Hockey Central

Hockey in World War I

On December 4, 1914, the cannons and machine guns stationed on the rich farmlands of rural France and Belgium continued to reap their bloody harvest. The echoes of the Great War could be heard in far-off villages, towns and isolated farms on both sides of the Front Line as the death toll continued to mount. The war would not be over by Christmas as the politicians had promised.

Thousands of miles away, in the Temple Building in Toronto, the board of directors for the Ontario Hockey Association was holding its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, the war in Europe dominated the agenda. Many on the board had close relatives fighting in the conflict, and with each passing day the teams of the OHA were losing more and more players to military service. As the minutes of that meeting show, the world of sports could not remain oblivious to the reality of war: “Much of the discussion at the meeting centered around the question of enlisted men and their residential eligibility. It was finally decided that enlisted men, no matter where located, could play with their home team, their regimental team, or with any team in the town in which their company or battalion was located. Any player who is under suspension from the OHA for any cause whatever, and who enlists for overseas service, shall automatically be reinstated and eligible for membership in the Association. This of course does not apply to professionals ... ”

One year later, the war raged on and another Christmas came and went with no end in sight. On December 30, 1915, James T. Sutherland, president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association and captain of the 146th Overseas Battalion, issued the following message:

In this, my first official note as president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, I take the greatest pleasure in sending out to all officers and players in the many provincial associations connected with our governing body the heartfelt wish that the coming year of 1916 will bring to one and all the greatest amount of happiness and prosperity possible.

I feel, however, that I have a greater responsibility and duty to perform at this time and that is to point out to the great army of hockey players and officials scattered throughout our beloved Canada, from coast to coast, how great and urgent the need is for men to come forward and rally to the defense of our common cause, and strike a blow for liberty and justice that will re-echo around the world.

Canada’s athletes have responded nobly to the call in the past, and will, I am sure, continue to do so. In a few short weeks, our hockey season will be over, and if there are any who have not made up their minds regarding their future course of action, let me say that, in my opinion, there should be only one conclusion, and that should be to exchange the stick and puck for a 'Ross rifle and a bayonet,’ and take your place in the great army that is being forced to sweep the 'oppressors of humanity’ from the face of the earth...

It takes nerve and gameness to play the game of hockey. The same qualities are necessary in the greater game that is now being played in France and on the other fighting fronts.

The thousands of hockey players throughout the Dominion of Canada have all the necessary qualifications. Therefore, I strongly urge all such to 'rally around the flag.’ With every man doing his bit, Canada will raise an army of brains and brawn from our hockey enthusiasts the likes of which the world has never seen.

The bell has rung. Let every man 'play the greatest game of his life.’ Over to center!

By the 1915-16 OHA season, schedules had been juggled to accommodate the surge in soldier teams (which had reached 17 in total), as military training schedules and the mobilization of army units might force these clubs to withdraw from the league with little notice. The majority of other senior and junior teams also had a large percentage of their players in the army. Many of the coaches and referees had enlisted as well. Out west, the Winnipeg 61st Battalion team (featuring future Hockey Hall of Famer “Bullet Joe” Simpson) won the Allan Cup in 1916 before being sent overseas. Another Winnipeg team, the Falcons (with future Hall of Famer Frank Fredrickson), saw every player who was of age enlist for military service. In 1916-17, the former Winnipeg Falcons played for the 223rd Battalion in Manitoba’s Patriotic League. They trained with the army in Portage la Prairie and made their way into Winnipeg for games. In May of 1917, the 223rd Battalion was shipped overseas.

In the army, it did not matter that a soldier had been a hockey hero. Like thousands of others, the players were sent to the front-line trenches where they took part in the battles which so scarred Flanders. By the time of the armistice in 1918, many Winnipeg hockey heroes lay dead in the fields, buried in the newly dug military cemeteries of France. Amongst the dead were three former Falcons players: Olie Turnbull, Buster Thorsteinson and George Cumbers.

Far from receiving a hero’s welcome, when the surviving members of the Falcons made it back to Winnipeg in 1919, they had to engage in a public battle with the board of hockey governors to be reinstated as a senior team. After a fight (via the newspapers), and a public outcry against the treatment of the war veterans, the Falcons were permitted to play in a newly formed league with a team from Brandon and a team from Selkirk. The prewar rivalry between the Falcons and the Selkirk Fishermen heated up once again, much to the delight of their fans, who for decades afterward would pine for the return of the old Selkirk-Falcons series.

The Winnipeg Falcons not only proved themselves still capable by winning their new league title, they also defeated the champions of the established Winnipeg league that had made their return so difficult. They then went on to win the Allan Cup as Canada’s senior amateur champions. As winners of the Allan Cup, the Falcons became the first Canadian hockey team to play in the Olympic Games in 1920, whereupon they won the gold medal. Unlike the welcome they had received on their return from the war, this time, as Olympic champions, they were treated as royalty with a parade in their honor, dinner with the mayor and a watch from the city. The Falcons had truly returned.

The city of Winnipeg certainly had no monopoly on hockey players who enlisted for military duty and/or played on Battalion teams before serving overseas. Among the heroes of the game who accepted the call to arms from all across the country was one of hockey’s earliest legends: “One-Eyed” Frank McGee. Though he was already 32 years old, McGee signed up for military service on November 9, 1914. The former Ottawa sharp-shooter, known for his scoring prowess 10 years earlier when the Silver Seven dominated the Stanley Cup, performed one more amazing feat by passing his physical with perfect eyesight despite the fact he was said to be blind in one eye. This Ottawa native, the nephew of assassinated politician Darcy McGee, and a hero to many a hockey fan, was not spared the horrors of trench warfare. His speed and accuracy and the love of his fans were not enough to protect McGee from the bullets of France. He lost his life on September 16, 1916, while fighting in the Battle of the Somme.

Back in Canada, the Southam newspaper chain rapidly was gaining control of the country’s print media, and Gordon Southam, the son of the founder, wanted to contribute to the war effort. He had two criteria — he wanted to form an artillery unit and he wanted the members of his unit to share his love of sport. His plan was that after the mandatory summer of military training in the Niagara region, his artillery unit would be stationed at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto awaiting orders to ship out. While there, the unit would place a team in the Ontario Hockey Association.

With the backing of the family fortune, Gordon Southam formed the 40th Battery, known as the Sportsmen’s Battery. One of the early individuals Southam approached to join his Battery was Conn Smythe, captain of the University of Toronto hockey team that had won the Ontario junior championship in 1914-15. Smythe already had joined the army and was a member of the 2nd Ottawa Battery but successfully transferred to Southam’s 40th. It was up to Lieutenant Smythe to organize the Battery’s hockey team and to get them accepted into the OHA. Despite its outward show of welcoming the soldier teams, Smythe found the OHA board of governors to be quite intense as they negotiated which teams the 40th Battery would compete against and determined their take of the gate receipts. The 40th Battery would compete in a Toronto division with the Riversides (who boasted future Hall of Famer Reg Noble in their lineup), the Argos and the Toronto Rowing and Athletic Association. All games would be played at the Mutual Street Arena. The other hockey managers knew that crowds (and, therefore, the gate receipts) were traditionally smaller early in the season and would grow as the year progressed. Smythe did not yet know this and agreed that the 40th Battery would play as the home team during the first half of the season and the visitors during the second. This meant they would be receiving the larger portion of the gate during the time when crowds would be down.

“The old hockey men, I was told later, laughed at how they’d put one over on the kid,” Smythe would write in his autobiography, “but the joke was on them. ... They’d misjudged the Patriotic sentiment in Toronto, plus our good players were starting to make us crowd favorites.” In addition, the 40th Battery would be called overseas before the season concluded. “As a minor piece of retribution, this meant that the guys who had conned me in the scheduling weren’t going to get the home-team break in gate money from us at all.”

The 40th Battery began play in January, losing 8-3 to Reg Noble’s Riversides in their first game. The Toronto Telegram informed its readers that one of the weaknesses of the army team was Conn Smythe’s inability to backcheck effectively. This was the last game Smythe would play. Realizing his weakness, he put out the better players and concentrated on coaching. Among those better players was Jack Pethick, who played rover for the 40th Battery team and was the hero of many games. On January 17, 1916, the Telegram reported that “Pethick is going to be a hard man to handle. This soldier team, in fact, will take some [physical] beating from now on.”

On January 26, 1916, Major Southam received orders that his battery soon would be heading overseas to France. Though the orders were secret, Southam let Smythe know and the two took up a local gambler’s offer to bet heavily on the game. Southam and Smythe bet the team’s entire gate receipts earned during their time in the OHA, a total of almost $2,800. Smythe let his team known that all of their money was riding on the game with the Argos, and the 40th Battery came out with a vengeance, racking up an 8-3 victory. “The 40th Battery came into their own last night,” the Telegram said. “Just short of the winning touch in their last two meetings with the Argos, they came with a rush last night. The soldiers smothered the Argo attack from the start and added the final punch which had been lacking in their own offensive rushes.” The 40th Battery had won a purse of more than $5,000 and with gate receipts of just over $1,000 had almost $7,000 in all. The money was used to improve their life over in France. Every man of the 40th Battery received a full Christmas dinner every Christmas that they were overseas.

The only unfortunate aspect of the team’s lucrative victory was a brawl that broke out in the stands between supporters of the Battery and fans of the Argos. When the fisticuffs were over, one of the 40th Battery men was badly hurt. Worried that he would not be able to travel because of his injuries, the wounded man asked his teammates to cover for him. He boarded the ship with the rest of the soldiers but succumbed to his injuries (likely massive internal bleeding) during the trip and was buried at sea.

Like the many hockey soldiers who had proceeded and would follow them, no special treatment was given to these stars of the game in Europe. The 40th Battery took part in the Somme offensive and was part of the group that captured Vimy Ridge. A number of the hockey players, including rover Jack Pethick, who had been singled out for his skill, were killed in action. Gordon Southam was killed by an artillery shell. Smythe was disgusted by the commander that took over from his fallen leader and switched to the Royal Flying Corps. His flight instructor was Canadian flying ace Billy Barker.

Barker was an incredibly daring pilot, whose career in the sky was cut short when he was badly shot up during a dogfight over the fields of “No Man’s Land.” Smythe, who remained loyal to his former trainer and sensitive to the contribution which Barker had made to the war effort, later made him the first president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “[It] didn’t work out exactly as I had planned,” Smythe would later write. “I thought that maybe a speech now and then from [Barker] in the dressing room would be good. Most of the players had missed the war, but certainly knew its most-decorated heroes. Many of the other directors had been in the war as well, but Barker was by far the most famous. However, he had trouble with alcohol. Trying to stay away from it he carried a case of ginger ale with him wherever he went, and when the impulse came he’d grab a ginger ale. But one night when I’d line him up to visit the dressing room before an important game, he had to go to Hamilton. On the way he reached down for a ginger ale. There wasn’t any. He went into a hotel instead and got plastered, then headed back to Toronto hellbent for Maple Leaf Gardens. On the way up Jarvis Street his car skidded and turned upside down. He showed up on time in the dressing room, clothes torn and covered with blood, and didn’t give a bad speech, at all, on the importance of morale. I don’t know how much it actually helped morale, but it probably did make a few guys think about the dangers of drinking and driving.”

In terms of hockey, World War I affected much more than just Canadian amateurs. In Europe, the International Ice Hockey Federation ceased operations from 1914 to 1920. In the United States, like Canada, the amateur game continued, though many American stars traded in their sticks for guns. Hobey Baker, American hockey’s greatest star, was an airman in the famed Lafayette Esquadrille. The former Princeton star and a member of the famed St. Nicholas team in New York City had been in Europe at the time of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand that triggered the start of World War I. Friends had a difficult time talking Baker out of enlisting in the British army. He returned to New York, but by 1916 was training to become a pilot. After the United States entered the war in 1917, Baker was among the first American flyers shipped to France, though it was not until April of 1918 that he saw his first combat — in a single-seater Spad painted in the Princeton colors of orange and black. He shot down three German planes by war’s end and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre for heroism. Baker survived The Great War, but one month after the armistice of November 11, 1918, America’s greatest hockey star was killed in a crash after taking to the skies for one last flight.

Like the amateur game, professional hockey in Canada was greatly affected during World War I. Vancouver was one of the first cities to feel it. As early as July of 1914 (a few days after the assassination of the Archduke), there were reports that German cruisers were prowling the waters of the Pacific just a few miles off the British Columbia coast. Guns were mounted at the entrance to Burrard Inlet and the entire Vancouver harbor was patrolled by the militia. Cyclone Taylor, star of the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and the number three man in the British Columbia Department of Immigration (where he worked when he wasn’t playing hockey or lacrosse), had to pass through armed guards to get to his office on the Vancouver waterfront. Two weeks after Britain, and therefore Canada, declared war on Germany on August 5, 1914, Taylor volunteered for military service.

“I had no illusions about war, and I was not the soldier type,” Taylor would tell biographer Eric Whitehead. He’d also been married just a few months before. “I wasn’t anxious to serve overseas, but if they wanted me and needed me, I was willing and ready to go.” A few days after he enlisted, immigration officers were declared exempt from military service (their work was categorized as vital to the national interest.) Private Frederick Wellington “Cyclone” Taylor of the Seaforth Highlanders was given an honorable discharge.

In the spring of 1915, Taylor’s good friend Frank Patrick was reported to have enlisted for military service. The president of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (as well as owner, coach and player of the Vancouver Millionaires) had offered to form a Sportsmen’s Battalion similar to the ones being raised in the east. Two weeks later, writes Whitehead in his Patrick biography, a letter arrived from Ottawa stating that since Vancouver and Victoria were key ports and shipyard and naval-base communities, entertainment like hockey was considered vital to home-front morale. Both Frank and Lester Patrick were requested to stay put. However, by 1917, the Canadian government had commandeered the Victoria Arena for military purposes and Lester’s hockey club was forced to move to Spokane, Washington. Pro hockey would not return to Victoria until after the war (1918-19).

In the east, the pro hockey cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec were less fearful of invasion than Vancouver and Victoria, but their teams would be no less affected by the war. Among the first National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) players to enlist for military service was Allan “Scotty” Davidson. A scoring star with the 1914 Stanley Cup champion Toronto Blueshirts, Davidson signed up shortly after the outbreak of war and was killed in Belgium on June 6, 1915. By the 1916-17 season, dozens of NHA and past hockey players had enlisted. Attendance was suffering, as many of the game’s former fans were also overseas or saw the game as too frivolous a pastime during the war. The Ottawa Senators asked to withdraw from the league for one season, but the team was operated under new management instead. Montreal Wanderers owner Sam Lichtenhein patriotically announced that only married men and munitions workers would be signed by his team (though the roster was not very different from the year before). The biggest change in the NHA for the 1916-17 season was the inclusion of an army team.

The 228th Battalion, or Northern Fusiliers, had recruited a great number of sportsmen from Toronto and Northern Ontario and was granted an NHA franchise on September 30, 1916. Among the khaki-clad hockey players was future Hall of Famer Howard McNamara, his brother George, Goldie Prodgers and Art Duncan of the PCHA. The team posted a 6-4 record in the first half of the NHA schedule but was sent overseas in February of 1917 and could not complete the season. To better balance the remainder of the schedule, the other NHA owners voted to drop Eddie Livingstone’s Toronto team as well. Livingstone had long been a thorn in the side of the NHA and had angered both players and owners by battling the 228th Battalion over the rights to Duke Keats and refusing to allow Cy Denneny to join Ottawa, where he lived and worked when not playing hockey. In November of 1917, NHA owners reorganized as the National Hockey League in order to rid themselves of Livingstone. Though the Quebec Bulldogs and Montreal Wanderers were included in the new league, wartime financial losses spelled the end of both franchises (though he Bulldogs would be revived for a final season in 1919-20).

The First World War finally was over by the time the NHL began its second season of 1918-19. Fans looked forward to seeing their favorite players back on the ice, and though the armistice had been signed on November 11, 1918, few would be demobilized in time to start the season on December 21, 1918. Still, the war was over and hockey once again assumed an importance it had not enjoyed since 1914. That point was made clear when the Duke of Devonshire attended the Ottawa Senators home opener. It was the first time the Governor-General had appeared at a hockey game since the outbreak of war.

Much had changed in hockey during World War I and much would continue to change in the ensuing years. Many heroes of the game had given their lives, or at the very least the prime years of their career, to military service. The professional game would not recover fully until well into the 1920s. One man who was ready to be a part of this change was Conn Smythe. He had entered the war the son of a poor dreamer and emerged an officer who would go on to play a key role in forging the modern game of hockey. Twenty years later, he would follow the example of Gordon Southam and form a Sportsmen’s Battalion when the world went to war a second time.