Making waves on the ice
Posted by Christopher Lagan, Thursday, May 23, 2013
What could be more extraordinary than the United States Coast Guard producing two of the grandest teams in American hockey history? It all began during World War II at a naval yard in Curtis Bay, Baltimore.
Formed in 1942, the team of sailors, known on the ice as the Coast Guard Cutters, proved more boisterous than the Broad Street Bullies and about as diverse as any Hollywood screenwriter could contrive.
Hall of Famer Frankie ‘Mister Zero’ Brimsek was one of three superb puck-stoppers on the Cutters along with ‘Muzz’ Murray and ‘Hub’ Nelson. They were protected on the back end by a terrifying tandem of Chicago Black Hawks bruisers: Manny Cotlow, a Jewish defenseman whose hard-punching histrionics drew headlines wherever he skated, and Johnny ‘Maroosh’ Mariucci.
“Mariucci was so scary,” says Cutters sharpshooter Joe Kucler, “I remember an opposition guy running away from Johnny into the penalty box so Maroosh couldn’t get a hold of him.”
On top of their toughness, music was a big part of the Coast Guardsmen. They brought their 30-piece marching band to every road game and when the sailors scored, their musicians swung into a chorus of “Semper Paratus (Always Ready),” the Coast Guard’s marching song.
One night after a violent game with the New York Rangers farm team, the Rovers, at Madison Square Garden, the Cutters, led by Bob ‘Killer’ Dill, went to a Broadway nightclub where singing star Ella Fitzgerald was headlining the show. After a couple of drinks, the normally taciturn Dill got on stage and actually belted out a couple of tunes with ‘The Queen of Jazz.’
“The two brought down the house,” says Bob Dill, Jr. “The owner was so thrilled that he picked up all the Cutters’ tabs and sent a free case of booze with them to take on the train back to Baltimore.”
Their leader was Winnipeg native and former Rangers captain Art Coulter, a Hall of Fame defenseman who had always wanted to obtain American citizenship. He seized the opportunity, enlisting in the Coast Guard after Pearl Harbor, and became a U.S. citizen. Other NHLers-turned skating sailors included Alex Motter of the Red Wings, Bud Cook, brother of Hall of Famers Bill and Bun Cook, along with Dill and ‘Ossie’ Asmundson of the Rangers.
The Cutters annexed the U.S. National Senior Open championship in 1943 and 1944, dominating the Eastern League in the two years of their existence. For kicks, they’d regularly beat up on strong Canadian service teams liberally sprinkled with major leaguers. “It’s hard to realize how good we were until you hear about our players, the teams we beat and our trophies,” Mariucci says. “We beat (RCAF) teams with NHL Hall of Famers like Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer on them.”
So, how did this outfit ever germinate in a Baltimore Coast Guard yard? As luck would have it, the Curtis Bay personnel officer in 1942 was Lt. Cmdr. C. R. MacLean, a former player from Sault. Ste. Marie, Mich. Baltimore’s Eastern League team had folded and MacLean realized there was an opening for another club. He encouraged all hockey players to join the Coast Guard and come down to Baltimore. Former NHL referee Mel Harwood also enlisted and was made coach of the team.
Soon MacLean had so many good stickhandlers that he divided his sailors into two teams, the Clippers and the Cutters. They competed against each other at Carlin’s Ice Arena in Baltimore when they weren’t involved in Eastern League action. They once played a four-game series that Cotlow described as “the most physical games of my life.” Writing in the Baltimore News-Post, reporter George Taylor observed: “The rubber tilt was more exciting than the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
That prompted Private First Class Al Blackman of Camp Livingston, La., to write a letter to Detroit Red Wings boss Jack Adams. “Curtis Bay has what the experts feel is the best hockey team in the country. Let them play the (defending Stanley Cup champion) Red Wings for The Cup.”
The highly touted exhibition game was played Jan. 6, 1944, before a capacity crowd in Baltimore. The Cutters, who had no time to practice because of their daytime duties as sailors, hung tough until well into the third period when they trailed 4-3. But fatigue enervated them and the Cutters ultimately were shellacked 8-3.
“They didn’t intimidate us,” Cotlow says, “but they were a little smarter.”
Eventually military duty called and the Cutters’ end was in sight one Sunday afternoon in New York. An announcement blared over the Garden public address system during a Rovers game. Kucler, the team’s leading scorer, was ordered to report for action.
“As soon as Joe left,” says teammate Ed Olson, “they began getting rid of the other guys and we knew the honeymoon was over.”
This story was reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in the April 4, 2013 edition of The Hockey News.