dale hawerchuk, 1963—2020

Heavy news today: Dale Hawerchuk has died, of cancer, at the age of 57. A son of Oshawa, Ontario, he was a sublime centreman whose 16-year NHL career flourished most memorably in the 1980s when he led the Winnipeg Jets. It was with Winnipeg that he  won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 1982. He went on to play for Buffalo, St. Louis, and Philadelphia before a hip injury ended his on-ice career in 1997. With the 1,409 regular-season points he racked up over the course of his career, he stands 20th in the all-time NHL register, just behind Doug Gilmour, a little ahead of Jari Kurri. Hawerchuk was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

hats off to hap holmes

Only two players in hockey’s history have won the Stanley Cup four times with four different teams. Jack Marshall, a centreman in the game’s early decades, was the first to do it, in 1914, when he aided the Toronto Blueshirts’ championship effort. That was actually Marshall’s sixth Cup — his others came with the Winnipeg Victorias, Montreal HC (two), and Montreal Wanderers (two). Following his lead was the goaltender on that ’14 Blueshirts team, Harry Hap Holmes, pictured above, who died in 1941 on a Friday of this date at the age of 53.

Holmes’ subsequent Cups came in 1917 when he steered the PCHL Seattle Metropolitans past the NHA’s Montreal Canadiens. He was in the nets the very next year for Toronto when they were the first NHL team to raise the Cup, then won again in 1925, when the WCHL’s Victoria Cougars were the last non-NHL team to claim it. His remarkable career wrapped up in the late ’20s in the livery he’s wearing here, that of the NHL’s Detroit Cougars.

In 1972, Hap Holmes was inducted, posthumously, into the Hockey Hall of Fame in distinguished company, joining Gordie Howe, Jean Béliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Hooley Smith and builder Weston Adams, Sr. in that year’s class.

About the cap: hockey columnist Vern DeGeer used to tell tales of the way the game was played in the rough-and-ready Canadian west, one of them having to do with the Saskatoon Arena and a couple of the goaltenders who visited, Victoria’s Holmes and Hal Winkler, who played for Edmonton Eskimos and Calgary’s Tigers before later joining the Boston Bruins. Both were balding, and both (said DeGeer) were forced to don caps at the Arena with their “old-style hanging galleries.” He explained:

The galleries, located at the ends of the rink, projected directly above the goalies. To those customers who favoured these parking spots, the shining bald domes of Winkler and Holmes presented tempting targets. These boys were known as The Legion of the Dirty Dozen. Membership in the Legion was voluntary.

The only requirements were a quid of tobacco, capable jaws, and ordinary marksmanship. Reward for a direct hit on either bald pate was a healthy slap on the back from other members.

Years later, Holmes recalled his assailants.

“Dirty Dozen!” chuckled Hap. “You mean Dirty Five Hundred. I swear that some of those fellows used to load their tobacco with bird shot. After a game my head often carried so many lumps, the boys claimed I had an attack of chickenpox. My sweater would look as if it had been dragged through a tub of cylinder oil.”

“Those roughnecks became so expert at their business that even a cap didn’t save me at times. They used to fire at my neck. I don’t think they ever missed. Why, it was even said that a fellow was subject to suspension from the gallery if he failed more than twice in a single game.”

claim to fame

Hallmarked: Jarome Iginla got the call to the Hall of Fame yesterday, when he was elected along with Kim St-Pierre, Marian Hossa, Kevin Lowe, Doug Wilson, and (as a builder) Ken Holland. Iginla’s career beamed brightest, of course, while he was a Calgary Flame, a team he captained for nine seasons. His NHL numbers include 1,368 points in 1,635 games, regular-season and playoff, and the silverware he collected in his time include all the big names: he won the Art Ross Trophy, the Maurice Richard (twice), a Ted Lindsay, a King Clancy, and a Mark Messier Leadership Award. Along with World Junior gold, he earned World Championship- and World Cup-winning medals, and two Olympic golds.

fêting fern flaman

The night the Bruins fêted Fern Flaman at the Boston Garden in 1960, they gave him a hockey-rink cake and a colour TV set, also a freezer, a necktie, a big portrait of himself, some silverware, bicycles for the Flaman kids — and, oh, a six-month supply of meat and ice cream, according a contemporary account of the Boston Globe’s, which, it pains me to report, could easily have but did not itemize what meats and what ice creams, exactly, were involved. This was all before the Bruins faced their old rivals the Montreal Canadiens, and beat them, too, 6-5, though I should say that Flaman’s big present that night, they wheeled it right out on the ice, was a brand-new Rambler station wagon that, when Flaman skated  over and peered within, guess what, his mother, Mary, was sitting there, surprise, just in from her home in Regina.

The Globe reported that it was the first time in Flaman’s career that he’d “cried on the ice.”

“I just couldn’t help it,” he said.

And Mrs. F? “What made this night wonderful,” she told the Globe, “was having others think Ferny is wonderful. I’m a very happy mama.”

Flaman was 34 that, playing in his 17th and final NHL season. The Dysart, Saskatchewan, native, who died at the age of 85 on a Saturday of this date in 2012, was just 18 when he made his start with the Bruins in the winter of 1945, making his debut, a winger, then, in a game against the New York Rangers. “A fast and rugged youngster,” was how the Globe introduced him, “put on the third line to add a body-checking element.”

“He played his part with zest,” Harold Kaese wrote, “so much zest that late in the game he even challenged Bucko McDonald. This, as Flaman learned, was much like challenging a cement-mixer. He was shaken up, but should be ready by Sunday.”

In 1950, the Bruins traded Flaman to the Maple Leafs in a deal that also sent Leo Boivin, Ken Smith, and Phil Maloney north in exchange for Bill Ezinicki and Vic Lynn. He arrived in Toronto in time to win a Stanley Cup in 1951, when Bill Barilko, his partner on the blueline, scored that famous overtime winner of his.

Three times during the ’50s he was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Montreal’s Doug Harvey owned the Norris Trophy in those years, taking home seven of eight between 1955 and 1962, but Flaman finished third in Norris voting in both ’56-57 (behind Red Kelly) and ’57-58 (trailing Bill Gadsby).

In a poll of NHL coaches in 1958 that ordained Gordie Howe the league’s “smartest player” and Maurice Richard “best man on a breakaway,” Flaman was deemed “best fighter.”

“I played with him and I played against him,” another Bruins’ captain, Milt Schmidt, said at the time of Flaman’s death, “and there was no-one tougher in the National Hockey League.”

Flaman went back to Boston in 1954 in a trade for Dave Creighton. He played a further seven seasons for the Bruins, the last six as team captain, before he moved on to the AHL Providence Reds as playing coach in the fall of 1961. He later coached Northeastern University.

Fern Flaman was inducted into hockey’s Hall of Fame in 1990.

Sask Strong: In 1961, the Boston Garden celebrated Flaman’s Bruin faithful service with gifts of a station wagon, meat, and (above) a big hockey-rink-shaped cake.

 

 

 

buddy o’connor: a hart, a byng, a razzle dazzle past

Buddy O’Connor was 25 when he finally made his NHL debut with the Canadiens, in November of 1941.

By then, he’d been starring for years with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec Senior League, and indeed on the night he premiered in the NHL in a game against Boston at the Forum, the rookies he was centering were his old Royals linemates, Pete Morin and Gerry Heffernan. The home team lost on the night, 3-1, to the defending Stanley Cup champions, but local hopes were boosted by the promise of O’Connor, who scored Montreal’s lone goal, and his mates. “The smart young forward line” rated a column unto itself in the Montreal Gazette in the days that followed, where it was noted that they’d been previously been known as the Royals’ Razzle-Dazzle Line, and wherein O’Connor explained how he liked to drive straight for opposing defencemen, rather than detour around them. “I try to go where the other defence is and any of their other players happen to be simply to keep ’em bunched,” he told Marc McNeil that night, “and leave Gerry and Pete free. Sometimes when I’m down there first I can keep the defence so busy watching me that they won’t notice the others, but I always know Pete and Gerry will be along presently to pick up any pass I can get out there. So I just do it by habit; I can depend upon my linemates. That’s all there is to it.”

McNeil also took down the jocular rebuke O’Connor got from Morin after he’d said his piece: “You shouldn’t have done it, Bud, giving away all our secrets. All these NHL clubs will get wised up to us right away, and we’ll be no good at all.”

Morin played just a single season with Canadiens before joining the RCAF’s war effort, while Heffernan stuck around for parts of three: in his last campaign, 1943-44, he scored 28 goals and 48 points, finishing up just six points shy of teammates O’Connor and Maurice Richard on the Montreal scoring rolls.

Born in Montreal on a Wednesday of this date in 1916, Buddy O’Connor lasted longer in the NHL than his linemates, and proved himself to be a consistent scorer in his six years with Canadiens. He helped the team win Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946.

But it was after a 1947 trade took him to the New York Rangers that O’Connor truly flourished. In 1947-48, at the age of 31, O’Connor not only finished second in NHL scoring behind his old Montreal teammate Elmer Lach, but won both the Hart Trophy (as league MVP) and the Lady Byng (for high + gentlemanly achievement). Throughout his career, he was as rule-abiding as NHL players come, accumulating just 34 total minutes of punishment over the course of his 509 career regular-season games. He played two entire seasons without taking a single penalty, and in three more took just one in each. The season he got the Byng, edging out Toronto’s Syl Apps, O’Connor ran relatively amok, amassing eight whole minutes in 60 games.

O’Connor played three more years with the Rangers after that high-tide season. He served as team captain in 1949-50, just for a year, before he was succeeded by defenceman Frank Eddolls — replaced, one report had it, “because he wasn’t a holler guy.”

O’Connor died at the age of 61 in 1977, so his call to hockey’s Hall of Fame came posthumously. That was in 1988, when the Hall introduced what it called a Veterans Category, to see that players who’d been out of the game for more than 25 years weren’t entirely forgotten. O’Connor was the first be so recognized, and he ascended to hockey’s Pantheon in distinguished company, alongside Guy Lafleur, Brad Park, and Tony Esposito.

Ten other players would eventually be inducted as Veterans, including both Lionel and Roy Conacher, Harry Watson, and Clint Smith, before the Hall saw fit to nix the classification in 2000. “The board believes the category fully served its useful purpose and should now be eliminated,” Hall chairman Bill Hay said at the time. “It only makes sense to merge the veteran player category with the Player Category, since the player attributes criteria of the two categories are identical.”

In the new streamlined regime, a maximum of four players could be inducted each year. The current set-up, which we’ll see in action later this week, makes provision for a maximum of five men to be inducted as Players along with two women.

Is it time for the Hall to think about resurrecting the Veterans Category? The whole process of deciding who might be worthy of a place among the anointed is, has been, and ever more will be a vexed one, but it is true that there are deserving players from hockey’s remoter past — Claude Provost, for instance, Lorne Chabot, or John Ross Roach — who seem to be at an annual disadvantage merely because their careers ended long ago. To keep on forgetting them, and others, looks careless for an institution that’s supposed to be devoted to remembering the game’s best.

 

 

 

buddy maracle: comes at you from all directions

Buddy Maracle’s father, Albert, was 41 when he was killed in a wagon accident in Haileybury, Ontario, in 1921. See here at his funeral, a 16-year-old Buddy is standing at the far right. Beside him are his sister, Florence, and an uncle, Joe Farmer. Seated, from the left, are Martha Farmer, Buddy’s maternal aunt, and his mother, Elsie (Hill) Maracle. (Image: the Maracle family)

On the ice, Buddy Maracle was fast, hard-hitting, said to be a talented stickhandler, adept at penalty-killing, a renowned hustler. “Comes at you from all directions,” advised one opponent who faced him when Maracle was skating for the Springfield Indians in the Can-Am League. “Maracle is so big,” a sportswriter noted, “that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him. Players just bounce off him.”

Newsworthy in 1928

Maracle, who died at the age of 53 on a Friday of this date in 1958, was Henry Elmer before he settled into the nickname that saw him through his hockey career. Born in Ayr, Ontario, in 1904, he was Oneida Mohawk. He played a scant 11 games in the NHL, turning out for the New York Rangers in the winter of 1931. For that, Maracle is widely recognized as the NHL’s Indigenous player, even if the league — still! — doesn’t show much interest in acknowledging his history.

For all the praise you’ll find in contemporary accounts of Maracle’s hockey-playing, it’s true too that almost every single reference to Maracle  is casually couched in lazy stereotypes if not outright racism. It’s not particularly surprising to learn that he got that in person, too: a New York Daily News dispatch from a March, 1931 game at Madison Square Garden between Rangers and Americans notes that “loud Indian hoots were heard whenever Maracle, the Rangers’ scrub-headed Mohawk, made his appearance.”

Maracle was living in Dallas, Texas, working as a truck driver, at the time of his death, which was caused by complications of kidney disease. He’s buried in the city’s Oakland Cemetery.

For more on Maracle’s life and times, the racism he faced, and some of the efforts to share his story to a broader audience, you’re welcome to browse into the Puckstruck archives. Here’s a background, to start, from 2018. From later that same year, an account of efforts in Maracle’s hometown to honour his achievement. Over here, a memorable portrait of the man posed in Springfield garb. And here, from a year ago, a piece touching on a campaign (it wasn’t successful) to suggest that Maracle deserves a place in hockey’s Hall of Fame. Maybe this is his year, though. We’ll find out next week, when the Hall announces the class of 2020.

The New York Rangers as they lined up towards the end of the  1930-31 NHL campaign. 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.

maroosh

Now Hear This: John Mariucci makes his point with an unidentified member of the post-war Montreal Canadiens. That’s Chicago coach Johnny Gottselig looking in from behind (the second hatted man from the right); Montreal defenceman Kenny Reardon is the Canadian interceding on Mariucci’s right. The other Montrealer looks to me to be numbered 15, which means he could be George Allen or Bob Fillion or … Floyd Curry? The Chicago player nearest the camera could be a 3 but might be an 8, so who knows: Joe Cooper, possibly?

“To be sure there was hockey before Mariucci. But it was Mariucci who made hockey a game for more than Canadians. It was Mariucci who, by force of his play and his personality, made the game a Minnesota game, and then a U.S. game, as well. Pee Wee leagues and summer camps and a state high school hockey tournament and Brotens and Herbies and gold medals … all those things, which have become so much a part of Minnesota’s culture, can be traced to the toughest member of the Hay Street gang, John Mariucci.”

That was Doug Grow writing in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, paying tribute to the man they called Maroosh — also the godfather of Minnesota hockey —in the days following his death, at the age of 70, in 1987. A long-serving coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, Mariucci also steered the U.S. team to a silver medal at the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. He spent his latter years managing and assisting with the coaching of the Minnesota North Stars.

To mention that he was born on a Monday of this date in 1916 in Eveleth, Minnesota, is to circle back to Hay Street, where he grew up, and where the Mariuccis’ neighbours included the LoPrestis (Sam tended goal for the Chicago Black Hawks) and the Brimseks (Frank, a Hall-of-Famer, made his name with the Boston Bruins).

After a late start — by some accounts, Mariucci didn’t play organized hockey until he was 17 — he starred at hockey and football at the University of Minnesota before joining the Black Hawks in 1940. The adjectives his play as an NHLer generated include rugged and feisty and bruising, as well as the associated phrase never one to miss a bodycheck. “Mariucci Thinks It’s Silly To Fight; He Has Been In About 100 Battles,” ran the headline of a 1948 profile when he was playing for the AHL St. Louis Flyers.

“I’m really sorry every time I get into a fight,” he volunteered, “and I swear I’ll never fight again. … But I hope no opposing player takes advantage of me. I won’t stand for it.”

Top Hawk: Mariucci with the C (and a big old pair of gauntlets)  during the 1947-48 season, his last in the NHL.

His NHL career only lasted five seasons, interrupted as it was by the two wartime years he served with the U.S. Coast Guard. He did play some EAHL hockey in the service —Frank Brimsek was a teammate — with the formidable Cutters.

Back with the Black Hawks after the war, the quality of his leadership saw him named captain of the team. That was a distinction in its own right, of course, and press reports at the time suggested that Mariucci’s appointment was even more notable since he was the first American-born player to serve as captain of an NHL team. That wasn’t the case, in fact: Billy Burch, the man named as the New York Americans’ first captain in 1925, was born in Yonkers, New York — though it’s true, too, that he moved with his family at a young age to Toronto, where his hockey skills were mostly refined.

Not Quite So: The Blackhawks’ 2019-20 media guide errs on Mariucci’s dates.

There is a more noteworthy glitch in what passes as the official record regarding Mariucci’s captaincy that could do with some correcting. Could we fix that, somebody? Many of the standard sources you might find yourself consulting — including both the Blackhawks’ own website and the team’s 2019-20 Media Guide — assert that Mariucci was captain for two seasons, 1945-46 and 1947-48.

That’s not so. The first of those, 1945-46, did see Mariucci return to Chicago ranks from the Coast Guard, but it was left winger Red Hamill, a Toronto-born Chicago veteran making a return from a year on duty (and playing hockey) with the Canadian Army, who was elected captain that season, succeeding Clint Smith.

Hamill continued as captain the following year. And he was still with the team in October of 1947 when Mariucci supplanted him. That was Mariucci’s last year with Chicago and in the NHL: in the fall of ’48, when he was 32, the Black Hawks released him, and Gaye Stewart took over as captain. That’s when Mariucci joined the St. Louis Flyers of the AHL. He was named captain there; press reports from the time also note that he’d be doing some work, too, in his new Midwest home as a scout for the Black Hawks.

Right Said Red: The Chicago Tribune noted Red Hamill’s appointment as Chicago’s first post-war captain in October of 1945.

s’elttaes own hap holmes

Hap Holmes

Well, Met: Born on this date in Aurora, Ontario, in 1888 — it was a Tuesday there, back then — Harry Holmes was universally known as Hap during his goaltending years. Triumphant times those were, too. He won his first Stanley Cup in 1914 with the NHA’s Toronto Blueshirts, and his second in 1917 when, wearing the stripes and the S shown here, he backstopped the PCHL Seattle Metropolitans in their four-game conquest of the NHA Montreal Canadiens. He was the netminder for Toronto in 1918 when they were the NHL team to raise the Cup. Holmes won his fourth and final Cup in 1925, when he was in the nets when the WCHL Victoria Cougars again whelmed the Canadiens to win — the last time, notably, a non-NHL team claimed the Stanley Cup. Holmes finished his puckstopping career back in the NHL, joining the Detroit Cougars for two seasons before he packed away his pads in 1928. An amazing career, all told, and one for which Holmes, who died in 1941, was posthumously elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. (Image: MOHAI, 1974.5923.149.2)

hallbent

Vaclav Nedomansky was 30 years old in the summer of 1974, a star centre for Slovan Bratislava and captain of the Czechoslovakian national team, when he took his family to Switzerland for a holiday. They did some paperwork while they were there, applying Swiss authorities for asylum and, subsequently, to Canada for status as landed immigrants.

“The office in Berne is not a busy one,” a Canadian immigration official commented at the time, “and because of this, his application was processed quickly. He had a job offer to play professional hockey. Because he is a good hockey player with a high degree of skill he was given high points for this. Good hockey players are in high demand in Canada.”

“Czechs’ Gordie Howe” the Toronto Star called Nedomansky when he signed that July for the Toronto Toros of the WHA. He played two seasons in Toronto, then another pair in Alabama when the Toros moved and became the Birmingham Bulls. In 1977 he jumped to the NHL where he divided six seasons between the Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, and St. Louis Blues.

On Monday, Nedomansky will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Guy Carbonneau, Hayley Wickenheiser, and Sergei Zubov, as well as builders Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.

of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

toe pick

Stop Action: Born on a Wednesday of this date in 1912 in the now ghostly hamlet of Victoria Mines, Ontario, near Sudbury, Toe Blake was a famous left winger for the Montreal Canadiens before he got around to coaching them. For all that, he won his first Stanley Cup playing for Montreal’s other team, the lost, lamented Maroons, in 1935. With the Habs, of course, he lined up with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard on the Punch Line. He won a Hart Trophy in 1939, the year he also led the NHL in scoring. He won the Lady Byng Trophy in 1946. Blake captained the Canadiens from 1940 until an ankle injury forced his retirement in 1948. That stretch saw Montreal win two further Cups, in ’44 and ’46. For all this, he was elevated, in 1966, to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a player. His coaching wasn’t so shabby, either: between 1956 and 1968, he steered the Canadiens to eight more Cups.

Here, above, stymied, Blake is in white, wearing a 6. Making contact is Chicago defenceman Earl Seibert; up front, that’s winger Mush March fleeing the scene. Montreal was at Chicago Stadium on this night in January of 1944, and they’d battle the Black Hawks to a 1-1 draw. Fido Purpur opened the scoring for the home team before Canadiens’ defenceman Butch Bouchard tied it up. Three months later, when the teams met in the Cup finals, Canadiens prevailed with emphasis, sweeping the Black Hawks four games to none.