Monday, January 24, 2011

Apocryphal Chronicles of Trivial Hockey Events #2

Wherein a wealthy heir tries to make a point with the company money.

Once upon a time, there was a man called Frederic McLaughlin. Frederic’s dad, Mr. McLaughlin, owned a coffee company, and moreover owned it during the latter half of the 19th century, when coffee was one of those slave-labor kind of commodities upon which a fortune might be built. Mr. McLaughlin built indeed, built up both a successful business and a huge pile of spare money, and he had two sons, and then he died. The younger son took over the successful business, while the elder- our Frederic- primarily occupied himself with the huge pile of spare money. He spent the money on Harvard, and then on polo, and then he joined the army for a while and spent some of his time patrolling the Mexican border and some other time fighting in WWI. Being in the army all that time, he fell seriously behind on the money-spending front, so when he got out he married a popular and decorative professional dancer and occasional actress, and he bought a hockey team.

He spent, depending on what source you believe, somewhere between $200,000 and $350,000 to buy the Portland Rosebuds, in an era when an established franchise could be had for $80,000, or - in the case of a particularly unsuccessful iteration of the Canadiens- as little as $11,000. He already had the franchising rights, and he already had a rink, so really what he bought for that money was people- sixteen hockey players who packed up their skates and headed halfway across the country. When they arrived, he redressed them in new uniforms his wife had designed, renamed the squad after his old army unit, and debuted the reinvented team for the 1926-1927 NHL season.

McLaughlin was an American and an urban one at that, and there’s no evidence I can find that he understood anything whatsoever about hockey, but that didn’t stop him from playing with the team the way a 10-year-old might play with a chemistry set. Wikipedia gently describes him as a ‘hands-on’ owner, which is to say he ran the team with hyperactive whimsy. The team he bought from Portland was not bad, finishing 3rd out of 5 in their division, which is a rather remarkable achievement for any expansion team in its first year of play. Nevertheless, by the end of 1928, most of the original team was gone. During the early years, he changed the captain and the depth players annually, burned through coaches at a rate of two or three to a season, but he was smart enough to recognize that he had a good goalie and a couple of decent scoring forwards, and so the team was only mostly awful, and after one pleasantly average season they ran into some luck in the playoffs and took home the Cup. But then the good goalie died, that very June, of bleeding in the brain, and things began to slide back in the direction of awful. They also didn’t make money, forcing McLaughlin to continually prop up the team with loans and leftover coffee profits.

The other owners and coaches thought the dude was batshit crazy. That terminology isn’t in the official sources, of course, because according to the official record nobody in hockey in the 1930s was batshit crazy except for Eddie Shore. But even the Hockey Hall of Fame calls him ‘eccentric’, which is rich-person-vernacular for batshit crazy, and Conn Smythe referred to him as the “biggest nut I met in my entire life”, which given the kind of men involved in hockey at the time is certainly saying something.

One of McLaughlin’s singular eccentricities was his obsession with American players. This is, to give some idea, a bit like a modern NHL GM having an obsession with Swiss players. One of my pet theories about why hockey historians call the interwar period hockey’s Golden Age is because hockey historians have this curious habit of being Canadian, and the 1920s-30s are the era when hockey was getting big and shiny and professional, but was still almost exclusively a Canadian business. It’s when we see the origin of the familiar pattern: Americans buy hockey, but Canadians make hockey. Owners are American, big bluff entrepreneurial men- your Tex Rickards and Charles Adamses- waddling around with overflowing pockets, handing sacks of cash to the likes of Conn Smythe and Jack Adams, saying ‘Boys, build me one of these here hockey teams I’ve heard so much about’. The great mastermind highs off for the backwoods of Northern Ontario, stretches a length of mist netting across some godforsaken frozen pond, and when he’s caught ten or twelve wild hockey players he stuffs them in a sack and hauls them down to New York to bleed for the plutocracy. The business is becoming Americanized, but the game isn’t, and so the United States provides the stage where Canada plays out its national drama.

As of 1919, there was one American playing hockey in the NHL. By 1927, there were three, and by the 30s, perhaps 10. Not enough for a team, and not a-one of them the sort you’d call a star, although Clarence Abel was a defenseman of some renown. And yet Major McLaughlin, as he liked to be called, was fixated on them. It was his dream to ice a wholly American team, but it was- by any reasonable standard- impossible. There just weren’t enough guys, certainly not enough available to him.

From around 1930, he starts to collect them, trying to find Americans in the chaotic amateur and semi-pro leagues who might make it in The Show. The first is Elwyn Romnes, who he bought off an AHA team in St. Paul. Three years later, he finds Louis Trudel in Syracuse, and the year after that he gets Alex Levinsky from the Rangers. Finally, in 1935, he finds that rarest of creatures, an American goalie, playing in Tulsa.

There were failures, too. The itinerant winger Leroy Goldsworthy, who played for 14 teams in 7 different leagues in the space of 20 years, hardly got more than a tryout. Roger Jenkins, who played professional hockey for 18 years and never managed to finish two seasons with the same team, was similarly short-lived. For every American McLaughlin kept, there was at least one other he found wanting, although it was much the same with Canadians. In matters of personnel, the man’s nationalism was overwhelmed by his capriciousness, and the only player he seems to have been committed to was Johnny Gottselig, who was paradoxically Russian.

Come 1936-37, it was not a good season for McLaughlin’s team. They started out bad and got worse, never cracking .500 after opening night, piling loss on top of loss until they’d lost any hope of the playoffs barely halfway through the winter. They’d lost almost constantly, and they’d killed Howie Morenz, and that was about the sum total of their accomplishments over 43 games. It was an ill-favored season with no high draft pick on the other side to make the failure palatable, and so with five games remaining, McLaughlin pulled back the curtain on his greatest experiment yet: The All-American NHL Team.

It had taken a remarkable amount of searching to collect enough men, and he’d been somewhat indiscriminate in his selections. He pulled Al Suomi (awesome name for an American hockey player) from the Chicago Baby Ruth, a candy-themed semi-pro team who played their games before NHL matches as a kind of double-feature, and found Ike Klingbeil with the Detroit Tool Shop team of the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. Milton Brink was centering with some success in Kansas City, with Ben LaPrairie on his wing, and he found Paul Schaefer playing defense in Eveleth, Minnesota. These five skaters, combined with Mike Karakas in net and the three Americans he’d held onto from previous seasons, constituted the most American players ever brought together in one franchise, and enough- just barely- to play a game on their own.

For the rest of the season, McLaughlin promised, no Canadian on his team would skate a single shift. They would sit, all those Ontarians and Manitobans and Quebecois, and cede the ice to kids from Minnesota and Massachusetts. Moreover, he promised, it would be the same next season. He would change the name again, call them the Yankees, and they would be America’s team.

The other managers were irate. With five games left and the final playoff spot in the Canadian Division not yet settled, whoever had games remaining against McLaughlin’s squad was sure to win and quite possibly win with an enormous goal differential. His exercise in failure was going to fuck up their carefully-conceived plans to win, and for what? To prove by experiment something everyone already knew: Americans were not good at hockey.

They were not, as a matter of fact, good at hockey. Not, perhaps, quite as bad as their rivals had assumed, for they actually managed to beat the fledgling New York Rangers, but against other teams they bombed badly, dropping 6-2 and 6-1 losses to the Boston Bruins and, ironically, giving up 9 goals to the New York Americans. The team-who-would-be-Yankees ended the season on a cold low, and sometime during the summer, McLaughlin quietly gave up on his plan and sent most of the new recruits home, or off to whatever obscure farm team would carry them. Come September 1937, the Canadians were back on the ice, with the same name and sweaters they’d always had.

However, McLaughlin was not entirely defeated. He gave up the grandiose statements, the talk of doing away with the Canadians, but he kept up the search for Americans, and by the middle of the 1937-38 season, was again icing a team with eight American skaters.
They finished the 1937-38 season with almost the exact same miserable record as the year previous, but the Red Wings had done a hard fall and this time they managed to make the playoffs with .411 hockey. And, ridiculously, they won, one of only two teams in hockey history to capture the Stanley Cup after a sub-.500 season. They won, and Major McLaughlin- I hope- felt a great wave of vindication.

Then he fired his coach, demoted his goalie to Providence, and traded half his players.

I wish more of McLaughlin’s rhetoric survived. It’s a good story, even in the outlines, but there’s a great WHY? at the heart of it that leaves things rather unsatisfactory. The sources, insofar as I can find, are divided on the question of his motivations. Some of his opponents obviously thought it was a publicity stunt, a bit of showmanship, and certainly McLaughlin had that in him. But the players who skated with that team seem, equally, to believe it was sincere, a spurt of misguided but genuine patriotism. The man, it seems, was a bit of Oren Koules and a bit of Brian Burke, and it would be a better story if we could see more clearly which side was ascendant- the charlatan or the ideologue.

More important still, though, is the somewhat different light this casts on the early hockey world. Look at the 1930s through the lens of the Canadiens or the Maple Leafs and you get only the sepia stories, where everybody who laced up skates or donned a fedora was brave and/or brilliant, all of them to a man founders and builders and exemplars of The Right Way to Play Hockey, midwifing the greatness of the National Hockey League straight out of the forests and lakes. But look at the same era through McLaughlin’s Americans and you get a faint glimpse of the story behind the Original Six, the absolutely mad foment of hockey going on at the time. It was like the MMA of the 1930s, this violent, exotic niche sport that had very few roots and suddenly started putting out shoots everywhere. For every McLaughlin putting on a big show in a big city, there was some other petit bourgeoisie visionary/madman running a team in Tulsa. There was hockey in Virginia, sixty years before Gary Bettman ever dared to dream of southern expansion. There was hockey in Colorado, or at least someone trying to put it there. There were teams scattered from coast to coast all over the States, most of them barely solvent and half-sideshow. There were candy-themed teams and car-themed teams and a dozen or more leagues, some of which have faded so completely from memory as to leave only the acronym behind. There were a whole coterie of players living the hobo life between the coasts, a season in Tulsa and the next in Tacoma, then on to Detroit when the team folds and the contracts are sold away. The difference between McLaughlin’s team and all the other, failed experiments isn’t his vision or his passion or his superb sense of either business or hockey. It’s time, and a bit of luck. A sideshow survives long enough and it becomes an institution, and Major McLaughlin somehow, posthumously, becomes a builder.


aliceq said...

I got into a flame war once on a Canadian (non-hockey) blog comment thread by asserting that the whole notion of "the original six" was a chimera, given the early history involving teams in St Louis, cups in Seattle, and the like. People insisted that that somehow didn't count, because those teams didn't stay in one place for very long, never mind that the actual original six era wasn't all that long.

E said...

the whole concept of the original six comes from a sort of retrospectively-teleological view of the nhl, where you want to look at hockey as something that starts small and then grows a bit and then grows a bit more and then a bit more until you come to the flowering of contemporary hockey. all one growth process leading us inexorably to where we are. a lot of stuff gets left out of that narrative, but people tend to believe that it gets left out because it's somehow irrelevant- which is rather like saying neanderthals are irrelevant to the study of human evolution just because they didn't lead directly to homo sapiens.

there's a great book to be written somewhere about hockey in the interwar period, when there really was (despite the great depression) this kind of explosive spread of the sport- the ten-team nhl that preceded the 'original six', and all the rival leagues competing for essentially the same player pool. it'd be particularly interesting, i think, because that's when a lot of the features of the game as we know it also emerge: the forward/defense division of labor, the forward pass, the whole notion of shifts. i feel like the two things (the structural messiness and the rapid evolution) have got to be related somehow. but one would have to shrug off some of the hagiography, which is a hard thing to do in sports writing.

saskhab said...

The Original Six is just another manifestation of East Coast Bias. At least Hockey: A People's History tried to incorporate the rapid growth phenomenon, the contributions of Western based leagues, and the sudden springing up of barns in the USA and the don of professionalism. But yeah, once the new rules were adopted and the West Coast league died, it's all NHL going forward.

I really should have bought that book on Portland's hockey history I found at Powell's last spring when I was there. It wasn't until recently that I knew of the link between the Blackhawks and the Rosebuds, and the Rosebuds and the Regina Capitals. So the Hawks winning the Cup was like Saskatchewan winning the Cup in some weird way. :)

E said...

i still haven't read that particular tome, although i've seen some of the documentary. canada's non-nhl hockey past gets generally good treatment, though, there is an undercurrent of deep pride people have in small-town hockey and the eccentric teams that it's grown over the last hundred years. american hockey, obviously, doesn't get the same attention, so a lot of it is effectively lost (at least, until somebody does some serious digging).

several years ago, completely by accident, i ended up in a motel in new hampshire that, coincidentally, also housed the new hampshire hockey hall of fame. in two or three glass cases. in the lobby. it would take a lot of trips to a lot of places like that to reconstruct golden-age american hockey... which, actually, could be kind of awesome.