November 09, 2014
Growing up, Clarence "Taffy" Abel never could have imagined he would become the first American born player to stick in the National Hockey League.
Amazingly, Abel did not begin to play hockey until he was 18 years old. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan in 1900, he would learn the game with the senior league Michigan Soo Nationals from 1918 until 1922.
At 6'1" and 225lbs, he was a giant of a man by the standards of the day, and he liked to use his size to his advantage. Under the rules back then (the NHL did not allow forward passing until 1929) the hard hitting Abel quickly emerged as a quality defenseman.
By 1922 Abel decided to give hockey his best shot, and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to play in the USAHA. His solid play and intimidating size earned him a spot of the US Olympic team for the 1924 winter games held in Chamonix, France. Other than the powerhouse team from Canada, Olympic competition was pretty weak in those days. Abel, never a noted offensive player, scored 15 goals in 5 games. Only Canada held him scoreless, although he made his presence felt in a more typical way. He got involved in three altercations and reportedly spent a lot of time in the penalty box (PIM statistics for those games are very sketchy).
His impressive Olympics catapulted Abel's stature. In 1926 the expansion New York Rangers signed Abel and teamed him with the equally mean-spirited Ching Johnson to form one of the most physical defensive pairings in the league. They quickly established their NHL reputation as well, as their physical intimidation was an important piece of the Rangers' Stanley Cup championship puzzle just two years later.
Abel and Johnson's finest moment came in those 1928 playoffs. With goalie Lorne Chabot falling to an eye injury during game 2 of the finals against the Montreal Maroons, 45 year old coach Lester Patrick donned the goalie equipment for the first time in his life and played goal. Abel and Johnson played the game of their life, protecting their inexperienced goaltender en route to one of the most unexpected victories in Stanley Cup playoff history. One report suggests Abel and Johnson allowed only 3 shots on goal against Patrick.
Somewhat surprisingly, Abel was sold to the Chicago Blackhawks in 1929 for the princely sum of $15,000. He would patrol Chicago's blue line for 5 seasons, proving to be a fan favorite. In his last season, 1934, he again tasted champagne from Lord Stanley's Mug, as the Hawks captured their first Stanley Cup title.
Never known for his offensive capabilities, Abel was a scary stay- at- home defenseman. His best offensive season was in 1926 - 27 when he scored 8 goals for 12 points. Abel finished his 8 season career with 18 goals and 18 assists for 36 points and 359 PIM's.
After retiring as a player he tried his hand as a coach and manager, but settled on returning to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan where he opened "Taffy's Lodge," a tourist resort.
In 1973 Clarence became one of the charter members in the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.