When The NHL Marched To War

When The NHL Marched To War

NHL

When The NHL Marched To War

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“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 game of his life.”

This is a quote from deceased Hockey Hall of Famer Captain James T. Sutherland, who was president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association

The Hockey Hall of Fame states that 71 of its members served in the military. Forty inductees battled in the First World War and 31 in the Second World War.

Fred Cyclone Taylor of the 1914-15 Vancouver Millionaires hockey team, which went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1915. (BC Sports Hall of Fame)

According to Hockey Central, the NHL 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. Hall of Famer 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.

The 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 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.

Hall of Fame military veterans include Johnny Bower, Sid Abel, Syl Apps, Bobby Bauer, Max Bentley, Turk Broda, Roy Conacher, Hap Day, Doug Harvey, Punch Imlach, Tommy Ivan, Lynn Patrick, Bud Poile, Milt Schmidt, Tiny Thompson, and Harry Watson.

Three of those heroes have awards named after them, Jack Adams, Frank Selke, and Hobey Baker.

The NHL nearly folded due to a lack of players who enlisted and the inability of fans to attend games as many enlisted.

“They went and fought for their country like we all did,” said Johnny Bower.

At the tender age of 16 Hall of Fame goalie, Johnny Bower lied about his age and enlisted.

Rationing of vital material such as gasoline and rubber impaired fans’ ability to drive their cars to games. (Late in the war, the U.S. government shut down horse racing to conserve these very items, which thoroughbred enthusiasts were consuming getting to and from the tracks.) Hockey teams in cities without extensive streetcar networks or subways were especially hard hit. The American Hockey League went from 10 teams at the war’s outset to just six in 1943-44. (Hockey Central)

Teams searched everywhere for players. “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe was recruited into the league at 15 years old in 1943 by the New York Rangers.

Bower spent two years in Vernon, B.C., before being stationed in England for a year. Rheumatoid arthritis eventually prevented Private Bower from going to the front.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t because the Germans were right there, just waiting,” he said. “A lot of guys there were killed on the beaches. I know four or five good hockey players from Prince Albert (his hometown) were killed,” said Bower. “Sure, it was scary. You wanted to go home, back to your family and your wife if you were married. I was hoping that nothing would happen to me if I did see action. But that’s the chance you take when you’re fighting for your country.”

Bower had lied about his age (16) to enlist during World War II.

Bower recalled, “They wanted to see my birth certificate and I said ‘We had a big fire at home.’ And I said it was burned. I lied there just so I could get in. I wanted to go with my other buddies.”

The NHL was not untouched by the tragedy of war, especially during World War II. Conn Smythe, having gotten overseas with his anti-aircraft battery, was seriously wounded in a Luftwaffe raid in July 1944 and returned home that September. Interim league president Red Dutton lost two sons in combat. And while casualties in the ranks of NHL regulars are difficult to spot, there were many bright prospects whose losses can only make one wonder what might have been. Detroit lost Joe Turner, a star goaltender in the AHL, who as a Canadian chose to join the U.S. Marines and was killed in action in northern Europe in January 1945. Leaf prospect Red Tilson, who had starred with the Oshawa Generals, was killed in action with a Canadian infantry regiment in October 1944. Dudley “Red” Garret, a Leaf prospect who had been traded to the Rangers (playing 23 games with New York in 1942-43), was lost when his corvette patrol boat was torpedoed by a U-boat off Newfoundland in November 1944.

Conn Smythe and others enlisting at Maple Leaf Gardens, 1939. (Hockey Chronicle)

The Second World War even brought changes to the game.

There is no doubt that the need for men in the services during the Second World War created a dilution of talent in all the layers of teams and leagues across Canada. The most notable wartime change to the rules of the game was brought on in 1943. Before 1943, a player was not allowed to make a forward pass across his own blue line. That changed in the 1943-44 season, when the NHL ruled that players could pass from their defensive zone up to the middle of the rink, which would be marked by a new red line at center ice. This changed the game dramatically. The new rules allowed a player in his own defensive zone to make a breakout pass as far as the red line, which created the high-speed game we are familiar with today.

The Second World War brought on another change to the game; in regular season play, overtime had to be discontinued due to wartime curfew restrictions. Overtime, an aspect of the game we all now take for granted, would not be reintroduced for another four decades after the war. (Juno Beach Centre)


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Much had changed in the NHL during World War I and World World War II. Many heroes of the game had given their lives, or at the very least the prime years of their career, to military service.

On this Veterans day, and every day, let us honor those who kept our world safe, including the men that put down their sticks and picked up their rifles.

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