontonians of its own in Bill and Bob Carse, aged 26 and 21 respectively. And they had dual Bentleys, too, from Delisle, Saskatchewan, 24-year-old Doug and, in his rookie season, 20-year-old Max.

While the two teams would meet eight times over the course of the regular season, all the brothers would be involved for just three of those games. The first of those was on December 1, 1940 in Chicago, with the home team prevailing by a score of 4-1. The novelty wasn’t much noted. There was the photograph, above and, here and there, a few newspaper inches on previous NHL brothers, Cleghorns, Cooks, and Conachers. Thompsons, too, one of whom, Paul, was the Chicago coach. Max Bentley scored the first goal of his career that night, early in the first period: Phil Hergesheimer passed him the puck and Bentley went racing through centre. “One lightning swish and Max blinded Goalie Dave Kerr with the first tally,” was how The Chicago Tribune wrote it. Bill Carse scored, too, in plainer prose.

The teams met again just before Christmas, though the brother act was incomplete this time, with Muzz Patrick and Bob Carse absent on the night. On Christmas Day, the teams tied 3-3 at Madison Square Garden with all eight brothers back in action. Lynn Patrick scored a goal that looked like this in the next day’s New York Times: he “steam-rolled” through the Chicago zone before he “stepped inside the defence and got off a drive that flew squarely into the cords.” (Bill Carse got another goal, also.)

The last time all the brothers were in a game together was on the night of January 7, 1941, in New York again, where the Black Hawks prevailed, 3-2. This time, Lynn Patrick’s goal involved “a terrific shot that eluded Goalie Sam LoPresti” (Chicago Tribune) and “converting a pass from Neil Colville” (Times). Carsewise, Bob scored.

And that was all. When the teams met again on this day in ’41, it was Max Bentley who was missing. Sent down that week for seasoning with the minor-league Kansas City Americans, he’d at first refused to report, though Kansas coach Johnny Gottselig soon talked him into it. Chicago won the January 26 game, while New York took the last three match-ups. Max was back in Chicago for those games, though they lacked, variously, Doug Bentley (troublesome back) and/or Bill Carse (skate-cut to the leg).

The brothers might all have re-united the following season, 1941-42, but for Muzz Patrick having departed the league for a higher calling. Does that sound morbid? The fact of it is that, having applied for and gained American citizenship, he’d joined up. As the rest of the brothers prepared for another season on ice, the U.S. Army’s Private Patrick was in basic training at Camp Wheeler in Georgia.

By December he’d been transferred north, to Fort Jay, New York. “That gives Muzz a chance to see the Rangers in action a few times,” fancied a sports columnist; “he’d probably like to switch uniforms long enough to give his dad and brother Lynn a hand some night.” Promoted lieutenant, he found his calling as a military policeman and served out the duration of the war. He got his discharge in October 1945, just in time to head for the Rangers’ training camp in Winnipeg.

Sight-Seer: Private Muzz Patrick mans a .50-calibre machine gun during basic training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia, in the fall of 1941.

poking the beard

The Edmonton Oilers beat the San Jose Sharks on Monday, 5-3, at home. That was the headline out of Alberta Tuesday, with due attention paid to the goals (two) that Ryan Strome of the Oilers scored along with the shots (18) that Cam Talbot stopped. Edmonton’s Patrick Maroon got some notice, too, for what one CBC wag dubbed a ZZ-Top Hattrick: “That’s a goal, an assist, and three beard tugs.” The beard in question belonged to San Jose defenceman Brent Burns. He was down in front of his net and Maroon was in there too, scrabbling for the puck, and when the whistle blew, Maroon reached for Burns’ beard. “I was laughing about it and he was laughing about it,” Maroon told reporters later. “I thought he would be mad at first, but he just asked me if I liked it and I said yeah, it’s a pretty nice beard.” Burns, for the record, notched two assists on the night. Toronto illustrator Dave Murray worked up this portrait of him earlier this year as part of a series focussed on the stars of the 2017 playoffs. Browse more of Murray’s artistry — prints are available, too, for sale — over at http://davemurrayillustration.com/

 

dave semenko, 1959—2017

d semenkoThe Edmonton Oilers have this morning announced the death of Dave Semenko. He was 59. Wayne Gretzky, who often during their careers together skated to Semenko’s right, contributed a foreword to his teammate’s 1989 autobiography. “When I think of Dave Semenko now, and I often do,” 99 wrote to begin Looking Out For Number One, “I don’t picture the piercing glare that caused other heavyweights to look down or up or anywhere but back at Dave. I remember instead the little smile, the quick wink, and the words, ‘Don’t worry, Gretz.’ And you know what? I never did.”

(Image, from 1984-85: The Want List, hockeymedia)

oil parting

rexall

Once, when it was still Northlands Coliseum, the Edmonton Oilers that called the rink home won five Stanley Cups in  seven years. The rink has another name now, Rexall Place, and the Oilers that have skated there recently haven’t reached the playoffs let alone gone all the way, but the old rink still has its history if not much future. Tonight, as the team plays its last game in the old barn, which opened in November of 1974, 150 erstwhile Oilers, players and staff, will be on hand to see their underachieving successors host the Vancouver Canucks. The guest list features Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Ryan Smyth, and Dave Semenko, along with several members of the WHA old guard, including Al Hamilton and Eddie Mio and Ron Chipperfield. The Oilers will open next season at their new $480-million home, Rogers Place.

 (Photo, from 2012, courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt, whose work you’ll find on flickr)