You couldn’t make this up. An American-born National League baseball umpire coaches the Chicago Black Hawks in the 1937-38 season. His club finishes dreadfully under .500, yet manages to make the playoffs. His goalie is injured the day of Game 1. A replacement is reputedly found in a Toronto tavern. He beats the heavily favored Maple Leafs and then is suspended by the league. Eventually, the Hawks win the championship, but Lord Stanley’s Cup isn’t even around for the players to haul around the rink. Go figure.
Then again, how could anyone figure the Windy City sextet that slaphappy season under the dictatorship of millionaire club owner Major Frederic McLaughlin? A First World War veteran, McLaughlin dreamed of an all-American roster but settled for a few good star-spangled skaters, including Minnesota-born netminder Mike Karakas.
McLaughlin’s America-first chauvinism infuriated Canadian puck pundits including New York Rangers patriarch Lester Patrick, who ridiculed the eight U.S.-born Black Hawks as a bunch of “amateurs.” Who could argue with Patrick when Chicago finished the season with a 14-25-9 record, the only one of six teams to make the post-season with a losing record. Their chances of winning the Stanley Cup were rated 100-1. Not that coach Bill Stewart cared.
“This was the happiest team I ever saw in professional sport,” said Stewart, the only NHL coach ever hired while umpiring a ball game in Philadelphia. Joy turned to angst after Montreal beat the Black Hawks 6-4 to open the best-of-three Round 1 series. But Chicago tied it with a 4-0 win in Game 2 and then wrapped it up in overtime of Game 3 on Lou Trudel’s ping-pong shot that bounced off Paul Thompson. If that wasn’t enough of an upset, Stewart’s skaters then knocked off the sizzling New York Americans, who had just stunned the Rangers. Despite being in the final round, the Hawks, who finished 20 points behind Toronto, had only one hope, and that was in net. But when Karakas complained about an aching foot before Game 1, medics discovered he had a broken big toe. By the morning of the final, Karakas’ toe ballooned to a point where he couldn’t even fit his foot in a skate. Desperate for a goalie in an era when one rubber-stopper usually was enough, the Hawks’ high command beseeched Toronto boss Conn Smythe to allow them to replace Karakas with Rangers goalie Dave Kerr, who happened to be there to watch the game. Deflated by Smythe’s unprintable reply, the Black Hawks general staff combed Canada’s Queen City for a goalie, any goalie. According to NHL legend, one Alfie Moore was found quaffing liquid refreshment in a tavern a few hours before game time. A minor league goalie of little repute, Moore happily signed a Chicago contract. Once the game began, Moore did little to enhance his reputation by allowing an early goal to Leafs Hall of Famer Gordie Drillon. Unfazed, Moore held fast while Chicago rallied to win the game. Tickled over his good fortune, Stewart announced that Moore would start Game 2, but Smythe lobbied NHL president Frank Calder that Alfie had been illegally signed. The Black Hawks were forced to employ another minor leaguer, Paul Goodman, who ineptly lost 5-1. By this time Karakas had been fitted with a steel-toed boot. The Minnesotan responded with a 2-1 win and completed the coup de grace by topping Toronto 4-1 for the Cup. But Lord Stanley’s mug was nowhere to be found. Edward Burns of the Chicago Tribune had the answer. The league had so little faith in the Hawks that it didn’t even bring the Cup to the Windy City. “Calder had earlier caused the trophy to be shipped to Toronto,” Burns wrote. “It was reportedly on the assurance that a hockey team that harbored eight American-born hockey players as did the Hawks couldn’t possibly win the Stanley Cup.” You might figure that after such a noble coaching job, Stewart would be around for a few years, but McLaughlin fired him after 22 games the following season. The umpire exited laughing. “I took off for Florida,” Stewart recalled, “to spend the Major’s money and drown my sorrow in sunshine.”
This feature appeared in the Dec. 8 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.