Legendary hockey reporter Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as “The Hockey Maven,” shares his humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.
This week Stan presents a “Strange but True” segment about one of the most colorful characters in NHL history, Mervyn “Red” Dutton.
It would be impossible to duplicate a career that matches Red Dutton’s life in hockey. He did almost everything there was to do on ice and in the front office. And those feats were accomplished after World War I combat that nearly cost him his life.
Starting in 1920, Dutton was a defenseman and later became a rare player-coach, then an owner of an NHL team. He also managed, authored a book about hockey and, to top it off, was League president during the early 1940’s when the NHL almost had to shut down because of World War II restrictions.
Before his professional hockey career, Dutton was a World War I Canadian infantryman on patrol during the bloody Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. It was Dutton’s last tour of duty with the Army. The next day he was to report to the Royal Flying Corps for training as a fighter pilot. But Dutton nearly was killed when a German shell burst near him.
One of his legs was badly mangled and little hope was held that it could be saved. Fearing infection, doctors ordered amputation but Dutton talked them out of it and, miraculously, the leg eventually healed.
“I needed that leg,” Dutton said, “because I wanted to play hockey.”
For months following his homecoming, Dutton exercised to bring the leg back to life.
“I ran for miles every day,” he recalled, “I needed to strengthen the damaged muscles more quickly.”
The intense exercise paid off and by 1920 he became a defenseman for the Calgary Juniors and eventually graduated to the Western Canada League’s Calgary Tigers. His vigorous play impressed Eddie Gerard of the Montreal Maroons in the NHL and Dutton signed a contract with them in 1926 for $6,000 a season.
“A badly wounded soldier had come a long way since his return home as a comparative cripple,” wrote Canadian author and broadcaster Ron McAllister.
Dutton’s fearlessness and competence during his four seasons with the Maroons became the stuff of legend.
“Odds meant nothing to Red,” McAllister said, “and at times he was fighting with three or four rival players at once.”
In 1928-29 Dutton led the NHL with 139 penalty minutes in a 44-game season.
“He was not the most talented defenseman in the League but he was determined to make it, and if he didn’t star as a scorer, he certainly did as a hitter and a fighter,” wrote historian Andrew Podnieks in his book, “Players.”
Dutton was traded to the New York Americans in 1930 and became the face of the franchise as a player and then coach, manager and owner. The original Americans owner, bootlegger “Big Bill” Dwyer, had run out of money during the Great Depression and it was Dutton’s family fortune that helped save the team in the early 1930’s from Dwyer’s bankruptcy.
“Once,” Dutton remembered, “I had to lend Bill $20,000 when he was down in Miami Beach. He blew it all in one night in a craps game.”
Dutton’s business acumen kept the Americans alive. He eventually purchased the team and then devised a complex scouting system that brought in young talent, including the kid line of Dave “Sweeney” Schriner, Art Chapman and Lorne Carr.
“Red did a masterful job of blending age and youth,” wrote “Hockey’s Royal Family” author Eric Whitehead. “And it showed in the 1938 [Stanley Cup] Playoffs against the [New York] Rangers.”
Dutton guided his underdog club to a rare best-of-3 series victory. The clinching Game 3 before a packed crowd at Madison Square Garden was the longest in New York hockey history. It lasted into a fourth overtime period before Carr beat Rangers goalie Dave Kerr for the marathon winner.
“That was the greatest thrill I ever got in hockey,” Dutton said. “The Rangers had a high-priced team then and beating them was like winning the Stanley Cup to us.”
Following the 1938 playoffs, Red set up his typewriter and spent the offseason writing a book, “Hockey — The Fastest Game On Earth.”
“I wrote it hoping to make good hockey easier for young men to play and more enjoyable for the spectators to watch,” Dutton said.
On page one Red’s philosophy is spelled out in two words: KEEP PUNCHING! On the final page, 196, the book concludes with KEEP PUNCHING!
By the end of the 1930s, Dutton tired of paying rent to The Garden and planned to build an arena of his own, across the East River.
“I was impressed with baseball’s rivalry between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants,” Dutton said. “I figured I’d move the Americans to a new arena in Brooklyn. It made sense since we had fans mostly from Brooklyn while the Rangers had the hotsy-totsy ones from New York.”
Before the 1941-42 season, he renamed his franchise the Brooklyn Americans. The problem was that he only had blueprints for a Brooklyn arena and still had to play home games at Madison Square Garden.
Unfortunately, when World War II enlistments rid his roster of players, Dutton folded the club for the duration of the conflict.
But he wasn’t finished with hockey. When NHL president Frank Calder died in 1943, Dutton was named his successor.
“The owners asked him,” Podnieks said, “because Red was a strong and respected voice among the players.”
At war’s end, he gave up the presidency and when the NHL refused to revive the Americans, Dutton returned to his family’s construction business in western Canada. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1958 and in 1993 he was posthumously awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy for service to hockey in the United States.
Dutton’s greatest regret was that his Americans franchise never was revived after World War II. Nor was he able to fulfill his dream of building an arena in Brooklyn. It would have been located where Barclays Center now stands.
In 1946, after Dutton cleaned out his Madison Square Garden office, a reporter asked him how he felt about his Americans being rejected by the NHL. He allowed that he had regrets and, suddenly, his old-time fire momentarily returned.
“A couple more years,” Dutton said, “and we would have run the Rangers right out of the rink!”