It’s that time of year when we wear poppies over our hearts to honour the men and women who have fought for our freedom.
Every year around Remembrance Day, I can’t believe people put their lives on hold for their country. We wouldn’t be able to sit down on our couch and watch the Golden State Warriors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers for the next couple of NBA Finals (it’s happening), if people didn’t risk their lives. It’s difficult to imagine an athlete willing to drop a career to head overseas. In the Second World War, it was a different story; there were men who sacrificed their own athletic careers and lives so that the United States and Canada could enjoy the finer things in life.
The First World War coincided with the creation of the National Hockey League. During this time, many professional hockey players were involved with the war effort. Sadly, two of the game’s earliest stars were killed in battle. Frank McGee, who once scored a record 14 goals in a 1905 Stanley Cup game and an inaugural inductee of the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF), was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Scotty Davidson, one of the game’s top wingers, was killed in France at the age of 23. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 1950. In 1919, the Memorial Cup was dedicated to those who had lost their lives in the First World War and is currently given to the champions of the Canadian Hockey League.
Among these men, The “Kraut Line” of the Boston Bruins (Woody Dunmart, Milt Schmidt, and Bobby Bauer) enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942. These boyhood friends from Kitchener, Ontario decided 75 years ago that they needed to do more than dominate the ice for the Bruins. Before enlisting in the army, they helped bring home the Stanley Cup for the Bruins in 1939 and 1941 plus they finished in the top three in NHL scoring in 1939-40 (first teammates to do so), Schmidt with 52 points along with Bauer and Dumart tied at 43 each. They were reunited with the Bruins in 1946.
The NFL had teams either fold or merge during the Second World War due to the number of players who served.
A total of 600 NFLers served in the Second World War. Nineteen sadly lost their lives in action. In the Vietnam War, Roger Staubach served before playing in the NFL while one active NFLer, Buffalo offensive guard Bob Kalsu, died in battle in 1970.
The Western Interprovincial Football Union and the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (precursors to the Canadian Football League) did not play from 1942-44. This allowed the military and university teams to compete for the Grey Cup. The Winnipeg RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) Bombers reached the Grey Cup game but lost in 1942 and 1943.
In the 1941 season in Major League Baseball, Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams hit for .400 and the Yankees centre fielder Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak. After the season ended, both fought in the Second World War. Baseball continued to be played during the war even though more than 500 players enlisted. Yankees Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra, didn’t play in 1944 or 1945 due to his time in the Navy. After his return he compiled a 19-year career, including 18 all-star game selections and 13 World Series championships.
As I mentioned before, it is rare for professional athletes to join the armed forces in modern times. There are two recent instances. Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6-million NFL contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. He fought in Afghanistan but was tragically killed by friendly fire in 2004. In the NHL, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Ben Stafford enlisted in the U.S. Marines shortly after winning an AHL Calder Cup in 2005, and was deployed to Iraq. He survived his tour of duty but ended up retiring from pro hockey.
These are only some of the athletes that have served. We often describe our struggles as a “battle” or a “hardship,” some of our “battles” pale in comparison to those of our brothers and sisters who fought in real wars. For that, I thank you.
– Tre Lopushinshky, Sports Co-Editor