breaking through: notes on fred sasakamoose in 1953, and some others, who went before

Here’s what seems reasonable to say: the facts on just who might have been the NHL’s first Indigenous player are unsettled.

I wrote about this back in December, here, but it bears reviewing.

The record on whether Paul Jacobs actually skated for Toronto in 1918 is — murky.

What about Taffy Abel of the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1920s? Not so clear.

I’m not the only one who’d say the strongest case would seem to be that of Buddy Maracle, who played for the New York Rangers in 1931.

Jim Jamieson, also a Ranger, would seem to have come next, in 1944.

Which gets us to Sasakamoose. There’s no disrespect for what he’s achieved in his career in the suggestion that he’s probably the third Indigenous player to have skated in the NHL. So why hasn’t the NHL gotten around to acknowledging this?

This isn’t new news. It’s been discussed before. Not by the NHL, pointedly — the league shows no interest the history beyond the version they’ve settled on. No interest, at least, in disturbing the history that seems to have served just fine since Sasakamoose was actually in the league. No-one was acknowledging Maracle and Jamieson in the 1950s, let alone telling their stories — they’d already been forgotten.

Sasakamoose gets a second call to the NHL, in February of 1954.

The silencing and erasure of Indigenous stories is, of course, another not-new Canadian story. Sasakamoose was only briefly an NHLer in the 1950s, and whatever currency his story had in the mainstream press in Canada and the United States at the time was couched in stereotypes, assumptions, and casual racism.

That his story is being told now, frankly and in fuller frame, with all the pain and ugliness of his experience at residential school, is a greater good. (See in particular, Marty Klinkenberg’s powerful 2016 Globe and Mail profile.) But what about acknowledging the other Indigenous NHLers who went before? Why is this so hard?

In late December, when Sasakamoose was named a Member of the Order of Canada, he was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off ahead of a game with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The NHL line and that of all the press attending those events was that he was the first Indigenous player. Reporting another story in January, I e-mailed a contact at the league to ask about the possibility that maybe that wasn’t so. Here’s what I heard back:

As far as we know, Sasakamoose the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations. Since we don’t track race/ethnicity, we rely on archives/online stories, and information from the players themselves. In Canada there are lots of communities with ties to First Nations — it’s possible there was a player with Indigenous parents that played before Sasakamoose, but there’s no way to know for sure.

A month later, no such latitude seems to have worked its way into the wider conversation, where there still seems to be no doubt about Sasakamoose’s firstness to the fore. In a front-page story in today’s Globe and Mail, Marty Klinkenberg celebrates Ethan Bear, the latest First Nations player to make it to the NHL. Sasakamoose is in the lede: “the first Indigenous player in the NHL.”

Same again earlier in the week, via the league’s own editorial arm, NHL.com, where Tom Gulitti was still, in a prominent Sasakamoose profile, putting him ahead of any others.

I tweeted a note to Gulitti, with a link to my Maracle story, but didn’t hear back. Along with several other writers, elsewhere, Gulitti also touted this week as the anniversary of Sasakamoose’s NHL debut, in 1954. (Klinkenberg mentions ’54, too.) Quibblesome as it’s going to sound, that’s not right, either.

It’s true that Sasakamoose, rookie centreman, was in the line-up for Chicago when they played in Toronto on February 27 of ’54. But he’d already been called up from the minors earlier that season, in November of ’53.

He’d made an impression at the Black Hawks training camp that year, as Arch Ward of The Chicago Tribune told his readers that September. The Hawks, he wrote, “have a genuine Injun hockey player — Chief Running Deer — under contract, but will call him up to the Stadium ice this season only if they need an attraction to boost the gate receipts.” He continued:

The chief is only 18 and plans to play junior hockey with Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he will be listed in the program as Fred Sasakamoose. … He is a full blooded Cree and as such collects $5 a month from the Canadian government under the ancient peace treaty with the tribe. … Sasakamoose, or Running Deer, is 5 feet 11 inches tall, weighs 165 pounds, a fast centre, and ambidextrous. … Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings is the only ambidextrous player in the National Hockey League at the moment and experts say he does not operate as smoothly as Sasakamoose, or Running Deer.

The Black Hawks had played 20 games when Sasakamoose re-joined them, in New York, on a Wednesday, November 18, under the supervision of Black Hawks’ scout (and former NHL goaltender) Tiny Thompson. That was necessary, the Tribune explained, “because of a Canadian law which requires that a guardian accompany any Indian minor when travelling away from his reservation.”

Chicago coach Sid Abel was said to have high hopes for him when he put him into the line-up on the Friday, at home against Boston. The Tribune said he “gave a spirited account of himself,” showing “a pleasing willingness to rough it up” in Chicago’s 2-0 loss, firing “two or three good shots” on the Bruins’ Sugar Jim Henry.

For Sunday’s game, home again to Toronto, Abel put him on a line with veterans Bill Mosienko and George Gee. He didn’t really feature as the Leafs prevailed 5-1 — or if he did, the Chicago papers didn’t take notice. They did mention that next morning, Monday, the Hawks sent him down: Tiny Thompson took Sasakamoose back to Moose Jaw, where he’d play through until the next call-up, in February.

 

cat tales

Face On: Before he took up a career as New York Rangers’ GM and coach, Emile Francis made one last goaltending stop with the Spokane Comets of the minor-pro Western Hockey League. In December of 1959, he was the first netminder to wear a mask in a WHL game, wearing his practice protection, one of Delbert Louch’s “Head-Savers,” pictured here, in a game against the Seattle Totems. Reported a newspaper at the time, “Francis still has his arm in a harness from a recent shoulder injury and will wear the mask to protect his face in case he can’t get his hands up in time.”

At 93, Toronto’s beloved Johnny Bower was the NHL’s oldest goaltender at the time of his death late last month. While 97-year-old Chick Webster remains the eldest of all the league’s living alumni, a former teammate of his from the 1949-50 New York Rangers is now the senior netminder: Emile Francis, the man they call (and seem always to have called) The Cat, who turned 91 this past September.

Born in 1926 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Francis made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1946-47. He ended up in New York in October of ’48, bartered with Alex Kaleta in an exchange that sent Sugar Jim Henry west. If you take Joe Farrell’s word for it, this was a swap precipitated by a car accident near Montreal a week earlier, when four Rangers, including Edgar Laprade and Buddy O’Connor, were hurt. “We needed scoring strength and we needed a goalie,” said Farrell, the Hawks’ publicity man, “and the trade resulted.”

Francis and Chick Webster did both play for the ’49-50 Rangers, though there’s an asterisk that maybe needs applying to that roster: they didn’t actually appear in a game together. Webster played 14 games that season, none of which occurred in Detroit at the end of March, when Francis was called up to make his only showing of the year. Harry Lumley was in the Red Wing net that night, and he only fared a shade better than Francis in an 8-7 Detroit win.

Back to the trade from Chicago: the coach there, Charlie Conacher, told Francis that he wasn’t going anywhere. On that assurance, he sent out his clothes to be laundered. Francis:

No sooner had I done that but I got a call from Bill Tobin, the owner, he says, ‘I just wanted to let you know you’ve been traded to the New York Rangers.’ I said you can’t trade me. He said, ‘What do you mean I can’t trade you?’ I said, I just sent out my laundry. He said, ‘You can pick it up on your next trip into Chicago.’

That’s an anecdote drawn from George Grimm’s We Did Everything But Win, one of two newish books chronicling Francis’ influential post-playing years as coach and general manager of the Rangers. The other, Reg Lansberry’s 9 Goals: The New York Rangers’ Once-in-a-Lifetime Miracle Finish, takes a narrower view, zooming in on the end of the 1969-70 season when (as The New York Times’ Gerald Eskenazi put it at the time) “with one of their most important and strongest victories in their loss-strewn 44-year career, the Rangers wedged their way … into the Stanley Cup playoffs on the final day of the tightest race in National Hockey League history.”

Grimm’s book is a teeming oral history with Francis’ voice leading the choir. He contributes a foreword and frames the narrative from there on in. An introductory chapter catching us up on Francis’ eventful hockey biography features a good account of his pioneering efforts to bring a baseball first baseman’s mitt to hockey’s nets. On, then, to 1964, when Muzz Patrick’s tenure as Rangers’ GM was rapidly waning.

That’s where the main event opens. It was a bleak time in New York, with attendance at Madison Square Garden dragging as low as the team’s spirits. The NHL playoffs were a rumour in those years. Trading away captain Andy Bathgate didn’t help the mood, and nor did goaltender Jacques Plante griping on the record about the team’s direction to a local reporter by the name of Stan Fischler. Francis had been on the job as the Rangers’ assistant GM since 1962. When Patrick resigned in October of ’64, he got a promotion.

Grimm’s guide to how Francis went about renovating the Rangers is good and detailed. Francis took over as coach in 1966 and stayed on for nearly ten years, hauling the long-hapless Blueshirts into the playoffs, eventually, and keeping them there for nine years that included an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 1972, when the Boston Bruins beat them. Still to this day no Ranger coach has supervised or won more games.

Grimm does get to the pressing question of why, for all that regular-season success, the team generally failed to thrive once they got into the playoffs during those Feline years. He has a few ideas. Francis, he decides, may have been too loyal to older players past their due dates, and he may have stretched himself too thin serving as coach and GM for too long. Plus all the old hockey reasons: too many injuries, not enough goals, & etc.

We Did Everything But Win ranges far and wide across the spectrum of Ranger fortunes, and deep into the team’s background. Boom-Boom Geoffrion is here, and Camille Henry, Jean Ratelle, Eddie Giacomin, Terry Sawchuk in his final days. Grimm pays tribute, too, to those who served the Rangers without skating for them, the likes of trainer Frank Paice and PR man and historian John Halligan, and Gerry Cosby, the old World Championship-winning goaltender who became the sporting goods titan of MSG. The list of those chiming in with memories is an impressive one, and includes Brad Park, Bob Nevin, Phil Goyette, Steve Vickers, Eddie Shack, Derek Sanderson, Walt Tkaczuk, along with journalists like Eskenazi and Stu Hackel.

Fired in January of 1976 at the age of 50, Emile Francis wasn’t quite finished as an NHL executive yet, and wouldn’t be for a while. He went on to manage and coach the St. Louis Blues, and served as GM and then president of the Hartford Whalers before he called it quits, finally, in 1993, after a 47-year NHL career.

jim henry: sweet as sugar, gritty as a spinach salad

Born on this day in 1920, Sugar Jim Henry got his start as an NHL goaltender as a 22-year-old when he leapt straight from amateur hockey to took charge of the New York Rangers’ net in the fall of 1941. Dave Kerr had retired and Henry, Winnipeg-born, had spent the spring of the year backstopping the Regina Rangers of the Saskatchewan Senior Hockey League to an Allan Cup championship. Henry played all of New York’s 48 regular-season games that first year, leading them to a first-place finish overall. (Toronto, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, beat the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs.) The following year Henry interrupted his Ranger career to enlist and serve in (while tend ing occasional goal for) both the Canadian Army and, subsequently, the Royal Canadian Navy. Postwar he made his NHL return as a Chicago Black Hawk before catching on as a Boston Bruin. That was him, of course, in the famous photo, shaking hands in 1952 with a just-as-battered Maurice Richard. Henry died in 2004.

The photo here dates to early in 1942 when Henry featured in a newspaper exposé syndicated across the United States in the cause of demystifying hockey goaltenders and their gear. Readers learned that Henry’s equipment weighed a total of 35 pounds and cost US$130. Also: “His is a task demanding keen muscular coordination, the eyesight of an eagle, the dexterity of a young gazelle, and the grit of a spinach salad.”

The nickname? It went back to his early days, apparently. The standard story is the one on file within the Hockey Hall of Fame’s registry of player profiles:

As a toddler growing up in Winnipeg, he used to waddle next door to visit some girls. “They’d dip my soother in a sugar bowl,” he recalled, “So the girls gave me the name ‘Sugar.’ Then I couldn’t get rid of it!”

Variations on that theme have been proffered over the years:

Sugar Jim Henry, the Brandon netman, gets his unusual nickname through his great love for anything alluringly sweet.

Winnipeg Tribune, March 23, 1939

Maurice (Winnipeg Free Press) Smith says ‘Sugar’ Jim Henry, former New York Ranger netminder, got his nickname because he had a craving for brown sugar when he was a schoolboy. His mother used to feed him bread and brown sugar when he came home from school. Smitty comments: “He thought he earned it because of his ability to turn in a sweet job in the nets.”

Nanaimo Daily News, April 10, 1944

Goalie ‘Sugar Jim’ Henry got his nickname for his love of sweets.

• Floyd Conner, Hockey’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Wicked Slapshots, Bruising Goons and Ice Oddities (2002)

The nickname, Sugar Jim, came from his fondness for brown sugar, particularly on cereal.

• Steve Zipay, The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: New York Rangers (2008)

With his hair slicked back neatly around a part on the side, Jim Henry was deserving of the nickname ‘Sugar Jim.’ He was a sweet guy and a sweet goaltender in the most positive sense of reach word.

• Stan Fischler, Boston Bruins: Greatest Moments and Players (2013)

Henry addressed the matter himself in a Toronto Daily Star profile soon after he beat the Leafs in his 1941 NHL debut. Andy Lytle:

He became known as ‘Sugar’ because he loved to get a piece of bread and turn the contents of the family sugar bowl upon it.

“I could eat prodigious quantities,” he recalled. “I’m still fond of it. But now I take it mostly in cubes.”

He was still explaining it almost 50 years later when The Globe and Mail caught up to him for a “Where Are They Now?” segment, though the story had shifted next door once again. “I was always in the neighbour’s sugar bowl,” he gamely told Paul Patton in 1988.

 

 

 

 

feeling fine, he said; forgot to duck

stewart and henry son pkstrk

Gaye Stewart was the last Toronto Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in goalscoring: in 1945-46 he finished the season with 37 goals. Maybe that’s how you know the name. He was also the first NHLer to win a Stanley Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, long before Danny Grant, Tony Esposito, or Ken Dryden got around to doing it. The Cup came in the spring of 1942, when he was 18; the Calder came the following year. He won a second Cup with the Leafs in 1947, then later the same year found himself on his way to Chicago in the big trade that brought Max Bentley to Toronto.

Stewart did fine for himself in Chicago, even as the team struggled. He was named captain of the Black Hawks for the 1948-49 season. It was in January of ’49 that he was photographed, above, with his goaltender’s son: Tom Henry was Sugar Jim’s two-and-a-half-year-old.

Stewart, 25, was only just back in Chicago following a hospital stay in Toronto. Struck by another puck, not the one depicted here, he’d left the Hawks’ January 8 game, a 3-3 tie with the Leafs, a few days earlier. Jim Vipond of The Globe and Mail was on hand to watch. In the second period, as he told it,

The ex-Leaf left winger was struck over the right eye by a puck lifted by Garth Boesch as the Toronto defenseman attempted to clear down the ice.

Stewart returned to action after a brief rest but collapsed in the shower after the game. After being removed to the Gardens hospital, his condition became so serious that a rush call was put in for an ambulance and arrangements made for an emergency operation.

Fortunately the player rallied soon after reaching Toronto General Hospital and surgery was not necessary. His condition was much improved last night [January 9], with the injury diagnosed as a bruise on the brain.

forgot to duck“I forgot to duck,” he was joshing by the time he was back in Chicago, as hockey players did, and do. Brain bruises, The Globe was reporting now. “I’m feeling fine,” Stewart said. “The accident was just one of those things. I expect I’ll start skating next week.” The Associated Press called it a concussion, and had the player’s side of the story to offer:

Stewart said that he when he returned to action in the game he felt tired. He remembered his mates coming into the dressing after the game, but then blacked out until he woke up in hospital.

There wasn’t much news, after that, of Stewart’s head or his recovery — not that made it into the newspapers, anyway. It was three weeks or so before he returned to play, back in Toronto again at the end of January, having missed six games. The two teams tied this time, too, 4-4. They met again in Chicago the following day. The Black Hawks won that one, 4-2, with Stewart scoring the winning goal.

All in all, it was ended up another fruitless year for Chicago. When the playoffs rolled around in March, they were on the outside looking in for the third consecutive season. When Tribune reporter Charles Bartlett buttonholed coach Charlie Conacher before he departed for Toronto, he asked him how he felt about his players.

“I’m not satisfied with any of them,” he answered. “It never pays to be satisfied with any team in sports. Creates a weak attitude. What I am pleased with, however, is the morale of the Hawks. I think their fifth place finish, and the fact that they won only won game less than Toronto will mean a lot when we start training at North Bay in September.”

He thought the team had played pretty well through December. But then Doug Bentley got sick and Stewart concussed, and Bill Mosienko and Metro Prystai had played that stretch of games with their wonky shoulders …

Conacher was headed home to his summer job — his oil business, Bartlett reported. A couple of Hawks were staying in Chicago for the duration, Ralph Nattrass to work in real estate and Jim Conacher at an auto agency. The rundown on their teammates as went their separate ways looked like this:

Goalie Jim Henry will join with his Ranger rival, Chuck Rayner, in operating their summer camp in Kenora, Ont. Red Hamill will go a talent scouting tour of northern Ontario. Doug Bentley and brother Max of the Leafs will play baseball and run their ice locker plant in De Lisle, Sask. Mosienko will return to Winnipeg, where he owns a bowling center with Joe Cooper, former Hawk defenseman.

Roy Conacher, who received a substantial bonus from the Hawks for winning the league’s scoring title, is headed for Midland, Ont., where he plans to open a sporting goods store. Gaye Stewart will run a soft drink agency in Port Arthur, Ont. A fish business will occupy Ernie Dickens in Bowmanville. Doug McCaig is enrolled in a Detroit accounting school. Adam Brown will assist his dad in their Hamilton filling station.

 

 

 

 

 

cold comfort

glad rangers

The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1940, it’s true, but mostly their standing during the years of the Second World War was lowly: from 1943 through the spring of 1945, the team finished last in the NHL every time. The worst ever to have worn Ranger sweaters, GM Lester Patrick called those teams. Heading into the post-war, he had reason, at least, for hope. Returning from military service were many of the stalwarts of that Cup-winning team from back in ’40, including Alex Shibicky, Mac and Neil Colville and Patrick’s own sons, Muzz and Lynn. Lesser lights back from the wars included the wingers shown above expressing their pleasure at being back on NHL ice at Madison Square Garden: left is Hal Brown, 25, from Brandon, Manitoba and, on the right, and Toronto-born Alan Kuntz, 26. In goal, the Rangers had Jim Henry and Chuck Rayner coming in to replace the ’44-45 partnership of Ken McAuley and Doug Stevenson. And rookies looking to make the team for the first time included Edgar Laprade and Cal Gardner. It took another whole year, as it turned out, for the Rangers to ascend from the basement, moving into fifth ahead of Chicago in 1946-47. Another year after that, they even made the playoffs. By 1950, they were improved enough to play for the Stanley Cup — though they did, of course, lose in the finals to Detroit.

fleming mackell, 1929—2015

Peirson, Mackell, Henry and Labine

Bruinhaha: From left, Johnny Peirson, Fleming Mackell, Jim Henry and Leo Labine pose for the camera amid the trousers and underwear of Boston dressing room circa 1953. (Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

I’m not old enough to have memories of Fleming Mackell’s career on ice, but I’ve looked him up, so I can tell you that his hockey adjectives include hustling (left winger), husky (kid), stocky (youngster), black-haired (Bruin centre), high-scoring (ditto), aggressive little (ditto), flying (Fleming Mackell), and starry (veteran).

Those all date back to the 1950s, Mackell’s heyday as a player. Born in Montreal in 1929, he skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs before a trade took him to the Bruins. He was in Conn Smythe’s doghouse is what you’re going to see written, if you dig into that. He was 86 when he died last week, on October 19, in Hawkesbury, Ontario. Dave Stubbs has a tribute worth a while at The Gazette, over this way.

Otherwise, what I can tell you is that Mackell was poison to Montreal in the 1957 Stanley Cup Finals (scored a lot of goals on them); that The Flame was a nickname he went by, or at least one that newspapermen used; that Johnny Peirson and Ed Sandford were his linemates in Boston in 1953. Later (1958) he centred Jerry Toppazzini and Real Chevrefils.

Here’s a view of a goal he scored in 1953 on what Tom Fitzgerald from Boston’s Daily Globe deemed a “smart play” in a game in which the Bruins socked the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the semi-finals:

Taking a relay from Sandford in the Boston end, Fleming set sail down the left Peirson far over on the other side as a decoy. When he weaved into a spot about 40 feet from the goal, the shifty little center made a kind of fake, then whistled a wristy shot that sent the puck knee high past Sawchuk into the far side.

His father was Jack Mackell, who played on the wing for the Ottawa Senators in the 1920s, which makes the Mackells two of a scarce breed, father-and-son combinations to have played in the NHL. Not only that: they both won Stanley Cups: Jack in 1920 and 1921, Fleming as a Leaf in 1949 and 1951. Why aren’t their surnames ever spelled the same, when you look them up? That’s a longstanding error, worth addressing in a separate post; stay tuned.

“I never saw him play,” is something the son said about his father; it’s in Brian McFalone’s Over The Glass & Into The Crowd (1997). “I never knew he played hockey. He had a job and he worked hard, so he didn’t interfere at all.”

Fleming was playing in the Quebec Junior Hockey League by the time he was 15. He took a scholarship to St. Michael’s College in Toronto, and from there graduated to the Leafs in 1948.

About life in the NHL as a man standing 5’8” and weighing in at 175 pounds, Mackell said, “There was a lot of intimidation if you weren’t big.” This is Heroes, Frank Pagnucco’s 1985 compendium of short NHLer biographies. “If you weren’t a rough, tough player, you could never show that you didn’t like the rough stuff or they would run you out of the league. I don’t know. Guys tell me that when I played the game I was chippy, too.”

Eight-and-a-half years he played for the Bruins before they decided he didn’t fit their plans any more. They wanted to trade him, he said he wouldn’t go: that’s how he ended up as a playing coach for the Quebec Aces in the American Hockey League. That didn’t really work out — “a big mistake,” Mackell called it — and after several more seasons in senior hockey, he stashed his skates away for good. Canadian newspapers picked up the American news, as you’d expect they might, when Mackell was shot by a woman in his car in Miami while on vacation, but the story faded away while Mackell was recovering, satisfactorily, in hospital, without explaining the argument or whether or not anybody went to jail.

Brian McFalone tells us that he owned a Texaco gas station in Montreal after he retired, and from there went on to selling Buicks and Pontiacs in Dorval (“I was a Grandmaster Salesman five times!”). He did that for 27 years, before retiring in 1992 to Knowlton, Quebec, in 1992, where he enjoyed “riding long distances on his twelve-speed bike and playing tennis.”

Frank Pagnucco asked him what he would have done differently as a hockey player. Maybe he would have looked after himself better, he said. “I could have been a little more intense, maybe a little more cooperative. … I wasn’t cooperative with management, when you look at it now from a different perspective.”

“Whether we realize it or not, indirectly you took it home with you. Everything was winning or losing. You look back, it wasn’t as important as we thought.”

O-Pee-Chee / Topps 1957-58 Topps #16 Fleming Mackell

(Photo: The Want List, hockeymedia, on flickr)