joe benoit: pacing a punch line in montreal, scoring a scad across pre-war europe

Punch-Line Original: Joe Benoit played three seasons for the Canadiens in the early 1940s before war interceded. After serving with Canada’s armed forces,  he returned to the Canadiens in 1945.

The Montreal Canadiens headed into the 1940 NHL season with optimism — though, of course, what else were they going to embrace, having finished the previous campaign plumb last in the seven-team NHL?

They did have a new coach at the helm, the great Dick Irvin, and as the team’s training camp wound down towards the start of the new season, he was talking … well, he sounded a little defensive, to be honest. “We’ll have a team by November 3,” he said; “we won’t be any pushovers.”

He did have an impressive rookie class at his disposal. That fall, Canadiens added 20-year-old centre Johnny Quilty, who end up winning the Calder Trophy that season as the league’s top rookie, along with a few other quality assets (and future Hall-of-Famers) in centre 23-year-old Elmer Lach, defenceman Ken Reardon, 19. Also making his debut: 24-year-old right winger Joe Benoit, who was born on a Sunday of today’s date in 1916.

With Irvin at the helm, Montreal did improve that year, clambering into the playoffs … before clattering out, in the first round, at the hands of the Chicago Black Hawks. Quilty finished as the team’s top scorer, with 18 goals and 34 points in 48 games, just ahead of the veteran captain Toe Blake (12 goals, 32 points) and Benoit (16 goals, 32 points).

As one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players, Benoit deserves more recognition than he’s been accorded to date. If we’re talking about the league itself, that recognition is — well, non-existent. At this late date, the NHL still, for some reason, chooses to ignore the stories of trailblazers like Buddy Maracle, Jim Jamieson, Johnny Harms, and Benoit.

His story, Joe Benoit’s, seems to have started in the northern Alberta community of Egg Lake, though he grew up (like Mark Messier and Jarome Iginla) in St. Albert, to Edmonton’s north. The records I’ve reviewed aren’t entirely clear on his family’s history.  His father’s mother was Métis. In 1921, when Joe was four, the Census of Canada lists his father’s “origin” as French and the rest of the family (his mother and four siblings) as Cree.

Later, the story of young Joe’s hockey origins was told this way: with no arena in St. Albert or even an outdoor rink, he puckhandled through the streets. “Benoit learned his hockey with a homemade stick and a piece of ice as a puck, stickhandling his way up and down the main street of the tiny western hamlet. He developed his stickhandling wizardry by flipping the pieces of ice out of reach of paws and jaws of two gambolling dogs. This was Joe’s only opposition until he went to the Edmonton South Side Athletic Club in 1935, where he had his first taste of team play.”

That’s from 1943. No telling now how romanticized a scene-setting that is. There’s no explicit mention, you’ll note, of skates, though subsequent retellings added those, too.

Benoit’s NHL career was noteworthy, interrupted as it was by war and service (and hockey) with the Canadian armed forces. He played just five seasons in the big league, all of them with Montreal. He was the original right winger for the Canadiens’ top line in the early ’40s, skating with Lach and Toe Blake on the original Punch Line, before a bright young prospect by the name of Maurice Richard took his place. Benoit’s best season was 1942-43, which he finished with 30 goals and 57 points. The year he returned to the NHL, 1945-46, Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, but a back injury kept him out of the playoffs, and his name wasn’t among those stamped in the silverware.

Back between his street-skating years in St. Albert and his first turn on Montreal Forum ice, Benoit, who died at the age of 65 in 1981, did win a couple of notable championships. In 1938, his Trail Smoke Eaters burst out of B.C. Western Kootenay Hockey League to win the Allan Cup, the national senior title.

That earned the team the right to represent Canada the following year at the World Championships, which they did, embarking on a truly remarkable odyssey through Europe on the brink of the war.

Sailing from Halifax aboard the Duchess of York in mid-December of 1938, the Smokies eventually made their way to Switzerland in the new year, where they defended the world title won the previous year by the Sudbury Wolves and by the Kimberley Dynamiters the year before that. In 1939, Trail went undefeated in eight games, beating Germany, Czechoslovakia (twice), and the United States along the way.

Glory to that, but that’s not the remarkable part. Before they set sail for Canada on the Duchess of Richmond in April of 1939, the Smoke Eaters barnstormed their way around Europe, playing 70 games in three-and-a-half months. In Scotland and England they skated, and through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.

Along the way, they compiled a record of 67-1-2, with their only loss coming by a score of 4-1 in London against an all-Canadian team, the Wembley All-Stars.

Joe Benoit counted the only goal for Trail that night. All told, he scored some 60 goals on the tour, leading all the Smoke Eaters in scoring, including a couple of other future NHLers in left winger Bunny Dame, who’d join Benoit in Montreal, and right winger Johnny McCreedy, who served a short stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Mere months from the outbreak of war, the hockey players returned to Canada happy but tired, with tales to tell. “The players criticized the food in Germany,” the Regina Leader-Post noted, “where they said a lack of butter, white bread, and meat existed.”

“The players had never seen so many soldiers before,” reported Vancouver’s Province, quoting an unnamed player: “It was terrible in Germany — soldiers, soldiers, soldiers.”

“The streets were full of the them,” the Province continued, “and windows full of uniforms. England was busy digging tunnels as a precaution against air-raids and gas attacks.”

Our Joe: An Edmonton report on the European adventures of Benoit and the Smokies from January of 1939.

 

 

 

 

 

erratum

First thing first: no, George Armstrong was not the first NHL player of Indigenous descent to score a goal in the league.

Despite what the Toronto Maple Leafs might be saying by way of a memorial video that debuted yesterday, and contrary to reports that have taken the Leafs’ word on this and sown the error into the pages of CBC.ca and the New York Times, the fact is that, no, he wasn’t.

This is not about Armstrong, who died on Sunday at the age of 90. His virtues as a man have been duly celebrated since then, rightly and reverently so, even as his record as an exceptional hockey player and leader have been revisited. It’s an amazing one, that record. Known as Chief throughout his playing days, Armstrong spent 75 years associated with the Leafs. No-one has played more games for Toronto than him. His 12 seasons as Toronto captain stands as the longest tenure of any leader in club history.

He was a proud Leaf: of that, there’s no doubt. The son of an Algonquin mother (her father was Mohawk), Armstrong  embraced his Indigenous heritage. That’s not in question.

The New York Times ran an Armstrong obituary on January 24.

But he wasn’t the first NHLer of Indigenous descent to score a goal.

This is not something the Leafs should be getting wrong. It’s also not entirely surprising that the team has promulgated the error and caused others to repeat it.

Unfortunately, it reflects the NHL’s haphazard approach to its own past. It’s not just in matters of Indigenous history that the league’s blithe indifference has smudged and erased the record, though that has become an ignominious specialization in recent years.

The Leafs’ confident claim is entirely in line with the example that continues to be set by the corporate NHL, which so often seems to see its history as so much marketing material, useful when it’s colourful or supports a convenient narrative, easy to ignore when it’s painful or problematic, why would you carefully curate it for posterity and the sake of, um, just getting it right?

There concludes the haranguing part of the program. Now this:

The night of Saturday, February 9, 1952 was when 21-year-old George Armstrong grabbed his first goal, the first of 322 he’d score in his career. The scene was Maple Leafs Gardens, and the goal was a pretty one, defying Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil’s best effort to prevent it. It was the winner in a 3-2 Leaf decision over the Canadiens.

Armstrong’s first goal came eight years after Johnny Harms got his first, also against Montreal.

Harms was from Saskatchewan, born in Battleford to a mother who was Cree. He spent most of his long career in the minors, but he did have some success with the Chicago Black Hawks as a right winger over two seasons in the mid-1940s. He scored eight goals all told in the NHL; that first one came on a Thursday, April 6, 1944, when he spoiled Bill Durnan’s bid for a shutout in a 3-1 Chicago loss to Montreal in the second game of the Stanley Cup finals.

Four years before Harms scored that one, Joe Benoit took his turn, scoring his first goal one Sunday night in 1940, November 17, when he helped his Habs tie the Black Hawks 4-4 at Chicago Stadium. Paul Goodman was in the Chicago net.

Benoit, who was Métis, was either born in St. Albert, Alberta, or in the north of the province, at Egg Lake — the records I’ve looked at don’t agree on this.

His NHL career lasted just five seasons, all of them with the Canadiens, during which scored 81 goals, regular season and playoffs. He has the distinction of playing on the first incarnation of Montreal’s famous Punch Line, skating the right wing with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in the early 1940s before Maurice Richard showed up.

On we go, back again, nine years before Benoit.

Buddy Maracle was Oneida Mohawk, born in Ayr, Ontario. I’ve written before hereabout annotating his first and only NHL goal. It came on Sunday, February 22, 1931, when Maracle’s New York Rangers walloped the visiting Philadelphia Quakers by a score of 6-1. Maracle assisted on Cecil Dillon’s fifth Ranger goal before Dillon passed him the puck and Maracle beat Quakers goaltender Wilf Cude to complete New York’s scoring.

Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in 1900, Clarence “Taffy” Abel had an outstanding career as a hard-hitting defenceman.

You can look it up: he’s in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In 1924, he played for the U.S. team that took silver at the Winter Olympics in Chamonix, in France. Conn Smythe subsequently signed him up to play for expansion New York Rangers in 1926, which he did for three stellar seasons, pairingoften with Ching Johnson. They were a formidable pair on the blueline, and played no small part in New York’s 1928 Stanley Cup championship. Later, Abel joined Chicago for a further five seasons, winning another Cup in 1934, his final NHL campaign.

Back in those playing days of his, Abel doesn’t seem to have talked about his Indigenous background — not in any public way, at least. But as Abel’s nephew, George Jones, has pointed out, Abel’s maternal grandfather, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa nation. (Jones has a new website devoted to his uncle here.)

Abel’s first NHL goal? New York was in Boston on the night of Tuesday, December 7, 1926. He dashed the length of the rink to score the game’s lone tally, beating Doc Stewart in the Bruins’ net to secure the Rangers’ 1-0 win.

george armstrong, 1930—2021

Friendly Giant: A triumphant George Armstrong towers over grateful fans on the cover of the 1962-63 Leafs media guide.

Twenty-one NHL seasons George Armstrong played, all of them in the blue and the white of Toronto’s Maple Leafs. The sombre news from the team today is of Armstong’s death at the age of 90. Born in Skead, Ontario, northeast of Sudbury, he would grow up to captain the Leafs for 12 seasons, the longest tenure of any leader in team history. He played 1,298 games for Toronto, regular season and playoffs, collecting 322 goals and 773 points. Winner of an Allan Cup in 1950 with the Toronto Marlboros, he led the Leafs to four Stanley Cups, in 1962, 1963, 1964, as well as that long-ago last one in1967. As a coach, he steered the Marlboros to two Memorial Cups, in 1973 and 1975. He coached the Leafs, too, in 1988 and into ’89, when he held the fort between the John Brophy and Doug Carpenter eras. George Armstrong was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975.

chicago’s mr. april

Snowing The Goalie: That’s Johnny Harms with a spray and a shot on his Chicago Black Hawks teammate Mike Karakas circa 1944 or ’45.

“He is Johnny Harms, a 19-year-old lad from Saskatoon, Sask., and hockey being what it is, Johnny could be a personage before the seven-game series runs its course.”

That’s Edward Prell of Chicago’s Tribune appraising the right winger the local Black Hawks called up early in April of 1944 from the AHL’s Hershey Bears to supplement their roster as they prepared to play a final for the Stanley Cup against the Montreal Canadiens.

As it turned out, the rookie Harms would prove a personage, scoring in three of the four games the series lasted as Montreal swept to victory. If his goals were not quite enough to turn things around, they were still noteworthy in their own way. That spring, Harms, who died on a Sunday of this date in 2003 at the age of 77, became the first player in NHL history to score the first three goals of his career in a Stanley Cup final.

He was born in 1925, not in Saskatoon, but northwest of the city, in Battleford, to John Laird and Helen Haubeck. His mother was Cree. He was subsequently adopted by Helen and John Harms, Sr., Dutch Mennonite farmers.

In the second game of the 1944 final, Harms scored Chicago’s only goal as the Black Hawks fell 3-1 to go two games down at the Stadium, cracking Bill Durnan’s shutout with just a second remaining.

Next game he scored his team’s second goal, using Canadiens’ defenceman Glen Harmon as a screen to beat Durnan. (Chicago lost that one 3-2.)

In the fourth and final game, Harms scored while Toe Blake was serving a penalty for crosschecking. His linemates George Allen and Cully Dahlstrom set him up on that one to put the Black Hawks up (briefly) 2-1 … only to see  Canadiens storm back to win 5-4 in overtime to take the Stanley Cup.

Harms stuck around in Chicago the following season, wearing number 9 for the Black Hawks while seeing regular duty on the wing. He collected five goals and ten points in 43 games. That was his last year in the NHL, though he carried on until 1961 in several minor leagues, ending up in British Columbia, where he captained the Vernon Canadians of the Okanagan Senior league to a 1956 Allan Cup championship.

fred sasakamoose, 1933—2020

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Sad news this hour, via Hockey Night in Canada‘s Chris Johnston, that hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose has died in hospital in Saskatchewan at the age of 86. His son Neil Sasakamoose shared the news this afternoon on Facebook, here.

jim neilson, 1940—2020

The New York Rangers are reporting the sad news this hour that former defenceman Jim Neilson has died at the age of 79. Born in 1940 in Big River, Saskatchewan, northwest of Prince Albert, Neilson, whose mother was Cree, made his debut with the New York Rangers in 1962. He played a dozen seasons with the Blueshirts before GM Emile Francis engineered a deal in 1974 via the waiver draft that saw Derek Sanderson join the Rangers from Boston, while the Bruins got Walt McKechnie from the the California Golden Seals, who acquired Neilson. He spent two seasons on the coast before the franchise moved to Cleveland, and he played two more years with the Barons. He was named captain of the Seals in 1975 and when the team shifted the following year he became Cleveland’s first captain. Neilson played his final year of pro hockey in 1978-79 with the WHA version of Edmonton’s Oilers.

ayr force

“He has always been an effective player,” the Toronto Globe’s Bert Perry wrote in 1931 of Henry Elmer Maracle, born on this date in 1904 (it was a Thursday, then) 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 seems to have become the first Indigenous player to skate in the NHL when he turned out, briefly, 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.  Did he deserve a longer stay in the NHL? It’s hard to tell, given the distance of the years and the relative insufficiency of the written record,  just how fair a shake he got. What we do know is that contemporary reports of his hockey career are thickly larded with the lazy stereotypes and outright racist responses of white sportswriters who watched him play.

Herewith, a couple of eyebrow-raising off-rink anecdotes, at least 50 per cent scurrilous, that I’ve come across, presented unverified and without parsing. The first is from a newspaper dated 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.”

 

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.

called to the hall or not, buddy maracle deserves his due

Blueshirt Buddy: Ceremonies celebrating yesterday’s National Indigenous Peoples Day on the Six Nations of the Grand River territory at Ohsweken, Ontario, included a tribute to the proud legacy of local NHL and WHA heroes, including Buddy Maracle, Jimmy Jamieson, Guy Smith, Stan Jonathan, and Brandon Montour. Above, local youth goaltender Ashlee LaForme represents for Maracle in a modern-day New York Rangers sweater emblazoned with the number 14 he wore in 1931.

It’s possible (if not probable) that when the Hockey Hall of Fame proclaims a new class of inductees on Tuesday of next week, Buddy Maracle will be among them. Maracle, you’ll maybe recall, was Mohawk, from Ayr, Ontario, and seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. His stint with the New York Rangers in 1931 was short (just 15 games), and he died in 1958, facts that would appear to argue against his recognition by an institution that favours prolonged NHL service and doesn’t, these days, tend toward posthumous choices. It’s the case, too, that while Maracle seems to have been a very good player, he wasn’t a great or generational talent. His claim, should it succeed, would be akin to Willie O’Ree’s: if Maracle were to be honoured, it would be as a hockey pioneer.

It could happen. A comprehensive nomination package did go to the Hall in Maracle’s name earlier this year (brief disclosure: I contributed a supporting letter). And Maracle’s story has been gaining more and more attention across the hockey world and beyond. If it wasn’t exactly a secret before 2017, it was fairly obscure and threadbare.

That started to change when Fred Sasakamoose was named a member of the Order of Canada as that year ended. Deserving as that vice-regal acknowledgment was (and by no fault of Sasakamoose’s), the messaging that went along with it was insistently erroneous as institutions that should have known better — looking at you, Rideau Hall and the NHL — blithely identified Sasakamoose as having blazed a trail that, in fact, Maracle had already blazed two decades earlier.

As a matter of history, the oversight wasn’t a good look for the NHL. The league might have attended to their lapse quickly and unobtrusively — maybe as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone initiative they launched in February of 2018 to promote diversity and inclusion in the game.

Display at National Indigenous Peoples Day (known locally as Solidarity Day) on Six Nations of the Grand River.

If nothing else, Maracle’s story is a fascinating one that highlights just how hard it was for an Indigenous athlete to make his way to the top of his sport in the 1920s and ’30s. Instead, the league continued to ignore Maracle. Over at their editorial department, a February, 2018 profile of Fred Sasakamoose on NHL.com re-upped the notion that the distinguished former Chicago Black Hawk is “the NHL’s first Indigenous player.” I guess that’s still the official line: more than a year later, the story hasn’t been corrected.

The fact that Sasakamoose seems to have, in fact, been the third Indigenous NHLer (after Maracle and Jimmy Jamieson) isn’t any slight on him or the remarkable things that he’s achieved in his life. It’s possible that the NHL believes that by highlighting — or even acknowledging? — Maracle’s story they might discomfit or embarrass Sasakamoose, and that’s why they’ve kept quiet.

If that’s the case, I don’t think it really makes sense. Facts are facts and flouting them does no-one any good. Media mentions of Fred Sasakamoose don’t always, now, automatically identify him as the first Indigenous NHLer. But it’s also true that the word on Maracle isn’t widespread, and keeps not showing up in newspapers and magazines and online. Assuming that the NHL knows and is assiduously interested in being true to its own history, many in the media do still take the league’s lead in ignoring Buddy Maracle.

Exhibit A: in March, when the NHL’s Canadian media partners from Sportsnet took their Hometown Hockey show on the road to Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, Maracle was left, unaccountable, out of the picture. It was a remarkable day and an historic one: the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s broadcast in Plains Cree of the game between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes marked the first time that an NHL game went to air in an Indigenous language.

And on an occasion so fully focussed on the future, present, and past of Indigenous hockey, the man who blazed such a crucial trail was entirely, inexplicably absent. Buddy Maracle didn’t rate so much a mention during Hometown Hockey’s extensive coverage that day.

No Show: First in a series of between-periods boards from Hometown Hockey’s March 24, 2019 broadcast from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta that somehow forgot Buddy Maracle.

It may be that when the Hockey Hall announces its 2019 class on Tuesday we’ll learn that Buddy Maracle’s time has come, along with — who else’s? Maybe will Reggie Leach, the first Indigenous superstar, finally get his due? Or Rick Middleton? I might bet on Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards making the cut, if I were betting. And, no question: Hayley Wickenheiser. Is this the year Andy Moog gets the call, or Tom Barrasso? What about Seth Martin, J.C. Tremblay, Claude Provost, Lorne Chabot? And then, of course, there’s the perennial clamour for Paul Henderson.

It’s worth saying that the Hockey Hall of Fame is a sovereign state, independent of the NHL, and that it (in theory) thinks and acts for itself, makes its own choices, follows its own stars. I’m not suggesting that if Maracle and his story don’t break through next week it should be seen in a nefarious light. What it will mean is exactly this: his nomination didn’t get enough votes.

Whatever happens, the Hall has quietly shifted its narrative in the past year. Pre-2018, if you’d steered your way over to the Hall’s extensive online biographical dictionary of all-time NHLers, here’s what you would have read for Fred Sasakamoose:

and Buddy Maracle:

I can’t say just when the change was made, but it’s been several months now since the Hockey Hall of Fame adopted a new line and started informing visitors on their respective player pages (Sasakamoose’s here and Maracle’s here) that while “Fred Sasakamoose is among the first Indigenous people to appear in an NHL game,” “Henry Elmer ‘Buddy’ Maracle holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous person to appear in an NHL game.” So that’s some kind of progress.

Update, October, 2020: The Hall of Fame has now done away entirely with the player biographies that used to appear on the site. Not sure when that excising happened, exactly, but if you click on those links above they’ll show you statistics only. 

Family Dues: Members of Buddy Maracle’s extended family gathered during yesterday’s celebrations at the Gaylord Powless Arena in Ohsweken, Ontario.

 

 

 

hall-passed: reggie leach

With the Hockey Hall of Fame announcing its 2018 class this afternoon, Martin Brodeur is the name that fans and pundits alike seem to be settling on as a sure bet. Other candidates thought to be up at the front of the pack include Martin St. Louis and Daniel Alfredsson. There’s talk that hockey trailblazer Willie O’Ree, 82, might be in, too — maybe, the word was yesterday at NHL.com, he could be inducted as a builder for his quiet energy and devotion he’s put in as an ambassador for inclusion and diversity with the NHL’s Hockey is for Everyone initiative.

For a piece that went up yesterday at The New York Times, I’ve been talking to and writing about Indigenous hockey players recently.  Fred Sasakamoose was one of the first to play in the NHL, and I don’t know why he wouldn’t be in the conversation, too. I’m not sure whether Sasakamoose, who’s 84, has even been nominated, but I hope so: given his tireless work with and advocacy for Indigenous youth over the years, he’s as worthy a candidate as O’Ree.

Then there’s Reggie Leach. You’ll recall, maybe, the effort that the great John K. Samson organized to press the case for the Riverton Rifle to be welcomed into the Hall. In 2010, there was the song Samson recorded that doubled as a petition, both of which went by the name http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/.

In 2013, Samson put together a well-argued application supported by a very complete statistical package and accompanied by endorsements from, among others, novelist Joseph Boyden, Ian Campeau (a.k.a. DJ NDN) of A Tribe Called Red, writer Stephen Brunt, and Wab Kinew, who was then Director of Indigenous Inclusion at the University of Winnipeg. Samson and some of his friends would eventually go in person to deliver the whole bundle, song and stats and supplications, to the Hall’s very doors.

That’s worth watching, which you can do below, even if the whole enterprise was in vain: as of this hour, Reggie Leach still isn’t an Honoured Member of hockey’s Hall of Fame.

Talking to Leach, who’s 68 now, this past January, I asked him about that. He said that he was aware of continued efforts by friends and fans of his across the country who are still intent on convincing the Hall that the time is now, but that he doesn’t worry much about whether the call comes or not.

“I don’t get involved with it,” he told me from his home Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, near Little Current, Ontario, on Manitoulin Island. “I’m just happy that there are people who think that I should be in there. To me, that’s a great honour. They’re my Hall of Famers, those people. If I don’t get in, I really don’t care, because I think it’s mainly where you come from and who you played for that matters — stuff like that.”

(Top image: cover of John K. Samsons 2010 ANTI- EP “Provincial Road 222”)

 

 

ayrborn: recognizing buddy maracle, the nhl’s first indigenous player

Once A Ranger: A photo of Buddy Maracle as he appeared during his 1931 stint with the New York Rangers adorns a sweater donated by the modern-day Rangers at the Queen Elizabeth Arena in Maracle’s hometown of Ayr, Ontario, during the June 13 ceremony.

Buddy Maracle played just 11 games in the NHL, in 1931, and when his time on the left wing with the New York Rangers came to an end that season, the memory of what he’d achieved was quick to fade.

Maracle, who was Mohawk, seems to have been the first Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. But while historians have long recognized this distinction, including many belonging to the Society for International Hockey Research (SIHR), the news hasn’t exactly resonated in the wider world. The NHL itself doesn’t acknowledge Maracle and what he achieved — the history as the league has it is that Cree center Fred Sasakamoose was the original Indigenous player when he skated out for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953-54.

It’s no disrespect to Sasakamoose, 84, to point out this discrepancy, and doesn’t diminish his achievements, which were deservedly recognized last month when Governor-General Julie Payette made him a member of the Order of Canada. Mostly known in his hockey-playing days as “Buddy,” Maracle appears to have been already well and truly forgotten in 1953 when Sasakamoose made his debut, and the forgetting just continued on from there. Maracle wasn’t alone in fading into near-oblivion — a second Indigenous Ranger, defenceman Jim Jamieson, also preceded Sasakamoose on NHL ice, playing a single NHL game in 1944. His background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario.

Sixty years after his death in 1958, Maracle is now gaining some measure of the recognition he’s due.

Much of that is thanks to the efforts of Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a journalist in Ayr, Ontario, the small town, south of Kitchener, where Maracle was born in 1904. Her research into Maracle’s story resulted in a series of articles this spring in The Ayr News, the newspaper where she’s a reporter.

Earlier this month, she also organized a poignant community ceremony in Maracle’s honour that was attended by members of his family along with an array of local politicians and hockey luminaries.

“A short NHL career,” Schmidt-Adeney said there, in the second-floor hall of the Queen Elizabeth Arena, “but long enough to give Ayr bragging rights.”

On a night that also featured a concert by the 40-piece Ayr-Paris Band, Schmidt-Adeney began by sketching out the story of the journey that took Maracle from this small southwestern Ontario town of 4,000 to hockey’s heights. She finished up by presenting two latter-day New York Rangers sweaters emblazoned with Maracle’s name and number (14).

One went to Sue Foxton, mayor of the Township of North Dumfries, in which Ayr is situated. The second was presented to Terry General, a councillor from the Six Nations of the Grand River, which lies some 50 kilometres to the southeast.

The Rangers, at least, appear to acknowledge Maracle’s achievement: at Schmidt-Adeney’s request, the team donated the sweaters.

It was a Globe and Mail obituary in February that started Schmidt-Adeney’s campaign leading up to the June 13 event. A reader of hers saw a mention of Maracle’s Ayr connection in Tom Hawthorn’s remembrance of hockey player Art Dorrington. Intrigued, she did what reporters do, and started digging. Her inquiries took her to the Six Nations Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, and it was there that she was able to trace the histories of Maracle’s parents, Albert and Elsie, both of whom were Mohawk from Six Nations.

They were living in Blenheim Township, near Ayr, when Henry Elmer Maracle was born on September 8, 1904. Albert was a farm worker, and Schmidt-Adeney’s research points to the possibility that the family attended Ayr’s Presbyterian church. It’s not clear just where they were living at the time the baby was born, and if he was in fact delivered in town, it have been because that’s where the doctor was. If details of that are lacking, Schmidt-Adeney does note that in 1924, when Buddy Maracle married, he gave his birthplace as Ayr.

“I didn’t know anything about his side of the family,” Christine Pritchard was saying after the June 13 event. Her great-great grandfather was Wesley Richard Maracle, Albert Maracle’s elder brother, but in her 20 years of research into the family’s history, she’d never come across Buddy Maracle’s story. It was only after Schmidt-Adeney’s initial Ayr News article was published in March that someone from Six Nations alerted her to the connection. She came to Ayr with her aunt, Nancy Maracle, both of whom live in St. Catherines.

“I was ecstatic when I heard what he’d done,” Nancy Maracle said. “I thought, this is something. Now he’s recognized. It’s a big deal.” She’s one of ten siblings, she said; her father, Albert, was named after Buddy’s father. Growing up in the Niagara Peninsula, her whole family chased pucks, she said. “My father always had us out on the pond — we played on Fifteen Mile Pond.”

Buddy Maracle and his family moved north at some point during his childhood. He first made his mark as a hockey player in Haileybury, playing for his high school, before going to North Bay in the early 1920s, where he worked as a riveter when he wasn’t skating the wing for the Trappers of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League. In the mid-1920s, he went to the Springfield Indians of the Can-Am League, where he played four years before taking his NHL turn in 1931. There’s more on that here.

A couple of Rangers of later vintage who now live locally attended the June 13 ceremony. Dean Prentice, now 85, played the first 11 of his 22 NHL seasons in New York. In the 1970s, following his retirement from as an NHL left winger, he worked for the North Dumfries recreation department. Jay Wells, 59, got his start on the ice with Ayr Minor Hockey before serving 18 seasons as a defenceman with seven NHL teams, including the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, and the Rangers.

Neither Prentice nor Wells knew of Maracle when they were in the NHL.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Wells said of Ayr’s recognition of Maracle. “It was a long time coming. It’s awesome.”

Terry General, the councillor from Six Nations, was emotional when he got up to accept one of the Ranger-blue sweaters from Irene Schmidt-Adeney. He spoke with pride of other hockey players from Six Nations who’ve worked their way to NHL ice, including Stan Jonathan, who made his name as an unforgiving left winger for the Boston Bruins in the 1970s, and defenceman Brandon Montour, who plays for Anaheim’s Ducks.

General said he’d known nothing of Buddy Maracle before he heard Schmidt-Adeney’s accounting. “I’ll take this sweater back with a lot of pride,” he said, near tears. “After today, many Six Nations people will know who he is. When we hang this sweater up in our arena, he’ll be recognized by 15,000 people that live on the rez.”

“Buddy was the first one,” General said, “and I’m glad. There will be many more.”

 

Maracle’s 14: Showing their Ranger blues at the June 13 ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, are (left to right) Terry General, councillor from the Six Nations of the Grand River; Sue Foxton, mayor of the Township of North Dumfries; Irene Schmidt-Adeney.

 

(Images, top and bottom: © Stephen Smith)

breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See, in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose was the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm, NHL.com, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.