Setting the record straight: Maracle should be recognized as trailblazer

Recent research reveals Buddy Maracle to be the first Indigenous player in the NHL. Yet the league refuses to acknowledge his breakthrough, even as the evidence mounts.
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Courtesy of the NY Rangers

Courtesy of the NY Rangers

BY STEPHEN SMITH

Buddy Maracle’s time in the NHL lasted less than two months in 1931, and when it was over it quickly subsided into the thickets of history. A review of records indicates that, beyond the big league, he played all over North America in a career that lasted nearly 20 years.

What they don’t so readily reveal is why now, 60 years after his death, Maracle is being recognized as a hockey trailblazer. That has to do with something the NHL itself has been reluctant to acknowledge: Maracle’s legacy as the league’s first Indigenous player.

For years, Fred Sasakamoose has been credited as the man who made that breakthrough when he skated as a 19-year-old for the Chicago Black Hawks in 1953. Now 84, Sasakamoose, from Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation, has been justly celebrated for his hockey exploits and as a mentor to Indigenous youth. Earlier this year, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

And yet history suggests at least two other Indigenous players preceded Sasakamoose to the NHL. The oversight has a long if not exactly distinguished history: those who’d gone before had already been all but forgotten by the time Sasakamoose joined Chicago for the 11 games he played over the course of the 1953-54 season.

The question of who is the NHL’s original Indigenous player goes back to the league’s beginnings. According to NHL records, Paul Jacobs lined up for the Toronto Arenas for a single game in 1918 during the league’s second season. Jacobs, who was Mohawk from Kahnawake, near Montreal, did practice with the team in the pre-season, but the evidence he made it to regular-season ice is thin, at best.

Taffy Abel, who played defense for the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, had Chippewa background, though it’s not clear how much. When New York launched its first NHL team in 1925, the Americans, someone had the bright idea of pretending that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born center, Rene Boileau, was in fact a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater. New York manager Tommy Gorman might have been behind the stunt, though he later said it was all co-owner Tom Duggan’s idea. Either way, it quickly flopped.

When the New York Rangers joined the league the following year, Conn Smythe was briefly in charge of assembling the roster. The man who’d go on to shape the destiny of the Toronto Maple Leafs was fired from his first NHL job before his fledglings had even played a game. Smythe did recruit Abel before he ceded his job to Lester Patrick, and he seemed to have had an eye on Maracle, too, who was by then skating in the Toronto Mercantile League. As it was, the 22-year-old Maracle found a home with a Rangers farm team that fall.

BuddyMaracle2

There’s much we don’t know about how Maracle got to that point. Most of what is known of his earliest years has been pieced together by Irene Schmidt-Adeney, a reporter for the Ayr News who took an interest in the Maracle story earlier this year.

A town of 4,000 in southwestern Ontario, Ayr is arranged around a curve of the Nith River, a frozen stretch of which, just to the south, Wayne Gretzky skated as a boy. It’s by way of Schmidt-Adeney’s research that we understand young Albert Maracle and his family, who were Oneida Mohawks, seem to have moved close to town after departing the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River reserve in the early 1900s. At some point, Albert married Elsie Hill. Their son, Buddy-to-be, was born Henry Elmer Maracle in Ayr in September 1904.

The family later headed north to Haileybury, which is where Henry got his start in hockey, first at high school, then as a junior in nearby North Bay with the Trappers. He seems to have gone mostly by ‘Elmer’ in those years, though over the course of his career he began to show up in newspapers as ‘Bud,’ ‘Clarence,’ ‘Moose’ and (inevitably) ‘Chief.’ ‘Buddy’ seems to have taken hold by the time, in 1926, that he found himself farmed out to New York’s affiliate in Springfield, Mass. – which just happened to be nicknamed the Indians.

Accounts of Maracle from his hockey heyday in the late 1920s and early ’30s note his size and speed, his deft stickhandling, his “tireless” checking. “Comes at you from all directions,” was one opponent’s assessment of his play on the left wing. “Maracle is so big that stiff bodychecks hurt the checker more than they do him,” the Boston Globe enthused. “Players just bounce off him.”

He’d end up playing six seasons in Springfield, captaining the team and becoming a favorite with the fans for his industrious, relentless style. Watching him play in Philadelphia, one admiring writer decided he “personified the ideal of American sportsmanship.”

For all the admiration Maracle garnered in his playing days, many newspapers had trouble getting his heritage straight. Over the years, he was variously identified as Iroquois, Blackfoot, Sioux, Sac Fox and “the last Mohican.” Casual stereotyping and outright racism featured throughout his career. He was also called the “Redskin Icer.” Recounting his hockey deeds, reporters also sprayed their columns with references to “war whoops” and “wigwams,” “tomahawks” and “scalps.” 

When Springfield visited Boston Garden in 1929 to play the hometown Tigers, local fans singled out Maracle for abuse: whenever he touched the puck, a local columnist blithely reported, “there were shouts of ‘Kill him.’ ”

Maracle was 26 when he finally got his NHL opportunity towards the end of the 1930-31 season. “Those who used to boo the Noble Red Man in the Canadian-American League can now boo him in the National Hockey League,” the Boston Globe advised, “though, of course, it will cost more.”

Maracle joined a Rangers lineup featuring Frank Boucher as well as brothers Bun and Bill Cook, who went to the Stanley Cup final in 1932 and again a year later, when they overwhelmed the Toronto Maple Leafs. Maracle played his first NHL game in Detroit, debuting in the Rangers’ 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He didn’t figure on the scoresheet that night and also failed to score in New York’s next two games.

It was in Maracle’s fourthgame with the Rangers that he made his best showing as an NHLer. Hosting the lowly Philadelphia Quakers on Feb. 22, 1931, New York cruised to a 6-1 win. Maracle assisted when Cecil Dillon scored the Rangers’ fifth goal in the second period. In the third, Dillon returned the favor when Maracle beat the Quakers’ Wilf Cude to score his lone NHL goal. One newspaper account rated it “clever;” getting the puck from Dillon, Maracle “swept through everybody to leave Cude helpless with a wicked shot.”

Along with his 11 regular-season games, Maracle played in all four of New York’s playoff games that year. He registered no points and took no penalties.

In the fall of 1931, the Rangers cut him loose. He went on to play in the Bronx, Philadelphia, New Haven and Tulsa for teams, long since vanished, nicknamed Tigers, Arrows, Eagles and Oilers. As a veteran “with an oft-broken nose,” he played in Detroit in the late ’30s, dropping back to defense. It was here, incidentally, that he played against another Mohawk player from southwestern Ontario, Wendell ‘Jimmy’ Jamieson, whose brother – named James but also called ‘Jimmy’ – became the NHL’s (probably) second Indigenous player when he played a single game for the Rangers in 1944.

Maracle’s last stop as a minor-leaguer was in San Diego, toward the end of the Second World War, where he joined the senior-league Skyhawks. It was there that, for a series of exhibition games raising money for war charities, Maracle was briefly a teammate of Turk Broda’s and the Bentley brothers, Max and Doug.

Maracle was 39 by the time he retired. Away from the ice, he faded from the attention of newspapers, which makes biographical details hard to come by. He had two grown children, including a son who was killed serving with the Canadian Army near the end of the Second World War. Divorced and then remarried, Maracle seems to have renounced his Mohawk status and become a U.S. citizen.

Archives afford glimpses, over the years, of the jobs Maracle worked when he wasn’t playing hockey. A 1933 Springfield city directory has him employed in “fishing tackle.” Elsewhere, he gave his occupation as riveter, tiremaker and machinist. Settled in Dallas in the 1950s, he worked as a truck driver for the American Produce Co.

Maracle was 53 when he died of a kidney disease in June 1958. His Texas death certificate notes he’s buried in Dallas’ Oakland Cemetery, and lists his “Color or Race” as white.

Back in Maracle’s hometown of Ayr, Schmidt-Adeney has connected with members of his family. Along with officials representing the Six Nations of the Grand River, some of them were on hand at two community ceremonies organized this year to commemorate Maracle’s legacy. The Rangers, in June, donated a pair of modern-day jerseys emblazoned with Maracle’s name and number (14) to rinks in Ayr and at Six Nations.

As for the NHL, the league’s focus, so far as it goes, has not shifted. “As far as we know,” a representative said earlier this year, “(Fred) Sasakamoose was the first Canadian Indigenous player with ties to First Nations.”

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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