that wonder-working bird

The Edmonton Hockey Team: The WCHL Eskimos as they lined up in 1925-26. From left: Bobby Boucher, Leroy Goldsworthy, Barney Stanley, Duke Keats, Herb Stuart, manager Kenny MacKenzie, Eddie Shore, Art Gagne, Johnny Shepard, Spunk Sparrow, Ernie Anderson, Lloyd McIntyre, Bobby Benson.

Born in Hartney, Manitoba, on a Wednesday of this date in 1897, Spunk Sparrow won an Allen Cup in 1916 on the 61st Battalion team that Joe Simpson starred on. Emory was Sparrow’s given name, if you’re wondering; he was a right winger; he died in 1965 at at the age of 67. As a pro, Sparrow mostly played in the old WCHL in the early 1920s, turning out for the Regina Capitals (Dick Irvin and Rabbit McVeigh were teammates), Calgary’s Tigers (alongside Red Dutton and Herb Gardiner), and the Edmonton Eskimos pictured above. He played briefly for Boston, joining Art Ross’s fledgling Bruins in 1925 for six games. He scored some goals in his day, and was oft-penalized and several times suspended — “a sterling hockey player,” the Winnipeg Tribune called him, “but a rather difficult man to handle.” The flaxen flash was an epithet the Edmonton Journal applied to him in 1924 on the occasion of his having scored a handsome goal against Calgary. It was so good, apparently, that one of the paper’s writers saw fit to dash off a poem in his honour, “An Ode To Spunk.” It opened like this:

Tell me, stranger, have you heard
Of that wonder-working bird?
Not the peacock or the wren
Or the brilliant guinea-hen.
It’s the bird who saves our souls
Gets badly-needed goals —
Sparrow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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