Multimillionaire Major Frederic McLaughlin of Harvard and Lake Forest was an impeccable man of vast and remorseless enthusiasms. One of these was for Irene Castle, whom he married in 1923. Another was for the idea of American, as opposed to Canadian, hockey. In the major's time, as now, big-league professional hockey was peopled almost exclusively by Canadians, and this was a fact that depressed the patriotic major.
In 1926 Major McLaughlin bought the minor league Portland Rosebuds, moved them to Chicago where he won them admission to the National Hockey League as the Black Hawks and set about realizing his dream of making the game American.
Few people shared the major's enthusiasm for this idea, and his early attempts to spot a few American-born players here and there in the Hawk lineup led only to a series of poor finishes. But the major did not give up easily. In 1936, when the Hawks were doing about as badly as possible, he decided to promote the American idea in spectacular form. He already had a U.S.-born goalie, Mike Karakas of Eveleth, Minn., as a regular. Now he wanted five more Americans to play in front of Karakas so that during some periods of play the entire Black Hawk lineup would be native-born. If the experiment should prove successful, the major even envisioned changing the name of the team to the Chicago Yanks.
McLaughlin got two more players from Karakas' home town: Albert Suomi and Curly Brink. He picked up Bun LaPrairie from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Butch Schaefer from Hinckley, Minn. and Ernest (Ike) Klingbeil from Hancock, Mich.
In January 1937 the five men were brought to Chicago and quietly put up at the Lawson YMCA. "The major kept 'em under cover as long as he could," says Johnny Gottselig, a player who was there. First he wanted them in top condition—"With the major, physical fitness was the thing in any sport"—so he put them under the direction of Emil Iverson, "physical director" of the Black Hawks. "He was a Swede and he had this Swedish system," says Gottselig. "You had to stand at attention, hands on hips with your toes—the tips of your toes—touching together." It was a balletlike discipline in which the ideal was to make the body form a sort of "I." "And then," says Gottselig, "he'd have you doing all the bending and stretching exercises from that position." Iverson also had the newly recruited Yanks playing badminton ("I'd never done that before in my life," said one bewildered hockey player), swinging on the gymnastic horses ("That scared me more than playing") and heaving a medicine ball around.
All that was in the morning. In the afternoon the men spent 2½ hours on the ice. At first they worked out in the old Chicago Arena, away from the "big team." The major wanted to play them as a cohesive and comprehensive unit. Outside the periphery of the rink the regular Black Hawks treated the newcomers like a dog with new fleas. "They wouldn't sit on the bench with us. They wouldn't talk to us," says Ike Klingbeil. On the ice the Canadians treated the Yanks the way Daley's cops treat hippies. "They really came at us, sticks up, blades up, and things started getting pretty rough." Finally McLaughlin approved splitting up the Yanks, at least for purposes of practice. The Yank defensemen, Klingbeil and Schaefer, went on the ice with an all-Canadian forward line, the Yank forwards with a Canadian defense.
This tended to stanch the flow of blood. It also had a remarkable effect on the team as a whole. Suddenly the Hawks began winning games. By late February of '37 they had won only 11 games all season and were averaging only 1.82 goals per game. They were kept out of last place only because the now-defunct New York Americans were so astonishingly inept. But now, thanks to the strangers in their ranks, the Hawks were winning.
It was not just a matter of Canadian pride; it was a matter of personal survival: if the Yanks were to stay, then obviously five Canadians already on the team would have to be cut to make room for them. So suddenly everybody began playing like crazy. Inexplicably, the Black Hawks won three games in a row and scored 13 goals, an average of 4.33 per game.
Still, the major was in a funk. His team was winning, but attendance remained terrible. McLaughlin thought it might stimulate interest if he could get his five Yanks on the ice together but he knew their play would probably cost him a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He promised himself, therefore, to hold off as long as the Black Hawks still had a chance to get into the playoffs. It got to the point where all he needed was one loss by the Black Hawks or one win by the New York Rangers to clinch—for the Rangers—a Stanley Cup spot. But he couldn't get either one. The Hawks kept winning, and the Rangers kept losing and the major kept postponing his plans to use the Yanks.
By the night of their second-to-last home game the Black Hawks were still in the race. A loss that night would give the Yanks their chance. So what happened? The Hawks tied the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-2.
It was the longest unbeaten streak the Black Hawks had had in years. And it looked as if the major's Yanks were done for. But lo! the very next night the New York Rangers came to their rescue by winning a game. It was almost unavoidable: they were playing their neighbors, the New York Americans. The major immediately scheduled his Yanks for the next and last home game against the Boston Bruins.
The debut was poorly timed. When McLaughlin announced his all-American splash, one of the best-beloved players in hockey, Howie Morenz of the Montreal Canadiens, was in a hospital unsuccessfully fighting for his life. Morenz was a towering figure in hockey; he had not only speed, power and an enormous talent, but a gentleness on the ice and off that had won every fan's heart. In a game late in January against the Black Hawks one of Morenz' skates got stuck in the boards. A powerful Chicago defenseman tripped over the trapped Montrealer, breaking his leg and sending him crashing headfirst to the ice. Morenz was rushed to a hospital where he died some weeks later. Human nature being what it is, the Canadians in the National Hockey League illogically placed the blame on Chicago.
When the Chicago owner announced his plan to field an all-American team, Canadians all over the U.S. reacted accordingly. Lester Patrick, then boss of the New York Rangers, sent a wire to the president of the NHL, Frank Calder, protesting the use of "amateurs" in NHL competition. Jack Adams, then manager of the Detroit Red Wings, sent a wire protesting the use of U.S.-born players when the exact standings of the teams were yet to be determined. Art Ross, boss of the Boston Bruins, confined himself to suggesting that the Black Hawks refund all their income from the game in which the Yanks played—and then that the league strip McLaughlin of his franchise.
The Bruins themselves were not so gentle. "The first night, right off the bat, this guy comes down the ice and shoves his stick right in my face," says Klingbeil. Ike had been tutored in these niceties by the Canadians on the Black Hawks and so he reacted predictably: "I jumped on him and got him down on the ice and got my gloves off and got in a couple of good licks at him." Otherwise, the results of the Yankee debut were pretty much as expected. The score was 6-2 for Boston, and most newspapers in Chicago accepted the result with the murmuring verities usually uttered on the demise of someone dear but not quite desirable. "The Yanks did their best, overcoming their lack of technical skill by plenty of fight and the old college try," said the Chicago Daily News.
Only a clamorous tabloid, the Chicago Times—long since absorbed by other papers in Chicago—dared to be critical. "The Bruins had a swell time," wrote Columnist Marvin McCarthy. "They toyed with the puck like wicked tomcats slapping a mouse around. They appeared capable of scoring many more goals than they did...."
In their second game the Yanks were to play in Toronto, where the fans figured they stood a better chance. The first time the Maple Leafs came over the boards against the Yank lineup there was a great gasp of anticipation; when they left the ice, there was an enormous deflation. For Toronto had been unable to score against the Yanks for one whole period and, indeed, the Yanks even wound up scoring a goal themselves. To be sure, the Black Hawks lost the game, but the score was only 3-2, and there was an uneasy suspicion that perhaps McLaughlin's plan was not just a stunt after all. And that perhaps Canadian manhood was in danger.
That game built self-confidence in the Yanks, and for their next game they went to New York to give Les Patrick and his Rangers a bit of what for. The Black Hawks beat the Rangers 4-3 and, though the Yanks did not do better than get a couple of assists, they surprised the New Yorkers with their poise. "Major McLaughlin's plan may not be so farfetched as originally believed," wrote Joe Nichols in The New York Times.
On that surprising note, the Yanks went on—to disaster. They loitered in New York long enough to play the Americans, a team that the Hawks had beaten 9-0 and 5-1 during the course of the season. This time the Hawks fell apart: they lost 9-4. The 13 goals made the highest combined score of the season. The Hawks hurriedly left for Boston where they lost quickly and quietly—the Chicago newspapers didn't cover their hockey team's road games—by a 6-1 score.
That ended the season of 1937—and the brave experiment. But Major McLaughlin was far from finished. The next year—without fanfare and without arousing anybody's antagonism—he built a team that was more than half American and hired an American coach, Bill Stewart, to run it. He still had Karakas in the goal. He had other Americans—-Doc Romnes and Roger Jenkins and Alex Levinsky—on the roster, occasionally or otherwise. To these he added others, among them Cully Dahlstrom, Carl Voss, Virgil Johnson and Louis Trudel. The hiring of an American to guide them merely insured the Yanks would have a place on the team.
"So all we did was go out and win the Stanley Cup," says Johnny Gottselig.
It was the best denouement that the major could have desired. This team—so loaded with Americans—beat the two Canadian teams in the semifinals and finals. It was the last cup won by the Black Hawks for the next 23 years.