Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Eagles Abandon Nest

I've taken to the newspaper archives again because I had a mild interest in learning about a team that spent a single season in the American midwest. They weren't founded there, but the St. Louis Eagles came about when the Ottawa Senators moved south to the "Gateway to the West" and took up residence there. Because the Eagles only lasted one tumultuous season in St. Louis so long ago, it's a little harder to find good information on why and how the team up and abandoned its home. Thanks to the Google digital newspaper archives, I did manage to find some information on what happened. Let's take a look at how the Eagles flew St. Louis.

We fire up the De Lorean to head back to November 8, 1934 where we discover that the St. Louis Eagles were about to open their first season in the NHL against the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Black Hawks. Eddie Gerard, formerly of the Ottawa Senators, would remain as the manager as the club built itself on the former Senator players who had moved with the club. But we learn that Frank Wainwright, owner of the American Association's St. Louis Fliers, was about to file a $200,000 lawsuit against the new NHL club over territorial rights. Nothing like a little controversy to go along with a team's inaugural game, right?

The very next day, we find that Wainwright was asked to hold off suing the St. Louis Eagles. There is some information as to why Wainwright was trying to invoke the lawsuit. According to Wainwright, the NHL violated a territorial agreement in that they wouldn't place a team west of the Mississippi. The NHL, as expected, contends that this agreement had expired. It is, in my view, interesting to note that the NHL formally had agreed to not expand westward at some point in the past. With cities expanding across Canada and America, you would think that this would be a very shortsighted move.

After losing to the Black Hawks 3-1, we find that the Eagles had defeated the New York Rangers 4-2 on Saturday for their first win as the Eagles. With their 1-1-0 record, the Eagles prepared to battle the Montreal Maroons as they looked to build on their winning ways. The Maroons entered the game as the only team that had yet to open their season. In a rather interesting note, Ralph Bowman of the Eagles scored against the Maroons in a losing effort on a penalty shot, the first successful penalty shot goal in NHL history!

Instead, we jump ahead to November 30, 1934 where we discovered that the game against the Maroons had started a seven-game losing skid, leaving the Eagles reeling with a 1-8-0 record. In an effort to add some scoring, the Eagles purchased the contract of Vic Ripley from the New York Rangers. Ripley would appear in 31 games as his career was virtually at its conclusion. Ripley would star with the Black Hawks for five seasons before being shuffled between the Bruins, Rangers, and Eagles in two years. His time with the Eagles netted him one goal and five assists - not the best contract that the Eagles employed in their short time.

Looking for more scoring help, the Eagles tried to make waves on December 4 by trying to acquire Toronto's Harvey Jackson for $50,000. The Leafs asked for $100,000 for Jackson's services which, ultimately, killed that deal. In more personnel moves, the Ottawa interests controlling the Eagles interviewed former Senators star Frank Nighbor about taking over for Eddie Gerard in order to help the ailing club. Nighbor would eventually turn down this offer.

Looking to improve their goaltending situation, December 20, 1934 saw the Eagles throw a contract offer at Herb Stuart of the IHL's London Tucumsehs - the same team that Frank Nighbor managed! Both Stuart and the Tucumseh "club officials" (read: Nighbor) thought that the offer was too small for a goaltender of Stuart's stature, and Stuart rejected the offer. Not that it would matter much because the Eagles had themselves a pretty solid goaltender right under their own noses.

December 21, 1934 saw the Eagles use their goaltending as an advantage as they tied the powerful Toronto Maple Leafs with a 1-1 game. Bill Beveridge, goaltender for the Eagles, turned in an outstanding performance with 48 saves, but surrendered one goal that equaled the number that got by George Hainsworth in the Leafs' net.

In a rather interesting note, Beveridge was one of the last surviving members of the original Ottawa Senators club when the NHL awarded an expansion franchise to Ottawa in 1992. As the last goaltender to record a shutout for the Senators, he lived to see Don Beaupre record the first shutout for a Senators goaltender in the modern era when Beaupre closed the door on the Philadelphia Flyers on February 6, 1995 in the lockout-shortened season. Seven days later, Beveridge passed away in what seems like a closing of the book from one Senators era to another.

With the calendar turning to 1935, the Eagles and Montreal Canadiens were battling it out for who would occupy the cellar in the NHL's International Division. With both teams struggling, George (Buck) Boucher was brought in to coach the 2-11-0 Eagles to a higher standing than their current position after Eddie Gerard had resigned, and it appeared the Eagles were on their way up on January 10, 1935 after posting a 3-3-3 record since Boucher took over. If the Eagles were to continue on this upswing, they were poised to catch the New York Americans by season's end!

The problems with a losing team is that it creates fan apathy towards the club. With apathy at an all-time high in St. Louis thanks to a team stuck in last place, the club noticed that attendance was plummeting. So the Eagles made a cardinal sin in order to attract fans - they reduced ticket prices. While attendance climbed from 4000 fans to approximately 7000 fans, the Eagles still lost their fifteenth game of the season to the Boston Bruins by a 2-1 score.

With the team floundering in the standings and at the box office, the Eagles began the second phase of cardinal sins on February 12, 1935 - selling marketable stars for cash. Syd Howe was arguably the best player that the Eagles ever had on their roster, and Ralph Bowman was a serviceable player. The loss of either player alone would have weakened the team, but their loss together weakened it considerably. The Red Wings, receiving the two players, became a better team instantly. The $50,000 received by the Eagles would be little more than a windfall of cash that would service the team's mounting losses while Teddy Graham was little more than a stop-gap for a team that was dealing away one of its best players.

As a note, the newspaper clip states that Scotty Bowman was involved in the trade, but the legendary coach of the Blues, Sabres, Canadiens, Penguins and Red Wings was born September 18, 1933 - making him all of one year-old when the Eagles were playing in St. Louis. Clearly, this was an error as the only Bowman on the Eagles' roster was the penalty-shot scorer Ralph Bowman. Just wanted to clarify my writing versus that of the Rochester Evening Journal and the Post Express.

It was no secret in April that the St. Louis Eagles were in dire straits. Their 11-31-6 record to finish the season was the least of their worries as extreme travel costs and fan apathy had the club bleeding red ink. A group of investors from Cleveland, led by AC Sutphin, had spoken to NHL President Frank Calder about having his city join the ranks of the NHL, and there was some discussion about moving a team to Cleveland. While there was some talk about St. Louis being one possible team, the article from The Montreal Gazette makes it clear that the Montreal Canadiens are the team that is interested in relocating! Could you imagine the Canadiens not being part of the NHL? It almost happened in the mid-1930s!

In perhaps the quietest announcement ever for a team folding, September 28, 1935 saw The Pittsburgh Press run a tiny article about the Eagles suspending operations for one year. Interestingly, the players from the Eagles would be distributed amongst the worst teams in the NHL, and would be available for recall one year later if the Eagles were to return. Would any team today even consider this possibility? Would the NHLPA even allow it? It was a different world for the NHL back in the 1930s.

Just over two weeks later, the Eagles were officially done. For an undisclosed amount of money, the NHL would assume control of all assets and contracts held by the Eagles and distribute them to teams amongst the eight-team league. The Montreal Canadiens showed interest in as many as four players, but each of the NHL teams wanted a shot at the Eagles' remaining players. I'll have a rundown as to who went where after the assets were divided, but, officially the Eagles were no more.

October 16, 1935 saw more information come out about the sale of the Eagles to the NHL. Each of the eight NHL teams contributed $5000 for a total of $40,000 payable to the owners of the Eagles. Eighteen players were distributed while five would move to minor-league teams. The only team not to select an Eagle? The Chicago Black Hawks.

This article, from The Leader-Post in Regina, shows the distribution of the players to each of the teams. There are also some great photographs of the Eagles players in their sweaters. The players were distributed as follows:

  • New York Americans: Pete Kelly, Eddie Finnigan.
  • Montreal Canadiens: Bill Beveridge, Irv Frew, Paul Drouin, Henri Lauzon.
  • Detroit Red Wings: Carl Voss, William Peterkin.
  • New York Rangers: Glen Brydson, Vernon Ayres.
  • Montreal Maroons: Joe Lamb, Bill Taugher.
  • Boston Bruins: Bill Cowley, Teddy Graham.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs: Gerry Shannon, Cliff Purpur, Jim Dewey, Mickey Blake.
And with that, NHL hockey in St. Louis was done until 1967 when the St. Louis Blues were founded as an expansion franchise. There's no denying that the Eagles were a bad team and that moving them again might have been inevitable even if they had been able to survive the '34-35 season. The St. Louis Eagles, once the Ottawa Senators, were the officially were scrapped as an NHL entry on October 15, 1935.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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