A version of the following post appeared online in January at TVOntario’s TVO Today.
René Boileau was fast on his skates, and a tricky stickhandler. In Montreal almost a century ago, a local newspaper deemed the 21-year-old centreman “one of the smartest of the younger amateurs in the district.” In 1926, he got the opportunity young hockey players dream of, and a chance that no Indigenous player had been offered before: a call and a contract to play in the NHL and in New York, no less.
For hockey, it’s a breakthrough story that might still be resonating today, proof positive that Canada’s beloved winter game has long been committed to ensuring that it truly is for everyone.
But Boileau didn’t break through — not because he didn’t last long or prosper in the NHL (though he didn’t), but because Boileau wasn’t, in fact, Indigenous. His was a case of appropriated identity; today, he might be termed a “pretendian.” For publicity purposes — to sell tickets — the now-defunct New York Americans made up the tale of Rainy Drinkwater.
In the winter of 1925, the NHL was preparing for its ninth season on ice. The previous year, the league had added its first U.S.-based team in the Boston Bruins. Now, it welcomed two more, the Pittsburgh Pirates and, in New York, the Americans. Like the Rangers, who arrived a year later, the Americans made their home at Madison Square Garden.
As they settled in, hopes ran high in Manhattan. The new team was backed by some powerful men, including Tex Rickard, the boxing promoter who’d built the Garden; Montreal businessman Tom Duggan; and New York bootlegger Bill Dwyer, who was at that point still a silent partner in the enterprise. Running the team day to day as manager and coach was Tommy Gorman, a wily old hockey hand from Ottawa who’d help steer the original Senators to three Stanley Cup championships in four years to start the 1920s.
In New York, Gorman pulled off nothing short of a coup before the first puck dropped, putting Dwyer’s dollars to good use by buying up a readymade winning team.
The Hamilton Tigers had topped the NHL standings through the 1924-25 season and were on track for a spring run at the Stanley Cup. But when the players went on strike to secure payment for post-season games, the NHL refused to yield, cancelling the franchise outright. That allowed Gorman to swoop in and buy the contracts of the entire Tiger team, including a pair of future Hall of Famers in Shorty Green and Billy Burch.
“Many experts believe the pennant will be landed by New York,” the local Daily News told its readers as the new season approached, framing hockey prospects in helpful baseball terms. That was also part of the team’s strategy for selling Canada’s game to uninitiated fans in New York; both Burch, who was named team captain, and another big-name signing, Joe Simpson, were billed as “the Babe Ruth of hockey.”
The PR push to sell hockey to New York also included hiring the superstar speedskater Norval Baptie to entertain fans between periods with displays of “fancy skating.” In late January, the Americans contrived to have Joe LaFlamme, renowned as the “Wolf Man,” drive his dogsled team (seven dogs and four wolves) from Gogama, Ontario, to perform intermission turns around the ice at Madison Square. (It’s not clear that he actually mushed all 1,300 kilometres from the Sudbury area to Manhattan.)
For all the firepower in New York’s line-up, though, the hockey didn’t go quite according to plan.
If the season that ensued wasn’t an outright trainwreck — the Americans finished ahead of the Montreal Canadiens in the final seven-team standings — an actual railway accident did figure as one of many challenges the Americans faced.
There was, for example, a kerfuffle over the thermometer at the rink. The management at Madison Square insisted on keeping the temperature at a balmy 21 C to make sure their patrons didn’t get chilly. Gorman wanted it lowered to 4 C and eventually took the matter to court, arguing that the heat was ruining the “accuracy, neatness, and dispatch” of the players, causing them to be “sluggish and to lose weight,” and slowing down games, thereby souring would-be fans on the sport they should be learning to love. Eventually, Garden management turned down the temperature.
That same season, Gorman saw fit to suspend a pair of players, one of them Joe Simpson, on a charge of “breaking training rules,” a euphemism often used in those years to shroud alcoholic indiscretions.
And then there were the injuries. “Modified murder” was The New Yorker’s 1926 description of NHL hockey. But, even for that violent era, the Americans’ casualty list was notable. In the pre-season, Mickey Roach went down with appendicitis. Once the hockey had started taking its toll, Crutchy Morrison hurt his knee, and Shorty Green wrenched a leg. In a game against the Montreal Canadiens in early December, Green and goaltender Jakie Forbes were both knocked unconscious. “Sturdy souls, these boys,” was a local paper’s appraisal. “A dash of water and a little persuasion and they were on their feet again.”
And then came the railway accident. Just before Christmas, the team was returning from a game in Pittsburgh when their night train derailed near Altoona, Pennsylvania. A student was killed, and five passengers were seriously injured. The hockey players were commended for their efforts in helping in the aftermath. Ken Randall came away with a dislocated shoulder, and three of his teammates were reported to have been badly cut and bruised. Randall and Green each missed a game recovering from their injuries.
Still, by mid-January, the Americans were vying with Pittsburgh for fourth place in the seven-team league. That’s not to say they were playing particularly well: they started 1926 by losing seven of their 11 games and winning just one.
They were victims of a prejudicial schedule, said the New York Times, and they were worn and torn. “New York has been so closely pursued by hard luck in the way of injuries that the players are confident that they are in for a period of better luck soon. They will not believe that a jinx will pursue them all season.”
But that conviction didn’t slow the setbacks that led to René Boileau’s visit to the NHL.
Playing Boston early in the new year, Shorty Green’s younger brother, Red, got a skate in the face and Ken Randall, a stick. Shorty was carried off the ice unconscious that night in what was shaping up to be an alarmingly concussive month for him: four times in January, the elder Green was knocked out — “colder than the ice the boys skated on,” according to one reporter — in on-ice falls and collisions. Each time, Green got back up and, as another reporter noted, “gamely continued.”
In January, Gorman tried to change his team’s luck by bringing in a new coach. Alf Smith was a legendary hockey sage who’d played with and coached the Ottawa Silver Seven when they won four Stanley Cup championships from 1902 through 1906.
February brought on-ice reinforcement: the New York Times announced the Americans’ imminent “shake-up” and the signing of “Rainy Boileau Drinkwater, a Caughnawaga Indian.”
“He has never played professional hockey but he has been something of a sensation upon the lakes of St. Louis, where he has been playing amateur hockey this Winter,” the Times wrote.
Outlets across the U.S. picked up the news. Never before had the name “Rainy Drinkwater” appeared in print, but now it spread across the continent as writers whose experience did not include having seen Boileau skate in person described this “full-blooded Indian” as a “bronzed maple leaf” from “the St. Louis Lakes region of the Province of Quebec.”
He was touted as being as fast on his skates as Canadiens superstar Howie Morenz. “Sturdily built” (Montreal Gazette) and “an accurate and lightning-like shooter of the puck” (Ottawa Journal) Boileau/Drinkwater was, according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post, “regarded as the most promising amateur to come to the fore within the past 10 years.”
Flipping the facts fully on their heads, the Ottawa Journal took pains to explain that it was Rainy Drinkwater’s childhood friends who’d coined the name René Boileau. “The latter means ‘drink water.’ The former is pronounced — nearly — ‘rainy.’”
Back in Montreal, the Gazette initially reported the plain facts: Boileau had been turning out that winter for C.P. Verdun, an intermediate team, and for Columbus of the Quebec Senior League. In January, he’d joined the Bell Telephone team in the Montreal Railway-Telephone Hockey League, where he’d immediately made his presence felt, scoring four goals in a 6-4 win over Canadian Pacific at the Forum.
When, the following day, the Gazette picked up a wire report out of New York with the “Indian” angle, the Montreal paper published it with the editorial equivalent of a raised eyebrow: “It will be news to René Boileau to learn that he comes from the Caughnawaga Indian reservation.”
It’s worth noting that Boileau’s view of all this isn’t part of the historical record. As best we know, he had no part in the mythmaking, beyond going along with it for the extent of his stay in Manhattan. As he and the Gazette both well knew, he’d been born and raised in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, across the St. Lawrence from the Mohawk territory now known as Kahnawake. He was the son of non-Indigenous Catholic parents. His father was a construction foreman.
The legend expanded in later years. A 1966 column in the Montreal Gazette recounted that Rainy Drinkwater’s arrival in New York in early ’26 had included a parade, of sorts, down New York’s Broadway Avenue, with Boileau riding in an open car “outfitted in colourful Indian regalia, including an ornate headdress.”
On the ice, Boileau seems to have done what was asked of him — or at least given it his best, even as he fell short of rescuing the Americans and following Howie Morenz’s groove to stardom.
New York was trudging through an eight-game winless streak when Boileau first took the ice in February. His NHL career lasted just seven games after that, and in only one of those did the team eke out a win.
In his second game, against Pittsburgh, he put the puck in the net — only for the goal to be annulled for offside. In the end, he left next to no statistical mark on the NHL, registering not a single point and incurring no penalties. The Montreal Gazette reported that, in the Pittsburgh game, he “backchecked well” and “stickhandled his way into the hearts of the Gotham fans,” but in New York itself the initial fanfare faded fast, and his play garnered no further comment in the local press. Boileau did also take part in three exhibition games that New York played once their NHL season ended. (In the first of those, Morenz, making a guest appearance with the Americans, was a teammate.)
Boileau continued his career in the minor leagues, in New Haven and later in St. Louis. After a final year back in Montreal, he hung up his skates in 1934. In the late 1940s, the Rangers signed his 15-year-old son, Marc, a promising winger, to a minor-league contract. His long career included a year with the Detroit Red Wings. In the 1970s, Marc Boileau coached the Pittsburgh Penguins and, later, in the WHA, the Quebec Nordiques.
Gorman would subsequently insist that it had been his boss’s idea to invent an Indigenous identity for Boileau, not his. “So help me,” Gorman pleaded in 1952, “that was Tom Duggan’s baby.” Elsewhere, the scheme was attributed to an enthusiastic (unnamed) publicity man.
Whoever hatched it, this was a stunt that New York hadn’t quite finished with. The year after Boileau’s coming and going, the expansion Rangers joined the Americans as tenants at Madison Square Garden. They tried their own version of the Americans’ trick, inventing new heritages for two players on the team in hopes of stirring the interest of (and selling tickets to) ethnic communities in New York who’d yet to embrace hockey.
Thus the Montreal-born goaltender Lorne Chabot was transformed into Leopold Shabotsky, who was ostensibly pro hockey’s “first Jewish player,” and Ollie Reinikka, a centreman of Finnish descent from Shuswap, British Columbia, became Ollie Rocco, New York’s favourite Italian skater. Tex Rickard’s PR guru, Johnny Bruno, was behind those efforts, and it’s entirely possible that he conjured up the Rainy Drinkwater mirage, too.
The NHL, understandably enough, seems to prefer not to revisit these episodes today. When mentions of Drinkwater or Shabotsky or Rocco do surface, as sometimes happens in the hockey press, they’re mostly presented as harmless shenanigans.
It now seems likely that the league’s first Indigenous player was, in fact, Clarence “Taffy” Abel. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and of Chippewa heritage, the 26-year-old defenceman was recruited to the New York Rangers roster in ’26 by Conn Smythe, who went on to launch the Maple Leafs. It’s only relatively recently that Abel has become part of the conversation about Indigenous NHLers. His background wasn’t widely known in his own day; it’s possible that he himself might have done his best to keep it quiet.
Smythe, who was briefly in charge of stocking the roster for the brand-new Rangers the year after René Boileau’s NHL cameo, also reportedly had his eye on Buddy Maracle, a talented 21-year-old Oneida Mohawk winger from southern Ontario who was playing for the Goodyear team in Toronto’s Mercantile League. We don’t know the details of why Maracle failed to make the NHL grade in 1926, only that it would be another six years before he got his fleeting chance to skate with the Rangers.
This past December, the federal government’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board commemorated the achievements of five hockey pioneers who broke racial barriers in the early decades of the National Hockey League. Paul Jacobs, Buddy Maracle, Larry Kwong, Fred Sasakamoose, and Willie O’Ree were pioneers who overcame the odds and prejudices that their own society had built up around the sport they loved and excelled at. At a ceremony in Toronto in early December, their achievements were enumerated and duly enshrined with the unveiling of a plaque that will find a permanent home in the Hockey Hall of the Fame, in Toronto.
That commemoration was sincere and heartfelt and overdue. It was not, however, a nuanced examination of the historical record concerning Indigenous players in the NHL. Jacobs, Maracle, and Sasakamoose all deserve their due, even as there’s some doubt that Jacobs, a Mohawk defenceman from Caughnawaga (Kahnawake), ever played an NHL game. But others from hockey’s early eras deserve recognition, too: Abel, for example, and Jim Jamieson, a Mohawk from Six Nations who played for the Rangers in the 1940s.
René Boileau’s story, mostly forgotten, and not exactly the proudest moment in NHL history, belongs out on its own, apart from the authentic achievements of hockey’s Indigenous pioneers. Still, it does reflect the attitudes that prevailed in the all too impermeably white hockey world as recently as the 1920s.
It also reveals an irony, too glaring to miss, the one that saw the management of an NHL team and the hockey press attending it spend more energy stirring up stereotypes and racist tropes in the effort to drum up fan interest than they could be bothered to channel into scouting or encouraging or providing opportunities for actual Indigenous players.