ayr force

“He has always been an effective player,” the Toronto Globe’s Bert Perry wrote in 1931 of Henry Elmer Maracle, born this day in 1904 (it was a Thursday) in the southwestern Ontario town of Ayr. Better known in his hockey life as Buddy, Maracle died at the age of 53 in 1958. As you might have read (here or maybe here), he became the NHL first Indigenous player to play in the NHL when he turned out for the New York Rangers in the latter days of the 1930-31 season. For those keeping score, the NHL remains mysteriously muted when it comes acknowledging his story and achievement.

The archival record of Maracle’s puck-playing years suggests that he was speedy and skilled and industrious on the ice. It’s also thickly larded with lazy stereotypes and outright racism. Herewith, a couple of eyebrow-raising off-rink anecdotes, at least 50 per cent scurrilous, that I’ve recently unearthed, presented unverified and without parsing. The first is from 1931, the next from 1929, years during which Maracle was playing, in the livery seen here, above, for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Indians of the Can-Am League, where Frank Carroll was the coach. One:

A story is told about Maracle that a few autumns ago severe floods invaded the exhibition ground where the Indians’ rink is located, and the waters endangered the Springfield equipment in the dressing room. Maracle was rowed to the building in a boat, dived underneath a door, swam through the chilly waters, and effected the rescue of the equipment. As a reward for this act, he was given a public presentation on the occasion of the Indians’ first home game of the season, the management giving him a substantial bonus.

One more:

Some very far-fetched and amusing press-agent stories of hockey players have emanated from New York since the professionals took Gotham by storm. It is therefore not at all surprising to read the latest, which concerns “Buddy” Maracle of Springfield, the New York Rangers’ “farm.” When Maracle, who is a full-blooded Indian, first broke into pro. hockey, according to this imaginative press agent, he had the reputation of being “yellow.” During one intermission, the story continues, the manager of Maracle’s team backed him up against the dressing-room wall, stuck a pistol against his chest and threatened to shoot him if he showed lack of courage in the future. From then on, concludes the tale, Maracle has “played like a demon all the time.”

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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on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.