Monday, 19 December 2011

Horace Gaul - Hockey Mercenary

The period from about 1907 to 1912 is an interesting and tumultuous one for Canadian hockey. This was the time of the professional hockey boom, when new pro leagues rose and fell every season: the Manitoba Hockey League (the first openly pro league in Canada), the Ontario Professional Hockey League, the Saskatchewan Hockey League, the Alberta Professional Hockey league, the Eastern Ontario Professional Hockey League, the New Ontario Hockey League...not to mention the National Hockey Association (NHA). Until the situation settled down around 1912 with the NHA and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association as the two major leagues, on opposite ends of the country, the professional hockey situation in Canada was constantly in flux.

And of course, with all these leagues coming and going, there was a constant demand for professional players. Many of these men moved to where the work was, so to speak, essentially becoming hockey mercenaries, playing for a different team every year, and often several teams in the same season. Today we're having a quick look at one of these nomadic hockeyists: Horace Gaul.

Horace Gaul was born in December 1883 in Gaspe, Quebec, but the earliest records we have of his amateur hockey career have him in Ottawa for the 1904/05 and 1905/06 seasons. Getting into a couple of games with the mighty Ottawa Hockey Club, Gaul was on the Stanley Cup-winning 1905 edition of the team. His first recorded play outside of Ottawa was in 1906 with the Brooklyn club of the American Amateur Hockey League. After playing a single game there, he was suspended from the league since he did not meet the residency requirement. Such requirements were common among amateur leagues, in order to prevent ringers from being brought in. The fact that Gaul (and another player) were brought in by Brooklyn, coupled with the number of Canadian players who would make an appearance in the New York league, casts doubt on the "Amateur" in that league's name.

In 1906/07, Gaul (a right wing) played for Pittsburgh of the International Hockey League, another pro league. In 1907/08 he made appearances for Brockville of the Federal "Amateur" Hockey League, and was brought in as a ringer by Renfrew of the Upper Ottawa League, another ostensibly amateur circuit, for a couple of playoff games. In 1908/09 he was back in Pittsburgh, and then jumped that contract to play for Haileybury of the Temiskaming league. He stayed with this team as they joined Cobalt and Renfrew for the first season of NHA play in 1909/10.

After a couple of games for Ottawa in 1910/11, he was released and finished the season with Berlin of the Ontario pro league. He then spent a year with New Glasgow of the Martime pro league, before finishing his pro career in 1912/13 with the Toronto Tecumsehs of the NHA, the team that was the first to experiment (for a few games at least) with a regular rotation of forwards each game, Gaul among them.

This experience is far from unusual for the time period. There are a number of players whose career takes a similar path to this, with a new team every year. Art Throop, Steve Vair, Skene Ronan and others had varied and interesting careers of this sort. They're some of the most interesting careers of their time. And this era is one of the reasons historical Point Allocation is needed; there were so many different leagues that comparing player performances from one year to the next is very difficult without it.

Horace Gaul was never much of a scorer. He was never near the league lead in offence, even with the leagues he played in being very small and having only a few forwards on each team to compete with. He did score a team-leading 20 goals in 12 games for Haileybury in 1909/10, which was seventh in the NHA (but only just over half of Newsy Lalonde's league-leading total of 38), so he certainly wasn't hopeless with the puck. He was noted as being a clever and tricky stickhandler, but there must have been more than this to his game; otherwise he wouldn't have been in such demand every year.

Gaul's real talent was on defence. He was noted as being an excellent defensive player, a diligent checker. That's why there was always a team ready to insert him into the lineup. He was never a star, just a hard-working, professional player. He checked his way into a contract every season.

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