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The clean white envelope which had been addressed by hand stood out from the flyers and bills stuffed into my mailbox as I arrived home one afternoon in the Spring of 2002.
As I tossed the other mail aside, I turned it over to read the return address; 58 Overlook Drive, Golf, Illinois. I was still at a loss as to the source of the letter as I carefully opened it and removed the personalized stationery on which was printed THOMAS H. COULTER in raised ink.
I was immediately reminded that nearly a year before, I had written to the funeral home that handled the arrangements of Hockey Hall of Fame member Art Coulter, Tom’s older brother. Art’s obituary revealed that Tom was still alive in 2000, so I took a chance and sent a letter to the funeral home asking that it be forwarded to the family in the hopes of reaching Tom.
My primary research interest is in players who had very brief NHL careers prior to the second World War, and Tom was one of the players who continued to elude me in the days before searching through newspaper and vital record archives on the internet was possible.
Well you found me. Congratulations! I look forward to hearing from you. I believe I am the oldest living Blackhawk. I will be 91 on April 21.
Since retiring from the Blackhawks I have had a most wonderful marriage, family and business career. I decided to make Chicago my home after living in Winnipeg (1911-1927), Pittsburgh (1927-1930), Australia, Burma and India (1937-39). I retired at age 73 in 1984. I am still active in civic affairs but do get fatigued now and then.
I look forward to hearing from you and learning about your interest in hockey.
Much by chance, I already had plans to visit the Chicago area that summer, so I made arrangements to visit Mr. Coulter while in Illinois.
On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 2002, I travelled to the upscale village of Golf, located some 40 miles north of Chicago, and found my way through the winding tree lined streets to the large Cape Cod style house at 58 Overlook drive1.
Tom Coulter's House as it appears today in Golf, Illiinois
After a short wait in the living room, Mr. Coulter’s personal care assistant pointed to the stairs and told me to make my way to the second floor where Tom was waiting for me.
As I climbed the staircase, I was struck by the memorabilia and photographs adorning the walls, which included photographs of Tom posing with dignitaries and leaders, including John F. Kennedy and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Tom had clearly had a successful and prosperous career after hockey.
Tom with U.S. President John F. Kennedy
On the other side of the door stood a smiling, elderly version of the man I had only see in one profile photo, who despite his age, still had an imposing size and a firm handshake. When I commented on the photographs I had just seen, Tom only brought attention to the one of his late wife Mary Alice and himself on their wedding day, commenting on his “beautiful bride”, with his love for her still evident in his voice.
I spent the next forty minutes chatting with this friendly, graceful and dignified man about his hockey career, business career and his life in general, which I hope you will find as interesting as I did.
Tom Coulter and a much younger looking version of myself
The Early Years
Thomas Coulter was born the youngest of three boys in Winnipeg, Manitoba on April 21st, 1911. Like many kids, Tom played on any frozen surface he could find and played organized hockey in high school, winning the Senior School Series Hockey Championship with St-John's College in 1927.
Tom's oldest brother David, who won titles in amateur boxing and wrestling and was the runner-up in the heavyweight boxing championships for the 1928 Olympics, had found his way to Pittsburgh. Shortly thereafter he convinced his father that more opportunities existed for the family's automotive and hardware business in Pennsylvania. The whole family was moved to Pittsburgh, where Tom completed high-school and began college at Carnegie Tech.
While at Carnegie Tech., Tom played as a halfback on the football team, and was the captain of the track and field team, setting several records and had the 29th best time in the world in 1931.
Tom with the 1932 Carnegie track team
Although he had lived in the United States for many years, he was still a Canadian citizen, and decided to return to Manitoba in the summer of 1932 to compete in the Canadian Championships, where he won the 440 yard hurdle event, winning him a spot on the Canadian Olympic Team which went on to compete in 1932 in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, fond memories are all Tom would bring back from the games. Having knocked down four hurdles, he was automatically disqualified.
With his engineering degree completed, Tom wasn't sure if he was ready to look for work, and was very interested in going to graduate school. He met with his mentor who urged him to consider the University of Chicago, as it had a very good business program.
Life in the Big Leagues
Now sure that he wanted to attend the University of Chicago to pursue a master's degree in economics, Tom was faced with the problem of paying for his tuition. With the country in the grip of the great depression, the likelihood of finding a job that would pay well and permit time for studies was nearly non-existent. In a conversation with his brother Art, who was about to begin his third season with the Black Hawks, the elder sibling suggested Tom do what his roommate Don McFadyen was doing to pay his way through law school at the university of Chicago: play for the Black Hawks. "Me? Play for the Black Hawks? Are you crazy?" asked Tom.
Although he had played some pickup hockey at Carnegie Tech., Tom had not played organized hockey since leaving Winnipeg almost 10 years earlier. A tryout was arranged, and after just two weeks Tom was offered a $2500.00 contract, which he happily signed. Tom appeared in two games with the team before the coach decided that a year in the minors would fine tune his abilities, making him a shoe-in the following season. Tom played a full season with the Oklahoma City Warriors, appearing in 47 games, managing 2 goals and 1 assist.
Tom with brother Art at a Black Hawks practice
After attending the spring and summer sessions at university, the fall found Tom back at the Black Hawks training camp, where he was placed alongside his brother to form a strong defensive line. The great Canadiens star Howie Morenz was now a Black Hawk, and was charging the net in practice. The Coulter brothers stayed with him and Tom didn't fall for his fake to the outside, and kept skating backwards towards the inside of the ice. Meanwhile Art was doing the same thing, and Morenz was about to become the meat in a Coulter sandwich.
At the last moment, Morenz leaped into the air to try and avoid the crushing body-checks and began "pedalling in the air. As if riding a bike" said Tom. This action made a mess of Tom's leg, badly cutting it and breaking his Fibula bone. Now sidelined for at least 6 weeks, the Hawks decided to deal Coulter, and he was traded to the Cleveland Falcons of the IHL. After playing a lackluster 6 games and dealing with a leg that just wasn't like it used to be, Tom decided to hang up his skates.
Life Overseas and a Little More Hockey
With his masters in economics in hand, Tom decided to add one more feather to his academic cap, and began studies for a masters in business administration. Another factor that may have figured in Tom's decision to stay at university a little longer was Mary Alice, who he had met on campus and would later become his wife and lifelong partner.
Once finished his graduate studies, he accepted a job with Armco, with which he was involved in developing and manufacturing the insulation material "Zonolite", long before the health risks of asbestos were known. Tom worked for the company overseas for several years while he oversaw the construction of manufacturing plants in Australia, Burma (now Myanmar) and India.
While in Australia, Tom decided to strap on the blades once again to participate in the New South Wales Ice Hockey Association league playing for St. George. As was common in those days, Canadians living abroad who played organized hockey generally skated circles around the locals, and intimidated opponents with physical play. With his 6 foot 2 inch, 210 pound body, Tom didn't disappoint his countrymen, and caused a bit of a fuss among opposing teams.
Tom also played for other teams while in Australia, before finishing his work there and proceeding to Rangoon, Burma, to oversee the construction of another plant.
Life After Hockey
Once he was done in Burma, he received a telegram which simply read "Coulter: proceed Egypt", Tom and Mary once again packed their luggage and boarded a ship for their next adventure. The year was 1939, and the world was at war. Canada, part of the Commonwealth, still did not have it's own passport system, and citizens travelled with British documents, as was the case with Tom and Mary-Alice. The couple became concerned for their safety, and decided to disembark the Egypt bound ship in Ceylon (now Sri-Lanka).
Now stranded, the Coulter's needed to find a safe way back to the United States. Not one to sit still, Tom befriended a ticket agent in the KLM office, who promised to keep Tom at the top of his list should space on a ship become available. After a short wait, the call indicating that a British ship was scheduled to come into port finally came. Although it was at full capacity, the agent claimed that there were two German nationals on board who were suspected of being spies. Should they be detained for questioning, the Coulter's were welcome to take their cabin.
Spies or not, when the ship set sail, the German's were in custody, and the Coulter's were on board headed for home. After stops in Singapore, the Philippines and Hong Kong, the weary travellers finally reached San Francisco.
Tom and Mary Alice raised their four children in Golf, Illinois, where he enjoyed a long career with the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, traveling domestically and abroad to promote business in the windy city. One of the highlights was his role in the visit by Queen Elizabeth II on June 26, 1959, as the 33-year-old queen and President Dwight Eisenhower officially opened the St. Lawrence Seaway. Tom died the year after our visit on December 17, 2003.
Tom with Queen Elizabeth II, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and Prince Philip.
1 - After Tom's death, his house was renovated and a website was created by the contractor which is still online. See it here.
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Grandpa Played Pro Hockey (or so he said)
Posted November 15, 2015