Taffy Abel: a sault sensation: part Chippewa and all business, hockey defenseman Taffy Abel never backed down from a challenge on the ice--an attitude that earned him a place on the Stanley Cup.
Abel's lineage can be traced through his mother, Charlotte Gurnoe Abel, whose mother was white and whose father, John Gurnoe, was a member of the Chippewa tribe.
According to Sam Kokko, one of Abel's lifelong friends, it was in school where the hockey player earned his nickname, Taffy. Clarence, as he was then called, would sneak taffy into school, slipping pieces into his mouth when he could get away with it.
Abel and Kokko worked summers on the lighthouse tender USS Clover during their high school years. The boys were away for months at a time visiting ports of call as far as Duluth, helping to deliver coal, oil, and other supplies.
It was around this time when Abel became serious about organized hockey. The Sault was a hockey-happy city, and Abel probably played informally with friends and attended games while growing up. As teens, he and Kokko swept the ice in the local rink between games, which earned them ice time. The two then organized a team called the "Sweepers," which competed regionally and earned at least one amateur championship.
Hockey in Abel's day was primitive when compared with today's game, with diminutive pads and no helmets--even for goaltenders. Forward passing was forbidden, and slap shots were decades away from regular use. Skaters often played the entire game, with few substitutions.
The early game was also a rough-and-tumble spectacle, carrying a reputation for violence and borderline criminal behavior. By 1918, Abel was reported to stand 6 feet 1 inch tall and tipped the scales at 225 pounds. Most of his competition was inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.
Abel, a defenseman, moved up to play for the Sault Wildcats--associated with the United States Amateur Hockey Association (USAHA)--from 1919 to 1922.
In amateur leagues of the era, it was not uncommon for players to receive under-the-table compensation. As early as the 1921-22 season, Abel began using the media to his advantage, dropping hints in the Sault Evening News that the Cleveland Worlds--the reigning league champions--had made him an offer to join their team. Later, Abel announced he was going to quit the Wildcats when a supposed agreement to manage the rink fell through with its owner.
Some of this might have had to do with the death of Abel's father, John, in 1920. Abel likely assumed the role of primary breadwinner for his mother and sister and could have been trying to squeeze every cent out of the sport.
It is unknown whether Taffy negotiated a better deal, but he continued his physical style of play, which focused on defense. In a January 7, 1922 match between the Wildcats and the Canadian Soo, more than 2,000 fans watched Abel's team fall 2-1 to their Canadian rivals. More than once Abel failed to find an open man, and the coach criticized him for not passing. But the Sault paper, in its characteristic prose, said that "Taffy jarred the carcasses of the Canadians."
Later that season, Abel furthered his reputation for rough play when he was suspended for striking a referee with his stick. USAHA President W.S. Haddock threatened to ban the defenseman from hockey: "We intend to put a stop to anything that savors of ruffianism." Luckily for Abel, Haddock didn't get his way.
The 1921-22 campaign was the last for the Wildcats in the USAHA, but Abel stayed in the league, joining the St. Paul Athletic Club (known as the "Saints"), where he played for three seasons. During his first season with the club, Taffy helped them make it to the league championship, where they lost to the Boston Athletic Association.
In late 1923, Haddock found himself managing the United States Olympic hockey team, which would compete in the first winter games in the alpine village of Chamonix, France.
Despite their differences, Haddock tapped Abel for the team. But the defenseman turned down the offer, citing the distance from family and friends and his need to take time off from the St. Paul team. It wasn't until Haddock and the Olympic committee threatened Abel and the Saints that he relented.
En route to Boston, Abel received an urgent telegram compelling him to "rush direct to Boston Arena." He arrived just in time for the third period of an exhibition game against the Boston Hockey Club and scored the only goal for his team, which lost 3-1.
After the game, Abel and the rest of the Olympic hockey team waited in Boston for several days before departing for New York City. There, they would board the opulent SS President Garfield that would ferry them across the Atlantic.
There was just one hitch; to obtain a passport, Abel needed a birth certificate. And that document was nowhere to be found. The solution seemed equally out of reach: a sworn affidavit from someone who could vouch for the player's identity, someone like a lifelong friend from the Sault.
The team trainer found such an individual: teammate Herb Drury, who swore that he had known Abel from birth. Never mind that Drury grew up in Midland, Ontario, hundreds of miles from the Sault, and probably never met Abel until both began playing in the USAHA.
Abel was allowed to make the trip, and his fellow United States athletes elected him to receive the Olympic oath and carry the flag in the parade of nations.
During the hockey competition, it was evident which teams were the ones to beat. Rising up through the pairings, the Americans and Canadians each won four games, setting up a dramatic finale. Both teams featured three future NHLers, but the Canadian team was actually an existing senior amateur team--the Toronto Granites--that had played scores of games as a unit. In contrast, the U.S. team, made up of players from different clubs, had only four games together before departing for France.
As expected, the U.S. crew lost to the Canadians, 6-1, in the finals. Press accounts of the game included descriptions of "stains that turned the ice crimson from bloody noses" and a collision involving Abel that "echoed to the top of Mont Blanc." Abel's team, aided by his stellar performance that included 15 goals in five games, earned a silver medal. European fans were shocked, yet also thrilled, by the violent North-American style.
At the conclusion of the games, Abel traveled back to the U.S. and then to the Sault where hundreds greeted him at the train station. A banquet was held in his honor where he was presented with a gold watch. He told the audience that "this city can count on me ... to help put the old town on the map."
Abel returned to the St. Paul club for a third and final season. Then, in 1925, he made his professional debut with the Minneapolis Millers. In 1926, they won the Central Amateur Hockey Association title; Abel was paired on defense with Ivan "Ching" Johnson.
That same year, Conn Smythe--future founding owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs--was tasked with recruiting a top-notch roster for the New York Rangers' inaugural season in the NHL. According to Smythe's memoir, he traveled to Minnesota to scout Abel and other prospects. But Abel played coy about signing with the Rangers. Just before leaving town, Smythe conned the defenseman into a meeting on his train. When the train started rolling forward, Smythe barred the exit, telling Abel the next stop was 250 miles away. Smythe eventually got Abel to sign a contract, then the player reportedly jumped off the moving train.
When Abel and Johnson arrived for their first game together as Rangers, they were "little better than semi-pros" (a later comment attributed to Johnson) and were so unknown they had a difficult time even getting into Madison Square Garden. But they helped their team beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Maroons in that contest, and received the blessing of star Bill Cook. According to Abel, the veteran "patted each of us on the back. 'You fellows will do,' [Cook] said. We couldn't have been happier if he'd given us a million dollars apiece."
By the end of the season, the defensive duo had lived up to the hype of their size--and their ferocious style. Despite their reputation, Abel swore that he and Johnson got into very few fights. "We were so big that no one wanted any part of us," he recalled in 1962.
During the 1927-28 campaign, Abel's second with the club, the Rangers fought their way to the Stanley Cup finals. In the second game, Rangers' goaltender Lorne Chabot--helmetless--was hit in the eye and taken out of the game. Without a backup goalie, coach/general manager Lester Patrick dressed for the position and, aided by standout play from Abel and Johnson, stopped 17 of 18 shots en route to a 2-1 overtime win.
The Rangers went on to win the series and their first Stanley Cup.
The Rangers played their way into the finals again in 1929, but lost to the Boston Bruins. Less than three weeks later, the last-place Chicago Blackhawks purchased Abel's contract for a reported $15,000.
In the 1929-30 season, "the world's heaviest hockey player"--according to the Los Angeles Times--adjusted to new rules that allowed forward passing in the offensive zone, and helped the Blackhawks make it to the playoffs for the first time in three years. They were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in a heartbreaking semifinal playoff game: the longest contest in NHL history to that point.
The game was nearly double the length of a normal contest, clocking in at nearly two hours. Abel played the first 60 minutes without substitution and, according to an Associated Press account, "a good part of the overtime session without relief." There were rests between periods and during a two-minute minor penalty. Within a few weeks, other press accounts spun Abel's effort into lore as a performance of 100 minutes without a substitution.
In 1930-31, the Blackhawks reached their first-ever finals, only to lose to the Canadiens. The Chicago team finally won the cup in the 1933-34 season.
Abel, then 32 years old, was past the peak of his career. But he was still effective. The Chicago American, in December 1933, praised the player, noting that, "rated strictly on his defensive ability, there's no better left defenseman in the league."
He was also a fan favorite whose size and playing style never failed to earn him new nicknames from local sportswriters: Michigan Mountain, Mack Truck, Pachyderm, and Stonewall being just a few.
Nonetheless, Abel was nowhere near the Blackhawks' home opener the following season. Engaged in a bitter contract dispute with the team's management, he chose to stay in the Sault where he reportedly worked for a brewery. When the Chicagoans fell behind 5-0 near the middle of the third period, disgruntled fans began yelling, "We want Taffy!"
Abel showed up in Chicago on December 29--a third of the way through the regular season--with the intention of getting back into playing shape and working out the final details of his contract. He registered 249 pounds at a weigh-in with team officials, who expressed their concern.
Dissatisfied with the team's terms, Abel made his holdout permanent. After he went to the press with his side of the story, the Chicago front office rebutted, and closed with the following: "lAbel] never again will appear in a Blackhawk uniform."
Taffy Abel ended his career after 16 seasons of amateur and professional hockey, including 333 games in the NHL, and returned to the Sault. There, he and his wife, Tracy, operated the Log Cabin Cafe, on Ashmun Street, which a chatty Chicago Daily Tribune columnist hailed as the "gayest spot in Michigan north of Detroit ... bring[ing] in all the name bands on tour." Later, Abel opened the Log Cabin Lodge, whose advertisements boasted the resort's "clean, modern cabins" and picturesque view of the St. Marys River.
The Sault's own "Mr. Hockey" also continued to contribute to his sport.
In 1938, as the coach of the newly formed Sault Americans, he was ostensibly fired for missing practices. Sam Kokko later told a different story, saying that Abel punched out manager A.J. Sorenson for telling his players after a loss that they could always win next time.
In 1939, Abel cofounded the Sault Indians. According to the local newspaper, he chose the team name to pay tribute to his Native-American heritage, which would have been the first public acknowledgment of his lineage. As coach, he led the Indians to three consecutive championships from 1940 to 1942 in the Northern Michigan Hockey League.
Abel died of a heart attack in 1964 in his hometown. He was survived by Tracy and his stepson, Hugh. His obituary, like those of his mother and maternal grandfather, did not mention the Native-American connection. In fact, his heritage wasn't known widely outside the Sault until he was posthumously inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990--an effort undertaken by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Taffy Abel was named a charter member of both the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame (1972) and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame (1973). In 1990, Lake Superior State University chose to name its ice arena for him; at the Sault's Pullar Stadium, a larger-than-life photo of Abel greets visitors as they enter.
Abel's most recent honor came in 2012, when he was featured in an exhibition celebrating Native Olympians at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.
Bill Castanier is a writer for the Lansing City Pulse, a blogger at Mittenlit.com, and a member of the Sault Tribe. He is also the vice president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. Gregory Parker, a recipient of the University of Michigan Avery Hopwood Award, holds an M.A. in American history from Columbia University. He lives in Grass Lake.
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|Author:||Castanier, Bill; Parker, Gregory|
|Publication:||Michigan History Magazine|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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