Friday 8 November 2013

Lost to the Great War

The effect that World War II had on high-level hockey is well-known. The NHL lost so many great players to the war effort that it became something of a shadow of its formal self, in particular the New York Rangers who lost most of their lineup and were a joke of a team for a few years. But the Great War of 1914-1918 also had its effects, and more than just the story of the Toronto 228th Battalion team in the NHA.

A number of high-profile hockey players got involved in the war effort, with a variety of consequences to their careers.

Hobey Baker and Scotty Davidson are well-known casualties of World War I. Both lost their lives only a few years into promising hockey careers, and both wound up in the Hall of Fame. I've discussed both these players before; the war certainly robbed hockey of a very promising player in Davidson, and had Baker turned pro I suspect he would have proven to be a solid player. But we'll never know.

Minnie McGiffen, another player I've written about before, lost his in a plane crash while serving as an aerobatic instructor with the US armed forces in Texas, in 1918. He had already retired from hockey, in order to concentrate and work and business, but he might well have returned to the game had it not been for the war.

The Cleghorn brothers, Hall-of-Famer Sprague and Should-Be-Hall-of-Famer Odie, both sat out the 1917/18 season. Odie did so for military reasons, though they did not undertake any military service. Which is to say, he was allowed to avoid military service, but only if he did not play hockey. Unsurprisingly he was able to resume play quite easily the following season. Sprague missed the season due to a broken ankle, and was back in the game in 1918/19.

Punch Broadbent lost three full seasons to military service, but seemed none the worse for wear when he returned, winning the NHL scoring title in 1921/22. Goldie Prodger was another player who picked up his hockey career where it left off after the war. Phil Stevens was never a star player, but continued to be a decent one after his military service, and this describes Eddie Carpenter pretty well also.

Skene Ronan played only 11 games after his military service, scoring no goals and no points. From 1911/12 to 1914/15, he had scored 81 goals in 75 NHA games, so this was a significant dropoff in performance. However, in his final pre-war season he managed only six goals in 17 matches, so perhaps his career was on the downside already.

Alfred "Brownie" Baker is a similar case to Ronan. Having scored 20 goals in 23 games in 1914/15 and 1915/16, he did not return to hockey after the war. However he was already a part-time player in his final pre-war season, recording one goal in six matches, so we can't be sure he would have been back in any regard. Hall-of-Famer George McNamara also did not return to the game, and was a part-time player in 1916/17, and nearing his mid-30s he likely wouldn't have been playing anyway.

George's brother Howard, on the other hand, likely did lose out to the war. Younger than his brother, he was still producing at the NHA level before leaving for military service, and after missing two seasons returned to play only 12 games, scoring a single goal. He then retired to coach senior hockey in Sudbury, Ontario.

Don Smith probably also lost effectiveness due to his three seasons missed for military service. He had scored 29 points in 43 games in the two seasons prior to the conflict, then returned in 1919/20 for 12 games, scoring only one goal. He was 32 years old at that time, so a decline is to be expected, but for a man who once finished third in goals in the NHA, that's quite a decline.

Harry Scott left the Canadiens for the military in 1915. He was never really a full-time major-league player, and actually played senior hockey in Winnipeg in 1915/16 and 1917/18. He didn't miss much of the game due to his service time. Nick Bawlf was another part-timer with the Wanderers, joining the war effort in 1916. He coached when he returned from overseas, but did not play again; but there's a good chance he wouldn't have been playing at a high level anyway.

Peerless Percy LeSueur was likely at the end of his career when he signed up in 1916. He could have managed a couple more seasons to be sure, but his best days were already far behind him. Walter Smaill is similar; he was never a star as LeSueur was, but he was already nearing the end of the line.

Albert "Dubbie" Kerr missed two seasons to the war, and announced his retirement during that time. He changed his mind and did return, scoring but nine points in 20 games, after having scored 59 in 41 games in the two seasons before. It's questionable how much of this is due to the war, and how much is simply due to a player coming back from retirement.

Mike Mitchell was a decent netminder who missed four full seasons to the war effort. He certainly missed time, but apparently not effectiveness.

Patsy Seguin and Lyman "Hick" Abbott are two lesser-known players who perished in the war. Seguin had played a few games for the Montreal Nationals and Canadiens several years before, and was still playing senior hockey in the US when he joined up. Abbott was a Saskatchewan senior hockey scoring star, who may well have played professionally had the war not intervened.

Charlie McCarthy is an interesting case. A goaltender with the Montreal Wanderers who played only one major-league season (with good results) before joining the war effort, he missed four seasons to the military, and he never played high-level hockey again. However, we can't know if this had anything to do with his military service, since he seems to have concentrated on his professional boxing career instead. McCarthy was Canadian flyweight champion, and according to his record at, he had two bouts in 1914, three in 1915, one in 1916, five in 1917 and four in 1919, then 10 in 1920, seven in 1921 and finally two in 1922. So in this case, it seems choice of pursuits had as much to do with it as anything.

Angus Duford was a quality substitute player for Ottawa from 1913/14 to 1915/16, and then joined the Canadian military effort. According to the Ottawa Citizen, in September 1917 he was injured by an exploding shell. He survived, but was paralyzed on his right side. He never played hockey again.

Leth Graham, a teammate of Duford, could be a similar case. Three years younger than Duford, he left hockey for the military one season sooner. In the 1914/15 season he was seen as a very promising player indeed. He missed four seasons to military service, and then missed another before returning to the game as a subsitute player, barely playing at all. In 27 NHL games after the war, he scored three goals and took no penalties. Since he was known as a "peppery" player in his prime, his lack of penalties suggests how little he was playing.

Graham was known as a good shot when he played. In November 1916, The Toronto World reported that he was badly wounded in the leg, and was in danger of losing it (which he ultimately did not). In December 1921, as Graham was trying to make it back in hockey, The Morning Leader leader noted that he had been gassed while serving in France, and this kept him from playing at his top form. And his leg probably didn't help matters. It seems he never truly recovered from his injuries, and that ruined a very promising hockey career.

Thanks to James Milks and Bob Duff, both of SIHR, for their assistance in digging up some information for this article.

1 comment:

  1. Mike Mitchell had the dubious distinction of reading his own obituary. On 31 Oct 1917 at Passchendale, he was shot in the left shoulder and also suffered a slight cheek wound. He was evacuated to hospital in England the next day. A month later the Grand Forks (BC) Gazette reported: “Ivan ‘Mike’ Mitchell, one of the best goaltenders who ever graced western hockey, died last week in London.” Soon after, his condition was upgraded to 'alive'!


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