We know it was Game 3 of the 1950 Stanley Cup final between the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings. We know it was played at Maple Leaf Gardens because Madison Square Garden was booked for the circus as it was every spring, showing a perpetual lack of faith in the Big Apple’s ability to win. And we know the Wings won 4-0.
After that, the details get pretty sparse, which is a shame because there was history on the ice that night in the form of Detroit winger Doug McKay. The only man to have played his lone NHL game in the final.
How did he do? Who were his linemates? What impact did he have on the contest? Good questions.
“He was very humble,” his son Doug McKay Jr. says. “I don’t think he really spoke about it very often.”
The man who could have fleshed out the story passed away earlier this month in Burlington, a couple weeks before his 91st birthday. But even if he was still here, it would’ve been a challenge to pry grandiose tales out of him.
There are some people who get their 15 minutes of fame and spend the rest of their life squeezing every drop of juice out of the experience. McKay was the opposite. Had you visited him at his home, you wouldn’t have found any evidence of his moment of glory. No memorabilia lying around. No hockey photos on the walls.
“He was never one to talk about himself,” his younger son Gary says.
He could have. He had the resume.
After growing up in Westdale, he left home to play junior hockey in Windsor. On off days, he and some other players would cross the border to watch Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and the other Red Wings. Which made it feel a bit surreal when he signed with Detroit and turned pro two years later.
That first season, he captained the farm team in Indianapolis to the Calder Cup. His work done, he came home to Hamilton where, two days after sipping champagne, he was summoned to Toronto to join the Wings with Hamilton’s Leo Reise Jr. and the legends he’d watched so many times.
McKay apparently played a regular shift in that contest, then returned to Hamilton while his new teammates headed to Detroit for the rest of the series, which they won in double overtime of Game 7.
That was it. He returned to the AHL the following year, then a number of other leagues, including senior hockey, before retiring in 1957 and moving to a coaching career that saw him help many players do what he couldn’t and make the NHL full-time. Gary says his dad was promised the job as head coach of the Red Wings for the 1982 season, but the team was sold prior to that and the new GM went in a different direction.
He worked behind various benches until 1986 or so and then stepped away from the game.
Now with him no longer around to pooh-pooh people talking glowingly about him, his story finally gets told. And the ownership of his Stanley Cup ring becomes a big deal.
“I don’t think he ever got a ring,” McKay Jr. says.
He didn’t? OK, at least the family can go to the Hall of Fame and see dad’s name forever etched on the Cup.
“His name never went on the Cup,” he continues.
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Today, that honour is standard. Play in the final and you’re on there, plus you have some nice new jewelry to wear. Back then it was at the discretion of the general manager or owner. And for whatever reason, the rookie didn’t make the cut. Over the years, his sons never really gave any thought to reaching out and seeing if that oversight could be rectified. Dad wouldn’t have felt comfortable with that.
The irony is, Doug Jr. might have been able to pull some strings.
A member of the Stoney Creek Little League team that went to the final of the 1965 World Series, he became a pretty good hockey player who won a Turner Cup championship (playing for his dad who was coaching) with the International Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Wings before venturing into his own coaching career.
He became the Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant coach at 27 under Mike Nykoluk (working in the same rink in which his dad had played his one game), spent time as an assistant to Jim Schoenfeld in New Jersey (where he found himself literally in the middle of the famed “Have another doughnut you fat pig” argument, holding back referee Don Koharski) and later went on to a long run in Europe, coaching squads such as the Gunco Pandas, the Boretti Tigers and even some outfit actually called the Al Capone Flames.
In the midst of all that, he found himself at the Hartford Whalers’ training camp. Sitting in the stands one morning, Gordie Howe came and plopped himself beside him. They got talking and McKay introduced himself.
“Wait, are you related to Doug McKay who was with us in Detroit?” Howe asked. Or words to that effect.
Hearing he was, Mr. Hockey jumped up, grabbed a piece of paper and a thick marker, and quickly jotted something down. Then he beckoned a photographer and held up the sign he’d made.
Howe figured his old teammate would get a kick out of it. Which he did.
As for McKay Jr.? That became a treasured moment. Having him and one of his heroes tied together by a connection to his father was priceless. Still is.
“I have (that photo) to this day.”