In our Best of the Books feature, Ryan Kennedy pulls back the curtain on the biggest myth in the history of the NHL.
The Curse of Muldoon is a sore spot in Chicago. So much so that the usually verbose Phil Esposito didn’t even want to talk about it. But in a city that still shudders at the mention of the billy goat that haunts baseball’s Cubs, Chicago can at least take solace in the fact that Muldoon’s hex is long dead.
The origin of the curse was back in 1927, when Chicago owner Major McLaughlin fired Muldoon, the Black Hawks first coach. As legend has it, Muldoon put an “Irish hex” on the team, defiantly telling McLaughlin the Black Hawks would never end a season in first place. Back in the Original Six era, finishing first was almost as important as winning the Stanley Cup.
“That’s the thing,” said former Hawks defenseman Pat Stapleton. “Over 70 games it was harder to win, right?”
Chicago won the Cup in ’34, ’38 and ’61, but over that period the Hawks failed to claim the Prince of Wales Trophy as the top points earner in the league. In fact, at one point the franchise missed the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons, finishing last in nine of those 12. In others, Chicago came achingly close, like in 1962-63 when Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull pulled the club within one point of Toronto for first overall.
In 1967, the Hawks finally ended their decades of futility with a whopper of a season, winning the Prince of Wales by 17 points over Montreal and boasting three of the NHL’s top four scorers in Mikita, Hull and Kenny Wharram. The Maple Leafs won the Cup that year, but the first-place hex was broken.
Canadian sportswriter Jim Coleman was the authority on the Curse of Muldoon, describing the incident with McLaughlin in broad, cartoonish strokes back in a 1967 column for Southam News.
“Accompanied by two leprechauns, the Muldoon strode into the office of Major Frederic McLaughlin,” Coleman wrote. “The Muldoon pulled a red crayon from his pocket, drew a mysterious symbol on McLaughlin’s expensive wallpaper and intoned these words in a sepulchral voice: ‘This team never will finish in first place.’ ”
As outlandish as it sounds, it was a piece of theater that haunted the franchise for decades, even if the story was a bit foggy to the Hawks themselves.
“Those things are around and you hear about them,” Stapleton said. “As a player, sometimes you don’t even know the story behind them.”
So what finally broke the hex? Muldoon died in 1929, so there was no anniversary to speak of when the Hawks took first in 1967. And it wasn’t even a matter of competition, since the NHL didn’t expand to 12 franchises until the following campaign. The true reason the Curse of Muldoon ended is this: it was never real in the first place.
Coleman, an admitted drinker who had sometimes had problems with deadlines, gave up the ruse years later to author and hockey historian Brian McFarlane. One night Coleman had writer’s block and needed to file his daily column, so he made up the story about Muldoon, assuming people would forget about it in a day or two. Not only did it live on longer than that, even to this day there are Chicago alumni who don’t know the curse was a hoax. That included Stapleton, who only learned of the fraud when told for this book interview in 2013.
“Leave it to Jim, right?” Stapleton said. “God bless him.”
This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.