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It is a popular practice for local newspapers to feature photos of the first baby born in the community’s hospital on January 1st each year, often along with the child’s happy parents. Merchants in the town frequently will donate gifts to the family—powder, a year’s supply of diapers, a bottle warmer, or bath station.
Some famous people have had the distinction of seeing the first light on the initial day of the calendar year: Paul Revere, Pope Alexander VI, Edmund Burke, J. Edgar Hoover, Xavier Cugat, Barry Goldwater, and Hank Greenberg, just to name a few.
At last count, 30 NHLers have helped their moms and dads ring in the New Year in this special fashion.
Chronologically, Vic Hoffinger is the first of this lineup of the ice game’s celebrities to fall into this limited category. The twentieth century was only into its second year when he was born in Selz, in the Russian Empire (now in Ukraine). While he was still young his family immigrated to Saskatchewan, where he took an interest in his new country’s national sport. After apprenticing with the Saskatoon Empires of the Provincial Senior loop, he joined the professional Sheiks of the Prairie League, the year it was organized. He had two tries at the Big Time with Chicago in 1927-28 and 1928-29, but managed only a single assist in twenty-eight National Hockey League games. He became a career minor leaguer, first skating with Kitchener in the Canadian Pro Hockey circuit. He continued in this fraternity when it became the International League, sporting the colours of Hamilton, Syracuse, Detroit, London, and Cleveland. He concluded his pay-for-play stint with Oklahoma City of the American Hockey Association in 1935.
When Elwin “Doc” Romnes joined the fledgling Windy City sextet, he was one of just two American-born skaters in the NHL (“Taffy” Abel was the other). A skilled, though smallish forward, he combined talent an gentlemanly play, making him a natural to be selected as a Lady Byng Trophy winner, an honour that came his way in 1936. That season he managed 38 scoring points, but spent only six minutes in the sin bin. In fact, over 403 games, he was assessed only 46 minutes in penalties.
It was somewhat ironical that two seasons later, out of the blue the White Bear Lake native blew his cool attacking big Red Horner with a vicious slash aimed at his head. But the incident becomes less of a mystery when the story behind the story is known. In the previous playoff match, the big carrot-topped rearguard had almost singlehandedly beat up on the Hawk crew. Included in his one-man wrecking crew venture was the breaking of Romnes beak. He threatened during that match to the effect that he would “knock his head off”.
That warning was fulfilled in that, when they were on the ice for the first time as opponents, the slow-skating pivot brought his shelalah down on the top of Horner’s knock, sending him to the locker room on a stretcher. “Doc” was constantly reminded of Red’s misdeed by the football helmet equipped with a faceguard to protect his busted proboscis. Strangely enough, the two became teammates when Romnes was traded to the Leafs.
To sure the most intriguing biography of a player who first saw the light of day on the first day of the year, belongs to Jack Leswick, the eldest of three hockey-playing brothers who made it to the Big Time. His NHL career spanned but one season—not because of his lack of talent, but because of his untimely death. He donned the Black & White togs of the Blackhawks in the fall of 1933, just in time to become a Stanley Cup winner the next spring. A sniper in the minors, he managed but one tally and seven helpers over the 37 games he skated for the Windy City sextet.
Following his first and only campaign in the world’s premier shinny fraternity, he toured Ontario, and, apparently headed home to his native Saskatchewan, when he suddenly disappeared. On August 6th, his body was dragged form the Assiniboine River and an investigation entered into his mysterious passing. While police were prone to call it suicide, the fact is that his car was missing, and the gold watch awarded to him by the Chicago team (which he wore constantly) was also gone. The final conclusion was that he was a victim of a hold up. A sad conclusion to a promising future in the world’s fastest game.
The next hockey New Year’s baby came squalling into the world in the person of Murray Armstrong, who was born in Manor, Saskatchewan in 1916. Times were tough for his large family, whose father was a blacksmith. And, for a few raised in Canada’s poorer families, hockey was a source of bread and butter, courtesy those who were blessed with extraordinary talents along that line. Armstrong was still eligible to play junior hockey when he was summoned to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1937. His career with the Blue and White was short-lived, and he ended up with the New York Americans, where his hockey savvy really took root. Following a seven-year stint in the world’s premier hockey circuit, he returned to his native Regina where he settled down in his men’s clothing business. But his coaching skills began to take root as he tutored the local
Junior Pats, taking them to the Memorial Cup finals four times. In 1956 he was engaged as mentor for the University of Denver. In twenty-one seasons, his Pioneers carted away the National Collegiate Athletic Association title five times. In 1977 he was awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy, which honours contribution to hockey in the USA.
Calum MacKay was, as the old “Out Our Way” comic strip used to say, “born thirty years too soon”. He had the misfortune of cracking the lineup of the talent-packed Habitants in 1949-50. As a forward he had to contend with players like “Rocket” Richard, Jean Beliveau, Elmer Lach, and Bernie Geoffrion for a spot on the powerful roster. The raven-haired left-winger was nicknamed “Baldy”, as a result of an over-zealous barber, who virtually scalped him when he was a teenager. He stuck with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge until the 1954-55 schedule, during which he had a respectable 35 points. But the following campaign he was demoted to the QHL Royals. He never made to elite hockey circles again.
Three Stanfield brothers have their names etched in the record books of the NHL. Fred, the middle son, who logged one thousand games in the Big Time, was part of that controversial trade which sent him, Phil Esposito, and Ken Hodge Sr. from Chicago to Boston for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin, and Jack Norris. Brother Jack, the eldest, managed by one NHL game, while Jim, who was a New Year’s baby, played parts of three campaigns with Los Angeles between 1969 and 1972. His “line score” records 0 goals, 1 assist, and 0 Penalties In Minutes. It is believed that had it not been for a bad case of the flu he may have stuck with the parent club in 1972. He was a clever goal-scorer, and made his mark with the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League. It was while with that club he had the unusual privilege of having Jack as a teammate. He once tallied forty-five markers with the Spokane Flyers.
Phil Roberto must have felt he was the second coming of Calum MacKay, because, although his debut with the Canadiens came two decades later, pucksters trying to crack that line-up in 1969 faced the same barrier. Jean Beliveau. Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard, Bobby Rousseau, Peter Mahovlich, and Ralph Backstrom were stalwarts on the forward lines of the Mount Royal city. He had a encouraging start, when according to coach Al McNeil, his “readiness for the Big Time” allowed them to trade Mickey Redmond. And, while he managed to stick with the club until 1971, thereby earning a place on a Stanley Cup championship team, he was traded to St. Louis a year later.
He just never seemed to live up to his potential, which was reflected in another move in 1975, this time to Detroit. His tendency to put on weight, mainly because of his love for his nationality’s favourite—spaghetti—as well his all-to-frequent trips to the penalty box, made him expendable. However, a near tragic accident also entered the picture of his decline. In fact, his career appeared to be over, when he raised his arm to protect his face when a glass door fell on him, cutting him severely. He made a comeback, but moved from one lesser club, Kansas City, Colorado (Rockies), and Cleveland to another.
They called Gerry Hart “the spear carrier”. This tag reflected his boisterous and hardworking approach to the game as a rearguard. Comparatively small for a defenseman, he made up for his lack of size by giving his all every moment he was on the ice. Columnist Bill Libby wrote of him: “…he defends determinedly, digs in the corners for the puck, makes the heavy hit, and gets the puck to the stars!” Born into a miner’s home in Flin Flon, Manitoba, in 1948, the mental image of his father burned out before he was old enough to retire, only spurred him on in hockey. He admitted that once the puck dropped he concentrated on nothing else but the game.
Strangely enough, Hart took lessons in gourmet cooking, a seemingly contrast for one who was so macho in his approach to the sport. He specialized in “Italian and Continental” meals. When the last whistle blew at the end of the season, he used to board his boat and spend the summer fishing. Al Arbour, his coach, once declared: “He never gets tired of the grind; he seems to thrive on it!” Yet none of this ever went to his head. When Bob Nystrom first went to the New York Islanders’ camp, the blonde bachelor took him aside and gave him this simple advice: “Always give one hundred and fifty percent.” He practiced what he preached.
Dave Hunter was born on January 1, 1958. When he was 27 he spent his birthday in jail—one of the few NHLers to go to prison. He was extremely fortunate that his sentence of four months for impaired driving, as well as driving without a license, was reduced to twenty-eight days at the time. While it seems like a harsh judgment, it must be remembered this was his third conviction for drunk driving. The mildest mannered of the three Hunter brothers (the others were Dale and Mark), one hundred minutes in the sin bin per year was still not uncommon. In 1986 he was suspended six games for his stick work on Phil Sykes of the Los Angeles Kings. He was known as “Casper the not-so-friendly ghost” because of his uncanny ability the shadow the game’s most prolific marksmen. He often resorted to clutch and grab tactics in the process. In a three-game series with the Canadiens in 1981, he drove Guy Lafleur to distraction. “The Flower”, who was proficient at darting about, just couldn’t shake him. Finally the speedy forward lost his cool and put his mitts on his annoying opponent. But he never backed down, keeping Lafleur off the score sheet twice in a row.
Hulking Bobby Holik, born in Czechoslovakia in 1971, has been called a “one man pest control!” Tommy Albelin, who was his teammate with the Devils, once commented: “Nobody wants to play against Holik! He shows no mercy to anyone—he’ll run over you if you’re in his way!” He defected to North America in 1986, becoming an American citizen ten years later. Known for defensive play, which has prompted some opponents to complain, “he covers you like a cheap suit”, he also managed to light the red goal lights often. After sixteen seasons in the NHL he averaged around 20 goals per year, totaling more than three hundred markers in his career.
Although never a student in his native country, he became a culture junky. He enjoyed visiting museums and art galleries wherever he put his wheels down.
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