On Friday in Philadelphia the Hobey Baker Award will be presented to the NCAA's top men's collegiate hockey player. It is especially fitting that the award ceremony and the frozen four national tournament will be hosted by the city that Baker called home. The legend of the man to whom the award is named after is one steeped in the lore of a Hollywood script or an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Fitzgerald and Baker were students at Princeton at the same time, Baker being a senior and Fitzgerald a freshman, and in the 1920 novel This Side of Paradise, Baker was included as a minor character.
Baker's accomplishments on both the football field and in the hockey rink were mythical at Princeton in the early 20th century and in fact the hockey rink is named after Baker. He is the only player to be inducted into the hockey and college football halls of fame. The Boston Journal in 1913 said he "is without doubt the greatest amateur hockey player ever developed in this country or in Canada." Not insignificant praise given the traditional championship rivalry between Harvard and Princeton.
But the significance of the Award and of Hobey Baker's incredible athletic prowess is not reflected in championships or victories either on the field or the ice, but rather in the sometimes forgotten virtue of sportsmanship. It is often lamented that today college athletics is big business and that far too many amateur athletes are indoctrinated into a culture of professionalism where lucrative television contracts combined with game day revenues enhanced by corporate luxury skyboxes and 100,000-seat stadiums considerably raise the stakes for winning and losing.
Factor in the number of full-ride athletic scholarships and the allure of turning pro by opting out of completion of academic requirements necessary for graduation in order to land a big paycheck and it is easy to see how any nostalgic desire to promote amateur athletics for the sheer love of the game can seem rather naïve. In Hobey Baker's day athletes played for the honor and exhilaration that came with competition and bragging rights.
But as the legend goes Baker's contribution to the game of hockey is reflected in that most sacred relics of sportsmanship that carries forward to this day: namely, the traditional lining up of opposing teams after the final game of a playoff series to shake hands. This ritual is often attributed to Baker's penchant for visiting opposing team's locker rooms post-game to congratulate each and every player on a game well played.
For those of us who have participated in athletics and to those avid fans who follow their teams with ferocity and fanaticism that makes kids of us all this spectacle truly represents all that is positive in healthy competition. There is no greater reward for athletic effort than to earn the respect of your adversaries. And there is no greater reward for the fan than to witness hard fought competition that brings out the very best skills and effort from the players that occupy the stage of battle.
Hobey Baker's legend was borne of these qualities and his actions both on and off the playing surface. Because of his abilities opposing teams employed strategies aimed directly at limiting his ability to beat them. After his collegiate days while working in New York City Hobey continued his hockey exploits by playing with St. Nick's in what amounted to a precursor of a semi-pro hockey league. While many of the league teams secretly paid Canadian "ringers", St. Nick's was composed of true amateurs who actually paid to play the game.
In his book The Legend of Hobey Baker, John Davies recounts an incident that most aptly encapsulates this extraordinary man as retold by one of his adversaries, a member of the Irish-American Athletic Association:
"We were Canadians being paid to play and needed the money -- and didn't intend to be shown up by what we thought was an overrated stuck-up society kid. We decided to give Baker the business and believe me, we knew how. He was slugged, roughed-up, kneed, elbowed, and given every dirty trick in the book. Once our star, a big Indian center named Cree, banged Hobey's head against the cage and knocked him out for a few seconds. Unfortunately for our plans he skated rings around us and won, 6-3. But after the game he hobbled into our dressing room, shook hands with each of us, and said how much he had enjoyed the game. Cree said he was sorry he had hit Baker's head but was told to forget it, that's just part of the game. Thereafter we decided never to do anything like that to Baker again. He was the cleanest and the best hockey player, as well as the finest gentleman I ever met."
Sportsmanship is sorely in demand today in all walks of life, not merely on the playing field or skating rink. In my playing days showing off or "hot-dogging" guaranteed one a visit to the bench, and taunting was a sure-fire way to invoke retaliation, sometimes clean, sometimes dirty. The same applies to the world of business, politics, diplomacy, and personal relationships.
Baker died at the tender age of 26, transferring his love for excitement and daring to the Lafayette Escadrille, a World War I squadron where he was posthumously awarded a citation from General Pershing for distinguished service and exceptional gallantry. So as collegiate hockey prepares to bestow the ultimate honor upon one well-deserving individual and crown a new national champion let us learn the true lessons of Hobey Baker and employ them in our daily lives. And truly let the legend live on.