ayr force

“He has always been an effective player,” the Toronto Globe’s Bert Perry wrote in 1931 of Henry Elmer Maracle, born this day in 1904 (it was a Thursday) in the southwestern Ontario town of Ayr. Better known in his hockey life as Buddy, Maracle died at the age of 53 in 1958. As you might have read (here or maybe here), he became the NHL first Indigenous player to play in the NHL when he turned out for the New York Rangers in the latter days of the 1930-31 season. For those keeping score, the NHL remains mysteriously muted when it comes acknowledging his story and achievement.

The archival record of Maracle’s puck-playing years suggests that he was speedy and skilled and industrious on the ice. It’s also thickly larded with lazy stereotypes and outright racism. Herewith, a couple of eyebrow-raising off-rink anecdotes, at least 50 per cent scurrilous, that I’ve recently unearthed, presented unverified and without parsing. The first is from 1931, the next from 1929, years during which Maracle was playing, in the livery seen here, above, for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Indians of the Can-Am League, where Frank Carroll was the coach. One:

A story is told about Maracle that a few autumns ago severe floods invaded the exhibition ground where the Indians’ rink is located, and the waters endangered the Springfield equipment in the dressing room. Maracle was rowed to the building in a boat, dived underneath a door, swam through the chilly waters, and effected the rescue of the equipment. As a reward for this act, he was given a public presentation on the occasion of the Indians’ first home game of the season, the management giving him a substantial bonus.

One more:

Some very far-fetched and amusing press-agent stories of hockey players have emanated from New York since the professionals took Gotham by storm. It is therefore not at all surprising to read the latest, which concerns “Buddy” Maracle of Springfield, the New York Rangers’ “farm.” When Maracle, who is a full-blooded Indian, first broke into pro. hockey, according to this imaginative press agent, he had the reputation of being “yellow.” During one intermission, the story continues, the manager of Maracle’s team backed him up against the dressing-room wall, stuck a pistol against his chest and threatened to shoot him if he showed lack of courage in the future. From then on, concludes the tale, Maracle has “played like a demon all the time.”

fifteen games a ranger: buddy maracle, in and out of the nhl

In A Minors Key: The Springfield Indians, probably in their 1928-29 configuration. Back row, from the left, best as I can tell, that’s coach Frank Carroll, Frank Waite, Harry Foster, Leroy Goldsworthy, and Laurie Scott (?). Front, from left: Buddy Maracle, Wilfrid Desmarais, Andy Aitkenhead, Clark Whyte (?), Art Chapman.

The turn of the calendar from January to February brings Hockey Is For Everyone™ — “a joint NHL and NHLPA initiative celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey.” There’s a hashtag, there are websites (here and here), a mobile museum; there are events and programs planned around the league, throughout the month. Ambassadors have been named, one for each NHL team; others are drawn from women’s hockey, the media, as well as from the ranks of the league’s distinguished alumni.

Fred Sasakamoose is one of the latter. His story and achievements have both been widely chronicled, and there’s no questioning his contributions or commitment as a hockey pioneer and change-maker. Last year, he was a worthy (and past due) recipient of the Order of Canada. To point out (again) that Sasakamoose doesn’t seem, in fact, to have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player doesn’t diminish his achievements, or affront his dedication to many causes, hockey and otherwise, over the years. The NHL doesn’t want to get into it, apparently: in recent months, the league’s position on its own history so far as it involves Buddy Maracle and his apparent breakthrough has been — no position at all. You’ll find his statistics archived on NHL.com, but no word of his story, beyond those bare numbers. I’ve asked both the league and the New York Rangers, for whom Maracle played in 1931, about whether they have plans to recognize and/or honour his legacy. They don’t.

Maybe there’s a debate to be had, maybe not: the NHL is nothing if not steadfast in staying as aloof as possible from the history. This month, still, wherever he’s introduced in the league’s Hockey Is For Everyone outlay, Fred Sasakamoose remains “the NHL’s first Canadian indigenous player.”

Here (again): Buddy Maracle’s story. A version of this post first appeared in the January 7, 2019, edition of The Hockey News.

Buddy Maracle’s time as an NHLer lasted not quite two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history and statistics. A review of the records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over the North American map in a career that lasted nearly 20 years. What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something that the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as having been the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 85, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Last year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

And yet history suggests that at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose into the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of just who might have been the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s very beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in the league’s second season in 1918. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did indeed practice with Charlie Querrie’s team in the pre-season, but the evidence that he actually made it to regular-season ice is sparse, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defence for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born centreman, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. Manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea; either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was the man briefly in charge of assembling a roster. The man who’d go on to invent and shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings played an NHL game. Smythe did recruit Taffy Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seems to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in Toronto’s Mercantile League. As it was, 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Ranger farm team that fall.

There’s much that we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Much of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for The Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story early last year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s researches that we understand that young Albert Maracle and his family, Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point Albert married Elsie Hill; their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September of 1904.

The family subsequently headed north, to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his hockey-playing start, first at high school, then as a junior with the North Bay Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by Elmer in those years, though the course of his career he began to show up in contemporary newspapers as Bud, Clarence, Moose, and (inevitably) Chief. Buddy seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s Can-Am Hockey League affiliate team in Springfield, Massachusetts — which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of him from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and his speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff body checks hurt the checker more than they do him,” The Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team, and becoming a favourite with the fans for his industry and failure to quit. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided that he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many contemporary newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight: over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox, and “the last Mohican.”

“Redskin Icer” was another epithet that featured in press reports of Maracle’s exploits. Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters were also only too pleased to couch their columns with references to warpaths and wigwams, war whoops, tomahawks, and scalps.

Assessing just how much of this was idle stereotyping and how much pointedly racist is beside the point: casual or otherwise, it’s all more or less insidious. As nasty as it reads on the page in old newspapers, how much worse must it have been for Maracle in the moment? When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’”

Maracle got his NHL chance towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” The Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

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mighty maracle

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Great to see Fred Sasakamoose honoured yesterday as one of 124 appointees to the Order of Canada. The pride of Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation started the week with a birthday — he turned 84 on Christmas Day — and yesterday he joined 85 distinguished others in being named a Member of Canada’s highest civilian honour. Best known as a pioneering hockey player, Sasakamoose has also worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community as well as counselling young people with addictions. It’s high time he was recognized. Hours after the Order of Canada was announced by Governor-General Julie Payette in Ottawa, Sasakamoose was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off featuring Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. It was the Blackhawks for whom Sasakamoose played his 11 NHL games, debuting as a 19-year-old in November of 1953.

As we credit Fred Sasakamoose’s entirely deserving work and experience and achievement, today might also be the day to point out a historical oversight that yesterday’s news from Rideau Hall only served to solidify.

Sasakamoose’s Order of Canada citation goes like this:

For his trailblazing contributions as the first Indigenous player in the NHL and for his work in seeking the betterment of his community through sports.

Reports in the press yesterday and today have steered the same way. “First Indigenous NHL player,” reported the CBC, The Edmonton Sun, the NHL.com, et al. “The first Indian player for an NHL team,” Simona Choise wrote in this morning’s Globe and Mail, with a nod from Sasakamoose himself. “Your white man called me Indian 100 or 200 years ago,” he’s quoted as saying; “I don’t mind that, I like it the way it is.”

Here’s the thing: at least one Indigenous player made it to NHL ice ahead of Sasakamoose’s debut in 1953.

Twenty-two years earlier, in early 1931, 26-year-old Henry Maracle suited up for the New York Rangers. But while the Society for International Hockey Research recognizes him as the league’s first Indigenous player, word doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the wider world. It’s time he was recognized, for that and more. Like Sasakamoose, Maracle played 11 NHL games before he was returned to the minor-league career he’d been pursuing at the time of his call-up. For all his efforts, Sasakamoose’s NHL numbers include no goals or assists to go with his six minutes of penalty time. Maracle made a bit more of a statistical mark, serving four minutes in the penalty box while also aiding teammates with three assists. And he scored a goal of his own.

Details of Henry Maracle’s life and career are scanty at best. He was Mohawk, born (very probably) in 1904, in (pretty sure) the town of Ayr in southwestern Ontario. That makes it entirely possible that he skated and maybe even hockeyed on the ice of the Nith River, which is also where, many winters later, Wayne did some of his earliest Gretzkying, in Brantford, just to the south.

At some point he got to North Bay, Ontario, where he played his junior hockey for the local Trappers alongside future Leafs Gerry Lowrey and Shorty Horne. When Maracle got married in 1924 at the age of 19, he put his pen to an affidavit to get a license, giving his profession as “riveter.” (His wife, 20-year-old Irene Marshall, was a stenographer.) If on official paperwork he remained Henry, he was mostly called otherwise throughout his hockey career: Bud or more often Buddy was his nom-de-glace, though sometimes, inevitably, the papers tagged him Chief Maracle.

By 1926 he’d gone professional, graduating to the newborn Can-Am League, where he signed with the team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe Maracle’s background was lost on some who saw him play in those years, but for many it provoked a cascade of cultural stereotyping. For some others, it triggered racist comment that’s no less searing for being so long-ago or casually or smirkingly cast. I’m only going on newspaper clippings; I can only imagine the grotesqueries that Maracle would have faced in person, on the ice and from the stands.

The fact that the Springfield franchise was nicknamed the Indians licensed all kinds of winking nastiness among the headline writers and beat reporters. The Indians won the Can-Am championship in 1927 and repeated in ’28, with Maracle playing a major scoring role, and so he featured as the “Giant Redskin” and “Springfield Injun.”

Here’s a newspaperman named Stan Baumgartner accounting for a dominant performance in early 1928 by “miracle Maracle,” “a mighty, marvellous Indian,” when “the Red poison” scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind victory Springfield engineered over the Philadelphia Arrows:

Alone this great Indian had snatched the game from the ignominy of defeat to the glories of victory. And when he left the ice, a few seconds later, the entire throng arose and gave one mighty cheer for the original American, first in the forests, first on the trails, and first in the hockey ring tonight.

It was Conn Smythe, apparently, who first rated Maracle as potential NHL material. This was in 1926, when the future Leaf panjandrum was (briefly) in charge of assembling the expansion New York Rangers. When Lester Patrick replaced Smythe, he farmed Maracle to New York’s team in Springfield.

Five years passed before Patrick found a place for Maracle in his big-league line-up. This was February of 1931. He was 27 now, and “veteran” was a regular adjective attending his name in the papers along with the inescapable “Indian.” Bert Perry of Toronto’s Globe noted that Maracle had been playing as effectively “two and three years ago” as he was in ’31, “but it probably required five years for Lester Patrick to see possibilities in him.” Perry’s potted biography vaguely told of Maracle’s background as “an Indian reservation in northern Ontario near North Bay” before cruising, unfortunately, to this finish:

If nothing else, his presence on [sic] the Rangers’ line-up ought to inspire New York sport writers to write some curdling stories about him. He will probably make his first appearance at Madison Square Gardens all decked out in feathers and a tomahawk or two just to provide a little atmosphere.

Maracle joined the Rangers in Detroit, making his NHL debut in a 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He made no impression on the scoresheet that night, nor in New York’s next two games, a 2-1 win in Chicago and a 5-4 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators. A headline from a dispatch detailing the former: “Apples Are Thrown At Referee By Fans.”

It was in New York next game, Maracle’s fourth, that he made the biggest impression he’d make in his short NHL career. Hosting the Philadelphia Quakers before a not-very crowded crowd of 8,000 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won handily, 6-1. When Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period, Maracle was the man who set him up to beat Quaker goaltender Wilf Cude. In the third, Dillon returned the favour, assisting on Maracle’s lone NHL goal. Low or high? Shovelled in from the crease or sizzled from afar? I’m afraid the papers don’t yield much in the way of further description of how it happened. To go with the scoring, Maracle did, on this night, take all the penalties he’d take in his NHL career, which is to say, both of them.

Buddy Maracle skated in all four of the Rangers’ playoff games in the spring of 1931 before they were eliminated by Chicago. He registered no points and took no penalties. the following fall, Lester Patrick did what he’d done back in ’26, cutting Maracle again, consigning him back to Springfield.

There’s not much more to add, at this point, to Maracle’s biography. He played another nine minor-league seasons after his NHL stint, skating on in the Can-Am League for Springfield before moving over the New Haven Eagles. He played for Tulsa’s Oilers in the American Hockey Association before ending up with a series of senior-league teams, including the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs and the San Diego Skyhawks. He died in Dallas in 1958 at the age of 53.

Five years had passed since Fred Sasakamoose had taken his turn with Chicago. By 1953, Buddy Maracle’s trailblazing time in the NHL was already all but forgotten, even as the stereotypes renewed themselves for the debut of another Indigenous player. Informing its readers that Sasakamoose was “the first full-blooded Indian ever to play” in the NHL, The Chicago Tribune added that he was known “to his tribesmen as Chief Running Deer.”