In this weird world without live sports, many of us fans have resorted to watching old footage to fill the void. For Detroit Red Wings fans, many of us are looking back to the Stanley Cup winning teams and star players from the 1990s and 2000s. Some of us are digging a little deeper, maybe reliving our first days as a fan. Even if it was in the doldrums of the '80s, '70s, and late '60s, there were great players and moments we can reflect on from then.
Me? I'm digging even deeper. Maybe a little too deep. I thought about these great teams and players from my lifetime, dating back to the 1980s. Then I thought about the great players and teams from the 1950s. We often hear about those teams, their championships, and the players with retired numbers. Sometimes you see some old TV footage of them. But as you keep going back in years, it becomes less common to hear about the great players and moments. I eventually found myself wondering, "Who were the first great players in Detroit? What were the first great moments?" I didn't even have a clue who scored the first goal in Detroit history.
Enter the 1926-27 Detroit Cougars.
Okay, so this team was not great by any standard of the word. They finished with 28 points, dead last in the NHL, and dead last in franchise history. Their winning percentage is bottom five all-time for the franchise. They didn't even get to play in Detroit – all their home games were across the river, in Windsor, because Olympia Stadium wasn't built in time. They instead played home games in a building called Border Cities Arena. As a whole, the team kind of had a stinky year.
Even the stinkiest teams can have great players, great moments, or interesting stories. Perhaps there are books written with great detail about this season. But without library access during stay-at-home orders, I opted to do my best internet sleuthing to investigate this magical first year. Browsing sites like NHL.com, Hockey Reference, old newspaper clippings on Newspapers.com, Wikipedia, and where ever else the winds of Google could lead me, I tried to piece together this team in my head, and eventually decided to write down my thoughts.
Some of the original Detroit Cougars had played for the 1925 Stanley Cup winning Victoria Cougars. Surely some of them could form a cornerstone and become the identity of this Detroit team, ready to lead this team through the early years, until they can find stable footing, right? Well, that never quite happened. To start, nobody who touched the ice for Detroit in 1926-27 played with the team for three consecutive seasons. And only two of those players ever showed back up beyond the '27-28 season. The players from that Victoria Cougars champion team were either less effective after the WHL to NHL switch, already reaching older ages, or were traded away before they could make a long-term impact. Our current (or recently completed?) 2019-20 season has taught me that you can still find silver linings in even the lousiest hockey though, so let's do our best to find the good stuff!
Coming to Detroit, goaltender Hap Holmes was 38 years old, a four-time Stanley Cup winner, and already had a Hockey Hall of Fame career in the books. His final two years were spent playing for Detroit.
It may be a little odd that I started with Holmes, because the team did not technically start with Holmes. On November 18th, 1926, the Cougars played their first game in team history. Hap Holmes came down with illness just before the game, backup Herb Stuart played instead, the Cougars struggled in a loss, and everything started in the lousiest way possible.
The third game for the Cougars was on November 24th against the Chicago Black Hawks. Holmes led the Cougars to their first win in franchise history. It was also a 1-0 win, meaning Holmes also earned the first shutout in Detroit history. It was also our first of many chances to laugh at Chicago, so haha to those guys. This was also the start of a four game winning streak (three of them shutouts). Detroit moved into a tie for first place with a 4-2-0 record. This was a brief glimmer of hope before the wheels fell off of the season, and Holmes was a big part of it.
Holmes finished the season with just 11 wins, and his 26 losses were the most in the NHL. Of those 11 wins, 6 were shutouts. Detroit had the worst goal differential that season, but not the most goals allowed, as Holmes tried his best to keep the team in games. Drawing comparison to the current day, Holmes had himself a real Jonathan Bernier of a season.
Duke Keats was maybe Detroit's biggest offensive star of that season. He was the team leader in points per game... I think? I hesitate here because, well, information from the 1920s is not always accurate today. Forgive me for meandering for a second, but Hockey Reference lists Keats as having 15 points, HockeyDB has Keats with 19 points, the Hockey Hall of Fame website says Keats totaled 13, and NHL's website has 15 points. I'm most inclined to go with 15 here because it is the total that appears twice, shared by Hockey Reference and NHL, and because NHL's website actually has box scores for each game of that season.
Let's get back to Keats, and to that first game on November 18th, when Boston came to town. Less than two minutes into the game, Keats scored the very first goal in Cougars history, as he slid a puck right past Detroit goalie Herb Stuart and in the net... wait, what? Oh, that's right. Keats actually scored the first goal against the Detroit franchise. He was playing for the Boston Bruins at the start of the season. What a jerk!
Keats was eventually traded to Detroit for the final 25 games of the season, which is when he scored his 15 (or so) points with Detroit. This time, he was in a Detroit uniform when he recorded the first ever hat trick for the franchise on March 10th of 1927.
Also of note is that while player-coach Art Duncan was the team' first ever head coach for most of 1926-27, Keats took over for 11 games as the second head coach in Detroit history. He finished with a 2-7-2 record. Although he returned as a player the following year, he was replaced at coach by some guy named Jack Adams.
Remember a couple paragraphs ago, when I talked about old information not always being accurate? It's time to meet Haldor Halderson. Or Halldor Halderson. Or Harold Halderson? Sometimes he just went by the nickname Slim, probably due to all the confusion about his uncommon first name. After too much time researching this, I believe Haldor Halderson is the most accurate choice for his name. It appears on his gravestone, and an interview with his grandson writes it as Haldor. His name is of Icelandic heritage, as he was born to immigrant parents, so it may also be possible he went by all of these variations at some point in his life. Now, the year he was born? That lies somewhere between 1898 and 1900, but that's not consistent either. Over the next 8 paragraphs, we'll exami-
Okay, wait, that's not why you're here. Let's talk about Halderson, the hockey player. The defenseman. The Detroit Cougar. This is the guy we were all looking for! The first goal in Detroit hockey history! November 20th, 1926, the Cougars were in Pittsburgh to face the Pirates. The Pirates finished as the second-worst team that season, but Detroit wasn't even close in this game. They suffered a 4-1 loss, with the single goal coming in the final minute of the game. But that goal was important, for it was the first one! Haldor Halderson was the guy who got it started for the franchise.
Halderson got traded away to Toronto halfway through the season, and left the NHL the following year to play in other hockey leagues, so there's not actually much to his legacy here. But next time you're at bar trivia, and the question of the first Detroit Cougars/Falcons/Red Wings franchise goal comes up, just remember the name Haldor Halderson! Or Harold. Or Slim. Or Halldor. Also remember that you only get one shot to answer at bar trivia, so hopefully your answer lines up with the person running trivia.
Frank Fredrickson only played 17 games for Detroit. Early newspaper clippings I can find about those games indicate Fredrickson was likely Detroit's best player on the ice. Recaps in the Detroit Free Press on early games included notes like, "Fredrickson turned in a splendid game," "Fredrickson … was the star of the Cougars," and "the Detroit Cougars, led by Frank Fredrickson, turned back the Windy City sextet." (Quick aside, how come we don't call the Blackhawks that anymore?) Fredrickson scored the lone goal in Detroit's first win. In a likely attempt to shake things up, Detroit's best player was part of a January trade to Boston, the same trade brought in Duke Keats, Detroit's new best player.
Fredrickson would return to Detroit in 1930-31, playing part of a season with the Falcons.
This part is of no importance to Detroit history, but something interesting I learned while writing this. Fredrickson and Haldor Halderson both grew up in Winnipeg, and played together on many teams in many different years. Fredrickson and Halderson both won an Olympic gold medal in 1920. When Fredrickson and Halderson won the Stanley Cup with Victoria in 1925, they became the first hockey players with both a Stanley Cup win and an Olympic gold medal.
The young Johnny Sheppard needs to be mentioned, as he led the Cougars in goals, assists, points, games played, and penalty minutes. This was partially a benefit of being present for the entire season. Both Fredrickson and Keats finished with higher goal and point totals on the full season, but less for just their time in Detroit. Sheppard's 14 goals and 22 points weren't anywhere near the top of the NHL leader boards either. But someone had to lead in these categories, and he put up respectable numbers across the board. And at 23 years old, Sheppard probably gave these new Detroit fans something to hope for in the future.
Sheppard played one more year with Detroit, scoring the first ever goal at Olympia Stadium and leading the team again in games played, but was traded away to the New York Americans the following season. His franchise records all were topped in the team's second season, but Sheppard was at least the guy to set the benchmark.
The Detroit Cougars came into the 1926-27 season using the nickname of another team, filled with players who had better years on other teams, playing in an arena that was built for another team. The first season was as if a whole bunch of darts were thrown at the wall, and not single one of them stuck. Did any of these players who came through hold much long term importance for the franchise? Not really. They did provide some interesting stories of a team trying to find its place and identity. Luckily, the Detroit Cougars worked to move out of the shadows of the Victoria Cougars. A new stadium, new players, and a new team name all came in the next few years. The hockey team that struggled to score goals and win games would move on to the next chapter, on their way to a long and storied tradition of hockey in Detroit.