Hockey and the Second Great War

Syl Apps suiting up for a game with the Toronto Army Daggers. (Hockey Hall of Fame)

By: Casey R. Johnston (@CaseyR82)

During World War II, men put their lives on hold to go overseas and fight either in the European or Pacific Theater.  In total, 16 million Americans and 1.1 million Canadians fought in battles ranging from places like Sicily, Normandy, Iwo Jima, and Guadalcanal.  The National Hockey League was not spared the loss of having young military-aged men leave their jobs to join the fight.

When people think of athletes who served during WWII, their minds may turn to baseball players such as Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams, or football players like George Halas or Norm Van Brocklin.  The story of hockey players in WWII, however, is primarily a Canadian story.  It’s a Canadian story because while hockey was being played professionally in the United States, it was being played by Canadians.  In 1939, the year war broke out in Europe, only ten American-born players were playing in the NHL.  During the 1941-42 season, the year the U.S. entered the war, only eight Americans were in the NHL.

The list of players who joined the Canadian military during WWII included several Hart, Art Ross, and Conn Smyth Trophy winners who left the game in the prime of their careers.  Some of the most famous names of the era like Syl Apps, Woody Dumart, and Turk Broda were gone from the game for up to three years.  Many had gone overseas to fight in Europe and the Pacific while some stayed behind and played in military hockey leagues.  Some, like Broda, did both.

Syl Apps was coming off a Stanley Cup-winning season where he was a first-team all-star and Lady Byng Award winner when he decided to enlist in the Canadian Army.  He lost two years of his career to the war before coming back in 1945 to score 40 points in 40 games.  The Leafs missed the playoffs but would win another Stanley Cup the next year.

Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer  made up the Kraut Line in Boston Photo Credit:

Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer made up the Kraut Line in Boston
Photo Credit:

Woody Dumart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer were three German-Canadians who grew up together in Kitchener, Ontario.  They would go onto form the Boston Bruin’s famous “Kraut Line.”  All three players left the Bruins after the 1941-42 season to enlist in the Canadian Royal Air Force.  Bruins goalie Frank Brimsek, one of eight Americans playing in the NHL at the time, would also leave to fight in the Pacific.  The four would not play again until the 1945-46 season.

Turk Broda and Sid Abel were two men who played in military hockey leagues.  Broda played seven seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning a Vezina Trophy and Stanley Cup, before enlisting after the 1942-43 season.  He would not return until the 1945-46 season.  He 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 parts of five seasons for the Detroit Red Wings before enlisting in the Canadian Royal Air Force in 1943, right after winning a Stanley Cup.  He would return in 1945-46 to play ten more seasons, winning two more Stanley Cups and a Hart Memorial Trophy.

One player who did not have the good fortune to return to the game was Dudley “Red” Garrett.  Garrett played 23 games for the New York Rangers in 1942-43, posting a goal, an assist, and 18 PIMs.  He left following that season to join the Royal Canadian Navy.  He was killed on Nov. 25, 1944 while escorting a destroyer off the coast of Newfoundland.

As a result of the war, NHL rosters were gutted and re-filled with players who were normally too young or too old to play professional hockey, and men who were deemed medically unfit to serve in the military (the Canadian and U.S. militaries had unreasonably high standards for service).  The difficulty of filling a roster with professional players, coupled with financial hardships, forced the New York Americans to re-locate to Brooklyn for the 1941-42 season before folding completely.  Lester Patrick, General Manager of the New York Rangers, considered suspending the team temporarily until the end of war.

At war’s end, many of the players who were fortunate enough to return home resumed their careers in the NHL.  It’s not uncommon to hear people describe a game as a “battle,” or even “going to war,” but that’s not accurate.  These men, and many more like them, put their lives on hold to go to a real war.  They could have stayed home, continued to play the game, and took their chances with the draft.  However, there are two things that sports have in common with war, brotherhood and sacrifice.  The sacrifice is infinitely more extreme in war, but the mentality that made these guys lay down to block shots or go into a corner to retrieve a puck is the same mindset that made friends Woody Dumont, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer follow each other  into the military during one of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind.  So, on this Veterans’ and Remembrance Day, if you happen to be watching hockey, remember these men and the millions more like them.