He was one of the fastest skaters to ever take to the ice, so it is no surprise that Joe Simpson gained the nickname of Bullet during his Hall of Fame career that lasted only 10 seasons but helped him leave his mark on the early NHL.
Harold Edward Joseph Simpson was born in Selkirk, Manitoba and as a young player he picked up that nickname that would stay with him for the rest of his life because of his speed on the ice. Playing on a frozen slough near his house in the early 1900s, he would play against other children from the community. The boys who lived on the north side of town would go up against those on the south end, and it was there that Simpson honed his hockey skills. Simpson would say that he learned to skate almost as soon as he could walk.
Playing as a defenseman, Simpson would begin to play for the Selkirk Fishermen Juniors, before making the jump to the NHA in 1914-15 when he joined the Winnipeg Victorias.
Soon after, he would do what many young men at the time did and enlist in the First World War but that didn’t stop his hockey career. He would play for the 61st Battalion Team of Winnipeg, where he would win the Allan Cup in 1916. Simpson was a major reason that Winnipeg won the Allan Cup that year. The Winnipeg Tribune would write quote:
“Joe Simpson played a leading part in the great improvement of the soldiers as he passed the puck in an effective manner, assisting in two goals and getting in on two other occasions to score himself.”
After that bit of glory, Simpson was off to war, serving with the 43rd Battalion on the British front in a battalion commanded by Major Winston Churchill. During the war, he would be wounded twice, including at the Battle of the Somme, and he would receive the Military Medal.
Jimmy Robinson would write of Simpson that he was quote:
“Canada’s most popular hockey player and an outstanding first baseman on the best battalion baseball team in the Canadian Army.”
Simpson would return home in January 1919 as a lieutenant. The Winnipeg Tribune would report on his arrival in Selkirk quote:
“The sensational Selkirk hockey player claims that he is feeling fairly fit. Joe is one of the most brilliant defense players ever developed around this district. He will likely try to get in shape to help the Selkirk youngsters in their senior hockey league battles.”
That is exactly what Simpson would do, signing on to play a few games for the Selkirk Fisherman Seniors
Simpson’s entire life would change in 1920 thanks to an offer he couldn’t refuse.
In 1920, while he was in a Winnipeg pool room, Kenny MacKenzie of the Edmonton Eskimos offered him $3,000 to turn professional, amounting to about $38,000 today. Simpson would say he would go if his father would give him permission. Thankfully for Simpson and hockey in general, his father said it was okay and his professional career soon began.
Simpson apparently received offers from several teams, but in the end. Simpson naturally accepted and he would join the Eskimos on Nov. 4, 1920.
The Weekly Albertan reported quote:
Sadly, this also meant the end for the Selkirk team.
The Calgary Herald reported quote:
“The Selkirk hockey team is practically out of existence for the time being. It received its death blow the other night when Joe Simpson, individual star of the team and one of the greatest players in the game, boarded the 9:40 p.m. CN train for Edmonton, there to line up on the Eskimo defence with Hal Winkler.”
It did not take long for Simpson to begin to make a name for himself. In 1921-22, he was named to the Western Hockey League First All-Star Team, and he would continue to dominate for the next few years, earning three First Team selections and one Second Team selections.
During that time, Newsy Lalonde, a legend himself, called Simpson the greatest living hockey player.
In 1923, the Regina Leader-Post would write of Simpson quote:
“Corkscrew Joe is the backbone and mainstay of the Edmonton team. All winter he has laboured under the handicap of teaming up with an inefficient partner and he has had to bear the brunt of the defense work, which he has accomplished admirably.”
That season, Simpson would finish fourth in goal scoring in the league, which was good for a defenseman for the time.
The Leader-Post would go on, calling Simpson the most valuable player in western Canada, stating quote:
“Simpson doesn’t stop at getting goals. He also passes the puck and infuses combination play into his rushes, a thing that very few defense players do.”
Simpson would gain another nickname during this time for his ability to weave around players, corkscrew.
Simpson was a smaller player, never weighing more than 160 pounds but he played like he weighed 200 pounds. Bill Corum of the New York Journal-American would say Simpson was a quote:
“Rollicking, rocking man, flashing down the rink with the puck on the end of his stick.”
At the end of 1924-25, the Western Hockey League ceased operations, and it was time for Simpson to move on to the NHL. During his time in the Western Hockey League, Simpson had 57 goals and 42 assists in 113 games.
Simpson’s contract was purchased, along with that of John Morrison and Roy Rickey, for $10,000 by the New York Americans on Sept. 18, 1925. The team was won by the bootlegger Big Bill Dwyer, and Simpson quickly became one of the gate attractions for the team. The Americans publicity team would portray Simpson as a trap-liner who had travelled from 600 kilometres north of Edmonton to New York City by dog sled and toboggan, while guarded by the Indigenous.
The Saskatoon Star Phoenix would report quote:
“Many scoffed last spring of the ability of the New York club to overcome the waiver clauses to get Simpson out of the Western Canada League but apparently they found a way to accomplish it. The purchase price paid is said to be the largest ever involved in the transfer of an individual hockey player. Simpson, the dispatch adds, has signified his willingness to go to New York.”
For the next six seasons, Simpson played for the Americans. With the team, he would become a fan favourite for his end-to-end style rushes, and his fearless attitude on the ice. During his time with the team, he had 21 goals and 40 points, a good amount for a defenceman at the time.
While Simpson was now reaching his 40s, it was said he made up for lost time and his youth spent in small towns by having the time of his life in New York.
Jim Coleman would write of Simpson’s time in New York quote:
“Bullet Joe Simpson became a star on Broadway, despite the fact that he left some of his best athletic years behind him, in the blood and mud of the Regina trench on the Western Front in World War One.”
In 1931, he would end his playing career. During his NHL career, Simpson had 21 goals and 19 assists in 228 games with the Americans.
The Victoria Times Colonist reported quote:
“Another of the old veterans has passed from the hockey wars, as far as active play is concerned, in the person of Bullet Joe Simpson. Joe was one of the most spectacular players in the game a few years ago.”
The Colonist would add quote:
He would then turn to coaching, coaching the Americans for three years, finishing with a record of 42 wins and 72 losses, never getting the team beyond fourth place or the semi-finals in the playoffs.
Simpson would also coach in Minneapolis and New Haven, and then move to Florida in 1938 to promote hockey there.
While in Florida, Simpson suffered a massive heart attack that resulted in him being inactive in hockey for two years, but his friend Art Coulter came to his aid, giving him a job at his hardware store where Simpson would work until 1965.
Simpson would say quote:
“He gave me a job selling skates in his hardware store, four hours a day. It may sound funny, selling skates in Florida, but Coral Gables, at that time, had an arena.”
In 1963, Simpson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
On Dec. 25, 1973, Simpson died at the age of 80.
Two years later in 1975, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1994, the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk restored a 1963 flat-bottomed freighter and named it the Harold Bullet Joe Simpson.
In 2013, he was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Rick Brownlee of the Hall of Fame would say that Simpson should had have been inducted years earlier but was mistakenly overlooked because many assumed he was already inducted. He would say quote:
“With the Tribune Hall of Fame that used to exist in the old arena in the 1950s until 1979. I think people already assumed he was already in. So, we’re rectifying that now and putting him in 40 years later. He passed away 40 years ago, and his hockey career ended 40 years before that, so basically we’re having a tough time finding a relative that feels close enough and comfortable enough to come up on stage and to accept on his behalf.”
Information from NHL.com, Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, Memorable Manitobans, Greatest Hockey Legends, Wikipedia, Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame, CBC, Winnipeg Tribune, Calgary Herald, Regina Leader-Post, Victoria Times Colonist, Edmonton Journal,