A letter: 115 years of ice hockey at Penn

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Before finals began, about two weeks ago, The Daily Pennsylvanian published two stories about the history of varsity hockey at Penn and if there is any potential for a program in the future. But there is much more history to hockey at Penn than can be published in an article or two. Bob Kitrinos sent in the detailed letter below sharing a more in-depth look at the 115-year history of the hockey program at Penn and where alumni and current students now stand. Kitrinos was a kid during some of the varsity hockey team's best years in the early 1970s. He worked at the Class of 1923 Rink and volunteered for the team in 1972. He has kept in touch with many alumni and is "the de facto historian because [he] did the research into the team's history," he wrote in an email. He takes part in a large alumni Facebook group that has gained many members from Penn's hockey community. Check out the letter he sent below:

Surprise!  Ice hockey is alive and well at the University of Pennsylvania.  Although a financially strapped athletic department cut the varsity program in 1978, club teams have continued the University’s hockey tradition for the past 35 years. The University has had a love-hate relationship with the hockey program for the last hundred years.  Penn’s leadership has historically promoted football and basketball. Yet in the mid-1970s, the ice hockey team often outdrew the basketball team.  In 1978, the cash-strapped university cut hockey, gymnastics, golf and badminton, prompting students to stage a four-hour sit-in at College Hall.  The University responded by agreeing to keep gymnastics, golf and badminton, but wouldn’t vacate its decision to drop varsity hockey.  This wasn’t the first time the university cut the hockey program.  For lack of love or money, the University shut the program down five times over the last century. Each time it came back or persisted.

It didn’t have to be that way.  Penn was one of the pioneers of ice hockey in the United States and among the first college hockey teams.  Although the official university history dates the program to 1898, Penn actually fielded a competitive hockey team two years earlier in 1896-1897.  Four Canadian students, led by George Washington Orton, formed the nucleus of the team.  At Penn today, Orton is just remembered as a track star; in Canada, he is best known for winning Canada’s first Olympic Gold Medal in track. But Orton was a diehard hockey player first and developed a commitment to institutionalizing ice hockey at Penn and in Philadelphia.

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Although hockey in America was initially considered a novelty – a fad – student and community interest prompted the university to officially sponsor the team in fall 1898.  Another of the Canadians was Stanley Willett, who played on the 1896 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Victorias before coming to Penn. By most accounts, Willet was the top hockey player in the United States when he played for Penn.

In those early years, the team lacked an indoor skating rink to practice or play, so it used several local ponds when they were frozen and played their games in New York City. In December 1897, however, the West Park Ice Palace at 52nd and Jefferson finally opened, giving the team a home. The program thrived until the end of the 1901 season when the Ice Palace burned down in a mysterious fire. It would be 20 years before a new arena replaced it.

After a seven-year hiatus, a new team was fielded for the 1908-1909 season. Its captain was none other than Bill Hollenbach – best known as a star running back for the Penn football team. Playing as a roving team, it traveled to cities such as New York City, Pittsburg and Cleveland to compete. The University finally pulled the plug in 1911.

During the First World War, several Penn hockey players would go on to become war heroes, while some soldiers would later attend Penn and become heroes on the ice. Colonel George Henry Rankin Gosman was a member of the original Penn hockey team. After graduation, he became a US Army surgeon. About 20 years later during the First World War, Henry ran a Corps level Army hospital that saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers. He also invented the concept of evacuating wounded soldiers from the front lines using aircraft. Gosman is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.  Frank Steiner was a student at Penn when the war broke out and served as an enlisted soldier rising to the rank of lieutenant in the 140th Division. After the war, he returned to Penn and played hockey. Don Brett served as a fighter pilot during the war.

Even with the First World War raging, Penn students pressed to bring ice hockey back to the University. In January 1917, 500 students signed a petition calling for the University to bring back a hockey program.  A new ice rink was contemplated for the expanding Penn campus at the corner of 33rd and Walnuts Streets, where Hill House stands today. The driving force behind the ice hockey program's revival was none other than George Orton who, twenty years after playing hockey at Penn, was now both a top figure in the athletic department, as well as a local sportsman. After the First World War ended, Dr. Orton convinced the University to resume sponsorship of an ice hockey program and a new team was established for the 1919-1920 season, playing its games on the road until the new arena was built. With Orton's prodding, a local entrepreneur built a new Ice Palace on Market Street between 45th and 46th streets as a multi-use facility and the first hockey game was played on 14 February 1921. It would later be renamed the Philadelphia Arena and serve as Penn's hockey team’s home until 1968.

After the war, Penn's star forward was Percy Wanamaker, the youngest of three renowned hockey-playing brothers from Melrose, Massachusetts. The oldest – Elmer – had played for Harvard, while the middle brother – Clarence – played for Dartmouth and then coached Yale's hockey team. Like Ernest Hemingway, Percy served as an ambulance driver on the front lines during the war. Gassed by the Germans near Verdun, he lost use of an arm for a period as well as vision in his right eye. After the Armistice, he partially recovered; enough to play hockey at Penn.

Unable to devote the necessary time and focus to the hockey program, Dr. Orton recruited one of the top amateur players in the United States, Frank "Coddy" Winters, to lead the Penn team. Winters, who today is enshrined in the US Hockey Hall of Fame, was unable to turn the team into a winner. Dissatisfied with the team's performance and determined to establish Penn as a top college hockey team, Orton hired Eddie Powers – one of the most prominent amateur coaches in North America – to head the Penn hockey and lacrosse teams. Powers coached the Penn team for two seasons before becoming a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Today, the Eddie Powers Trophy is awarded to the leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League, Canada's top major junior hockey association. Sadly, Powers’ biography makes no mention of his two years coaching Penn.  After five losing seasons, the University cut the hockey program in 1924, only to change their mind in 1928.  With the onset of the Great Depression, the university dropped the program for third time.

The program made yet another comeback in 1939, notching a 5-1 record in the Pennsylvania Collegiate Athletic League. Members of that team included George Wharton Pepper III, the son of a Senator, as well as Cliff Engler – the tallest tackle to ever play football at Penn. For the next three years hockey proved to be a winning sport at Penn and the program hung on until three months after Pearl Harbor.

A new generation of Penn hockey player emerged as war heroes between 1942 and 1945. George Pepper served as a Navy officer on the USS Claxon and helped save lives and keep the ship afloat after it was hit by a kamikaze attack; Ted Stehle served ran an anti-aircraft battery on a Liberty ship and helped save his crewmates after the ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo; Allan Hunter served as a tank commander in the 11th Armored Division; Dick Sheble flew British Spitfires and P-38 Lightning fighters over Europe, while Lt Chandler Weeks lost his life in a Normandy hedgerow.

No effort was made to revive the Penn hockey program after World War II.  In 1957 a Penn junior and a self-described hockey nut from northern New Jersey, Ron Grober, reached out to fellow students to form a team.  Demonstrating what a young man with a vision and determination can accomplish, Ron managed to procure some old Penn football uniforms and money from the University to outfit a basic team. He also prevailed on a local professional hockey player, Nick “Rocky” Rukavina of the Eastern Hockey League Philadelphia Ramblers, to mentor and coach them.  Just 5'5” yet tough as nails, Rocky had a heart of gold, donating his time to work with the brawny assortment of enthusiastic preppies in the 1956-1957 and 1957-1958 seasons.

Student interest in the sport yet again convinced the university in 1958 to underwrite the program. A graduate student, Jack Cleveland, was induced to serve as the team's official coach. With growing university support, Coach Cleveland would lay the foundation the modern hockey program at Penn.  Despite consecutive losing seasons, the university stuck with the program and four years later when Cleveland left the team, the university opted for a younger, more dynamic leader at the helm. They induced Ron Ryan, college hockey’s all-time highest scorer, to take over running the team. Ryan remained at Penn for two years, but even he wasn't able to post winning seasons. Ryan left Penn to coach Merrimack and eventually went on to become the President of the Philadelphia Flyers. Less known is that Ryan is the father of Hollywood actress Blanchard Ryan.

In 1964, the university brought in Jim Salfi to coach the team. Salfi was a diminutive, no-nonsense defenseman at St. Lawrence University, who brought an expert understanding of the game.  Like Rukavina, he was of working class Canadian stock and brought a level of commitment and intensity to the team that few of the preppies who comprised it had ever experienced. Over the next few years, the new coach, drilled groups of prep school athletes into increasingly capable teams.

Salfi's charge was to improve the play so that it could become a Division I varsity team and the icemen posted a 10-10-2 record his first year. He cultivated allies among the faculty, administrators and alumni, while recruiting increasingly talented players from Canada and American prep schools. Among the first Canadians he recruited were two talented players from Sudbury, Ontario: Dan Pierce to lead the offense and Glenn Foreman to head the defense.

Most of the early teams, however, were comprised of New England prep school graduates. An early goaltender was David Gens, who would go onto become a doctor and was the attending Trauma Center Physician at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC when President Ronald Reagan was shot in March 1981. Another young goalie was John Rousmaniere, who would later write the sailors' bible: "The Annapolis Book of Seamanship." Other players include Andy Daly, who would become a ski resort mogul and the mayor of Vail, Colorado, while defenseman Jim Robbins would become President of Cox Communications. Statistician Neal Shore is now one of the country’s most prominent chemists. The team's manager was Joe Rascoff, became the Rolling Stones business manager. Others would become highly successful businessmen. Penn hockey's entrance into Division One varsity hockey was realized in 1967, ten years after Ron Grober and Rocky Rukavina revived hockey at the university. This was the first uninterrupted ten years of hockey at Penn since the inception of the program in the late 19th Century. Hockey was here to stay, although few knew it at the time.  Even with Division One varsity status, the position of the hockey program was precarious, as Coach Salfi had to beg for resources to operate the team. In those days Penn was not the well endowed, leading university that it is today. Many students were commuters and the university itself struggled for funds. With football and basketball the prestige sports, ice hockey remained low on the list of athletic department priorities. The failure of hockey to become institutionalized at Penn and the absence of an NHL team kept local interest in the sport small. In the mid-1960s the hockey was a relatively unknown sport in Philadelphia and the fan base was small. The arrival of the Philadelphia Flyers franchise in 1967 would lead to a rapid growth in its popularity but Philadelphia's love affair with the Broad Street Bullies was still several years away.

During the developmental years (1967-1970), the team suffered some brutal defeats: losing to Harvard 1-15, 0-12; to RPI 2-18; to Brown 2-11, 3-19; to Cornell 1-18.  Rival school newspapers ridiculed the team, treating it as a doormat. Harvard and Yale seemed to take particular relish in disparaging the Penn hockey team. Coach Salfi and his team persevered, in part by playing a tough physical game, exacting retribution on their detractors.

In February 1968, the Yale Daily News described the Elis near mugging in Philadelphia:

"It took a brilliant 37-save performance by Yale goalie John Cole to allow the Elis to escape from the dingy, antiquated Philadelphia Arena...There were no fights and nowhere near as much scuffling as occurred in the previous game between the two teams. But the Quakers who used their fists extensively in the first period, played like spoiled brats throughout. Again, Quaker defenseman Chris Larsen was the prime offender. Larsen shoved, swung his stick, swore, made obscene gestures, and harangued the inept officials."

Larsen would prove to be the “Scourge of the Elies. “ The next year, the Yale Daily News singled out the hardnosed defenseman from Welland, Ontario:  "… the Quakers began to revert to some of the bush-league play which has characterized all of their previous encounters with the Elis.  Particularly egregious was Penn defenseman Chris Larsen, whose play was in the best tradition of the Long Island Ducks (COMMENT: an old Eastern Hockey League team known for its aggressive physical play). His stick and elbows were too often applied to Eli players throughout the game, and several times he came near to starting a brawl by his aggressiveness..." But by spring 1969 even the Harvard Johns began to see the team as improving. A sports reporter for Harvard Crimson backhandedly acknowledged the change, saying: "Going to the University of Pennsylvania for the athletic program used to be like going to Wool-worth's to buy a suit."

At a reception in 1967 Salfi met Howard Butcher III, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist who was especially supportive of his alma mater. As a Wharton undergraduate, Butcher had played hockey with Percy Wanamaker and later served as a manager on the hockey team in the early 1920s, along with Gordon Hattersley, whose son would also attend Penn and found the Hattersley Society--which today recognizes Wharton's benefactors. A bond developed between Salfi and Mr. Butcher, and the latter rallied his classmates to support construction of an ice hockey rink on the university campus. Butcher raised $3.2 million for the construction of the rink--largely from his own pocket.

With the Class of 1923 Ice Rink on campus, the hockey team finally had a concrete bunker to call home. No action did more to institutionalize hockey at Penn than placing the rink on the campus.  With a new rink and growing sense of optimism, Salfi carefully molded the Penn hockey team into a competitive Division I team. He recruited a first rate goaltender in John Marks and a solid front line with Canadians Tom Davis and Sam Gellard, and a talented American, Tim Cutter.

The turning point for the program came in January 1970 with Penn's stunning overtime upset of top-ranked Harvard in Philadelphia.  The team posted a winning 14-11 record in 1971 (7th in the ECAC Division One and fourth in the Ivy League) and a 15-9 record in 1972 (fifth in the ECAC and third in the Ivy League). By the early 1970s the team was playing to packed houses in its 3000-seat arena. Games in those days were social occasions on campus with an eclectic group of fans ranging from students in blue jeans to alumni wearing formal attire, with the Penn band keeping the full house, players and fans pumped up.

After eight years Salfi had shaped Penn hockey into a Division One contender, realizing his dream and that of the hockey team's supporters: The Friends of Pennsylvania Hockey. Between 15 January and 4 March 1972, the varsity hockey went 11-3, the season culminating in a crushing 8-3 victory over top-seated Boston College, ruining BC’s legendary coach, Snooks Kelley last game before retirement. The victory shocked the east coast college hockey establishment and earned Penn a trip to the ECAC Tournament in Boston. Forty years later the players from that team still speak of the excitement of making it into the ECAC tournament...completing the team's right of passage, as well as stifling the detractors. Salfi left the program in spring 1972 to accept a position as head coach at RPI, Having taken the team from club to varsity, from losers to winners.

Boston University (BU) freshman coach Bob Crocker replaced Salfi at the helm.  It was no secret that Crocker had expected to succeed Jack Kelley as head coach of BU's much-vaunted hockey team. When that didn't happen, Crocker understandably left BU, and quickly accepted Penn's offer. After coaching in New England’s hockey hotbed, Penn must have seemed like a provincial hockey backwater. It was. He was also not prepared to battle for funding with the athletic department or hustle for recruits from the New England prep schools, skills Salfi had developed into an art form. Still, Crocker inherited a solid team group of over-achieving players molded by Salfi into potential champions. The Crocker era witnessed a landmark event:  the creation of the first women’s hockey team.  Set-up by freshman coach Larry Davenport, 40 years later Davenport – the father of two daughters – counts this as one of his top coaching achievements.

The 1972-1973 season under Crocker was the best ever experienced by a Penn hockey club. A 16-9-2 record placed the team fourth in the ECAC Division One and tied for fourth in the Ivy League. It also led to a second trip to the ECAC tournament in Boston.  The team's stunning 7-3 defeat of BU in the first round was as sweet to the much-maligned Penn team as it was personal vindication for Crocker. It demonstrated that the previous year wasn’t a fluke and remains the high water mark of ice hockey at Penn.  It put the team one victory away from the ECAC finals--a win they didn't get, losing to Boston College in the semi-finals. Still, almost a dozen players from this team would go on to play professional hockey, mostly in the World Hockey Association. One, Paul Stewart, would play in the NHL and become an NHL referee with more than 1000 NHL games under his belt.

Others have written about the decline and then demise of hockey at Penn, but like the vestige of ancient culture hidden behind a contemporary society, ice hockey has persisted at Penn as a club sport.  There’s no shame in this; hockey was a club sport for all but 11 of the last 115 years.  Through the club team, the hockey legacy at Penn has continued uninterrupted for the last 35 years – quite an accomplishment given the ups and downs of the program in its first 80 years.  The undergraduates and graduate students who make up the team walk down Woodland Walk and Walnut Street, skates and stick in hand, wearing the Penn jersey with the same pride their predecessors did. Although hangouts such as Lorna's and the Onion are long gone, Smokey Joe's and the New Deck Tavern are there, albeit in new locations, run by the children of the owners known so well to the team in the 1960s and 1970s. The program had a revival about 10 years ago when the team made the playoffs multiple years in a row and won the Mid-Atlantic College Hockey Association championship. One club player, Stu Seigel, from the early 1980s club team, went on to become an owner of the Florida Panthers.  Also, just this past season, the Penn women’s ice hockey team was a top contender in its league.

Alumni support is key to the success of any college sport and the current hockey team’s alumni board has been pro-active in reaching out to former players. For the last eight years it has hosted an annual alumni game at Homecoming.  In November 2005, a group of players from Coach Salfi’s 1960s team got together at the University to toast and roast their former coach, as well as reconnect after many years.

Alumni outreach accelerated in 2012 with the creation of a Penn Hockey Alumni page on Facebook.  The group tracked down over 200 former players, managers and coaches. This led to a grand alumni reunion in October 2012, with 60 former players, managers and coaches – spanning 55 years of Penn ice hockey – meeting at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink to celebrate the 115-year university's hockey heritage. This included more than a dozen players from the 1972 and 1973 teams, many of whom had not been back to Penn since the 1980s. They subsequently raised over $25,000 to support the club team … not bad for a program that most people think died 35 years ago. Another reunion is planned for 9 November at the Class of 1923 Rink and many more former players, managers and coaches have indicated they plan to attend.

 

 

Bob Kitrinos

Washington, D.C.

 


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