September 19, 2015

Al Suomi

Though he had a Finnish name, Al Suomi was a rare American player in the National Hockey League back in the 1930s.

In fact, Suomi owed his NHL stint to an ill-fated experiment by the Chicago Black Hawks back then - to try to ice an all-American team to win the Stanley Cup. It did not work so well.

Suomi was from a hard working family in Eveleth, Minnesota. When his chores and homework were done, Suomi played hockey every chance he could get. He never really dreamed of playing professionally, but he was a star at high school.

Suomi got a very unexpected offer in 1934. He was approached by a complete stranger who introduced himself as a hockey scout named Jack Manley. Manley asked Suomi if would be interested in turning pro and playing in Chicago.

Given that it was the Great Depression and jobs were scarce and money was scarcer, Suomi figure he had nothing to lose. Within an hour he said good bye and to his family, packed some clothes and was on a bus heading to Chicago.

No, it was not the Chicago Black Hawks. Not yet, any way.

It was all part of a marketing scheme put on by the Curtis Candy Company. They had a semi-pro hockey team called Chicago Baby-Ruth - obviously named after the candy bar. The team would play before all Chicago Black Hawks home games, pretty much as a skating advertisement for candy.

That allowed other scouts to notice Suomi. Next season he was off to Detroit to play pro in the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League. He would also get to tryout for USA's 1936 Olympic team, though he was ruled ineligible due to his pro status.

By 1936 Suomi had moved to Denver, Colorado, taking a job to help build a rink and then play for the new team. However Suomi would never play in Denver. Before the ice was set the Chicago Black Hawks had invited Suomi to tryout for the National Hockey League team.

All of this sounds a little like some feel-good story on the Hallmark Channel, but it was all true. Although it turned out Suomi might have been used by the Hawks in another market scheme of sorts. He finished the season in Chicago as the Hawks eccentric owner Major Frederick McLaughlin vowed to ice a team of all-American players.

Suomi lasted just five games, while the Hawks red-white-and-blue scheme did not last much longer. The media ripped the Hawks at every chance, while the Canadian players on the other teams in the league took special interest in feasting up on the Hawks.

Al stayed in Chicago, playing for an arena hockey league team called the Hornets until 1940. Aside from a brief stint as a referee, that was the end of Suomi's days on the ice.

Suomi was a very handy fellow, and found a lot of work during the World War II years and beyond as welder, electrician and a labourer. He later founded Al's Hardware, which is still open in Chicago and run by his children.

Suomi lived until 2014, passing away a month before his 101st birthday.

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