January 03, 2016

Bob Whitelaw

There are not a lot of National Hockey League players past or present who can say the United Kingdom played a big role in their hockey story.

But one rare exception would be Bob Whitelaw, a big defenseman who played parts of two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1940s.

Whitelaw was actually born in the United Kingdom. Motherwell, Scotland on October 5th, 1916 to be exact. But he moved to Winnipeg with his family when he was still young.

It was in Winnipeg that Whitelaw, like all the other kids, took up the game of hockey. He found he was pretty good at it, too. It certainly did not hurt that he was always one of the bigger kids.

Whitelaw continued to play junior hockey through 1936, starring with the Winnipeg Rangers.

Whitelaw's story returned to the United Kingdom upon graduating from juniors. In the late 1930s there was a shortly-tenured but vibrant hockey league in Britain. They pursued many Canadians to come overseas and play and coach with them. The NHL, notably the Detroit Red Wings, viewed the league as a good development league and allowed several of their prospects to skate there.

Whitelaw joined the Harringay Racers from 1936 through to 1938. In 1938 the Racers won the English Hockey League championship, thanks in no small part to Whitelaw and fellow Winnipegers Archie Creighton, Steve Latoski and Len Burrage.

Only Whitelaw would go on to the NHL. He returned to North America for the 1938-39 season and apprenticed with the Pittsburgh Hornets and Indianapolis Capitals before getting his chance in Detroit. 

Roster spots were opening up throughout the NHL at that time thanks to military service commitments in World War II. NHL players were not exempt, and many left to serve in some capacity in the allied efforts. 

Whitelaw's opportunity saw him play in 32 regular season games over two seasons (zero goals, two assists). He initially played on defense with Hockey Hall of Famer partner Ebbie Goodfellow, while Goodfellow's regular partner, Alex Motter, moved up to center ice.

Newspaper reports suggest Whitelaw had a good showing, as he was described as "a surprising stalwart." Whitelaw may have been able to play in more NHL games with Detroit but a shoulder injury sidelined him for at least a month.

Whitelaw also played in eight of the Red Wings nine playoff games in 1941. That year the Wings made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final, only to lose to the Boston Bruins. 

Whitelaw's own military commitments began in 1943. Records are spotty, but Whitelaw was mostly stationed on Canadian military bases near his hometown of Winnipeg, where they trained and supplied the armed forces. Whitelaw was able to continue playing some senior hockey during this time.

The Society for International Hockey Research also uncovered statistics that show Whitelaw played some exhibition games for the Wembley Lions during the 1945-46 season, suggesting he may have also been stationed in, you guessed it, the United Kingdom. Sid Abel was a teammate of his over there.

Unlike Abel, Whitelaw never returned to the National Hockey League. In fact he returned to Winnipeg where he lived until his passing in 1972. He was only 56 years old.

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