Interlude: The Army Plays as Pros

In Canada and the United States, several military units created hockey teams. Most of these either played in a special military league or affiliated with an amateur league for cross-league play. However, one unit, the Toronto 228th Battalion, applied for a National Hockey Association franchise. The 228th became the first, and possibly the last, military unit with a professional sports team.

The 228th applied for franchise in September 1916 for winter 1917. At the time, hockey seasons ran from late December until March. The 228th was granted status in the NHA for the 1916-1917 season. But, this wasn’t without controversy.

Many of the players for the 228th, Northern Fusiliers, came from another NHA entity, the Torontos, aka Toronto Blueshirts. The 228th, being based in Toronto, received many of the Torontos players when they enlisted. Even before the season started the Torontos’ owner, Eddie Livingstone, filed grievances with the NHA over players. The NHA ultimately decided in favor of the 228th.

The 228th had a star-studded cast of professionals. Some went on to serve bravely. George and Howard McNamara were known as the “Dynamite Twins”. While known as powerful men on the ice, they served in the Canadian Railway Troops (CRT) in France and rose to the rank of Major. George “Goldie” Prodgers rose to Company Sergeant Major with the 6th CRT. A few were embroiled in as much turmoil as the 228th.

Gordon Meeking and Eddie Oatman created as much controversy as the 228th entering into professional sports. Gordon Meeking was more unlucky than anything else. He entered with the 228th on September, 1916; only to be discharged on February 10, 1917. It wasn’t the end of his military career. He was drafted under the Military Service Act in late 1917. Finally, Meeking was discharged as medically unfit in 1918. During his brief break in service, the NHA and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) bickered over whether to allow Meeking and Oatman to play.

Unlike Meeking, Eddie Oatman caused his own trouble. He started by publicly claiming he never was in the 228th. Furthermore, he claimed that the 228th owed him $800, assuming CAD, as a professional hockey player. Additionally, Livingstone claimed to have proof that Oatman was never in the 228th. Thankfully, Oatman’s service record is available from the Library and Archives Canada. He signed his attestation papers on November 1. Subsequently, he was discharged on February 10, 1917 as “not likely to become an efficient soldier”. Therefore, It is not clear, at this time, what was presented to the NHA regarding Oatman’s time with the 228th.

Meeking and Oatman represent the most public cases of the hockey players turned soldiers who left behind. NHA chose not to ban them from hockey. They were playing with the PCHA by December. However, it is not clear if the ban would have been effective. The PCHA was a separate league. Second, the NHA was collapsing and about to be replaced by the NHL.

As it transitioned overseas, the 228th broke up. This was part of the odd system of reinforcement. The major hockey players seemed to have been assigned to the Railway Troops in theater. Unfortunately, time wasn’t available to verify the full team roster or player aftermath. The McNamaras lived a long life with George passing away in 1952. But, the 228th’s transition also was a portent of NHL’s tumultuous start.

Read More