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Who was the first American "Maple Leaf", while remembering when Americans were few and far between in the NHL….

We all recognize that hockey has changed a lot over the past, say, 40 years or so.  Oh, the game is still about goaltending, skating, shooting, grit and making plays.  But the players, as we often hear (and can witness for ourselves), are indeed bigger, faster and stronger than they were in my 1960s youth.

Too, we have seen the game develop much more sophistication in terms of technology and, for example, coach development. and game strategy   For decades, one solitary coach stood behind the bench during games, making all decisions.  Now, the game is far more about “x’s” and “o’s” than ever before.  Coaches like Scotty Bowman and Roger Neilson in the 1970s, along with Fred Shero in Philadelphia, were among those who ushered in an era where thorough preparation, “systems” and defensive priorities mattered perhaps more than ever before.

Of course, the NHL also shifted radically in the early ‘70s with the influx of European players like Thommie Bergman (left, who I believe has been a Leaf scout for many years) and Borje Salming, who helped to open the doors for non-Canadians to consider that maybe they too, one day, could make a great living playing the game they loved. (I've posted here in the past about Ulf Sterner, the popular Swedish player who briefly played in the NHL, but his North American career was short in the mid- 1960s.)

The World Hockey Association - and some entrepreneurial management types in that great old league, who had a penchant for getting players out of  their home countries, against all odds -   was/were also part of changing the game’s landscape.  The new league went aggressively after Soviet-bloc greats like Vaclav Nedmonansky, who played at a world-class level for years before the Iron Curtain finally tumbled down.  These great players were in some cases unaware of what was available in North America or were understandably fearful of losing their family, and much more, if they tried to escape.   (To hear a first hand-account of how terrifying it was for players in those days, check out a recent "Leaf Matters" podcast on iTunes with our guest, former Leaf Mirk Frycer. 

There were issues of skin colour, as well.  Players like Willie O’Ree (who did eventually play briefly in the NHL with the Boston Bruins) and Herb Carnegie found it difficult to break through the invisible but very real restrictions that held back their opportunities—and the roadblocks that those attitudes represented.  Throw in the fact that you almost never saw a college player make it to the NHL, and well, you can see that things were indeed vastly different when I first started following hockey back in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

So yes, the old “Original Six” NHL was largely the stronghold of Canadians—management, officials and of course, the players.  Americans in the NHL?  It was almost 'perish the thought'.  This was our game, made for and played by Canadians—exclusively.

That meant there weren’t many Americans playing our game in the 1950s and ‘60s, at least at the highest ranks of professional hockey.  There may well have been others, but the first U.S. player that I remember as a kid was Jack McCartan, who I heard about during the 1960 Olympics that was held in Colorado, I believe it was.  He was the goalie on the U.S. Olympic side that captured the gold in a major upset that year.  (This achievement was remarkably similar to what happened 20 years later, when previously unheralded and unknown goalie Jim Craig led the Americans to an even more stunning triumph over the best European national teams at the Lake Placid Olympics…)

For his part, McCartan signed immediately after the Olympic Games with the New York Rangers (just as Craig later did with the Boston Bruins), and while he went on to a long professional career, I seem to recall McCartan only played a very few games with the Rangers (McCartan is seen in action at right with New York) before spending years in the minors.  He completed his career in the World Hockey Association.

But the one American who really was the flag-carrier (at least in my youthful recollection at the time) for aspiring young American hockey players was Tommy Williams.  (Not to be confused with the Ontario-born Tommy Williams who played in the 1970s with the Rangers and the LA Kings…) Williams was a good-skating forward with the then struggling Boston Bruins in the mid-1960s.  A pretty decent scorer scorer and a very nice play-maker in the late days of the "Original Six" era, he was part of the Boston resurgence after Bobby Orr arrived on the scene in the fall of 1966, and as Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Freddie Stanfield joined via trade a year later.

I remember reading a magazine article back in Williams’ early days that was entitled, “The Lonely American”.  I was maybe 11 or so at the time, and I’m not sure I fully appreciated back in those days why being “an American” would have been a challenge to overcome in an era were literally every other guy in the league at the time had been born and raised in Canada.

Unfortunately, Williams wasn’t around when the Bruins hit it big and won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  By then, he was playing with the Minnesota North Stars, one of the post-1967 expansion teams.  He had some fine years in the Twin Cities, as I recall.

Nowadays the league is populated with players from virtually all the European hockey-playing countries, but nowhere has the growth of the game been more pronounced than in the United States, as the numbers of U.S. born NHL’ers has skyrocketed in the past decade or so.  Much of this was precipitated, I’m sure, by that aforementioned 1980 victory at the Olympics, and some of it, no doubt, because of Wayne Gretzky’s arrival in Los Angeles in the late 1980s.  I should acknowledge long-time U.S. hockey writer Stan Fischler (it could have been someone else, but I believe I saw this from Fischler) with suggesting recently that the NHL's move into "non-traditional" hockey markets should be credited, in part, with the recent Gold-medal win by the Americans at the World Junior Championships in Russia.  While I often criticize the League for being in markets that don't seem to support hockey, the facts seem to indicate that these non-hockey markets are in fact producing good young players, and that's a positive thing. There must be a growing interest in some of these markets. (Hopefully the end of the lockout will minimize the damage when it comes to fan interest in those markets...)

The most explosive Leaf forward these days is of course American-born Phil Kessel.  As I write this, I'm trying to remember who was the first "American" born Maple Leaf in my lifetime- which dates back to 1953.  I don't remember off-hand any Leafs in the 1960s who were from the United States though there may well have been some.  Those who have a sharper memory than myself on this question should feel free to jog my memory with the names of Leafs in those olden days who were American-born.

I know recent Leaf coach Ron Wilson was a U.S. citizen if I'm not mistaken when he played for the Leafs in the late '70s/early '80s.  (His uncle, Johnny Wilson, played for the Leafs in the '50s when I was just a kid. That's Wilson, a one-time NHL ironman record holder, at right during his playing days with the Red Wings.) I'm sure were were some Leafs born in the U.S. before Al Iafrate and  Ed Olczyk, I am just not remembering them off the top of my head...)

Whatever the reasons, it’s a better game in many respects today because the best players in the world—regardless of their “background” or where they were born—play in the NHL.  And that includes the presence of so many fine American players.

For that, I think Tommy Williams deserves at least some of the credit!


  1. Andrew (@AHarrington22)January 9, 2013 at 10:30 AM

    I think your comment about smaller market teams is pretty accurate. Take Carolina for example, a place where Duke and the University of North Carolina dominate sports headlines. This is what people know and have grown up with and it is just a way of life for them. It doesn't help that the college hoops and hockey seasons overlap. However, younger people who have been around the Hurricanes seem to enjoy hockey more. Couple this with a Stanley Cup win and now you have small market kids playing hockey. Like you said, it betters the game in the States and gives the NHL the best possible talent. Who knew, hockey in Raleigh, NC?

  2. Who knew, indeed, Andrew? Especially in places like Raleigh! Well said. Thanks for posting on this one.

  3. Michael,

    Breaking news. Burke fired. news at 1:45pm All I can say is wow.

  4. Michael:
    There were a few US-born players who at least had a cup of coffee with the Leafs from the '30s through to the '70s. Notable (?) among these was Alex Levinsky who played 150 games for the Leafs in the early 1930s, and Elwyn 'Doc' Romnes, a Lady Byng Trophy winner who only played 1 season ('38-39) for the Leafs after having led the Black Hawks to the finals several times earlier in the decade.
    As far as I can tell, it wasn't until the '70s that Americans started showing up on the roster with any prominence or frequency. You mentioned Ron Wilson from the late '70s. Also memorable was Kurt Walker, a brawler that Red Kelly brought in in 1975-76 to lend the Leafs some muscle against the likes of the Broad Street Bullies.
    The 1980s saw US-born Leafs taking leading roles on the team. Just prior to Iafrate and Olczyk's time with the Leafs, you might recall Jim Korn, who was a useful forward and D-man for them in the early- to mid-1980s. And at the tail end of that dismal decade, there was the infamous Tom Kurvers, Floyd Smith's prize acquisition in one of the worst trades in Leaf history.

  5. Jim- we will discuss the Burke announcement further in the days ahead, I'm sure.

  6. That's exactly what i was looking for, Terminal City- someone who knew the names that played for the Leafs over the years from the United States.

    I was not around for the gentlemen you mentioned from the '30s. Kurt Walker was a rugged forward, for sure. And I well remember Jim Korn as well. Thanks Terminal City. Good stuff.

  7. Jeez Mike, I rushed here breathlessly (well, at least, in a very 21st Century cyber-breathlessly sort of way) anticipating a Burke autopsy. Don't keep us waiting too much longer!

  8. My apologies for the delay, KiwiLeaf- should be out shortly!

  9. Tommy's Youngest kidJanuary 28, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    Nice article!