eustace tilley on ice

Front And Centre: A gallery of some of the The New Yorker‘s hockey covers through the years. The first of them was Constantin Aladjálov’s (bottom row, second from left), from January of 1927. Centred here is the newest exemplar, by Bruce McCall, from the magazine’s issue of February 7, 2022.

Professional hockey arrived in New York in 1925 wearing the stars and stripes of Bill Dwyer’s Americans, who skated their claim out on the ice of Tex Rickard’s newly built Madison Square Garden. That was the same year that Harold Ross launched The New Yorker and while the magazine’s offices on West 45th Street weren’t even a mile’s stroll away from the rink on Eighth Avenue, it was the winter of 1926 before hockey began to find a place in its pages.

The New Yorker’s first hockey cover, which adorned the magazine’s 100th issue, was the (charming) work of artist Constantin Alajálov. It debuted on January 15, 1927, by which time the New York Rangers had arrived in town, and were 19 games into their inaugural season. That same issue, R.K. Arthur’s “Sports of the Week” column featured the magazine’s first substantive hockey coverage with a round-up of recent Garden action that included a description of a rush by one of the Americans’ Sudbury-born Green brothers, Shorty or Red (Arthur didn’t say which), on Boston Bruins’ goaltender Doc Stewart:

Stewart, on one occasion, foiled Green after he had outwitted the entire Boston team, by nose-diving straight at the puck and the shot on the top of his head. Green could have been excused if he had retired to a corner and shed scalding tears.

This month, 95 years later, hockey players are back on the cover of the magazine. “Boxing Rink,” by illustrator, humorist, and long-time New Yorker contributor (also, Simcoe, Ontario-born) Bruce McCall, evokes a 1924 painting by George Bellows to make a point about the performative violence of NHL hockey. Fighting is on the slow wane and mostly, these days, out of the news, which is how the NHL prefers it. Still, I can’t imagine that the league can be pleased to see The New Yorker’s reminder of the game’s testy tendencies broadcast so broadly. McCall talks about the tribute to Bellows’ work on the magazine’s website, here, if not the punching that hockey still, somehow, tolerates.

In the years separating Alajálov and McCall, hockey scenes have appeared at least 15 times on the cover of The New Yorker, inspiring the talents of artists Abe Birnbaum, Robert Day, Peter Arno, Leo Rackow, and Charles E. Martin, among others.

The thorough chronicling of the game that the magazine has done since Niven Busch set up in the late ’20s as a regular hockey columnist has been undertaken over the years by the distinguished (and incisive) likes of Robert Lewis Taylor, Herbert Warren Wind, Roger Angell, Alec Wilkinson, Charles McGrath, Adam Gopnik, Nick Paumgarten, and Ben McGrath.

They’ve celebrated the joys of pick-up puck (see Charles McGrath’s 1993 “Rink Rat”) and recounted the costs of concussions (Paumgarten, “The Symptoms,” in 2019). They’ve explored the game’s hinterlands and the sublime talents its yielded: see Taylor’s 1947 profile of Phil Watson, Wind’s feature from 1970 on Bobby Orr, or Ben McGrath in 2014 on P.K. Subban.

McCall’s is the first cover to focus on fighting, but The New Yorker has a long tradition of reflecting on the battering hockey players do, lampooning and (persuasively, to me) lambasting it. There are lots of instances of the former, including here below, and here; for the latter, I’d refer you to Adam Gopnik’s online essay from 2012, “Hockey Without Rules.” That’s the one in which he writes, “Either the NHL is going to end the violence, or the violence is going to end the NHL.” You can read it here.

(Image: Nick Downes, The New Yorker, December 23, 2019)

tiger troupe

Hammercats: The Hamilton Tigers as they lined up in their final NHL season in 1924-25. From left, manager Percy Thompson, owner Andrew Ross, Charlie Langlois, Red Green, Ed Bouchard, Billy Burch, Vernon Forbes, Mickey Roach, Ken Randall, Alex McKinnon, captain Shorty Green, Jesse Spring.

Ken Randall was born in Kingston, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this date in 1887. He captained Toronto’s very first NHL team, leading his mates to a Stanley Cup championship in 1918. He won another Cup in 1922, by which time the Toronto team had transformed into the St. Patricks. Randall’s next stop was Hamilton: in 1923, he joined the NHL Tigers. He played two seasons in Steeltown, including with the 1924-25 squad pictured here. Randall was 36 that year, and the team was good, finishing first overall at the end of the regular season. While the Tigers were touted as a Stanley Cup contender, it was not to be: after the players went on strike, demanding to be properly paid for the longer season they’d just come through, the team was suspended, the players sold — and that was the end of Hamilton’s big-league team. Along with those of most of the players seen here, Randall’s contract was sold to New York, where he made his next and final stop in the NHL with the fledgling Americans.

billy burch took his skates to bed

No Sudden Coughing: In 1928, Billy Burch did his best to recommend Lucky Strikes to hockey’s tobacco-craving players.

Billy Burch was the ideal captain for New York’s new hockey team in 1925, but you’ll understand why, for fans back in Hamilton, Ontario, the choice might have burned so bitterly.

Born on a Tuesday of this date in 1900, Billy Burch was a stand-out centreman in the NHL’s first decade, winner of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in ’25, ahead of Howie Morenz and Clint Benedict. Two years later, he won Lady Byng’s cup for superior skill combined with gentlemanly instincts. He was elevated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974.

Burch was born in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan on the Hudson. His hockey-playing future seems to have been secured a few years later, when his parents, Harry and Helen, moved the family (probably in 1906) to Toronto. Home for the Burches was in the city’s northwest, where it’s purported there was a rink in their winter yard. Accounts of this date to later years, when he was establishing himself as an NHL star, and so it’s possible that they and the anecdotes attached to them may be tinged with romance as much as they’re founded in fact.

I do like this one, though, from an unbylined 1925 profile:

For young Mr. Burch — or Billy as he was called and still is for that matter — was not satisfied with the training hours allotted to him on the backyard rink by his mother. He skated vigorously from the back steps to the back fence and back again and performed various juvenile antics in between but was not content to leave it at that.

When the time came to go into the house and go to bed, he obeyed without discussion. He only made one qualification. He took the skates with him. He did this so often that taking skates to bed became sort of a tradition.

He won a Memorial Cup as a junior in 1920, playing with the Toronto Canoe Club alongside future NHL stars Lionel Conacher and Roy Worters. He played in the Senior OHA for a couple of seasons after that with Aura Lee, where Conacher and Doc Stewart were teammates.

In 1923, Burch signed with the Hamilton Tigers. The team was in its third year in the NHL, all of which had been seasons of struggle: the Tigers had to that point only ever finished at the bottom of the standings.

Billy Babe Burch Ruth

They were the lowliest of the NHL’s four teams in 1923-24, too. But the year after that, led by Burch and the brothers Green (Red and Shorty) and goaltender Jake Forbes, Hamilton was the NHL’s best team when the regular season came to an end, which got them a bye to the league final and the chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

None of that happened, of course: after the Hamilton players went on strike demanding to be paid for the extra games they’d played that year, NHL President Frank Calder not only refused to pay, he fined the players, and declared the Montreal Canadiens league champions. That was the end of Hamilton’s run in the NHL: by fall, the team had its franchise rescinded, and all the players’ contracts had been sold to the expansion team from Manhattan, Bill Dwyer’s Americans.

So that’s how Burch ended up back in New York. He was appointed captain, and the team played up his local origins to help sell the new team in its new market. “A big, strapping, fine-looking young man,” the Yonkers Statesman proclaimed Burch in the fall of ’25, “who occupies the same position in professional hockey as Babe Ruth does in baseball.” He was reported to have signed a three-year contract in New York worth $25,000, making him (along with teammate Joe Simpson) one of the NHL’s highest-paid players.

Burch had a pretty good year that first one in New York, scoring 22 goals and 25 points to lead his team in scoring. He ceded the Hart Trophy to Nels Stewart of Montreal’s Maroons, but finished second to Frank Nighbor of Ottawa in the voting for the Lady Byng.

Billy Burch played seven seasons in all in New York. His NHL career finished up with shorts stints in Boston and Chicago before he shelved his skates in 1933. Burch was just 50 when he died in 1950.

 

little green

Born on this date in 1899 (when it was a Tuesday), Redvers was the younger of the Green brothers who played in the early NHL; Wilfred was three years older. They were Sudbury boys who started out skating for their hometown Wolves before they found a way into the big time in 1923 with the Hamilton Tigers, where they were known, respectively, as Red and Shorty. Red (pictured here, for some reason, on bare concrete) played on the left wing, Shorty on the right. Shorty was the team’s captain in 1925, and he was at the fore when the players went on strike at the end of the season. They didn’t get the money they were angling for; instead, the NHL suspended the team and saw it sold to buyers in New York. Most of the former Tigers ended up there the following season, repackaged as Americans in star-spangled red-white-and-blue uniforms like the one Red Green is styling here.

Shorty ascended to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. For Red, his best night was back in Hamilton, in December of 1924, when he scored five goals on John Ross Roach of Toronto’s St. Patricks.

“The little fellow from the northland was tireless,” said the papers next day. Also: “Goalkeeper Roach never had a chance. These fleet Hamilton players were merciless. They just naturally beat the defense with the greatest possible ease, and when they let the puck go there was a zip and a sting behind it that spelled goal.” Final score: 10-3.

sammy rothschild: very speedy, with a whistling shot — lacks poundage

Any chance of a professional sporting career was supposed to have vanished for Sammy Rothschild on a baseball diamond in 1923. Sliding into second, he broke a leg, and that was supposed to be it for young Rothschild, who was already making a name for himself on ice as well as grass and basepaths.

No-one told Rothschild, apparently. Born on this date in 1900 in Sudbury, Ontario, his budding hockey career had, by the time of this injury, seen him star with the junior Sudbury Wolves and for McGill University. In the fall of 1924, Rothschild was among the first players signed by manager Cecil Hart when he was building an expansion team in Montreal. It took a while for them to take on the name Maroons; when Rothschild joined the team that October, there was still some thought that they might be a second band of NHL Wanderers. Starting out, they went mostly by Montreals.

The 24-year-old rookie left winger who happened to be the NHL’s first Jewish player skated out for the team’s inaugural game in Boston against the league’s other newcomers on December 1. Clint Benedict was the Montreal goaltender, with Dunc Munro and Dutch Cain on the defence; the forward line also featured veterans Punch Broadbent and Louis Berlinguette, winners of Stanley Cups, respectively, with Ottawa’s original Senators and the senior Montreal team, Canadiens. The Bruins prevailed, on that opening night, edging their visitors by a score of 2-1.

Rothschild scored for the first time in the NHL the next time the teams met, on December 17, when he notched two goals and added three assists in a 6-2 Montreal victory. The team had, by then, recruited another old Stanley-Cup-winning hand, Reg Noble. He and Broadbent were most of Montreal’s offense that year, sharing the team’s scoring lead with 20 points each by the time they’d finished their 30-game regular-season schedule. Rothschild was next in line, accumulating five goals and nine points as the team finished fifth in the six-team league, ahead of Boston if not quite in the playoffs.

The Maroons upped their game for their second season. With Nels Stewart and Babe Siebert added to the roster, they topped Ottawa in the NHL finals before going on to beat the Victoria Cougars of the PCHL to win the Stanley Cup. Rothschild was a modest contributor that year, statistically, scoring two regular-season goals (both of them game-winning) and four points. He played all four Stanley Cup games in 1926 without getting on the scoresheet. With a championship in hand, details like that may not registered so blankly to the Maroons and their fans. It’s also the case that each of the Maroons’ 11 players earned upwards of $3,000 each in bonus money for their Cup win.

Rothschild played another season in Montreal before coming to a crossroads in the fall of 1927. Maroons waived him, making him a free agent, and he thought about quitting the game, then, to go into the insurance business with teammate Nels Stewart. Montreal’s Gazette felt that he had plenty still to offer on the ice:

He is a brainy player with a whistling shot that is always dead to the corner and would be a valuable man to any club, major or minor.

Several teams were said to be pursuing his services before Odie Cleghorn signed him to play for his Pittsburgh Pirates, heading into their third season in the NHL. The local Pittsburgh Press approved:

The acquisition of Sammy Rothschild …, the only Jewish lad playing professional hockey, is expected to solve the center problem, and with a little more strength on the defense the Pirate pilot believes his club will get up in the running.

The Pirates did, it’s true, would make a return to the playoffs that season, though the Rangers stopped them there early on. Rothschild didn’t play much of a Pirate part at all, as it turned out. Just as the season was getting going he went down with what the Press diagnosed as “a slight attack of appendicitis.” Not long after that, the team suspended him for lacking condition and “violating club training rules.” The latter, in the NHL of the 1920s, tended to be a catch-all euphemism for living large and (often) bibulously, but back in Montreal the Gazette took up Rothschild’s defence.

The suspension was a surprise to all who’d encountered him in Montreal,

where Rothschild is popular and regarded as a player with an excellent club spirit. The report left an inference which no-one here who knows Rothschild would accept as the little forward player is noted as a clean-living lad whose habits are above reproach.

More likely: the problem lay with upper management, who weren’t providing the resources Odie Cleghorn needed to build a strong team, and that was leading to dissension within. Whatever the truth, Rothschild didn’t last: by the end of December, the Pirates released him unconditionally.

Within a week he’d found a new hockey home with the New York Americans. His Sudburiness likely figured in here: the coach in New York was his old Sudbury Wolves teammate Shorty Green, whose brother, Red, another former Wolf, played the left wing. Right winger Alex MacKinnon was said to have grown up next door.

“Very speedy and a clever stickhandler,” the Ottawa Citizen assessed Rothschild as he headed to his new team, standing 5’6” and weighing in at 145 lbs.; “lacks poundage.”

In New York, the newspapers scouting the Amerks’ new acquisition took an interest (in a way that the Canadian press never really seems to have) in Rothschild’s Jewishness. In announcing his home debut in early January of 1928, a column in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that the Madison Square Garden crowd would be filled with “American rooters and Sammy’s compatriots of the Jewish race.” To aid, perhaps, in drawing just such a crowd, the columnist cited this tantalizing (and almost certainly spurious) family history:

Sammy is a descendant of the Baron de Rothschild, Jewish international banker, perhaps the most famous in the world over. The story of the de Rothschild family is very interesting. The banking family originated centuries ago in Germany, but is now Parisian. The title is Austrian. Branches of the family are scattered all over the world. Sammy represents the British line in Canada.

The Daily News went with a more direct appeal, headlining its game-day coverage this way:

HEY! HEY! JEWISH SKATER JOINS AMERICANS TONIGHT

It was in the fall of 1926, little more than a year earlier, that the Americans’ MSG neighbours and rivals had launched their bizarre campaign to attract Jewish fans to their games. A press agent working for the Rangers, Harry A. Bruno, was the brains of that short-lived operation, which involved pretending that goaltender Lorne Chabot (a Catholic) was, in fact, the NHL’s first Jewish player, variously identified in the local papers as Leopold Shabotsky/Shavatsky/Chabotsky. Before newspapermen back in Canada pointed out that no, Chabot wasn’t, Bruno also tried to pass off Rangers’ winger Ollie Reinikka — his actual background in British Columbia was Finnish — as an Italian named Ollie Rocco.

On the ice for the star-spangled Americans, Rothschild seems to have made a good early impression in New York. He does seem to have sickened again that winter, which kept him out of the line-up; there’s also mention of a bad knee, presumably the one he’d injured running the bases back in ’23. Nevertheless, some columnists felt, he was destined to become one of the most popular players in Manhattan, “a Hebrew athlete never fails to draw crowds to the gate.”

It didn’t work out. Rothschild couldn’t score in the 11 games he played for the Americans that winter, or didn’t, and by mid-February he was out of the line-up. I’ve seen it suggested that his aching knee forced him to quit, though nothing conclusive. Rothschild’s professional demise was as thorough as it was quick, to the point that the next NHL reference I can see in the newspaper archives is from 1931 when the Toronto Maple Leafs signed defenceman Alex Levinsky. He was going to be good, opined The Ottawa Citizen at that time, and if he was, well, one of the New York teams would surely try to lure him to Madison Square Garden. “Gotham has been on the lookout for a Jewish hockey star for years,” the feeling was. “Though he is very popular in Toronto, New York would open him with open arms.”

After the NHL, Sammy Rothschild returned to Sudbury. He was a referee and then a coach, taking to the bench of his old team, the junior Wolves, and steering them to a 1932 Memorial Cup championship. He was a curler, too, and served as president of the Dominion Curling Association. Away from the ice, he prospered as a clothier, a Montreal Gazette obituary relates, “one of the city’s most prominent businessmen.” He served as a city alderman and, in 1963, ran without success for mayor. Sam Rothschild died in 1987 at the age of 87.

Of his NHL days, Stanley-Cup-winning though they might have been, he once said this:“I was only a player, never a star. Some think that anyone who played in the NHL at that time must have been a star. But it just wasn’t so — especially in my case.”