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.

 

 

 

jimmy jamieson: recalling another of the nhl’s indigenous trailblazers

October, 2019: Originally asserting that Jimmy Jamieson was almost certainly the second Indigenous player to take to NHL ice, this post has been updated to reflect … a  certain lack of certainty about that ranking. Joe Benoit preceded him onto NHL ice, and possibly others, too. Johnny Harms made his NHL debut in April of 1944.

Born on a Monday of this date in 1921, Jimmy Jamieson was a hard-hitting defenceman who played just a single big-league game, with the New York Rangers, in 1944. Suiting up that winter for duty on the bluelines of Madison Square Garden, Jamieson was one the NHL’s earliest Indigenous players, hitting the ice 13 years after Buddy Maracle debuted in Rangers’ blue in 1931, nine years before Fred Sasakamoose skated for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953.

During his hockey career, newspapers tended to refer to Jamieson’s Cayuga background, though Canadian government records seem to show that his family was Mohawk. He was born in Brantford, Ontario, though his family lived on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, probably near Ohsweken. His father, Venus, was a farmer who’s said to have chased pucks in his own right, plying a stick on outdoor rinks as a youth.

His son’s eight-year career as a minor-league defenceman took him to New York and Baltimore in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, out to Pasadena for a stint in the Pacific Coast Hockey League, and to Milwaukee and Akron in the International Hockey League. While we have have his physical specs from those years (5’9” and 170 pounds), and the usual bare-bones statistical reporting, there’s no detailed descriptive accounting of Jimmy Jamieson’s hockey years.

He played one full season, 1943-44, with the Rangers’ farm team, the EAHL New York Rovers, and it looks to have been a solid one. The Rangers took him to their pre-season training Winnipeg that year, but he didn’t make the cut. With the Rovers his teammates included goaltender Al Rollins, who was later a Leaf and a Black Hawk, as well as defenceman Fred Shero, a Ranger-to-be who’d eventually win a pair of Stanley Cups coaching the Philadelphia Flyers. In 40 games, Jamieson was the highest-scoring defenceman, with six goals and 16 points, and led the team in penalty minutes with 73.

Frank Boucher was in his fifth year coaching the New York Rangers in 1943. While he’d steered the team to a Stanley Cup in his first year behind the bench, things had slipped since then. As the new year replaced the old, the team was, as the local Daily News put it, firmly cellared, dead last in the six-team NHL standings, 13 points adrift of Chicago. Though Boucher’s stellar career on the ice had ended five years earlier, the situation was so desperate in New York — and the Ranger roster so depleted by wartime manpower shortages — that Boucher had returned to the ice at the age of 42.

It wasn’t enough. Heading into a mid-January home game against the Black Hawks, New York was mired in a five-game losing streak. Trying to jolt the team’s fortunes, manager Lester Patrick announced that he was adding three new players to the roster, including winger Kilby Macdonald, who’d been on that 1940 Stanley Cup team and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. With centre Hank Damore, acquired from the Brooklyn Crescents of the EAHL, he’d do his best to boost the Rangers’ attack. Jamieson was summoned from the Rovers to bolster New York’s blueline.

Macdonald didn’t make it to New York in time for the Chicago game, but the other two suited up. It’s possibly (probably?) a coincidence that Jamieson wore the number 14 that night — the same one that Buddy Maracle had borne on his sweater during his stay with the Rangers 13 years earlier. (No-one seems to have noticed at that time; in fact, I can find no mention of Maracle and his achievement at all in the coverage from the 1940s.)

Against Chicago, when Damore rifled a second-period shot past Black Hawks’ goaltender Mike Karakas, the assists went to Ab DeMarco and Jamieson. That made the score 4-1 for Chicago, and the visitors did end up winning 5-2 to push New York’s unhappy streak of losses to six games.

And that was all for Jim Jamieson in the NHL. Macdonald would stick, playing out the season in New York and returning for one more; Damore lasted four games in all, the only ones he played in the NHL before returning to the minors.

For Jamieson, it was one and done: following the Chicago loss, he was returned to the Rovers. The coming-and-going was nothing new, Harold Burr wrote that same week in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle; the way it was with the Rangers that year, he quipped, trainer Harry Westerby didn’t know half of the players’ first names.

Other factors that may have been at play: by adding three new players, Patrick does seem to have exceeded the NHL roster limit. With centre Chuck Scherza out injured, the Rangers’ long-serving captain Ott Heller had been moved up to the forward line. With Scherza’s return, Heller was shifting back. So it may have been a matter of numbers that bumped Jamieson back to the Rovers.

The American papers did take note of Jamieson’s background, even if they weren’t quite so sure what it was they were talking about, variously identifying him as “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian;” “a full-blooded Iroquois Indian;” “a full-blooded Cayuga, Indian;” and a plain old “full-blooded Indian.”

Several reports did note that his status eased his travels between Canada and the U.S., which was often a complicated process for hockey players in wartime. “His people,” the Daily Eagle advised, “have numerous peace treaties with the Canadian Government that make it easy for Jimmy to cross the border where other players are held up by yards of red tape.”

Accounts of Buddy Maracle’s career from a decade earlier make the racism he faced, in rinks and in newsprint, all too insidiously clear. That there’s nothing so explicit in the press attending Jamieson’s years as a professionally hockey player doesn’t mean that he didn’t experience any, just that it may not have been written down and reported as it once so casually was.

I can’t tell you much about Jim Jamieson’s post-hockey life, other than that he seems to have done some coaching in Brantford in the 1950s. He died at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Brantford in December of 1985 at the age of 64. He’s buried in a family plot at Six Nations.

Also worth a note: Jamieson’s brother, elder by seven years, was also a talented hockey player. Mostly a right winger, Wendell Jamieson was (somewhat confusingly) also mostly known as Jimmy during his hockey-playing days. He never made it to the NHL, but he did have a long career as a minor-leaguer through the 1930s and ’40s, much of it in the old American Hockey League.

In 1938-39, the elder, non-NHL Jimmy Jamieson joined the Detroit Holzbaugh of the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. At 24, he was described as a fast skater and accomplished stickhandler, and seen as one of his team’s prime offensive threats. Anchoring the defence of one of the teams he faced that year, the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs, was a 34-year veteran with “an oft-broken nose” who’d converted from left wing to blueliner: Buddy Maracle.

maracle on ice

Puckdrop: Chief Ava Hill of the Six Nations of the Grand River (centre left) joins (centre right) Christine Pritchard, Buddy Maracle’s great-great-niece, in a ceremonial face-off last week in Ayr, Ontario. Left is Paris Mounties’ captain Alex Ritchie with Nolan Ferris of the Ayr Centennials.

The NHL continues to show scant interest in Buddy Maracle’s story, but the man who seems to have been the NHL’s Indigenous player is making more and more of an impression in the southwestern Ontario from whence he skated. Born in Ayr, Ontario, in 1904, Maracle, who was Oneida Mohawk, played briefly for the New York Rangers in 1931. By the time he died in 1958, hockey history had all but forgotten his achievement, and the forgetting mostly endured until earlier this year. Following up on a summertime ceremony, the town of Ayr last week recognized Maracle with an on-ice ceremony ahead of a Junior C game between the hometown Ayr Centennials and the Paris Mounties.

As of last week, the New York Rangers had no immediate plans to recognize Maracle’s achievement, but the team did donate two (modern-day) team sweaters bearing Maracle’s name and number 14. In June, Mayor Sue Foxton of the Township of North Dumfries presented one of these to Terry General, a councillor representing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River. Last week’s ceremony saw Mayor Foxton and Six Nations Chief Ava Hill unveil the second sweater before the puck dropped at the North Dumfries Community Centre. Also taking part was Maracle’s great-great-niece Christine Pritchard and other members of the Maracle family. The sweater will be on permanent display at the North Dumfries rink.

With the puck in play, Ayr prevailed, for the record, edging Paris by a score of 2-1.

Sweater Weather: Unveiling Buddy Maracle’s number 14 in Ranger blue are (from left) North Dumfries Township Mayor Sue Foxton; Six Nations’ Chief Ava Hill; and Christine Pritchard.

 

(Images courtesy of Tanya Taylor, Censational Photography)

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)