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.