On Memorial Day in the United States, we honor the men and women who served and gave their lives in armed forces. For many it marks the unofficial start to Summer, but Memorial Day is more than just barbecues and parades. It is a solemn holiday where we remember those who gave the utmost sacrifice for our freedoms.
The National Hockey League (and its predecessors) has played through nearly every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries. While it is no longer a common occurrence, throughout history, many professional hockey players have swapped out their sweaters and pads for a military uniform and gun. Unsurprisingly, the two World Wars had the most profound effect on the league. Due to the number of players choosing to serve, as well as the financial constraints both the United States and Canada were facing, the NHL even debated shutting down the league prior to the 1942-43 season. However, both governments agreed that the league should continue to operate in the interest of public morale.
Team owners watched out for the star assets, and arranged for some players to be given non-combat assignments. These players often started hockey leagues at their various bases, and served to entertain the troops during war time.
The young NHL lost two of its promising stars during World War I. Frank McGee, who holds the record for most goals scored in a Stanley Cup game (14) and was a inaugural Hall Of Fame inductee, was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Scotty Davidson, a promising winger, was killed in France. Davidson was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1950. George Richardson played for Queen’s University and was considered one of the best hockey players of the pre-NHL era. Richardson was killed in action in Belgium in 1916.
The Memorial Cup was established to honor those who gave their lives during World War I, and is awarded to the champions of the Canadian Hockey League.
During World War II, over 80 NHLers elected to put their hockey careers on pause and enlist in the armed forces. The NHL would once again lose two young players to combat. Joe Turner played one game in goal for the Detroit Red Wings and Dudley “Red” Garrett of the New York Rangers were killed in action just three weeks apart in 1944.
Maple Leafs owner and manager Conn Smythe served in the artillery during World War I and later transferred to the air force. Smythe was shot down by German ground forces in October of 1917 and was a prisoner of war for 14 months.
Howie Meeker, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect was badly injured by a grenade blast in World War II and was told he was unlikely to ever walk again. Not only did Meeker regain the ability to walk, he continued his hockey career and won rookie of the year honors during the 1946-47 NHL season.
While the majority of modern day NHLers do not serve during armed conflicts, many European players must take part in mandatory military service before they turn 18. Henrik Zetterberg recalled some of his military training in an interview with NHL.com. Zetterberg trained with an athlete’s platoon when he was 17.
We were supposed to sneak up on a group that was out in the woods. They were out doing it (exercise) for a week and we were supposed to sneak up on them. We thought we were stealthly, but all of a sudden we were surrounded by everyone else and they just started shooting, not real ones, but the fake machine gun. We were pretty scared then we realized we were probably not the best guys of sneaking up on the enemy.
Ben Stafford, who was a Philadelphia Flyers prospect decided to enlist with the Marines after winning the Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms in 2004. Stafford was deployed for service in Iraq in 2005. After his tour of duty was over, he decided to retire from Professional Hockey.
On Memorial Day we thank and remember those who served and died in combat. Hockey fans should also take some time to remember NHLers who decided to put their promising careers on hold to serve during the World Wars and paid the ultimate sacrifice.