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According to a report out of Boston in 1948, “Women prefer men (and hockey players) who wear hats.” 84 out of 100 ladies interviewed in an international survey were of this opinion.
In that era such a choice would not be surprising. A quick glance through Maple Leaf Garden’s programmes in the late 1940’s through the mid 1950’s carried ads from the Biltmore Hat Company, featuring a “Tip Your Biltmore” (a tip of the hat was a common expression of tribute in the Original 6 era) to….a “player of the week” kind of choice of a current NHL’er. It was not limited to Toronto players, but stars from the other 5 clubs were picked as well.
Locally, Sammy Taft, owner of a Queen City haberdashery, regularly took out a full page promotion of his fedoras, likewise “tipping the hat” to a Leaf player, pictured sporting one of his chapeaus. It was he who accentuated the transfer of cricket’s “hat trick” idiom to hockey, by offering a free hat to any player who scored three goals in one game. The next step in the evolution of headwear fads was fans littering the ice with lids of every kind whenever a skater turned this trick.
During that window of time no gentleman considered himself “dressed up” unless he capped off (pardon the intended pun) his suit and tie with a Stetson or similar brand. This is affirmed by peeking at photos of Big League action, which reveals the majority of male spectators decked out in felt hats.
But hats and hockey have an affinity in more ways than that. For instance, in the sport’s fledgling years, when the rinks were cold—even more frigid than the great outdoors in winter—caps were often worn for warmth. Goalies especially, tied to their positions, wisely recognized that the greatest loss of heat from the human anatomy is through the noggin. Even after major league arenas commenced heating their facilities, a few players retained the practice of keeping their heads covered.
Goalies “Dolly” Dolson and “Flat” Walsh favoured plebian cloth caps, which made them look like New York cab drivers. Herb Drury sported a beret; but most of the others preferred baseball-type caps, usually with abbreviated peaks. “Tiny” Thompson, Alex Connell, Bill Brydge, Normie Himes, Aurele Joliat, Normie Smith, and Nels Stewart were a few who maintained this tradition even into the 1930’s.
Pro hockey has boasted countless characters over the years—especially in the pre-“Original 6” era. One such eccentric was big Harry Mummery, whose NHL career concluded with Hamilton in 1922-23. He was noted for two personality traits: his giant size appetite, and his ever-present bowler hat, which he wore pulled down almost to his ears. He wore it everywhere—except on the ice playing the game.
But one night, while officiating an amateur match, he chose to leave it on. During the course of the contest a player, whom he had banished to the sin bin, resented the sentence, with the result that he swore at him every time the whistle tooter skated into that vicinity. He was warned that a bloody nose would result if he didn’t cease and desist. That only made him angrier. On Harry’s next excursion, his nemesis, having taken one skate off, smashed him on the beano, tearing the derby, and cutting his victim.
The assailant tore out of the arena, but was soon captured by the bleeding official, and given a severe thrashing. After having been taken to the hospital, where he received stitches, a sympathetic bystander observed: “Your head must have been cut badly!”
“My head!? Heck! He cut my good hat and ruined it!”
Mischief related to hats was inevitable, as any former school boy can well remember. One night in the late 1920’s, goalie “Jumpin’ Jakie” Forbes appeared in a game with a bright red peaked cap, making him look like a red-headed woodpecker. “Babe” Dye, who had one of the hardest shots in league history, warned him he was going to shoot that headdress right off. True to his word, he let a blast go that barely missed the startled backstop’s head. He didn’t waste any time discarding it!
The aforementioned Joliat was the most noted hats-on skater of them all. Marc T. McNeil, Sports Editor of the Montreal Gazette, declared that “Joliat’s little black cap used to be as much a part of his hockey equipment as his skates. It was almost as characteristic of him as his deft stick-handling and his magic skating. Hence, Forum fans looked a second time when, on November 27, 1937, he emerged wearing a helmet instead of his distinctive little cap!”
(He had accidentally collided with the Leaf’s “Buzz” Boll, fallen to the ice, striking the right side of his head, resulting in a cut which required stitches)
Just as common as the appearance of this headgear was the tendency for opposition players to knock it off. As incredible as it may seem, the “Mighty Mite” invariably halted immediately to retrieve his beanie, before continuing in competition! Of course opposition players looked upon it as like “taking candy from a baby” and took advantage of it.
The Maroon’s “Hooley” Smith was the biggest culprit. Knowing that Aurele seemed to be at his best against these cross-town rivals, he would repeatedly divest the flashy winger of his chapeau. From time to time Joliat would retaliate, snatching his lost treasure with one hand while wielding his stick at his oppressor.
Sprague Cleghorn is best remembered for his belligerent approach to hockey—even to the extent that he had a mean streak a mile wide. But, he was not above being a prankster either. When he was playing out the string in the late 1920’s with the Bruins, a teammate was taught a lesson about keeping in step with the times. It seems that bowlers were considered passé about then. And, when this chap insisted upon making it a part of his wardrobe, the big defenseman bought a can of white paint and redecorated it—before putting it back in the out-of-style Bean Towner’s locker.
A rather tragi-comical incident took place during that same era—March 19, 1932 to be precise. The Maple Leafs were pitted against the Blackhawks in a game which was viewed as a grudge match. Earlier that season the Toronto “gashouse gang”, knowing that their mentor, Dick Irvin Sr. had been dismissed by that team, and who wanted them taught a lesson, had attempted to pull a prank on their mentor, by allowing Chicago to score a couple of easy goals early in the match. The ruse failed, with the opposition drubbing his contingent 7-0.
So, on that evening the Queen City gang was deluging netminder Charlie Gardiner with shots, racking up goal after goal. Tragically, the “Wee Scot” took a rising shot in the forehead, and dropped like a stone, bleeding profusely. He was replaced by Wilf Cude, who barely got set before he experienced the same fate.
Gardiner had little choice but to return to action with a huge bandage circling his dome.
A mischievous fan skimmed a derby hat onto the ice to celebrate his team’s eleventh tally. Gardiner grabbed it, perched it on top of his bandage, and finished the game sporting this lid.
Fedoras were the “in thing” for gentlemen during the Great Depression and beyond, and, wishing to keep up appearances, pay-for-play skaters regularly wore them. Harold “Baldy” Cotton, always a dapper dresser, went the second mile, preferring a bowler to the usual Stetson or Homburg. Those same aforementioned pranksters couldn’t resist rubbing in his Beau Brummell tastes, and one night shocked their poor teammate half to death with a practical joke.
Cotton had just bought a new derby and proudly strutted aboard the team rail car with his prize. He hung it on a hanger and proceeded to watch a card game in progress. Big Chuck Conacher quietly excused himself, and on his way out of the car, lifted the hat and took it with him. He returned shortly with a cheap substitute and proceeded to model it for the members of the team who were present. Suddenly, after jamming it hard down on his head, he whipped it off—tearing the brim from the crown. “Baldy” had a fit, shouting that it had cost him $15 (no small price in those days) and the “big lug had ruined it!” Finally, Charlie realized the joke had gone far enough, and produced his startled friend’s bonnet—still intact!
From time to time superstition entered the picture when it came to chapeaus. Alfie Moore, whose long career was spent mainly in the minors, was one of the last to sport this apparel on the ice. For eight years he had always felt it was a matter of good luck to continue wearing the same cap. But on January 13, 1939, while guarding the twine for the Americans in Montreal, he misplaced it. He got a shutout that evening, and never went back to wearing it.
It was said that President Frank Calder would hit the roof if anyone put a hat on a bed in his presence.
The old TV programme, ”The Naked City” boasted that there were “a million stories” therein. And while the NHL coaching fraternity cannot boast that kind of numbers, there are a seemingly endless supply of tales about bench bosses and toppers.
“Hap” Day was one example—but he was not alone in his ju-ju. An oft-told tale about the “jinx” of his celebrated white Stetson also involved his team. His troops whistled when he first wore it in the dressing room after receiving it for Christmas. The mischievous “Turk” Broda spoke up teasing that he would be afraid to wear it during a game. His response was: “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll wear it when you score three straight victories!”
Strangely enough this proved to be the kiss of death. Not once from then until the end of the campaign were the Buds able to put together three successive wins. The white hat was still in its box when they opened their semi-final playoff series again Boston.
“Red” Dutton probably takes the cake for the most accredited mentor to draw notice when it came to a headpiece. On January 4, 1937, while piloting the old New York Americans, he threw his band new one onto the ice to protest a penalty. At virtually the same time he ordered Allan Shields into action as a penalty killer. The obedient forward hopped over the boards, landing right on the discarded chapeau, cutting it to ribbons, and leaving it in tatters. The excitable redhead was upset—but the fact that the misdemeanor turned out to be actually against the Bruins burned him even more.
It is said that “Punch” Imlach used to ruin his hat each game, but that for varying lengths of time he would manipulate it back into reasonable condition and pulverize it once more. There is a photo on Google images of one of his cock-eyed fedoras.
On one occasion, even though his own club was eliminated from the post season, he had planned to take in the series between the Wings and the Habs. But a freak accident prevented him. He was getting ready to board a plane in San Francisco when a gust of wind lifted his hat. He made a mad stab at catching it and poked himself in the eye. He had to be taken to hospital to be treated; and ended up wearing a patch to protect the wounded peeper.
Punch Imlach sporting a fedora behind the bench. Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame
Rudy Pilous used to take out his frustrations on his fedoras as well—demolishing as many as four a month. The more “Toe” Blake became exasperated the further he pulled his lid down over his ears, as if he wanted it around the tops of his shoes.
The Maple Leaf’s controversial owner, Conn Smythe, whether actually coaching or not, often was present in his team’s bench area. He had a reputation for battling fans, goal judges, and referees. In April 1941, with Toronto visiting Boston, the Bruin’s Johnny Crawford cut one of the visiting skaters with his stick. The volatile “Little Major” screamed at whistle tooter Mickey Ion, demanding retribution for the indiscretion. The veteran official paid him no mind, and proceeded to drop the puck to continue play.
That was too much for Smythe. He hopped over the boards and started chasing the target of his complaints, shuffling all over the ice while the action continued. He was making little headway in his street shoes, so he finally yanked off his grey Stetson and fired it at Mickey—who promptly called for the police to escort him from the arena.
Back in January 1947, when the Montreal Canadiens were not performing up to par, an irate fan wrote to the Montreal Gazette sports editor, threatening to burn the Forum down if Dick Irvin coached the next contest. The Habs were on the road at the time, already in Toronto getting set to take on the Leafs. The Montreal bench boss read about it in the papers and determined to make light of the warning. Led by Ken Reardon and Murph Chamberlain, the team managed to get a batch of Styrofoam Firemen’s hats with which Texaco was promoting its gasoline at the time. That night in the Gardens they skated out for the pre-game warm-up sporting these lids. They fully intended to repeat the gag when they returned to their home ice, but the league stepped in and nixed the plan.
From time to time good-natured bets have included scenarios involving hats.
“Red” Kelly didn’t impress the Toronto Maple Leafs when he skated for St. Mikes from 1944 to 1947. They said he was “too slow”, so they didn’t bother putting him on their negotiating list. Detroit’s scout, Carson Cooper, viewed the carrot top’s contribution to the game differently, and they signed him to play for the Red Wings for the 1947-48 campaign.
A Leaf official bet Cooper a $20. hat they he would not survive the first 10 games as an NHL’er. History reveals who the winner was in that gamble.
That same season an in-house wager between two Canadien defensemen, resulted in a pleasant surprise for one and a shock for the other. Glen Harmon’s wife had a trendy hat shop in Montreal, and “Butch” Bouchard’s wife took a shine to one of her creations. After she decided to buy it, Glen arranged for it to be brought to the Hab’s dressing room for quick delivery. When it arrived, he warned his blueline partner that it was expensive, and he might like to take a peek at the price tag. That prompted the big captain to have second thoughts.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do.”, said Harmon. “If you score two goals tonight it’s yours for nothing!”
Since Bouchard had managed but four markers the previous season, it seemed like a pretty safe bet. However, he scored the ONLY TWO goals for the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge that evening….and the hat was his!
Regardless of the situation, humourous elements sooner of later are a part of shinny lore.
One incident takes us back to the 1970’s and Don Cherry’s tenure as bench boss of the Bruins. In his book “Hockey Stories and Stuff” he makes reference to “looking like a ‘Southie’ (a resident of South Boston, with its strong Irish connections—thanks Kevin Vautour)”
“I wore a green hat like they wear, and it had a little tassel on top”!
And there is a chapter two to this. A glance at YouTube, and Cherry’s appearance on “Coach’s Corner” for 2012 and 2013’s St. Patrick’s Day telecasts feature him sporting a bright green fedora the first time, and a “Mad Hatter” creation the second. Leave to Grapes to outdo the outlandish!
The second involves the Central Hockey League’s Wichita Thunder in 1998. It was one of those occasions when this minor league contingent could ice only 6 skaters in their contest against the San Antonio Iguanas. About the only reasonable respite came from being whistled to the sin bin. Paul Jackson was taking his turn “for a break”, and while he cooled his heels the Iguanas popped in three quick ones. This prompted a barrage of chapeaus from the spectators. Several ended up in the penalty bench with him. When his sentence had expired he doffed his helmet and skated into play displaying a Mexican sombrero!
Dome pieces, as far as “dressing up” is concerned, seem to be a thing of the past. Hats are seldom connected with hockey players anymore. Back-up netminders usually wear a team cap while being in dry dock. Stanley Cup champions pull them on over their perspiring locks after the final whistle has sounded to announce their triumph. The 1988 USA Olympic athletes wore long navy coats and white fedoras; and Detroit’s coach, Mike Babcock, kept the snow off his noggin with one during the 2014 Winter Classic. But Stetsons, Biltmores, and Homburgs have gone the way of the horse and buggy in shinny circles over the last several decades.
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