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Hockey: Hobey Who? An American legend, that’s who

Kyle Cassily | Friday, January 26, 2007

His story comes straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel – check that – his story inspired the great ‘Lost Generation’ novelist.

The life of Hobart Amory Hare Baker – Hobey Baker for short – may be unknown to most people today, but the accomplishments and adventures of this pre-World War I athlete, fighter pilot, public figure and literary inspiration rival the likes of Ted Williams and other far more famous men. Today, Hobey Baker lives on as the namesake for the award given to the outstanding player in college hockey every year. In Notre Dame-ese, it is “Hockey’s Heisman” – but to label it as such would deliver a crushing hip check to the man, the sport and its history.

The Hobey Baker Award is college hockey’s tribute to the greatest player to skate on a campus until a bunch of college kids brought down the Soviet Red Army in 1980. Just like how the name of Fitzgerald’s protagonist – Amory – and the character of Allenby, the football captain, in This Side of Paradise was created in homage to the man who helped define Fitzgerald’s disillusioned view of the ‘American Dream’.

Every year since its inception in 1981, one college kid has gotten a chance to be associated with Hobey Baker. And for the first time since Dave Poulin was a finalist in 1982, one Notre Dame player sits at the forefront of the nation’s candidates – goaltender Dave Brown. Brown has 19 wins this year, a 1.74 goals-against average and the fastest glove in the (Mid)West.

It is a relatively new award – especially when compared with the first presentation of the Heisman Trophy in 1935 – and may not seem to carry much history, but to best comprehend the company Brown’s name could join, it is best to just tell Hobey’s story.

Here it is.

He enrolled at Princeton in 1910, one year after the Tigers barnstormed onto the frozen ponds of New Hampshire to play St. Paul’s School, Hobey’s prep school. Princeton did not lose a game before or after the trip into northern New England that year, but Hobey’s finesse with a stick and explosiveness on blades earned his team the upset and, for him, an invitation to campus.

Hockey was not enough once he got to New Jersey, and Hobey joined the football and baseball teams. He helped the Tigers win the national championship in football in 1911, and led them on the ice to national titles in 1912 and 1914. He refused to wear headgear in either sport, committed only one penalty in his entire hockey career and once drop-kicked a 43-yard, game-tying field goal. He always went to the other team’s locker room after a game to congratulate them. He is, of course, enshrined in the College Hockey Hall of Fame, and just a few miles away from where Brown minds the Irish net, Hobey’s name rests in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Wherever Hobey played, crowds would chant, ‘Here he comes’, and newspapermen drooled over the stacks of papers his name sold. His accomplishments at Princeton alone would have been enough to merit his name on the Award, but it was not enough for him.

After his graduation in 1914, Hobey became a banker on Wall Street. But his inability to remain in one place or commit himself to one pursuit, the characteristic that drew Fitzgerald to him, caused him to join World War I right as America entered.

He volunteered for the Lafayette Escadrille in early 1917, a French air squadron made up mostly of American enlistees that was famous for its fearless pilots. His athletic prowess translated easily into the new world of dogfighting, and Hobey established a reputation as one of the best American pilots fighting in France – his warplane painted in Princeton black-and-orange flying in sharp contrast to the muck of trench warfare below.

He shot down three enemy aircraft, was awarded the French Croix de Guerre and engaged in aerial battles with Germany’s infamous Red Baron. Soon after the war ended in November 1918, Hobey received his orders to ship back to America. He tucked the papers underneath his fur-lined aviation jacket and took off for one last flight on a newly repaired squadron plane. The plane crashed somewhere over northern France, killing Hobey at the age of 26.

Fitzgerald, who also attended Princeton and was a friend of the player/pilot, viewed Hobey as the rare person who reached his ‘American Dream’, in Hobey’s case, gaining fulfillment from finding new arenas to push his skills. In the end, however, the Dream caught up to the man that had become the living myth and the final chapter of his story was written in Fitzgerald’s pages.

Six decades later, however, an afterword to the story was started with the debut of a 16-inch high bronze statue of a player digging his blades into the ice, sending up a shower of snow – the Hobey Baker Award.

With its inaugural winner in 1981, Neal Broten of the University of Minnesota, the Award established that, much like Hobey once did in hockey, football and aviation, those who earned the honor must exude a presence rarely seen in the game. Broten had all that in his game and a little more – an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1980 U.S. Hockey team that defeated the indomitable Red Army.

In the two decades since, the Hobey has become as important to all the kids that shiver and blow on their fingers as they lace up their skates on the snow banks of frozen ponds from Massachusetts to Saskatchewan, as the Heisman is to all those PeeWee football players doing burpees next to cornfields in the August heat.

If Dave Brown is able to take home the Hobey at the Frozen Four in St. Louis in April, then throw his name in with the Bertelli’s, Lujack’s and Lattner’s of this school – anything with Hobey’s name attached to it is more than worthy to sit on the same shelf as seven Heismans.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Kyle Cassily at kcassily@nd.edu