a player to be named later

Maybe the editors on sports desk got distracted that weekend in November of 1950, let their attention wander as they composed the last page of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s sporting newses and notes. But maybe that’s naïve, or overly charitable. Maybe when they sent the item above — that’s it, the whole entire thing — into print, those editors were, instead, looking to sum up the whole history of black players in hockey’s big leagues in as succinct a fashion as possible, erasing him from his own story — and doing it, what’s more, under an erroneous headline, and with minimal punctuation.

Art Dorrington was the player who went unmentioned that day. A son of Truro, Nova Scotia, he was 20 in 1950, a high-scoring centreman coming off a stand-out season with the Stellarton Royals of the Nova Scotia Antigonish-Pictou County Hockey League. Scouted and signed by the New York Rangers, he was assigned to the Atlantic City Sea Gulls of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, and did indeed make his debut at Madison Square Garden that November night, when the Rovers downed the Gulls 7-3. Dorrington didn’t score in that game, but he finished the season with 18 goals and 34 points in 49 games. The call-up to the NHL never came, He played six further seasons in the minor leagues before his career was ended in 1958 by a leg broken badly while he was playing for the EHL’s Philadelphia Ramblers. As Tom Hawthorn pointed out in a Globe and Mail obituary published after Dorrington’s death in 2017, his injury in 1958 occurred a week after Willie O’Ree made his debut with the Boston Bruins, becoming the black player to take the NHL ice in the league’s 41-year history.

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)

howe and fontinato, 1959: just like someone chopping wood

Alternate History: A comical telling of the night Gordie Howe punched Lou Fontinato in February of 1959, as re-imagined for a 1992 Howe-inspired graphic biography edition of Sports Legends Comics, drawn by Dick Ayers.

Officials at the game charged with breaking up such fights let this one run its course. Showing instincts toward self-preservation, neither linesman chose to step between the pair of 200-pounders as they flailed freely with their fists.

“I never saw one like it,” says goalie Terry Sawchuk, who had a ringside seat when the action exploded behind his net.

• Marshall Dann, The Detroit Free Press, February 2, 1959

Today in concussion history: it was on this day in 1959 that Gordie Howe put his fist into Lou Fontinato’s face, and hard. “The most famous single punch in NHL history,” Peter Gzowksi called it. If that’s true, the fame might not have been spread so far and so wide if Life magazine hadn’t broadcast the news so graphically across the United States and beyond two weeks later.

It’s certainly a tale much (if not always consistently) told. The Detroit Red Wings were in New York to play the Rangers. With the home team out to a 4-1 win near the end of the first period, Fontinato, 27 at the time, skated over to talk to Howe, 30, at a face-off — “warned him about something or the other,” Marshall Dann reported. When the puck dropped, Howe soon ran into his shadow for the evening, Eddie Shack. Howe cross-checked him or just “whacked” him; descriptions differ. (“Shack got his hair parted … from Howe’s stick,” is yet another view.) They, in the hockey parlance, tussled, but didn’t fight. As Howe wrote in several of his memoirs, his history with Fontinato included the high stick with which he’d cut Fontinato’s ear earlier that season, so he wasn’t surprised when Fontinato dropped his stick and came skating at him from 20 feet away.

Howe saw him coming and ducked Fontinato’s first fist. Gzowski didn’t quite get it right: Howe pluralized his punch. Howe: “I hit him with everything I had as hard and as often as possible.” Dann: he “loaded up and started with a steady stream of right uppercuts. He got Fontinato’s uniform by the left hand and pulled it half off, cutting down Lou’s return punches.”

Howe said he changed hands, and then dislocated a finger. That hurt “like a son of a gun,” according to the account in 2014’s My Story, wherein ghostwriter Paul Haavardsrud streamlined and gently updated an earlier effort at autobiography, and … Howe! (1995). Of regrets, the latter admits none: “Did I feel sorry for him? No. We’d gone at one another for years.” Nineteen years later, the official Howe line was slightly softened: “It didn’t make me happy to see Louie in such bad shape, but I can’t say I feel sorry for him. That might make me sound cold-hearted, but to my way of thinking he was just doing his job and I was doing mine.”

Fontinato didn’t leave any memoirs, but he did talk to reporters in the days after the damaging. He shared his opening statement to Howe with the Associated Press: “ ‘Keep your stick to yourself,’ I tells him.” As for his nose: “It’s been broken four times before and there’s hardly any bone there. It’s very easy to push out of place.”

Fontinato also made his case to Tony Saxon of The Guelph Mercury in 2006. “I know one thing,” he said then. “A lot of people thought I lost that fight, but I didn’t. I probably threw ten punches to his one. Then I look up to see what damage I’ve done because I’ve been hammering away for a couple of minutes. I look up and he gets me with one right on the nose.”

The whole affair got a sustained revival in 2016, when Fontinato’s death followed Howe’s by just three weeks. Mentioned in passing in most of the Howe coverage, it was defining anecdote featured in Fontinato’s obituaries. The New York Times included one of Howe’s more uncharitable lines: “That honker of his was right there, and I drilled it.”

“Gordie Howe performed rhinoplasty on Mr. Fontinato’s prominent proboscis with his knuckles,” Tom Hawthorn epitaphed in The Globe and Mail.

Back in 1959, mostly everybody had a go Fontinato’s nose-job. “The bugle was detoured by Gordie Howe” was one of Milt Dunnell’s efforts; “bombed out of commission” was Jimmy Breslin’s contribution on the news-wire.

It’s worth noting just how audible the written record is. Under the headline “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie,” Life’s write-up had an unnamed Red Wing recalling that “Howe’s punches went whop-whop-whop, just like someone chopping wood.”

Frank Udvari was the referee that night, and he either read that and absorbed it into his own experience or thought kindling at the time, too. “Never in my life have I heard anything like it,” he said in 1979, “except maybe the sound of someone chopping wood. Thwack! And all of a sudden Louie’s breathing out of his cheekbone.”

One of the witnesses that Roy MacSkimming canvassed for his 1994 biography Gordie: A Hockey Legend was Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson, who reported what reached him at the bench: “With every blow, you could hear something break — squish, squish.”

Stan Fischler was watching from the Garden press box that night. He’d later describe Howe’s fists moving “like locomotive pistons,” though the sound they made was decidedly equestrian: “Clop! Clop! Clop!

MacSkimming writes that that the portraits Charles Hoff took for Life juxtaposing Fontinato’s face and Howe’s flex may have shocked “gentle American readers by portraying the vicious side of hockey.” Maybe so, but in Canada and the hockey-knowing northeast United States, it mostly went into the books as just another hockey fight.

A brutal one, to be sure — Detroit coach Sid Abel called it “the fiercest I’ve seen since Jack Stewart battled John Mariucci 15 years ago” — but nothing but nothing so especially out of the run of the league’s ordinary brutality. The headlines were almost cheery, even if the photographs weren’t: “Gordie Convinces Lou With Well-Placed Right” readers in Nanaimo learned a few days after the fact; “Gord Howe’s Fists Too Much For Lou,” advised Toronto’s Daily Star. If Fontinato had been (as the AP put it) the NHL’s reigning “bare-knuckle champion,” it was no longer so, according to much of the coverage. “Howe is champ,” declared the AP. “Another smudge on Lou’s escutcheon,” the Star’s Milt Dunnell wrote, while in The Globe and Mail Jim Coleman warned that “even such peace-loving players” as Alex Delvecchio and Ralph Backstrom would now be emboldened to toss “tentative punches at Fontinato’s sore schnozzle.”

Rangers coach Phil Watson had his own historical benchmark. For him, it was “the best fight I’ve seen since Art Coulter and Dit Clapper tried to cripple each other 20 years ago.” He wasn’t what you’d call entirely pleased, however. “Howe gets away with murder,” he railed after the game. “He cross-checked Shack in the head for three stitches. He’s been doing things like this for years, but the referees won’t give penalties to Howe.”

Watson would have more cause for complaint. Holding steady in playoff contention at the start of February, the Rangers would go 6-13-2 post-clout, ceding the last spot for the post-season to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “We never got over Louie’s pasting,” Watson said. “His nose looked like a subway hit it.” Detroit missed out, too, though it’s unclear if that was any solace.

Back on the night itself, 59 years ago, Udvari sent Howe and Fontinato to the penalty to serve out their five-minute majors. Because, well, hockey, both men returned to the ice to play out what ended as a 5-4 Rangers win. “Although he suffered a broken nose and had several heavy bruises on his face,” Marshall Dann reported, “Fontinato finished the game.”

Only afterwards did he check into St. Clare Hospital. “The doctors had to wait until the hemorrhaging stopped before they could operate,” he’d recall. He stayed for two days. Two days after his release, he went with his teammates to Detroit. With the newspapers touting a “rematch,” Fontinato skated in the warm-up but didn’t play. He was back in action a week after that when the teams played again. Wearing a protective mask, he seems to have steered clear of Howe, and Howe of him.

The two men did meet again, in a civilian setting, in April of ’59, when their teams were watching the rest of the NHL partake in the playoffs. Scott Young was there to see Howe offer his hand to Fontinato for shaking. “When Fontinato saw who it was,” Young reported, “he grinned and pulled his own hand back and said, ‘It wasn’t like this the last time!’ and then shook hands with the man who had broken his nose in New York.”