here by the sea and sand: a short history of florida’s (short-lived) tropical hockey league

Scrimmage In The Sand: Players from the fledgling Tropical Hockey League took to Miami’s beach in 1938 for this promotional photograph.

“On a nearby beach it is no trick at all to get a sunburn in half an hour’s time. Old ladies carry sunshades and fat men sit under the palms and drink mint juleps. Nevertheless, there is ice hockey and all the excitement it is accustomed to.”

There is hockey, of course, this weekend in range of Florida sunshades and palms and julep-sipping menfolk, with the NHL’s All-Stars congregating at the FLA Live Arena, Sunshine home of the Florida Panthers. But that opening scene is 84 years old, plucked from the columns of a 1939 newspaper, artifact of a whole other hockey era, when the icy game thrived (if only briefly) by Florida’s beachfront.

Through the winter of ’38-39, 50-odd kilometres due south of where today’s NHL marquee is hitting the ice, the Tropical Hockey League had its quirky day, taking the Sunshine State by storm (ish), before subsiding into oblivion and leaving barely a trace on the surface of hockey’s history.

Home Ice: Miami’s Metropolitan Ice Palace.

The story of the THL starts with an arena, one that began as an all-purpose coliseum in Miami’s Coral Gables neighbourhood in 1927. When ice was added in 1938 it became the Metropolitan Ice Palace, with a capacity for hockey games of 3,750. Prompted in no small part by the buzz created by Norwegian figure skating superstar Sonja Henie, the arena’s owners decided they had an ideal venue for showcasing figure skating and, while they were at it, hockey, too, to local Floridians — while maybe tapping the local population of snowbird northerners, too.

And so a league was born, featuring four teams — the Coral Gables Seminoles, Miami Beach Pirates, Miami Clippers, and Havana Tropicals — all sharing the Metropolitan ice. The Cuban connection was in name only — styled thus in the hope of attracting curious would-be fans from Miami’s thriving Little Havana neighbourhood, the Tropicals never got near the Cuban capital.

They did spend a fair amount in Canada, as it happens, along with the players from the rest of the teams, before they ever got to Florida, which makes sense, since that it was in Ontario and Manitoba that the teams did their recruiting and initial training before picking up and moving south.

Zorab Sarkisian, Buzz Cockburn, Steve Pawelko, Emery Ducaire, Leo Makarsky, Soggy Green. The talent involved was, with a few exceptions, lesser known. Knucker Irvine, a left winger from Devon, New Brunswick, had been a member of a couple of Allan Cup championship teams with the Moncton Hawks in the early ’30s and had turned out in a handful of pre-season games for the Toronto Maple Leafs without making a full-time leap to the NHL. Defenceman Bob Dill, a son of St. Paul Minnesota, would go on to play for the New York Rangers, with whom he’d earn a certain kind of fame for antagonizing Maurice Richard in the ’40s.

Tender In The Tropics: Morley White from Port Severn, Ontario, guarded the goal for the Miami Beach Pirates.

Mostly, though, those who answered the call of the THL were minor-leaguers, veterans of senior hockey, eager amateurs, or ex-juniors whose careers had lost momentum, or never had any. There’s no good information on the wages they earned: one unconfirmed report had the players being paid $25 a week for the season.

Three of the teams —the Pirates, Clippers, and Tropicals — were formed in Port Colborne, Ontario, and so many of the players hailed from that province, from Toronto, Ottawa, Penetanguishene, Galt, Omemee, Guelph, Port Severn, Rockland, Port Arthur. Others came from Saskatoon and Stadacona, Quebec, and there were some Americans, too, from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and North Dakota.

The Coral Gables Seminoles, meanwhile, first convened in Winnipeg, and so the majority of their roster was Manitoban.

There was a glimmer of star power in the league’s coaching ranks. Steering the Seminoles (and, at 40, also playing a regular shift) was Mike Goodman, an Allan Cup-winner himself, and a member of the famous 1920 Winnipeg Falcons team that won gold for Canada in the very first Olympic hockey tournament. Stan Jackson, who took charge of the Miami Beach Pirates, had played wing for the Toronto St. Patricks and Boston Bruins in the 1920s. Guiding the Miami Clippers was Bullet Joe Simpson, whose Hall-of-Fame career as a player had included starring stints the WCHL Edmonton Eskimos and the NHL’s New York Americans, a team he’d also coached for three seasons in the mid-30s.

News of the incipient league stirred the imaginations of expatriate Canadians in the Bahamas. In November, there was word that employees at the Nassau branch of the Royal Bank of Canada had applied for a franchise, proposing to fly in for games in Miami, though it didn’t go beyond that.

The teams constituted in Canada duly gathered up their sticks and skates in December of ’38 and bussed south to launch a 15-game schedule that was originally supposed to take them through to April of ’39.

The crowd on hand for opening night was “near-capacity,” according to local reports. The actress Patrice Del Grande dropped the puck to get things going — she was married to the writer and hockey enthusiast Damon Runyon. Fans were also treated to a 24-page program featuring line-ups and a history of hockey along with a detailed explanation of the game’s rules. It also included a hockey glossary to acquaint newcomers to the game with such common terms as “woodchopper” (defined as “a player who pounds his opponent over the feet with his stick”) and “post ringer” (“a sharpshooter whose shots hit the goal post”).

Joe Simpson’s Clippers prevailed in Florida’s hockey launch, for the record, beating the Pirates by a score of 3-2 on a late goal from Peterborough, Ontario’s Jim Ellis.

The balance of the season featured (inevitably) some rough hockey. There were fights and scrums and the swinging of sticks. A February encounter between the Seminoles and Pirates was paused while all 30 players — and coaches and fans, too — flooded the ice for a scuffle.

Most of the games featured intermission attractions to keep the fans entertained: fancy skating, barrel-jumping, broomball. In January, the league got a celebrity referee for another Seminoles-Pirates game in King Clancy, the former Toronto Maple Leafs superstar who was then just starting his career as an official.

It was Mike Goodman’s Coral Gables Seminoles who ended up atop the THL standings when the season tailed off in mid-February, ten points clear of Simpson and his Clippers, 16 ahead of last-place Havana. There were no playoffs, just an all-star game featuring a barrel-jumping show between periods (with coach Goodman taking part) and “an old-fashioned barn dance” in the lobby of the arena after the game. The All-Stars beat the Seminoles that night, 6-5, in front of a crowd of 3,200.

The Seminoles’ Leo Makarsky finished as the league’s top scorer, accumulating 14 goals and 34 points in 34 games. Knucker Irvine was named MPP — Most Popular Player for the Tropical season.

And that was mostly it for Florida’s original burst of hockey activity. The owners of the Ice Palace let the league lapse after that, and while there was an effort to revive it over the winter of 1941-42, the end was nigh: the Tropical Hockey League’s time in the sun had come and gone.

dental appointment: doc stewart takes to the boston net, 1924

B List: The 1925-26 Boston Bruins line up, from left, Sprague Cleghorn, Sailor Herbert, Gerry Geran, Carson Cooper, Red Stuart, Norm Shay, Stan Jackson (I think), Hago Harrington, Dr. Charles Stewart.

Born in Carleton Place, Ontario, on a Wednesday of this same date in 1895, Dr. Charles Stewart was the second goaltender to take the net in the history of the Boston Bruins, making his debut on Christmas Day of 1924, after things didn’t quite work out with the team’s original goaler, Hec Fowler.

Stewart was a dentist, which explains his nickname, Doc, as well as the fact that he played in the Senior OHA for the Toronto Dentals, and (also) that he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army Dental Corps towards the end of the First World War. In and around and after his hockey career, Stewart had a dental practice in Hamilton, Ontario.

The good Doc lines up with Boston for a 1926 game against Ottawa.

It was to Kingston that Bruins coach and manager Art Ross tracked Stewart in December of 1924. Hec Fowler’s demise is a whole other story: let’s just say that seven games into the Bruins’ debut season, he had worn out his welcome. As well as drilling and capping teeth in Hamilton, Stewart was playing for the local OHA Tigers that winter, and Montreal’s Gazette reported that while Ross was offering him $2,500 to make the jump from amateur to pro ranks, as well paying living expenses in Boston, and the rent on his Hamilton practice, Stewart was holding out for $1,000 more.

I can’t say for certain what they settled on, just that Stewart was in Montreal on the 25th to defend the Bruins’ net against the Montreal Canadiens. Boston lost, 0-5, though Stewart’s effort was roundly praised. He and his Bruins had to wait another five games, until January 10, to celebrate his first win — still only the second in Bruins’ history — when Boston returned to Montreal to eke out a 3-2 overtime decision.

The Bruins finished dead last in the NHL that year, but things did improve the following season, 1925-26, when Doc Stewart went 16-14-4 to help the team to a fourth-place finish in the seven-team NHL. (They still didn’t make the playoffs.)

Stewart played half of the Bruins’ regular-season games the following year, 1926-27, his last in the NHL. That was a season that saw Boston go all the way to the Stanley Cup final, though they lost in four games to the Ottawa Senators. Stewart’s time in Boston was over by then: he played no part in those playoffs. By that point, he’d been supplanted by Hal Winkler.