The NHL Stanley Cup Final is currently underway between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues. But what did hockey look like during World War II?
WWII and its ensuing effects on society – the draft, rationing, total war mentality – had a deleterious effect on most professional sports leagues in North America, including the NHL.
By the 1942-43 season, the league was reduced to six teams due to the hardships of the Great Depression. They are now known as the “Original Six” – the Montréal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, The Detroit Red Wings, and the Chicago Black Hawks.
By the start of WWII in 1939, only four nationalities were represented in the NHL: Canada (92.5%), the U.S. (3.3%), the Soviet Union (2.4%), and the U.K. (1.9%). Each of these countries had some version of conscription of able-bodied men during the war and many professional hockey players joined the military, either because of conscription or voluntarily.
After war was declared, the NHL initially considered suspending operations, but the American and Canadian governments urged it to keep going. 80 NHL players served in the war, and at least two lost their lives in battle – Dudley “Red” Garrett of the New York Rangers and Joe Turner of the Detroit Red Wings.
NHL lineups were stripped of talent as Hall-of-Fame caliber players like Sid Abel, Syl Apps, Doug Harvey, Hap Day, Tiny Thompson, and many others served overseas. This meant the quality of hockey fell off greatly during the early 1940s until the players started returning after the war.
The Boston Bruins, for example, lost their top-scoring trio of Woody Dumart, Bobby Bauer, and Milt Schmidt all enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The three forwards, ironically nicknamed the “Kraut Line” because of their German ancestry, hung up their skates and enlisted together on the same day in 1942. In fact, the “Kraut Line” eventually rejected that moniker because of a reluctance to be associated with any kind of “German-ness” during the conflict with Nazi Germany. All three saw action overseas and survived the war, returning and helping the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup final in 1946.
The Bruins also lost star goaltender Frank Brimsek to the American draft. Brimsek, a Minnesota native, was drafted into the U.S. Coast Guard.
Howie Meeker, who would play and coach the Toronto Maple Leafs before embarking on a long career as a TV commentator, was injured when a grenade exploded nearby. Ken Reardon, stalwart defenseman for the Montréal Canadiens, was awarded Field Marshall Montgomery’s Certificate of Merit for acts of bravery during battle.
World War I veteran Conn Smythe, at age 45, put his hockey management duties aside and signed on for another tour of duty, forming an anti-aircraft battery. He was wounded in France in 1944.
Virtually the entire starting lineup of the New York Rangers had gone into military service by midwar. Some players, like Maurice “Rocket” Richard, could not enlist because of injuries they had received during their hockey careers.
Syl Apps of the Toronto Maple Leafs was coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season where he was a first-team all-star and a Lady Byng Award winner when he enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1943. He came back in 1945 and scored 40 points in 40 games.
Not all Canadian hockey stars who signed up ever saw battle action. A common job for NHL draftees was as a physical education instructor at a training base, and they were also often pressed into service on armed forces hockey teams with the intent of boosting civilian and enlisted morale. Some even played in military camps overseas, introducing Europeans to the sport. Highly competitive regimental hockey teams formed, serving such purposes as keeping men fit and entertaining the serving members on military bases.
Turk Broda and Sid Abel both played in military hockey leagues. Broda played seven seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning a Vezina Trophy and a Stanley Cup, before enlisting after the 1942-1943 season. He returned during the 1945-1946 season and played seven more seasons for the Maple Leafs, winning another Vezina and four Stanley Cups.
Abel was part of the famed “Production Line” with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. He played five seasons for the Detroit Red Wings before enlisting in the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1943 after winning a Stanley Cup. He returned in 1945 and played ten more seasons, winning two more Stanley Cups and a Hart Memorial Trophy.
The NHL still existed during the war, with makeshift lineups of players who were not conscripted by the draft. Especially in Canada, the draft’s fitness standards were very high. The league also enlisted players who were too young or too old to be drafted. Tommy Gorman, general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, took advantage of a Canadian draft loophole extended to men holding jobs in essential wartime industries. Gorman ensured Canadiens players secured jobs in industries like shipbuilding and munitions manufacturing, allowing the team to maintain a powerful lineup. However, most of the other teams in the league had their lineups gutted by draft callups.
World War II, as we know, affected all parts of society and culture, and professional sports was not immune. Many athletes of the Greatest Generation served their countries readily and we thank them for their service.