Hockey Central

The Origins of American Hockey

Oddly enough, one of the most important events in American hockey history occurred on a tennis court. The game’s origin in the United States can be traced to a desert-hot summer day in 1894 when American and Canadian college athletes were competing at a tennis tournament in Niagara Falls. As they exited the court, conversation turned to winter activities and it was quickly discovered they were playing different versions of the same game. Canadians were developing hockey as we know it while the Americans were playing “ice polo.” The objectives and strategy were the same, but ice polo was played with a ball and the stick resembled the one used today in field hockey. The rivals started comparing; boasting and challenges followed; before long, they were debating which sport gave greater excitement. To settle the question, a series of games was set up, to be played in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Kingston, Ontario, in the winter of 1895.

In each city, one game of hockey and one of ice polo was scheduled.

To the Americans’ surprise and dismay, the Canadians not only dominated all four of the hockey games but also managed to tie two of the ice polo matches. “It was pretty generally agreed among us as a result of that trip that the Canadian game was better than ours,” U.S. participant Alexander Meikeljohn wrote about the series years later. Instantly enamored with this other game’s speed, the Americans purchased all the sticks and hockey skates they could carry and took them back home. Within a few years, colleges and club teams along the Eastern seaboard had forsaken ice polo in favor of the faster and more thrilling sport. Meanwhile, Minnesotans were borrowing hockey from their Manitoba neighbors, players from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were starting to play against Canadian teams and hockey had quickly developed three significant and enthusiastic pockets of interest in the U.S. It also took root around Pittsburgh with the debut of the Western Pennsylvania and Interscholastic leagues until a fire at Schenley Park Casino Arena eventually stalled the game’s growth there.

With the mining industry pumping huge amounts of money into Northern Michigan, a dentist named J.L. Gibson (a player on a team expelled from the Ontario Hockey Association in 1897-98 for paying some of its players) found enough investors to form America’s (and the world’s) first professional hockey league in 1904. The International [Professional] Hockey League included the Calumet-Larium Miners, the American Soo Indians, Pittsburgh, Houghton and Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario). The legendary Cyclone Taylor, for one, was enticed into the IPHL by hefty wages (it’s believed he got a salary of more than $3,000), but it only survived until 1907.

The game needed a catalyst to gain wider acceptance and like so many other things American, needed a star to pin their dreams on. At the turn of the decade, they found one in Hobey Baker who was clearly the most important individual player in U.S. hockey’s growth in the early years. Baker was a dashing and handsome center who was to college hockey from 1910 to 1914 what Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL in the 1980s.

Born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia, Baker was a schoolboy sensation in both hockey and football at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. By the time the 5 ’ 9", 160-pound athlete arrived at Princeton, he was already a celebrity and his legend grew daily. By the end of his first (dual) sports seasons, observers were extolling his greatness the way basketball fans do today vis-&#agrave;-vis Michael Jordan.

Baker had a blend of talent, courage and passion that had not yet been seen on a campus. He was a fearless halfback who brought crowds to their feet whenever he came near the ball; he dominated every game when he switched to play hockey. A dazzling skater, his raw speed seemed to mesmerize fans. When the puck found his stick, a buzz wound through a crowd anticipating a charge up the ice. He was once credited with 30 shots on goal in a game against Yale. As a sophomore, he had 92 points and led Princeton to an unbeaten season. Describing one of his goals, the New York Times wrote, “He carried the puck to every part of the ice surface without being stopped.” But then the Times seemed particularly smitten by the Baker Phenomenon and it chronicled all his accomplishments with colorful prose. Times writers made it clear that they liked every layer of Baker, from the flashy way he moved on the ice to the noble manner with which he conducted himself when the game was over. In their eyes, the blonde bombshell was easily a prototype of the all-American boy.

Wherever Baker was scheduled to play, fans would line up to see him. To them, seeing Baker play hockey was like watching a magic show. They saw him perform acts of athleticism that simply could not be explained, like the time he seemed to run along the top of the boards to escape a defender. He controlled the puck as if it was attached to his stick by an invisible length of rope, as if he was running the-pea-and-the-shell game and the puck was the pea; now you see it, now you don’t.

When Baker graduated, he declined turning pro. He was hardly tempted to give up his east coast lifestyle to play for the Portland Rosebuds, the new American team in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. The Montreal Wanderers offered him $3,500, but money was no lure to Baker and he joined the St. Nick’s amateur team in New York. By then, hockey had become a high-society sport and well-heeled businessmen came out in force to watch Baker dominate games.

St. Nick’s defeated some prominent Canadian teams his first season, including the Montreal Stars during the Ross Cup series. But Baker longed for adventure — and of course there was a war — and by 1916 he was training as a fighter pilot. He was among the first American members of the Lafayette Escadrille Squadron shipped to France in 1917. He painted his single-seat Spad in the orange and black Princeton colors and went into combat in April 1918.

Colleagues would later testify that he was a natural at dogfighting (as with so much in his life). He seemed to know how to make just the right aerial moves at precisely the moment he needed to, like he had on the ice rink. He brought down his first German aircraft in May 1918, the first of three in his combat career. “There was no finer man, nor a better pilot,” recalls U.S. Major Charles Biddle, a long-time friend and flying companion. “He was very skillful and particularly fearless. He would have had an even greater record if he had been at the front more than he was.”

Baker seemed to thrive on combat, presumably because it gave him the kind of adrenaline rush he got when he carried the football or stickhandled through the defense. He seemed more saddened than pleased when the War finally ended. Like a lot of other war veterans, Baker didn’t seem sure what to do with his life.

A month after the war, Baker drove to the airfield and told his men he wanted to take one “last flight.” This was in scary defiance of the combat pilot’s deep superstition to never make an unneeded last flight, but given the fearless way he performed on the rink and gridiron, Baker perhaps never entertained the idea that he was indeed mortal. While he had known losses, he had never been beaten before December 18, 1918. Nothing and no one had compromised the conviction that he was invincible.

According to the New York Times, Baker went up in a recently repaired plane. As he coaxed it to an altitude of almost 2,000 feet, the engine sputtered to silence. He could have chosen to keep the plane level and crash-land a few miles from the airport (many pilots, including Baker himself, had walked away from crash-landings in the durable Spad), but he didn’t want to suffer the embarrassment of losing a plane and immediately opted to turn back. Maybe he had time to think all of this through; maybe he acted as instinctively as he always had with a puck on his stick. In any event, as he turned the stalled plane, its nose was forced down. He struggled to pull it back up but he ran out of sky before he could complete the maneuver. He died on the way to the field hospital. He was 26.

So it was that the honor of being the first American in the NHL went to Jerry Geran of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who played against Baker in college, when he signed with the Montreal Wanderers in 1917-18 and played four games with no goals. Billed as “the second Hobey Baker,” he didn’t have that kind of ability. That year the Wanderers also signed Massachusetts native Raymie Skilton, a munitions expert posted in Montreal by the U.S. government who just wanted to play hockey and was signed by the cash-strapped team for one dollar.

In the early years of the next decade, the American player the NHL wanted most was Francis “Moose” Goheen. While Baker was dominating hockey in the east, Goheen was creating his own legend in Minnesota. He played on the USA’s silver medal-winning 1920 Olympic team and then turned down contract offers from the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs because he didn’t want to surrender an excellent job with the Northern States Power Company. Playing in the NHL for less than his usual salary didn’t seem to make sense to Goheen, who also picked up a bit extra playing for the St. Paul team in the American Hockey Association. And he wasn’t alone. Many talented Minnesotans stayed at home in the AHA, a high-level league for the times. Some hockey historians argue convincingly that Goheen’s skills were on a par with Baker’s and that what kept him from being as famous was a war record and a number of major articles in the New York Times.

“I’ve watched all the hockey players for 60 years and none could do as many things as Goheen,” long-time Minnesota hockey aficionado Bob Fitzsimmons stated in a 1978 article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “He was a man born with skates on his feet. For him, the ice was like ground to the rest of us. He was truly the only hockey player I ever saw who combined speed, power, brute force, finesse and brains. God made Moose and threw away the mold.”

Goheen often seemed like a racehorse in a field of hobbled nags. When he reached full speed, no opponent could catch him. Those who ventured too close often paid for their daring with damage caused by his stick. With his powerful stride, he was never more than seconds away from a score. He could be as tough as he was talented and he competed each night as if he was on a holy crusade. “Nothing in sports could ever beat the sight of Moose Goheen taking the puck, circling behind his own net and taking it down the rink, leaping over sticks along the way,” said long-time Minneapolis announcer and sportswriter Halsey Hall in an interview with hockey historian Don Clark.

The first full-fledged, American-born NHL star was probably Taffy Abel, a barn-sized defenseman from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, 6 ’ 2" and 245 pounds when he arrived in the league with the New York Rangers in 1926. Considering that the majority of players in that era were about 5 ’ 9" and 165, it’s not hard to imagine how physically imposing Abel was to opponents. He was also quick-tempered, which added to the fear factor they likely experienced. As a young player for the Soo Indians, he had recorded a one-punch knockout against a team manager who had reacted to a heartbreaking loss by saying, “There’s always next game.” Abel emphatically did not like to lose. “Off the ice, he was easygoing,” recalls second cousin Bill Thorn. “On the ice, you didn’t want to meet him.”

Abel’s game wasn’t just about knocking opponents into the third row (although he was indeed a ferocious bodychecker). He could also skate well for a large man and it was said at the time that he churned like an open-throttle locomotive after he got going. Abel first caught the attention of NHL teams when general managers heard he had scored 15 goals in five games to help the Americans win the silver medal at the 1924 Olympics and he would deliver on that early promise. In his first season with the Rangers, he netted eight goals to place among the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman.

Although Abel played three seasons for the Rangers and helped them win the 1928 Stanley Cup, general manager Lester Patrick always believed he should trim his girth (at various points in his career, Abel weighed as much as 260). When he refused to shed pounds, the Rangers sold him to the Chicago Black Hawks for $15,000 — a whopping sum for a hockey transaction at that time.

In his seventh NHL season, Abel helped the Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup and then retired because owner Major Frederic McLaughlin wouldn’t give him a raise he’d been promised.

As Abel was wrapping up his career, the NHL was just starting to view Eveleth, Minnesota as a spawning ground for hockey talent. Hockey was as much a staple in Eveleth as bread and potatoes and no city has meant more to hockey in the United States. A mining community of 5,000 residents located 100 miles from the Canadian border and 60 miles from Duluth, Eveleth is to American hockey what Washington, D.C., is to politics and Nashville to country music. Its ability to produce elite-level players in the first half of the 20th century is one of the most astounding stories in hockey history.

In the 1930s, when there were only eight teams in the NHL, the Eveleth area managed to send two goaltenders to the league, Hall of Famer Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas, who won NHL rookie of the year honors in 1935-36. Eveleth was also home to John Mariucci, one of the toughest NHL players in the 1930s, plus Joe Papike and Aldo Palazzari (who played briefly in the league, his NHL career prematurely ended when he lost an eye playing a preseason game for the Rangers in 1944-45. His Eveleth-born son, Doug, made the NHL with the St. Louis Blues in 1974). Eveleth’s influence also extended to college hockey and it has been documented that during the Depression, 147 Eveleth players were playing on various teams around the country.

Like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Eveleth’s ascendance as a hockey Mecca was fueled by its mining riches. The first recorded game in the community was played on January 23, 1903 when a team from Eveleth lost 5-2 to a team from Two Harbors, Minnesota. The city constructed its first indoor skating rink that same year. By 1914, it had four outdoor rinks. In the 1920s, hockey was such a major activity the mayor pushed for the construction of the 3,000-capacity Hippodrome rink, which opened on January 1, 1922.

In 1920-21, the Eveleth Reds began competing in the United States Amateur Hockey Association. Eveleth’s division included teams from Houghton, Sault Ste. Marie [Ontario], the American Soo and Calumet, Michigan. In the national final, Eveleth lost to Cleveland 14-12 in a four-game total-goals series, but that was just the beginning. Eveleth fans got to see some of the best amateur hockey in the country before high operating costs and raids by pro teams forced the town to take a lower profile in 1926. During the early 1920s, the Eveleth team featured several prominent players — including Perk Galbraith, Vic Desjardins and Ching Johnson — who would play in the NHL. And Johnson, who had moved to Eveleth from his native Manitoba, would eventually be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But of all of the players born, raised and trained in the Eveleth program, Frank Brimsek and Mike Karakas achieved the most success. America usually celebrates Jim Craig’s performance at the 1980 Olympics as the defining moment in American goaltending history, yet Karakas and Brimsek both won Stanley Cup championships long before he was born. Karakas helped the Black Hawks win the Stanley Cup in 1938 despite sneaking into the playoffs with a dismal record of 14-25-9. The 1937-38 Chicago team featured seven other U.S.-born players (Alex Levinsky, Carl Voss, Roger Jenkins, Doc Romnes, Louis Trudel, Virgil Johnson and Cully Dahlstrom) because owner Major McLaughlin was determined to prove Americans could compete in the NHL.

Karakas went on to earn 28 shutouts and a 2.92 goals-against average in eight NHL seasons. Brimsek led Boston to a Stanley Cup victory in his rookie season (1938-39) and retired from the NHL in 1950 with 40 shutouts and a 2.70 goals-against average over 10 seasons. Rocket Richard has called Brimsek the toughest goaltender he ever faced, but, “They were both very quiet guys,” says Karakas’s brother, Tommy. “Neither one of them was a Dennis Rodman type. They kept to themselves.”

Yet a third Eveleth-area netminder reached the NHL in 1940-41 when Sam LoPresti became Chicago’s goalie after Karakas was dealt to Montreal. Brimsek and Karakas were smallish goaltenders; LoPresti was a 215-pounder who looked like a fullback. He turned in one of the most remarkable goaltending performances in NHL history during his rookie season with a league-record 80 saves in a 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. LoPresti gave up the winning goal with 2:31 remaining as a shot caromed off his glove and fell into the net. (Years later, his son, Pete, played in the NHL and Lopresti was visiting in the Minnesota North Stars dressing room. When he noticed the size of the webbing in Pete’s glove, he remarked, “If I’d had a glove that big, I wouldn’t have missed that third goal.”) It wasn’t easy for the American pioneers to crack into NHL lineups that were usually exclusive Canadian clubs. Chicago’s Doc Romnes (Lady Byng Trophy, 1936) and Cully Dahlstrom (Calder Trophy, 1936) were about the only other prominent Americans in the NHL in the 1930s. During his years with the Black Hawks, Mariucci felt that he had to fight regularly to prove he deserved to be in the league. He would later champion the cause of American players as coach at the University of Minnesota. When Palazzari joined the Rangers, Canadian teammates told him to “go home and play baseball.” Palazzari said Canadians made him feel like “a germ that had just entered the body and the white corpuscles were ganging up on me.”

It may be true that hockey tradition can’t match — nor ever catch up to — the reverence that is regularly granted to baseball history in America. But it’s just as true that hockey had its toehold in the American sporting landscape long before most people realize. In the first four decades of the 20th century, it was as popular in selected areas of the U.S. as anywhere in Canada. At least people in Eveleth and Houghton loved it with the same crazy passion as Canadian fans in Moose Jaw, Flin Flon and North Bay.