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20 NHL stars who served during World War II

From the ice to the battlefield, these 20 men paused their NHL careers to serve their countries in WWII.

Established in 1917, the National Hockey League has had numerous star players who wore the military uniforms of their respective countries. For these athletes, military service came in many different forms, with players serving in a variety of jobs and branches of the Armed Forces. The majority of these stars who served in the military throughout the league’s history were members of the American and Canadian Armed Forces during World War II. The impact the war had on these men’s hockey careers varied, as some entered into service before their NHL careers began, while others took a break from their professional careers to answer their respective country’s call of duty.

For the most part, these athletes turned service members played hockey in addition to their official military duties. Playing hockey for teams affiliated with the military allowed players to stay in shape and supported an easier transition to their full-time hockey commitments at the conclusion of hostilities. More importantly for military officials in both the United States and Canada, the presence of talented hockey players in uniform, service-connected teams, and games played an important role in increasing morale amongst troops who yearned for some form of normalcy during this period of global conflict.

These 20 NHL stars served their country during WWII

1. Frank Brimsek (U.S. Coast Guard)

A member of the 1939 and 1941 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins teams, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek played 10 seasons in the NHL as a goaltender. His professional career was interrupted by the Second World War, when Brimsek volunteered to serve his country in the United States Coast Guard following the 1942-1943 season. During his time in the USCG, he played on the Coast Guard Cutters hockey team at the United States Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland. He left the military having achieved the rank of Motor Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Petty Officer, having served in the South Pacific, as well.  

Frank Brimsek. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At the conclusion of hostilities, Brimsek was discharged from the Coast Guard in time to rejoin the Bruins for the 1945-1946 season. He ended his playing career with the Chicago Black Hawks at the conclusion of the 1949-1950 season. An eight-time NHL All-Star, Brimsek’s legendary performances in goal were recognized with a Calder Memorial Trophy (1939), awarded to the NHL’s rookie of the year, and two Vezina Trophies (1939 and 1942), awarded to the NHL’s top goaltender. Considered by hockey analysts to be one of the greatest American-born players, Brimsek received several NHL honors and held long-standing records for wins and shutouts by an American goaltender. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. 

2. Sam LoPresti (U.S. Navy)

Inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973, goaltender Sam LoPresti played two seasons in the NHL for the Black Hawks during the 1940-1941 and 1941-1942 seasons. On March 4, 1941, he set an NHL record by facing 83 shots in a regulation game against the Bruins. LoPresti walked away from his NHL career to join the United States Navy during World War II. 

LoPresti served as a gunner’s mate on the SS Roger B. Taney, a ship that was responsible for protecting vessels as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. This ship was torpedoed and sunk by the Germans during an Atlantic crossing in February 1943. LoPresti was one of 29 sailors who survived the attack and lasted 42 days at sea in a lifeboat. He and the other survivors were ultimately rescued off the coast of Brazil. LoPresti was credited with saving the crew by killing a dolphin with a knife, adding to a depleted food supply. He returned to hockey during the 1946-1947 season, but never made it back to the NHL. 

3, 4, 5: The Kraut Line (Royal Canadian Air Force)

The shared German heritage of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer led to the hockey line that the three men played on to be affectionately nicknamed “The Sauerkraut Line” or “The Kraut Line.” Between 1937 and 1947, these men were linemates, finding great success while signed to the Bruins. The line was a key part of the Bruins capturing the Stanley Cup during the 1938–1939 and 1940–1941 seasons, and the trio held the top three spots in overall goal production during the 1939-1940 season. 

The Kraut Line. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Following the 1941-1942 season, Schmidt, Dumart, and Bauer put their all-star hockey careers on hold to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). During the war, the men occupied much of their time in the service playing on the Ottawa RCAF Flyers hockey team. As anti-German sentiment swept across the United States and Canada during the war, contests were held to rename the line. During the war years, the line was renamed “The Kitchener Kids,” a homage to the groups’ hometown in Ontario, Canada. Following the war, all three men returned to the Bruins. Years after their respective playing careers came to an end, all the members of “The Kraut Line” were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

6. Sid Abel (Royal Canadian Air Force)

A member of the Detroit Red Wings storied “Production Line,” Sid Abel played center on a line with fellow legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Between 1938 and 1954, Abel suited up for the Red Wings and Black Hawks, capturing three Stanley Cups (1943, 1950, and 1952) and a Hart Memorial Trophy (1949), awarded to the NHL’s most valuable player in the process. His Hockey Hall of Fame (inducted 1969) career was interrupted by World War II, missing two seasons while serving in the RCAF, where he played hockey in the military while serving in Canada. Following his playing days, Abel went on to serve as an NHL hockey coach, executive and broadcast color commentator for several franchises. 

7. Syl Apps (Canadian Army)

Before embarking on a career in Canadian politics, Syl Apps found much success in athletics. An accomplished pole vaulter who won a gold medal at the 1934 British Empire Games in London and represented Canada at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Apps’ professional hockey career began in 1936. A career member of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, he played center for the 1942, 1947, and 1948 Stanley Cup champion teams. Following a 16-goal and 29-assist rookie season, Apps was awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy in 1937. His outstanding sportsmanship was recognized in 1942 when he was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. From 1943 to 1945, Apps served his country in the Canadian Army during World War II. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961. 

8. Doug Harvey (Royal Canadian Navy)

Doug Harvey saw time in the NHL between 1947 and 1969, suiting up for the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Red Wings and St. Louis Blues. Before breaking into the NHL, he served in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War. After enlisting in the Navy, Harvey’s hockey skills were quickly recognized and he was assigned to the service’s hockey team, where he participated in several morale-boosting competitions. Seeking to do more for his country in time of war, Harvey volunteered to transfer to active service. His transfer request was honored in 1944, when he was assigned to defend merchant shipping. For the remainder of the war, he regularly crossed the Atlantic Ocean protecting supplies shipped from North America to Europe and Africa. 

Doug Harvey. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During Harvey’s NHL career, he won the James Norris Trophy, an award presented to the league’s best defenseman, seven times. He won the Stanley Cup six times with the Canadiens (1953, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, and 1960). Widely regarded as one of the best defensemen in the history of the game, Harvey was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1973. 

9. Tiny Thompson (Royal Canadian Air Force)

A four-time winner of the Vezina Trophy for his outstanding performance in goal, Tiny Thompson was a 12-year veteran of the NHL. He debuted in the league during the 1928-1929 season with the Bruins and played his final season with the Red Wings during the 1939-1940 campaign. He won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 1929. Following his professional career, Thompson turned his attention toward coaching. During World War II, he was in the RCAF, where he served as a coach and player for the Calgary RCAF Mustangs. Following his military service, he became a scout for the Black Hawks. Thompson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959. 

10. Johnny Bower (Canadian Army)

Johnny Bower is considered one of the greatest players in Maple Leafs and overall hockey history. A leader in every sense of the word, the star goaltender led the Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cup championships in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1967. Nicknamed “The China Wall” for his prowess in net, Bower received numerous awards and honors throughout a professional hockey career that ranged from 1945 to 1970. 

Johnny Bower. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With the exception of parts of three seasons with the Rangers, Bower spent the bulk of his NHL career with the Maple Leafs, where he captured the Vezina Trophy in 1961 and 1965. Prior to the start of his Hall of Fame hockey career, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Canadian Army at age 15 during the Second World War. He served as a gunner with the 2nd Canadian Division in England before being discharged due to rheumatoid arthritis in his hands in 1943. Bower was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976 and remained active in the hockey community until his death in 2017 at age 93. 

11. Turk Broda (Canadian Army)

Considered by hockey analysts to be one of the greatest goaltenders in Maple Leafs’ history, Turk Broda was the first person at his position to win over 300 games in NHL history. A five-time Stanley Cup champion (1942, 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1951), he spent his entire professional career with the Maple Leafs. A member of the Hockey Hall of Fame (inducted 1967), Broda won the Vezina Trophy twice during his playing career in 1941 and 1948. Following the 1942-1943 season, he enlisted in the Canadian Army during World War II. Broda retired from professional hockey in 1952.

12 & 13. Neil and Mac Colville (Canadian Army)

Neil and Mac Colville are one of the most popular pairs of brothers to play professional hockey throughout the history of the sport. Born in 1914 and 1916, respectively, in Edmonton, Alberta, the brothers spent the bulk of their professional careers as teammates with the Rangers. The Colville brothers’ legacy was forever solidified in Rangers’ lore when their names were engraved on the Stanley Cup in 1940, after the Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs in the finals. 

During World War II, the Colville brothers joined the Canadian Army and were stationed in Ottawa. There, they spent most of their time in the Armed Forces playing on the Ottawa Commandos and Ottawa Army hockey teams. After the war, the brothers returned to the Rangers’ organization. Neil retired from the game in 1950, with Mac hanging up his skates soon after in 1951. Neil was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1967. 

14. Alex Shibicky (Canadian Army)

Alex Shibicky is considered one of the top 100 players to wear a Rangers sweater over the franchise’s long history. A left wing who played over 300 games for the Rangers between 1935 and 1946, Shibicky was an important part of the 1940 Stanley Cup championship team. In 1937, he became known as the first player to use a slapshot during a game. Shibicky joined the Canadian Army in 1942 with his teammates and friends, the Colville brothers. He spent much of his time in the Army playing hockey for service-connected teams in Ottawa during the Second World War. He returned to the Rangers during the 1945-1946 season, his final year in the league. 

15. Kilby MacDonald (Canadian Army)

Kilby MacDonald played parts of four seasons with the Rangers between 1939 and 1945. He scored 15 goals in 44 games with the Rangers during his rookie season, 1939-1940. A recipient of the Calder Memorial Trophy in 1940, MacDonald also played an instrumental role in the Rangers capturing the Stanley Cup that season. Following the 1941-1942 season, he joined the Canadian Army during World War II. During his time in the Army, he played parts of two seasons with the Montreal Army team. Following his discharge from the Army, MacDonald joined the Rangers for the 1943-1944 season, scoring seven goals in 24 games. 

16. Ken Reardon (Canadian Army)

One of the toughest and most intimidating defensemen to play the game, Ken Reardon played professionally for the Canadiens between 1940 and 1950. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1942, where he played with the Army teams, the Ottawa Commandos and Ottawa Army, before being sent to Europe. Reardon was awarded Field Marshall Montgomery’s Certificate of Merit for acts of bravery during battle while deployed overseas during World War II.

Ken Reardon. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Reardon returned home from the war in time to win the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1946. During this series, the Canadiens defeated the Bruins four games to one. Ken’s brother Terry, who had also recently returned from military service, played opposite him during this series. They remain one of a handful of brothers to compete against one another in the Stanley Cup Finals. Reardon went on to win five more Stanley Cups in his post-playing days as an assistant manager and later executive. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966. 

17. Howie Meeker (Canadian Army)

Howie Meeker was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 as a broadcaster. A fan-favorite analyst and color commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Hockey Night in Canada during the 1970s and 1980s, he played for the Maple Leafs from 1946 to 1954.

A Calder Memorial Trophy-winning right wing during his rookie season, Meeker went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs four times during his career. He served as a member of Parliament for Waterloo South from 1951 to 1953 while a player in the NHL. Leading up to his professional debut in the NHL, Meeker served in the Canadian Army during World War II. A combat engineer with the Royal Canadian Engineers in England, he was badly injured when a grenade exploded below his legs during a training exercise, leaving scars to his groin and legs that were visible throughout his life. 

18. Dudley “Red” Garrett (Royal Canadian Navy)

The Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award has been awarded to the American Hockey League’s most outstanding rookie since the conclusion of the 1947-1948 season. The AHL serves as the primary developmental, or minor, league for the NHL. This long-standing and prestigious award’s namesake, a sailor in the Royal Canadian Navy, was 20 years old when he was killed in action during the sinking of the corvette HMCS Shawinigan off the coast of Channel-Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, in the Battle of the St. Lawrence. Shawnigan was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-1228 on November 25, 1944 during a convoy escort mission. Garrett and 90 other members of the crew were killed. Prior to joining the Navy during the Second World War, he broke into the NHL as a defenseman with the Rangers, playing 23 games during the 1942-1943 season. 

19. Gordie Drillon (Royal Canadian Air Force)

From 1936 to 1943, Gordie Drillon played right wing for the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. The league’s leading scorer with 26 goals during the 1937-1938 season, he added a scoring title and Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for outstanding sportsmanship to his collection of awards. Following his 1942-1943 season with the Canadiens, Drillon put his hockey career on hold to answer his country’s call for troops. He joined the RCAF and served for the remainder of World War II, playing for military service-connected teams. Following the war, Drillon did not return to the NHL. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1975. 

20. Max Bentley (Canadian Army)

A veteran of 12 seasons in the NHL, Max Bentley played for the Black Hawks, Maple Leafs and Rangers. A recipient of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (1943) and Hart Memorial Trophy (1946), Bentley won three Stanley Cups (1948, 1949 and 1951) with the Maple Leafs. He served in the Royal Canadian Infantry Corps during World War II. During his time in the Army, he split time between official duties and playing for service-connected hockey teams. Following his military service, Bentley returned to the Black Hawks. He played in the NHL until the conclusion of the 1953-1954 season and was later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1966.