April 11, 2008

1930s Hawks Had American Dreams

The 1937-38 season was full of firsts, lasts, and other records. It was the last time the NHL had a Canadian Division and an American division and the last season of the Montreal Maroons. It was the last season for Aurel Joliat and Hap Day, but the first season for Dutch Hiller, Cully Dahlstrom, and Carl Liscombe.

Liscombe set a record later in the season for the fastest hat trick (later broken by Bill Mosienko). “Old Poison” Nels Stewart set a new record, scoring his 300th goal – a record that stood until Maurice Richard's assault on the record book.

It was also the year of one of the biggest Stanley Cup upsets.

That year the Chicago Blackhawks had just 14 wins and 9 ties in 48 games in the regular season and yet managed to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a 24-15-9 record. This makes the Blackhawks the poorest performing team to ever win the Stanley Cup, with a win percentage of 38.5.

How did the Blackhawks manage to pull off this upset?

At the time, the NHL used a best of five format. A shorter series simply means a greater chance for a determined underdog to win.

However, that might explain one series upset, but in order to get to the finals, Chicago had to beat the Montreal Canadiens and then the New York Americans. This indicates there was something more going on beneath that awful regular season record.

Interestingly, the Chicago front office made using American players a priority throughout the 1930s. As a result, the 1937-38 team had several American veteran players: Alex Levinsky, Doc Romnes, Mike Karakas, and Roger Jenkins to name some of them. They also signed two rookies that year: Cully Dahlstrom and Virgil Johnson.

Even though the team was approximately 50 percent American, they had other talent as well. They had six players still on the roster from their 1933-34 Cup win and three of those six (Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, amd Doc Romnes) had also played when the ‘Hawks made the 1930-31 finals against the Canadiens. Along the way, the team also picked up Paul Thompson (who won the Cup with the Rangers in 1927-28), Earl “Babe” Seibert (who won the Cup with the Rangers in 1932-33), and Alex Levinsky (who won the Cup with the Leafs in 1931-32). Clearly, they were not lacking in veteran play-off experience.

The ‘Hawks first opponent in the post-season were the Canadiens, who won Game 1 with Toe Blake’s hat trick. However, Chicago bounced back and goalie Mike Karakas earned a shut-out in Game 2. It looked like the ‘Hawks were going to lose Game 3 until Babe Seibert scored late in the game and Chicago finally won the series in overtime.

Next the ‘Hawks faced the New York Americans, who beat Chicago 3-1 in Game 1 of that series. Game 2 was scoreless until Americans player Nels Stewart scored the first goal of the game with only seconds left in the game. The referee disallowed the goal, saying Eddie Wiseman was in the crease. Cully Dahlstrom saved the Blackhawks with his goal.

Game 3 was held in New York, where Alex Levinsky scored the go-ahead goal. However, the red light did not go on when he scored. Upon investigation, it was revealed that New York fans were holding the hands of the goal judge so that he could not signal a goal. Though the Americans tried hard, Chicago won the game and the series.

Mike Karakas had broken his toe in the series against the Americans and did not play in Game 1 of the finals against the Leafs. The team had hoped to use the Rangers goalie Dave Kerr, but Conn Smythe objected to Kerr, who had a 2.00 GAA. Chicago was then forced to use the Americans’ minor league goalie Alfie Moore. Chicago still won 3-1.

The NHL ruled that Moore was ineligible to play, though they let Chicago’s Game 1 victory stand. Chicago was forced to use another minor league goalie, Paul Goodman. They were trounced by the Leafs in a 5-1 collapse.

Game 3 saw the return of Mike Karakas, who wore a special steel toe skate to protect his foot. The Blackhawks went on to win Game 3 by a score of 2-1 and Game 4 by a score of 4-1.

In winning the 1937-38 Stanley Cup, Bill Stewart was the first American-born coach to do so. The next American-born Cup-winning coach was Bob Johnson in 1991, fifty-three years later.

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