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When the Hockey Hall of Fame was established in 1945, one man who was enshrined was a person who had one eye, who had only played professional hockey for three years and had been dead for three decades.
His name was Frank McGee, and his career was short, but legendary, and his death tragic considering what could have been.
McGee was born on Nov. 4, 1882, to a very prominent family. His uncle, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, was a Father of Confederation and his father, John Joseph McGee, was a clerk of the Privy Council.
One of nine children born to John and Elizabeth McGee, the family’s children were very athletic. Frank’s brother Jim would go on to captain the Ottawa Football Club and played for the Ottawa Silver Seven before he died suddenly on May 14, 1904, two days before his birthday, in a riding accident.
Following his schooling, McGee began to work for the Department of Indian Affairs but while he had a good paying job, his true love was sports. He did well in lacrosse and rugby, but it was hockey that he was meant to play.
McGee would be mentioned in the Ottawa Journal for his play on the football field, stating quote:
“Frank McGee’s play was one of the features of the match. Thing’s came McGee’s way on Saturday and when they were not, he was looking for work and he did everything without a miss. McGee handled the ball more than anybody on the field.”
His future career was nearly ended before it began when at the age of 18, he suffered a terrible eye injury in an amateur game while playing for the Canadian Pacific Railway team in on March 21, 1900. A lifted puck had hit him in the eye, and he would lose the eye in the process.
The Montreal Gazette would report quote:
“As the result of an injury to an eye received in a hockey match two weeks ago, Frank McGee, the dashing forward of the Aberdeens and a crack halfback on the Rough Riders football team, will not be able to play again. He has been under skillful treatment ever since the eye was injured but is not able to see.”
Still wanting to be on the ice, McGee would become a referee. Despite the fact he was missing an eye, he proved to be a good referee with the Ottawa Citizen praising him, stating quote:
“Frank McGee, who acted as referee gave every satisfaction and was quite impartial.”
That may have been the end of it but in 1903, McGee found he missed playing hockey so much that he wanted to get back on the ice. He would join the Ottawa Hockey Club, soon to be called the Ottawa Silver Seven, one of the greatest teams in hockey history.
He would begin practicing with the team in January of that year, and it seemed fans were happy to see him on the ice. The Winnipeg Tribune would report quote:
“Frank McGee is out practicing with the Ottawa hockey club and the fans at the Capital are proportionately pleased. Frank gave promise of proving one of the best in the business, but two years ago he had the misfortune to suffer an injury to one of his eyes, which distracted a good deal from his ability on the ice. He is, however, still a swift and dangerous forward.”
At the time, McGee was the youngest player on the team, and he stood five-feet-six-inches at a time when the sport was extremely brutal on the ice. Despite his age and small stature, he quickly excelled.
In his first game with Ottawa, he scored six goals.
The Ottawa Citizen would write, quote:
“It was McGee’s first appearance as a senior hockeyist, and he showed that he was qualified to stay with the finest in the land and finish strong. Frank was at centre, and he invariably got the better of the face off. He followed up fast and was always in vicinity of the puck.”
By the time the season was done, he had 14 goals in six games and finished second in league scoring.
McGee seemed to be able to score goals at will. At least eight times in his career, he would score more than five goals a game. On Jan. 16, 1905, in a game against the Dawson City Nuggets, he scored 14 goals, including eight goals in a row in nine minutes. I covered the Dawson City Nuggets story a few weeks ago, so check it out. McGee had been limited to only one goal the previous game and players on the Dawson City team said he was not as good as they had heard. McGee responded with that record setting number of goals, which is by far the most ever scored by a single player in a Stanley Cup game.
McGee’s highest goal total in a single regular season game was on March 3, 1906, when he scored eight goals against the Montreal Hockey Club.
Frank Patrick would say of McGee, quote:
“He was even better than they say he was. He had everything, speed, stickhandling, scoring ability and was a punishing checker. He was strongly built but beautifully proportioned and he had an almost animal rhythm.”
Billy Grant, the sports editor for the Calgary News Telegram, would describe McGee and his first sight of him, stating quote:
“I heard a strange clatter of steel as the Ottawa players clambered down the steps from the dressing room. Voices began to hum, then a wild roar of applause and thousands of excited voices began to hum, in a wild roar of applause and thousands of excited voices wildly shouting McGee McGee McGee.”
Grant would continue on, writing of his surprise in meeting McGee, stating quote:
“I asked which was McGee and suddenly drew in my breath as my companion pointed to a fair-haired, blue eyed, frail looking stripling who came down fast. His has was as perfectly parted as though he had just stepped out of the parlor, his spotless white pants were creased to a knife-like edge, his boots had been polished, his skates glistened under the glare of the arc lamps and his complexion, that was what magnetized my attention, seemed as pink as a child’s.”
Grant would then meet McGee, shaking his hand and then watched as he dominated on the ice. He would write quote:
“I saw him seize the puck at center, skate in with the speed of a prairie cyclone and shoot. I saw him backcheck, dodge here and there, flash from side to side, stickhandle his way through a knot of struggling players, slap the puck into the open net and go down in a heap as he did so. Then I ceased to wonder why this boyish doll-like hockey star was the idol of that crowd. I too joined in the hysterical shouting for Frank McGee, the world’s greatest hockey player.”
The Ottawa Silver Seven, a team I covered last season, McGee was just one of a group of legendary players. That team included future Hall of Fame inductees Alf Smith, Harry Westwick, Billy Gilmour and Tommy Smith.
During the 1906 season, McGee scored an astounding 28 goals in seven games. In two playoff games against Queens University, he had six goals, followed by nine goals in two games against Smith Falls.
McGee was well-known on the team for his practical jokes, often at the expense of his teammates. One such incident occurred when the Ottawa Silver Seven were dining with Governor General Lord Minto to commemorate winning the Stanley Cup. McGee, who knew the etiquette of Ottawa society, was the only one on the team that had been exposed to high society. He told his teammate to copy whatever he did. When the finger bowls arrived, McGee picked his up and began to slurp from the finger bowl, which his teammates copied him. The Governor General, seeing this, apparently decided it was appropriate to drink from his own finger bowl as well.
From 1903 to 1906, the years that McGee played for Ottawa, he won the Stanley Cup each year and scored 63 goals in 22 Stanley Cup games.
After the Montreal Wanderers claimed the Stanley Cup in a challenge game in 1906, McGee chose to retire from the game at the age of only 23. One reason for this was that his government position did not allow him to travel, and the job paid him better than his hockey job did.
The Ottawa Journal would state quote:
“At the close of the season, McGee retired and although he received some of the most tempting offers ever made to puckchasers, he declined to return to the game.”
Over the course of his career, amounting to only 45 games, he scored 135 goals.
McGee would continue to work for the government until the outbreak of the First World War. During those years, he spent his time playing golf at the Royal Ottawa Golf Club and curled with the Rideau Curling Club.
He would soon enlist with the Duke of Cornwall’s Own Rifles, serving as a lieutenant in the 21st Infantry Battalion. It is not known how McGee was able to enlist with only one eye. The medical officer wrote that he could see the required distance with either eye, which was not true.
According to Frank Charles McGee, the nephew of McGee, his uncle had tricked the doctor. When the doctor asked him to cover one eye and read the chart, he covered his blind eye. When he was asked to cover the other eye, he simple switched hands and covered his blind eye again.
Upon his enlistment, the Ottawa Journal would report quote:
“Remembering the announcement quite recently that Frank McGee, the most famous hockey player that ever wore the red, white and black barber poled sweater of the Ottawa Hockey Club, had enlisted…should be interested to know that the fair-haired centre was perhaps the only hockey player that opposing teams dreaded during every minute he was on the ice.”
Enlisting in October of 1914, McGee would be assigned to the 43rd Battalion and was expected to be one of the first Canadians to be called up to the front lines.
In January of 1915, McGee, who had the rank of a lieutenant, was playing hockey for the 21st battalion. The Winnipeg Tribune would report quote:
“Lt. McGee has lost but little of his cunning and was the centre of attention.”
In December 1915, the armoured car he was in was hit by a shell, causing McGee to suffer a severe knee injury. He would recover quickly from it according to the news reports. McGee would leave the military hospital in February and was sent to Wales to a convalescent home in order to recover before he returned to the front lines. After his time in England to recover from the knee injury, he was then given the option of a post away from the fighting, but he chose to return to his battalion at the front. He stated in a letter home on Sept. 4, that he wanted to be part of the big push with his old battalion. It would be a fateful decision.
He would arrive back in the trenches in August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.
On Sept. 16, 1916, he was killed near Courcelette. His body would never be found. His death would written about in newspapers across Canada.
The article in the Ottawa Journal about the death of McGee stated, quote:
“The death of Capt. Frank McGee removes one of the greatest athletes Canada has ever produced. As a hockey player, he was held by many to have been the greatest the game ever produced.”
The article would continue, quote:
“Once again there has been brought home with gripping grief and pain reality the present conflict of nations. It is doubtful if the loss of any one of the splendid young Ottawans who have fallen at the front since the outbreak of war has occasioned such keen regret as that of the late Lt. Frank McGee. Frank McGee dead? Thousands of Ottawans knew him. Few seemed able to believe that he had given up his life in the struggle for freedom.”
In 1945, McGee was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the original nine players to be inducted. In 1950, the Ottawa Silver Seven and subsequent Ottawa Senators were voted the best team of the first half of the 20th century. In 1966, McGee was inducted into the Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.
Upon his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, so long after his death, the Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“Frank McGee is another who is hardly known to present day fans. McGee was a two-way player in the days when only offensive play was stressed. He had a powerful shot, was a brainy player and his scoring feats are still listed in the books.”
Upon McGee’s death, one hockey writer would state the following of him, and I will end the episode with it. It was stated quote:
“There never was a player who could nurse the puck up the centre of the ice and past the defence like he could and there was never a player who could take a pass in front and shoot the rubber into the net like Frank McGee, and last, but not least, there never was a player who was as willing to help his club out as he was. Frank McGee was the greatest of them all and he was a fine fellow too, and he will never be forgotten.”
Information from the Montreal Gazette, Hockey Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, Winnipeg Tribune, Ottawa Citizen, NHL.com, Ottawa Journal,