No Cup for You!
Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks hoisted the Stanley Cup. Even though it was the Blackhawks’ third title in six seasons, it was the first time in 77 years that Chicago won the Cup on home ice. The events of this week make a look back at the 1938 Finals seem very appropriate. To say the least, that series was one of the most unusual in history.
The 1937-38 Black Hawks posted a dismal 14-25-9 record in the regular season, the third worst of the eight teams in the league that season. They took third place in the American Division, which, at the time, was good enough to qualify for the playoffs. They scored 97 goals on the season – a league low – and allowed 139 goals – the second worst mark in the league. The Black Hawks edged out the defending champion Red Wings by two points to claim the final American Division playoff slot despite the fact that Detroit’s goal differential was eight goals better.
The Chicago roster was also unusual. There were eight Americans who laced up skates for the Black Hawks over the course of the season, which was more than the combined total of the other seven teams. The Black Hawks even experimented with an all-American roster early in the season. The teams with the next highest total of Americans in their lineup were Detroit and the New York Rangers, who each employed two U.S. natives. In fact, the sport was then so heavily dominated by Canadians that there were a grand total of 22 non-Canadians to play in the NHL in the 1937-38 season.
Expectations for Chicago were understandably low when the playoffs began. In the first round, the Black Hawks squared off against the Montreal Canadiens, who, despite finishing third out of the four teams in the Canadian Division had a winning record. Montreal won the first game of the best of three series to immediately put the Black Hawks on the verge of elimination, but Chicago came back to win the next two games to advance. That scenario would repeat in the second round against the New York Americans, as the Black Hawks would again respond to an opening game loss with two straight wins to advance.
For their efforts in winning the first two rounds of the playoffs, Chicago earned the right to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Finals. It was Toronto’s fifth finals appearance of the decade. As the winners of the Canadian division, the Leafs earned a first round bye and defeated the league-best Bruins in a two game second round sweep. Toronto was a hands-down favorite to win the Cup. To make matters worse for the Black Hawks, their goalie, Mike Karakas, broke his toe just before the series began.
NHL teams of that era did not make a habit of carrying backup goalies on road trips, and there was not enough time for them to bring their emergency netminder Paul Goodman, who was at his home in Winnipeg, into Toronto for game one. Black Hawks coach Bill Stewart wanted to use Rangers great Dave Kerr in game one. Kerr lived in Toronto, and under league rules as they then existed, would have been eligible to play, but Maple Leafs manager/owner Conn Smythe refused. The Maple Leafs told the Black Hawks that there were only two goalies that they would permit Chicago to use: 40-year-old retired goalie Jake Forbes who had been out of the league for five years, and minor league goalie Alfie Moore. Of the two options, the Black Hawks found Moore to be preferable.
Johnny Gottslieg, a left winger for the Black Hawks was friends with Moore and went to find him. When he did, another problem arose: Moore was in a tavern and was fall-down drunk. The Black Hawks filled him with coffee and put him under a shower to sober him up, and surprisingly, Moore led them to a game one victory.
As if Chicago did not have enough goaltending drama, after the game, NHL President Frank Calder ruled that Moore was ineligible. He announced that the win would be allowed to stand, but that the Black Hawks would have to find another goalie for game two. Enter, Paul Goodman. With their official backup goalie in net, the Hawks were not as fortunate as Toronto managed to tie the series. In fact, Chicago did not only lose the game, they gave up five goals, further highlighting the problems the Black Hawks had in net.
Desperate for a goaltender that could help them win the series, Chicago devised a plan that would allow Karakas to play. In game three, Karakas took the ice wearing a steel toe boot to protect his broken toe. Top goaltender back in net, Chicago won game three, and since the Finals were then a best-of-five series, pulled within one game of the Stanley Cup.
In today’s NHL, the Stanley Cup is brought into town when a team is on the verge of a championship, just in case a presentation is called for. In 1938, that was not the case. Frank Calder did not believe that the Black Hawks would win game four. In fact, he was so convinced that they would not, that instead of having the Cup shipped to Chicago, he ordered it taken to Toronto, in anticipation of game five.
There would be no game five. A 4-1 victory by the Black Hawks clinched the team’s second Stanley Cup. One of the most unusual Finals series in history had yielded one of the most unlikely results in history, and undoubtedly the most unusual aftermath in history. The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks gave us one of the greatest Cinderella stories of all-time, even if it did not have the stereotypical storybook ending. It might not have been the ending they envisioned, but it was definitely one for the history books.