St. Paul’s School

Acknowledged as “the cradle of American hockey,” St. Paul’s School and hockey have been synonymous since the afternoon of November 17, 1883, when the School community gathered on the Lower School Pond to witness the first game ever played in the United States. From the beginning, hockey was more than a sport at St. Paul’s it – was a way of life. Here in the place blessed with boys, ponds, and long winters, it was natural that the three would come together in celebration. The love of the fabled “black ice” was universal, and the boys, the masters, and their families looked forward to its early arrival.

The extraordinary success of St. Paul’s hockey teams was based on a whole school full of players and a lot of ice time. As many as nine rinks used to be set up on the ponds, and fully thirty-three teams would be ready to play or practice on any given afternoon. With that many teams feeding their best players to the varsity and so much ice time to perfect their skills, is it any wonder that SPS teams dominated the sport?

Elements of the legend were in place even before he was, as an underformer at St. Paul’s School, awarded the Gordon Medal in 1908 as the School’s best all-around athlete. How quickly he had picked up the skills of skating and hockey as a First Pointer; how he would skate at night in order to perfect his stick handling so that he would never need to look down; how, en route to a school dance, dressed in his tuxedo he performed giant swings on the parallel bars, how he could walk up and down stairs on his hands. Playing for St. Paul’s against the post-collegiate St. Nick’s team at a Christmas hockey game, he was judged a star by the New York

He looked like a young Greek god: blond hair, a trim, graceful, and perfectly proportioned body apparently impervious to the hard, often vicious, knocks he took as a “rover” in hockey, the primary offensive player, and as the “safety” in football, the last defensive player in an era when drop-kicks and run-backs of punts were the major strategic moves.

The legend grew when he entered Princeton where as a freshman he played baseball and football. As a junior he captained the varsity hockey team, as a senior the varsity football team. At his graduation in 1914 he was voted “the man who has done most for Princeton” as well as the best athlete, the best football player, and the best hockey player. Earlier that year, in a post-season hockey game in Ottawa, he had been crowned “King of Hockey” by the Canadians! His name on the marquee of an ice rink guaranteed standing room only crowds. It was the era par excellence of intercollegiate sport. There was no professional hockey league before World War I, no college then had an indoor rink, and college hockey games were played in big city rinks with big city crowds in attendance and big city newspaper coverage. Hobey Baker was a natural for the crowds and the papers. Speedy, skillful, rugged, handsome, disciplined, an
innovator in the sports he played, he was also the epitome of sportsmanship-he was penalized only once in hockey games. Perhaps his only drawback was his modesty or shyness; he shunned reporters, but they filled their columns with his deeds if not his words.

And with World War I, the legend reached its apotheosis. Commissioned an Army aviator, Hobey Baker went overseas in August of 1917 to join the legendary Lafayette Escardrille (renamed the 103rd Aero Squadron). A year later, a Captain, he became commanding officer of the 141st, a new unit that adopted the Princeton Tiger as its insigne. He shot down three planes- accounts of his death exaggerated the number to 14- the war ended, and on December 21, 1918, he delayed his departure to flight test a recently repaired
plane. The plane crashed, killing the pilot. He was 26.

After graduating from St. Paul’s in 1887, he returned to Millville in 1889 to take up the position of master, which he held until 1917. He was one of the first masters at St. Paul’s to take on the busy year-round responsibilities of a coach in various sports (including hockey); he reported in the School’s Horae Scholasticae magazine on contests and took part in creating the detailed athletic statistics that became such an important part of schoolboy life. He was involved with the 1889 reorganization of the School’s athletic program into the three-club system-Isthmian, Delphians, and Old Hundreds-that continues today, over 100 years later.

As a coach with the ear of the alumni, he bucked the tide that was already running towards athletic specialization. He encouraged diversity in accomplishment rather than specialization, and this led to his creation in 1892 of the Gordon Medal, now the School’s highest award for “the best all-around [boy] athlete and sports man.” Its original requirements demanded participation in five different sports and stressed the need for fair play and sportsmanship; sixty years later he was still concerned with “the fight against commercialism.” In 1917 he left St. Paul’s and shortly thereafter founded his own junior school, The Malcolm Gordon School, in
Garrison, New York. Living into his nineties, he appeared, always trim and erect, at almost every Anniversary to present the Gordon Medal personally He became over the years, to many alumni, “Mr. SPS Athletics,” and for those who follow the game closely as “The Father of American Hockey.”

In Arthur Pier’s 1934 history of the School is this comment “All [the varsity games] except the one in New York during the winter vacation, are played on the school rink.” In the years before World War II and for a few years after it SPS hockey teams played outdoors on their home ice, often their incomparable “black ice.” Except for the Dartmouth team coming from farther north where similar conditions could be found, many college varsity freshman or greater Boston teams simply could not cope with the speed and maneuvering of players for whom this surface was a daily practice arena.

The current Hockey Center, completed in 1998, features a renovated Gordon Rink (named for Malcolm Gordon) and the addition of the Ingalls Rink, named for David S. Ingalls ’52. The two rinks are joined by a building providing on its upper level an entry foyer, the Captains Room, a reception and memorabilia room with views out to the Lower School Pond and down onto Gordon’s ice.

The lower level includes the first adequate dressing facilities in the history of SPS hockey, including space for varsity and junior varsity girls and boys teams, two visiting team rooms, a trainer’s room, and changing rooms for coaches and officials. Also on the lower level is a Zamboni garage servicing both rinks, and mechanical support rooms.

The new facility has met all of the School’s interscholastic, intramural, and recreational skating needs and has provided a fitting home for the trophies and memorabilia, as well as the fine spirit of sportsmanship and keen competition, which are so much a part of the history and the future of St. Paul’s hockey.