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Lionel Hitchman in his RCMP uniform (Photo courtesy Pam Coburn)
Without exception, every NHL coach who has stood behind a bench in the Big Time has hoped his troops will “get their man”. It doesn’t always happen on the ice lanes. But four who pulled on the togs of clubs in the world’s premier hockey league have also worn a uniform of a different kind—the law enforcement institution, the unofficial motto of which was, “They always get their man”. We refer, of course to the RCMP.
Back in 1873, Canada’s Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, saw the need for a peace keeping unit to keep order in what was had been until just three years prior called Rupert’s Land — and together with the North-Western Territory, had just become the North-west Territories.
Pioneers in increasing numbers were beginning to settle in that area, and conflicts arose with the indigenous Cree and Blackfoot Indian tribes. At that time McDonald established the force originally called the North-West Mounted Rifles, but was soon renamed the North-West Mounted Police.
While this was their underlying challenge, several miles south a more significant problem demanded their attention. Near what is now known as Lethbridge, Alberta, American traders, who had their wings clipped by the U.S. government, moved their bartering of bootleg whiskey for valuable furs, north of the border. The centre of action was Fort Hamilton, nicknamed Fort Whoop-Up (for obvious reasons).
Quite amazingly, a force of 300 officers marched from Dufferin, Manitoba , enduring a 900 mile (1400 km) ordeal, to arrive at their destination. The traders heard of their arrival, and by the time the constables arrived on the scene, the smugglers and the “firewater” had vanished. However they were still able to track down a few of the culprits and arrest them
Decked out in their scarlet tunics and blue trousers they also were involved in the North-West Rebellion, the Klondike Gold Rush, the CPR journey across the Prairie Provinces, and the Riel Rebellion.
In 1904 King Edward VII added “Royal” to their name; and in 1920 they amalgamated with the Dominion Police Force to become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Their official motto is “Uphold the Law” But the slogan with which most have become familiar resulted from a comment one historian made about their dogged committee to duty: “They were worse than bloodhounds when they scent the tracks of a smuggler — they fetch their man every time!”
**One of the first, and certainly most well-known shinny personality to don the tunic of the “Redcoats”, was François Xavier (Frank) Boucher. Born into a hockey-playing family—brothers “Buck” (George), Billy, and Bobby also skated in the NHL — he was a most unlikely candidate for the legendary force. As a teen he worked in his hometown of Ottawa at a munitions factory. But, along with his good pal, Bill Kerr, he experienced wanderlust, and decided to head out West to join the Mounties. Kerr, a husky lad, passed every entrance requirement with ease. But “Raffles” failed on account of his size. He was a half inch shorter than the 5’8” standard, and weighed in at 135 pounds. But the persuasive Kerr assured the recruitment office that when he got past his current 19 years, he would mature into a robust man like his father. Having received their parents written permission, they were shipped to Regina for training.
Frank ended up in Lethbridge, Alberta, where he eventually was promoted to detective. During this two and a half years in that Prairie town he starred for the local “Vets” hockey team—and even organized competition among the RCMP constables.
It was while stationed there that he “won his spurs” as a policeman. On one occasion he and a fellow officer were called to investigate a suspicious character roaming among the box cars in the railroad yard. Their assumption was that he was a railroad bum seeking refuge from the weather — or perhaps casing the cars for a possible free ride when it pulled out. Ironically, when they arrested the suspect, it turned out he was a very dangerous criminal — one in the position akin to a mob boss in modern vernacular.
In 1921 he purchased his discharge and moved back east. He became part of the NHL Ottawa Senators for one season; but moved to Vancouver due to the Patrick’s claim he was their rightful property.
His eventual career with the New York Rangers, as star centre, coach, and manager is old news. But his stint with the Mounties always remained a part of his life and times. One of his Broadway teammates, Cecil Dillon, was especially enamoured with Frank’s life on horseback. And the mischievous Boucher often embellished his experiences while wearing the legendary uniform. Frank had no intention of admitting that his term was comparatively short, and, for the most part, routine.
His mythical tales about “slaying savages” and shouting “mush” to sled dogs in the Arctic finally caught up with him. While in Atlantic City he and Dillon chanced to be strolling on the famous Board Walk. They came upon a shooting gallery, and Cec asked him to join him for a few rounds. It seemed like the jig was up, when his pal did well, while he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The long-faced Dillon looked deflated with the results. His hero had blown it. But, the quick-thinking pivot explained that he had asked the fellow running the gallery that he had put blanks in the rifle so he would not show his admirer up.
**For the most part, for hockey historians, the name of Lorne Chabot brings to mind the night he stopped a shot with his eye, and could not continue to play. The opposition manager refused to let Alex Connell, who was in the stands that night, to take his place. So, as a last resort, 44-year-old Coach Lester Patrick strapped on the pads, donned Chabot’s little black cap, and stood between the pipes in that crucial 1928 playoff final against the Montreal Maroons.
But it is seldom revealed that he also spent time in Canada’s famous law enforcement agency. For two years, 1919 and 1920, he was an instructor at the RCMP College in Regina. In his spare time he was a valued member of the Mounties local soccer squad.
While in the Saskatchewan provincial capital, he became acquainted with a worker at the local CPR Hotel. Through this connection, the manager at the CPR Hotel in Brandon, Manitoba, contacted him and asked if he would don skates and play goal for the local hockey team.
This appeal came with an offer to “buy his way out of the RCMP”. Eventually, the same man was transferred to Port Arthur, and coaxed the tall goalie to join the local Senior squad, the Bearcats. They won the Allan Cup two years in succession, with the Montreal-born cage cop being the star in both series. In 1925, he played the final period with his stick taped to his broken hand. From there he went to the Big Apple to join the Rangers. He also spent time with the Maple Leafs, the Canadiens, the Blackhawks, the Maroons, and the Americans—totalling 411 games in the NHL.
**The prestigious shinny scribe, Elmer Ferguson, Sports Editor of the vintage Montreal Herald, said of Lionel Hitchman: “He was the greatest defensive defenseman of his day.”
Michael Hiam, who penned Eddie Shore’s biography, added: “Shore may have been the dynamo of the Boston Club, but Hitchman was the balance wheel!”
The lanky rearguard was born and raised in Toronto, where he excelled in several sports. But hockey was his primary game. His neighbourhood club, Wychwood, were city champions in 1917, 1918, and 1919. He jumped next to the Junior level becoming an important cog in the famed OHA Aura Lee sextet. He remained with the club through the 1920 and 1921 seasons, but then chose to move with his family to Ottawa, where his father held a position in the Federal Government.
In August of 1921, he fulfilled the dream of many Canadian lads of that era — he joined the renowned, recently-renamed Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Stationed at the capital city’s Lansdowne Park, he eventually was promoted to sergeant. It was his privilege to participate in the ceremonial guard that greeted the new Governor General of Canada. Lord Byng and his wife, Lady Evelyn Byng. It was she who donated the original NHL trophy, which recognized the combination of quality play and sportsmanship.
While in his new hometown, he was conscripted by the New Edinburghs of the City Senior League. He also participated with the Mountie’s contingent in the Civil Service League.
The following June, the Canadian Government reduced the size of the RCMP by 67%. This opened the door for constables who wished “free” discharges, to leave the force. One who made that move was “Hitch”. He simply moved from one law enforcement establishment to another, and became a member of the Ontario Provincial Police.
It is said while wearing the badge of OPP he pulled off a heroic move which cannot be overlooked. He had occasion to visit a boot-legging dive, which harboured some pretty tough characters. He wasn’t even wearing a gun, but he charged in and cleaned up the joint with his bare hands.
In February of 1923 he was still playing for the Edinburghs, but was snapped up by the NHL Senators, playing his first pro match on the 28th. But that created a fly-in-the-ointment. He couldn’t be a hockey mercenary and an OPP officer at the same time. He chose hockey.
The Boston Bruins had done their homework well; and when they joined the league for the 1924-25 campaign, they snatched Hitchman from the Sens to make certain they were strong on the blueline. He has been called the “team’s first superstar”, and was first to have his number retired by the club. As team captain, he led his crew to four division titles, made two Stanley Cup finals, and copped the Cup in 1929.
With all the accolades directed his way, it is amazing that he was never chosen as an All Star — or was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
After 10 seasons with the Beantowners he retired. However, he remained with the Boston organization for another seven years—coaching their farm teams in the Canadian-American fraternity. He also became Assistant Coach and Scout for the big club.
For more details, read Pam Coburn’s new book, “Hitch”.
** The village of Dysart, Saskatchewan, like Delisle, in the world of hockey at least, is known only because of the NHL’ers who were born there. From the latter location came the most recent pro puckster to sport the unique scarlet tunic of this famous regiment. His handle was Walter “Gus” Kyle. He was also the most robust, carrying 220 pounds on his 6’1” frame.
As a youth he attended Notre Dame College, and was a key member of the school hockey squad. His performance caught the eye of a New York Rangers scout, and he manned the blue line for the club’s number one farm team, the Rovers. His timing was perfect—the Rivers won the EAHL championship in 1942.
He had always had a deep-seated desire to become a Mountie; and so on November 16, 1942 he joined their ranks in Regina, their Western-Canada headquarters. Following his training, he was dispatched to Fredericton, New Brunswick. After a short stay in Woodstock, he settled into his duties in St. John. Most biographies simply note that he was involved in investigations. But a rare peek into his job description speaks of him “guarding the border between Canada and the USA, tracking down “undesirables” . For this assignment he was never called upon to test his horsemanship — but rather rode the seat of an RCMP cruiser.
During his stay in that city he played Senior hockey with the St. John Beavers. As the season ended, they had only one more team to beat to earn Allan Cup honours. But Ottawa came out on top and the Beavers were second best. But his talents were not overlooked. He was awarded the Alden R. Clark Trophy, which was given to the outstanding city’s athlete of the year.
He had found a young lady who won his heart, and he wanted to join her in double harness. But the Mounties had a rule which forbade marriage until after seven years of service. Tongue in cheek, one scribe chided: “Guns were so heavy, and his salary so light, he decided to try something else”. After five years he managed to gain his discharge, and he headed back to the Prairies.
He opened a sporting goods store and played Senior hockey with the Regina Pats. While on a scouting trip in the spring of 1949, Frank Boucher chanced to see the one they sometimes called the “bully boy” strut his stuff. This prompted an invitation to attend the Rangers’ hockey school in the fall. His talents didn’t go unnoticed and he was invited to proceed to the Blueshirts’ training camp in Lake Placid, New York. When the first puck was dropped for the 1949-50 campaign the former “Redcoat” was assigned to man the blueline for the big club.
Following the Broadway-ites’ first visit to Toronto that fall, the Leafs’ Coach, Hap Day, confirmed what was generally said of him: “……not much of a skater, big and plodding, moving in slow motion, but solid. He always gets his man! He hunts them down and stops them in their tracks!”
Dick Irvin Jr., in his “And Now Back to You Dick” book, acknowledged that, for some reason, Kyle was one of the few rearguards who was really a problem to “Rocket” Richard—he found him difficult to get around.
However, there was one occasion when his usual success backfired. Teammate Edgar Laprade had already body checked the Habs’ dynamo, but Walter didn’t have time to halt his bee line assault, and he knocked them both down. Richard was trapped on the bottom of the pile — but reaching out from his prone position, he poked the disc behind the startled Chuck Rayner.
After his stint in the Big Apple, he skated one season with Boston, then moved to the Calgary Stampeders of the WHL—four as a player, and four as their coach. He then became bench boss of the CPHL St. Louis Braves for three campaigns. His final connection with pro hockey was in the broadcast booth of the NHL St. Louis Blues. He prevailed with his unusual style for almost two decades. His notorious misuse of the English language often caused the rest of the broadcast crew to cringe — like when he would say “the Canadiens is coming”, or “Minnesota are in Toronto”. But his homespun colour delighted listeners — especially when he inserted his favourite quip: “It’s a real barnburner!” He spoke from the heart; not from Webster’s Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus.
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