Hockey Central

The Coast Guard Cutters

It may come as a surprise to many hockey historians, but the most accomplished collection of players to represent Uncle Sam on ice belonged neither to the 1960 nor 1980 gold medal Olympians who won their championships at Squaw Valley and Lake Placid, respectively.

Comprised almost exclusively of collegians or recent university graduates, the Olympians were more glamorous – in the melodramatic, Horatio Alger, Hollywood style – than talented although their victories symbolized many hockey virtues.

By contrast, a virtually forgotten group of star-spangled skaters playing out of Baltimore, Maryland unquestionably remains the finest non-National Hockey League team ever to perform in league competition. The United States Coast guard Cutters club, unfortunately, performed in a pre-table vision, pre-hype era and consequently their feats remained relatively unchronicled, although they won two consecutive championships and thoroughly dominated the competition in their two seasons of operation.

A product of World War II, the Cutters were created shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A former Michigan-born player, C.R. MacLean was assigned to the Coast Guard Curtis Bay Yard in Baltimore. A Lieutenant Commander, MacLean was the Yard's Personnel Officer and foremost hockey fan.

"If a hockey player had a choice of service in which to enlist," said Mike Nardello, a New York Rangers prospect, "Commander MacLean would encourage them to join the Coast Guard."

During the summer of 1942 MacLean began networking and soon he had enough players to organize a team. He contacted Tom Lockhart, president of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States. Lockhart also was head of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League (EAHL), one of the top breeding grounds for NHL players.

"Prior to the war," Nardello recalled, "the Eastern League played in Baltimore. But like so many clubs it had to disband because so many players entered the armed forces."

Lockhart approved the Cutters as the EAHL's replacement club in Baltimore. They would play against the New York Rovers – a Rangers farm club playing out of Madison Square Garden – the Boston Olympics, the Bruins' EAHL counterpart, and the Philadelphia Falcons, an independent team whose home was the Arena.

What lifted the Coast Guard head and shoulders above any of their American rivals, before or since, was the quality of personnel, not to mention the depth at each position. Once MacLean's clarion call was sounded, stickhandlers from virtually every league responded, especially the NHL. And many were future Hall of Famers.

Art Coulter had just captained the Rangers to first place during the 1941-42 National Hockey League season – he also led them to the 1940 Stanley Cup – and debated whether to enlist. He took the train to Baltimore and signed on with the Coast Guard.

So did Frank Brinsek, alias Mister Zero, who to this day is regarded as the premier goaltender in Boston Bruins history. A native of Eveleth, Minnesota – appropriately home of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame – Brimsek was netminder for Boston's Stanley Cup wins in 1939 and 1941.

"The amazing thing was that Frankie had to fight for the number one job," said Bob Gilray, another member of the Cutters, "because we had two other top goalies."

Each a star in the powerful minor-league American Hockey Association, goalies Muzz Murray and Hub Nelson battled Brimsek for lead goalie. The result was that the net minding was divided by thirds but always nonpareil.

Johnny Mariucci, an All-American football hero at the University of Minnesota, and a starting defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks, took the train from the Windy City to Baltimore. Mariucci teamed with AHA ace Manny Cotlow – a Jewish defenseman who would just as soon eat railroad spikes as T-bone steaks – to give the Cutters a frightening back line trio.

No less tough was Bob Dill, a Golden Gloves champ from St. Paul, who would graduate to the New York Rangers defense after his stint in the Coast Guard. (After Dill scored the winning goal against the Rovers one Sunday, the next day's New York Daily Mirror headlined it "Dill Pickles Clincher.")

From Detroit came Alex Motter, who had been a member of the Red Wings 1942 Stanley Cup finalists that had taken the Toronto Maple Leafs to seven games before losing. Motter, a forward, and Bud Cook, kid brother of legendary Rangers Bill and Bun Cook, were ingredients in the Coast Guard's high-octane attack.

The big-leaguers notwithstanding, primary energy for the Cutters machine was infused by players from hotbeds such as the Minnesota Iron Range and Northern Michigan. A prime example was the top line comprised of Gilray, Joe Kucler and Eddie Olson.

"I was playing in the Marquette (Michigan) area with Muzz Murray," said Gilray. "Our coach was the former NHL defenseman Taffy Abel. He got a letter from Commander MacLean asking Taffy if any of his players were interested in playing hockey for the Coast Guard."

"Muzz and I had been on a waiting list to join the Coast Guard. When Commander MacLean found out we wanted to play hockey we were told to report to the Coast Guard's Chicago base the next day. A Captain Stewart asked me to raise my hand and proceeded to swear me in. His first words were 'Where are your skates?' When I told him I left them at home he said: 'You better mail for them immediately!' I was playing hockey within two days."

Mike Nardello was one of the rare New York-born Rangers prospects. A high school star, the fleet forward played in the Metropolitan Amateur Hockey League for the Manhattan Arrows when he was spotted by Rangers manager Lester Patrick. Eventually, Nardello became the only New Yorker to play for the Coast Guard varsity.

"I was going to high school at St. Frances Prep," recalls Nardello, "and playing for the Eastern League's New York Rovers at the same time. Eddie Olson of the Cutters encouraged me to join the Coast Guard when I graduated from high school and had to be drafted. I graduated from high school on January 28, 1943. On February 1, I was sworn into the Coast Guard. Before going to boot camp, I got a chance to play one game for the Cutters. It was against the Rivers. In the span of one week I played for and against the Rovers and the Coast Guard."

One by one, from all points between South Boston and San Francisco, the stickhandlers converged on the Curtis Bay Yard. Eddie Barry, who eventually would play for the Boston Bruins, packed his gear in Wellesley, Massachusetts and made his way to Baltimore. Mel Harwood, who had refereed the 1942 Stanley Cup finals, enlisted in what New York Daily News reporter Dick Young called "Hooligan's Navy" and immediately was named coach of the Cutters.

"Harwood was an excellent coach," said Cotlow. "He certainly had the respect of the players. He was good to us and the players paid him back. Harwood got the most out of us."

If Harwood had a problem it was finding enough ice time for his bell-bottomed skaters. They were required to fulfill their military obligations by day and only then were able to practice at Carlin's Iceland arena in Baltimore. Then there was the matter of numbers.

Harwood was so overloaded with talent he divided the Cutters into two teams – the Cutters and the Clippers – who competed against each other when they weren't involved in Eastern League action. They once played a brutal four-game series that Catlow described as "the most physical games of my life." George Taylor, writing in the Baltimore NewsPost, observed "the rubber tilt was more exciting than the Stanley Cup playoffs." When the Clippers and Cutters united against a common foe, they were virtually unbeatable, winning the U.S. National Senior Open championship of the Amateur Hockey Association in 1943 and 1944.

To gauge how powerful the Cutters were – apart from the fact that they overwhelmed Eastern League foes and won two national titles – one must consider their exhibition game slate as well. For diversion, the Cutters would play against strong Canadian service teams liberally sprinkled with pros and invariably beat them. In a contest against the Allan Cup champion Ottawa Commandos, led by ex-Rangers stars Neil Colville and Alex Shibicky, as well as Joe Cooper of the Black Hawks, the Cutters triumphed 5-2.

The only downer was a loss to the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings on January 6, 1943, before a capacity crowd in Baltimore. With Brimsek in goal, the Cutters hung tough until well into the third period – they trailed 4-3, but were ultimately shellacked 8-3.

"They didn't intimidate us," said Catlow, "but they were a little smarter."

Despite the patriotic aura that engulfed North America, the Cutters were hardly popular outside Baltimore. They played a take-no-prisoners type of game and frequently roughed up the enemy as well as outscored them. Cotlow was the most rambunctious of the sextet.

"Manny," recalled Kucler, "was quite a character. If the crowd got on Manny for making a bad play, he would set them off by waving his arms or stick at them. You should have heard them boo then. Manny didn't care. He would just keep it up."

"Manny," added MacLean, "was an unbelievable show-off. I remember him throwing his stick in the air. He became really adept at achieving a great deal of height after a while."

Cotlow: "I always felt that is the fans didn't cheer or boo you might as well not be playing."

The special ambience which surrounded the Cutters was embellished not only by their personalities but their uniforms and musicians as well. They wore unusual red, white and blue, star spangled jerseys with crossed anchors on the front. Unlike any other hockey club, they were accompanied by a nimble 30-piece marching band that played Semper Paratus – Always Ready, the Coast Guard marching song – at every game.

Nardello was on Madison Square Garden ice for a singularly significant event in the team's short history. Winner of the EAHL's James J. Walker Cup, among their many accomplishments, the Cutters actually were presented the trophy by New York's dashing Mayor Jimmy (Beau James) Walker in ceremonies near the conclusion of the 1943-44 season. It marked one of Walker's last public appearances.

Likewise, it signalled the end of the brief, though sparkling, Coast Guard reign. By mid-1944 the Allied war effort had reached a critical juncture and the need for reinforcements was grave. The idea that two dozen sailors could spend fall and winter playing hockey along the eastern seaboard did not sit well with some elements of the public.

"A lot of parents of servicemen couldn't understand why their sons were overseas fighting and we were still playing hockey," said Kulcer. "The Coast Guard was under a lot of pressure to break us up."

Olson: "They said that Joe was playing his last game for us and then would be shipping out. As soon as Joe left they began getting rid of the other guys and by then, we knew the honeymoon was over."

Those who saw the Cutters on a regular basis agree that they were genuine champions and bristling characters as well. Emile "the Cat" Francis, who played goal for the Philadelphia Falcons and faced the Cutters many times, ranked them among the best clubs of their kind.

"There was nothing quite like them before or since," said Francis, who later became an NHL goaltender as well as big-league coach and general manager.

At war's end, many of the Cutters – including Coulter – retired from pro hockey. However, Mariucci and Brimsek resumed their NHL careers and Nardello played minor-league hockey for the Clinton Comets.

Their feats, for the most part, were forgotten as they gradually left the ice realm. But Nardello, who became an NHL off-ice official at New Jersey Devils games in the mid-1980s and continued at the post through the late 1990s, insisted that the Cutters never received sufficient recognition for their excellence.

Whether they were the greatest American team or not is debatable but neither their uniqueness nor their championships can be questioned.