by Ron Spence
U.S. hockey was in a bad way.
It was 1919, and all hockey south of the 49th was being played under the umbrella of the International Skating Union.
The good news was that the skaters had working agreements with both the Amateur Athletic Union, and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association.
In late October, 1920, the United States Amateur Hockey Association was formed, with the blessing of the skaters, and affiliations with both the AAU and the CAHA.
It would be a catchall organization and last for only five seasons, prior to the NHL’s expansion into the U.S. and at a time when there were good players needing a league to play in.
“…it has been suggested that the long-range goal of the AHA, which chose not to affiliate with the NHL, was specifically to develop U.S.-born and trained players,” wrote Richard Sisson, Christian K. Zacher, and Andrew Robert Lee Cayton in their book, The American Midwest.
There were three divisions during the USAHA’s first two seasons, then two from 1922-23 until 1924-25 (The smaller teams from Upper Michigan had local support, but couldn’t afford the travel costs and left the league.).
The last two years – the hay day of the circuit – ended after the 1924-25 campaign.
The teams that played those two seasons were: the Maple Athletic Association [Boston], the Boston Hockey Club Boston, the Boston Athletic Association, the New Haven Bears, the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, the West Cleveland Hockey Club, the St. Paul Hockey Club, the Duluth Hornets, and the Eveleth Arrowheads.
The league’s president was W.S. Haddock from Pittsburgh, and the VPs were George V. Brown from Boston, and J.E. Fitzgerald from St. Paul.
The USAHA’s final season, there were twelve professional teams in North America.
The NHL consisted of the Hamilton Tigers, the Toronto St. Patricks, the Montreal Canadians, the Ottawa Senators, and two new teams – the Montreal Maroons and the Boston Bruins.
The newly configured Western Hockey League – which was a blend of the Pacific Coast and prairie league – included: the Calgary Tigers, the Edmonton Eskimos, the Regina Capitals, the Saskatoon Shieks, the Vancouver Maroons, and the Victoria Cougars.
Picture courtesy of www.pittsburghhockey.net
The USAHA was – effectively – an overflow semi-pro league, with some superstars lurking in its midst.
The two western circuits had mainly Canadian players – some of whom graduated to the NHL. The eastern teams had Canadian imports, plus some local players. The Canadian imports became a bone of contention for some Bean Towners.
W.E. Mullins referred to the Yellow Jackets as “Pittsburgh’s Canadians.”
The Herald’s gossipy “Bob Dunbar” questioned why: “Boston hockey … [was] hooked up with Pittsburgh at all… [After all] the best hockey in Boston is played by our own boys … [and Pittsburgh hockey] … is played mainly by a bunch of traveling mercenaries, who practically all are of Canadian birth and training.”
Of course, there were some sour grapes here, as BAA had won the eastern and national titles the previous season, and lost out to the Yellow Jackets that year.
The new and improved Yellow Jackets had been formed by Lionel Conacher, under the guidance of Roy Schooley.
Roy Schooley had invited Conacher to come and ref in Pittsburgh in February, 1923, “to see if the crowd would take to him.”
Then, Schooley asked Conacher to play in a four game series.
“The Big Train,” as he would be called, scored eleven of the Yellow Jacket’s 23 goals in four games.
So, Schooley wrote an article for Pittsburgh press informing Steel City hockey fans that they had a new star.
Schooley was an interesting character, who skirted conflict of interest.
The former referee was the USAHA’s treasurer, Dusquesne Gardens’ manager, the Yellow Jacket’s owner, and later their coach when Conacher and friends arrived for the 1923-24 season.
He was also the head of U.S. Olympic Hockey, and a scout of sorts for Art Ross, the Boston Bruins’ General Manager (In their inaugural 1924-25 season, Boston picked up Eveleth’s Jimmy Herberts, New Haven’s Norm Shay and Fort Pitt’s Bonner Larose. And from the Boston Athletic Association, they acquired Moe Roberts, Hago Harrington, and Gerry Geran.).
Dennison Manners had played for, managed and coached the Yellow Jackets up until the 1922-23 season – when they were only a .500 club – and played the following season, before moving over to the Fort Pitt Hornets/Panthers.
Seeing how well the fans took to Conacher, Schooley signed him on the spot, made him the team’s captain, and asked him to invite a number of his friends to “come on down” – including his brother-in-law Harold Cotton.
From the Ottawa Gunners senior team, there were Hib Milks, Harold Darragh and Rodger Smith. From the Toronto Argonauts’ senior squad, there were Duke McCurry and goalie Roy Worters. Cotton, like Conacher, had played on the Toronto Aura Lee squad, and Tex White had been with Conacher, a few years earlier on the Toronto Canoe Club.
These imports joined U.S. Olympian Herb Drury, and Manners, who were already with the Pittsburgh team.
The Yellow Jackets won the Fellowes Cup both the 1923-24 (Conacher scored 6 goals and 9 points to lead all playoff scorers.) and 1924-25 seasons.
Were some of the USAHA’s best players good enough to play in the NHL?
Nels Stewart certainly was.
“Stewart was wanted by several NHL teams after leading the USAHA West in scoring in 1922-23,” writes Hockey Central, “but he had such a lucrative deal with Cleveland that he chose to stay put. He would lead the league in scoring two more times before finally accepting an offer from the Montreal Maroons in 1925-26.”
Stewart became the NHL’s Rookie of the Year, scoring 34 goals, and helping the Maroons to win the Stanley Cup. He won the Hart Trophy twice, and established an NHL scoring record – 324 goals – which would only be surpassed by “Rocket” Richard.
Conacher was certainly good enough to play in the Big Tent. The Boston Traveller wrote, on January 29th, 1924, that Pittsburgh was “a wonder team,” and Conacher was “Canada’s Wonder Athlete.”
Like Stewart in Cleveland, Conacher had a sweet deal in Pittsburgh. He was “an insurance agent,” and made big money from commissions. Most of his customers had large policies, and the company’s manager lined up the contracts. All Conacher had to do was show up at the office every once and a while – when the team was in town.
And then there were the gifts. Conacher and his wife were given a new “Hudson Coach” by appreciative Pittsburgh fans, after they had been in the city for only four months. Also, many sent money and gifts to the newspapers for the Conacher’s wedding present.
There were other players, as well, who the NHL wanted, such as “Moose” Goheen and xx Conroy.
Roy Worters was also good enough to play in the West Coast League, or the NHL, but there were already twelve established goaltenders with more experience.
In 1924-25, Worters led the Yellow Jackets to 25 wins, and had 17 shutouts in 39 games.
The proof would be in the proverbial pudding when the league folded, and eight of the league’s top ten scorers went on to play in the NHL.
Were the USAHA’s players professional, semi-professional, or amateurs?
Some critics cried “professional.”
Early in 1924, some Bostonians complained about Pittsburgh’s players, but the allegations were never substantiated. 21
The Boston Globe’s John J. Hallahan countered that “local players … might not bear having the calcium directed at them, when it comes to the definition of the word amateur.”
And, if the Boston players weren’t being paid, they certainly had healthy expense accounts – that were being abused.
“…the BAA announced its withdrawal from the USAHA [at the end of the 1924-25 season],” wrote Roy A. Godin, in Before the Stars, “apparently anticipating problems with its players concerning the submission of excessive expense reports.”
There were also accusations of professionalism in the far western part of the league as well.
In the spring of 1923, the town of Evelth was sued in by the district court in Virginia, Minnesota, for paying hockey and baseball salaries out of the town’s funds. These charges, like those against the Yellow Jackets, were never substantiated.
USAHA attendance varied from city to town, from arena to arena, and largely depended upon which visiting team was in town.
Pittsburgh, Cleveland and St. Paul averaged 3 to 4,000 fans per game, whereas Eveleth (population 7,000) and Duluth (population 98,000) often drew sellout crowds, seating 3,000 and 2,000 fans respectively.
In 1922, St. Paul, with a 7,800 spectator rink, drew an excess of 50,000 fans for a playoff series against Eveleth and Boston, writes Don Clark in www.vintageminnesotahockey.com.
Of the nine teams, only Pittsburgh and Cleveland had home rinks with artificial ice, and could thus play well into the spring.
Photo courtesy of: www.vintageminnesotahockey.com
he USAHA’s style of play varied from “a rushing game,” to “lying back” and wait.
The Pioneer Press wrote on March 2, 1924 about the good Cleveland team, “[This] veteran and brainy aggregation loves to meet a team that plays a rushing game … for the Indians have a set style of lying back, checking with three men strung on the forward line in their own territory, closely in front of the defense. The Indians play this style and wait for the breaks and when the breaks come they are pounced upon with alacrity by Nels Steward and his mates.”
And when Cleveland was ahead? They laid back so much that caused near riots.
“Not a soul in the Hipp … would have been willing to pay his income tax twice on the chances of St. Paul to tie the score, but it was not to be. The Indians played back, let their sticks lie carelessly on the ice to thwart the speeding Saints and upon gaining frequent possession of the puck, shot it far down the ice, many precious seconds being wasted while Babe Elliot helped retrieve it for some frantic St. Paul skater. The crowd grew so wild that spectators put their legs over the side of the rail to obstruct the puck sliding down the rink and brought discredit upon itself by booing the work [of the officials].”
If the crowd was tough, so were the USAHA’s players.
In one game, Pittburgh’s Joe Sills butt-ended Leo Hughes in the face, requiring the removal of one eye, and nearly the other. The Boston AA’s player was such a fan favourite that the supporters went into an uproar. The team threatened to quit the league because of the “Unnecessary and willful roughing.”
It should be noted, however, that Leo Hughes wasn’t any shrinking violet. The Boston College Eagles website writes about their former player: “Fast, rugged, fearless, and clever, he was a fiery competitor who dominated the college hockey world of his day from his position on the Eagles’ right wing.”
W.E. Mullins reported that following the 1924 playoffs with Pittsburgh, BAA coach “Skeets” Canterbury “[was delighted [to get home without a] … serious casualty [given the Yellow Jackets’ tactics of] slashing their opponents around the thighs and ankle … Hooking around the face, [and worst of all], the expert manner in which most of them could stick and use the butt ends of their mashies in massaging the ribs of their rivals.”
“Skeets” must have dreaded his road trips to Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“When we started on a road trip to other rinks it was like going to war,” said St. Paul’s Emy Garrett. “Visiting teams often lost and had to be escorted off the ice by police.”
“The toughest was the 1922 playoff series between St. Paul and Eveleth,” Moose Goheen told Don Clark, “where the penalty boxes were usually filled. With large crowds attending games at both St. Paul and Eveleth, St. Paul edged Eveleth three games to two in the series, scoring seven goals to Eveleth’s six, with two of the contests ending as scoreless ties.”
And Goheen was talking after playing nineteen seasons, on various Minnesota teams.
Eveleth, St. Paul and Duluth dreaded visiting the small rinks of Upper Michigan.
“Hockey, you know, is not a parlour game,” the USAHA’s president stated, after Leo Hughes had lost an eye.
The NHL wasn’t “a parlour game,” either, as some USAHA players would find out.
DON CLARK’S LIST OF NOTABLE USAHA PLAYERS WHO MADE IT TO THE NHL
I have credited various books and a website in the text of this article. I would also thank the authors of the two books: Lionel Pretoria Conacher, by Professor Don Morrow, and The Rock, the Curse, and the Hub by Randy Roberts.