Multimillionaire Major Frederic McLaughlin of Harvard and Lake Forest was an impeccable man of vast and remorseless enthusiasms. One of these was for Irene Castle, whom he married in 1923. Another was for the idea of American, as opposed to Canadian, hockey. In the major's time, as now, big-league professional hockey was peopled almost exclusively by Canadians, and this was a fact that depressed the patriotic major.
In 1926 Major McLaughlin bought the minor league Portland Rosebuds, moved them to Chicago where he won them admission to the National Hockey League as the Black Hawks and set about realizing his dream of making the game American.
Few people shared the major's enthusiasm for this idea, and his early attempts to spot a few American-born players here and there in the Hawk lineup led only to a series of poor finishes. But the major did not give up easily. In 1936, when the Hawks were doing about as badly as possible, he decided to promote the American idea in spectacular form. He already had a U.S.-born goalie, Mike Karakas of Eveleth, Minn., as a regular. Now he wanted five more Americans to play in front of Karakas so that during some periods of play the entire Black Hawk lineup would be native-born. If the experiment should prove successful, the major even envisioned changing the name of the team to the Chicago Yanks.
McLaughlin got two more players from Karakas' home town: Albert Suomi and Curly Brink. He picked up Bun LaPrairie from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Butch Schaefer from Hinckley, Minn. and Ernest (Ike) Klingbeil from Hancock, Mich.
In January 1937 the five men were brought to Chicago and quietly put up at the Lawson YMCA. "The major kept 'em under cover as long as he could," says Johnny Gottselig, a player who was there. First he wanted them in top condition—"With the major, physical fitness was the thing in any sport"—so he put them under the direction of Emil Iverson, "physical director" of the Black Hawks. "He was a Swede and he had this Swedish system," says Gottselig. "You had to stand at attention, hands on hips with your toes—the tips of your toes—touching together." It was a balletlike discipline in which the ideal was to make the body form a sort of "I." "And then," says Gottselig, "he'd have you doing all the bending and stretching exercises from that position." Iverson also had the newly recruited Yanks playing badminton ("I'd never done that before in my life," said one bewildered hockey player), swinging on the gymnastic horses ("That scared me more than playing") and heaving a medicine ball around.
All that was in the morning. In the afternoon the men spent 2� hours on the ice. At first they worked out in the old Chicago Arena, away from the "big team." The major wanted to play them as a cohesive and comprehensive unit. Outside the periphery of the rink the regular Black Hawks treated the newcomers like a dog with new fleas. "They wouldn't sit on the bench with us. They wouldn't talk to us," says Ike Klingbeil. On the ice the Canadians treated the Yanks the way Daley's cops treat hippies. "They really came at us, sticks up, blades up, and things started getting pretty rough." Finally McLaughlin approved splitting up the Yanks, at least for purposes of practice. The Yank defensemen, Klingbeil and Schaefer, went on the ice with an all-Canadian forward line, the Yank forwards with a Canadian defense.
This tended to stanch the flow of blood. It also had a remarkable effect on the team as a whole. Suddenly the Hawks began winning games. By late February of '37 they had won only 11 games all season and were averaging only 1.82 goals per game. They were kept out of last place only because the now-defunct New York Americans were so astonishingly inept. But now, thanks to the strangers in their ranks, the Hawks were winning.
It was not just a matter of Canadian pride; it was a matter of personal survival: if the Yanks were to stay, then obviously five Canadians already on the team would have to be cut to make room for them. So suddenly everybody began playing like crazy. Inexplicably, the Black Hawks won three games in a row and scored 13 goals, an average of 4.33 per game.
Still, the major was in a funk. His team was winning, but attendance remained terrible. McLaughlin thought it might stimulate interest if he could get his five Yanks on the ice together but he knew their play would probably cost him a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He promised himself, therefore, to hold off as long as the Black Hawks still had a chance to get into the playoffs. It got to the point where all he needed was one loss by the Black Hawks or one win by the New York Rangers to clinch—for the Rangers—a Stanley Cup spot. But he couldn't get either one. The Hawks kept winning, and the Rangers kept losing and the major kept postponing his plans to use the Yanks.
By the night of their second-to-last home game the Black Hawks were still in the race. A loss that night would give the Yanks their chance. So what happened? The Hawks tied the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-2.