Elwyn ‘Doc’ Romnes is the first Minnesotan in the NHL and on the Cup. But he’s better known for a brutal episode of on-ice surgery
There are all kinds of doctors. You can start with medical doctors, shrinks and those who live in ivory towers, otherwise known as PhDs. In the NHL there have been two distinct species of docs: the ones who tend to wounds and the one who skated for the Chicago Black Hawks.
Elwyn ‘Doc’ Romnes, out of White Bear Lake, Minn., was a slick center who just hated his given name but loved being called ‘Doc’ – a moniker he got because he carried his skates in a physician’s case, of all places.
In December 1930, Romnes became the first Minnesotan to play in the NHL. That didn’t impress his teammates. Faster than you can say “Windy City,” Doc became one of the most hated players in Chicago. Most of the other Hawks were Canadians and in those parochial NHL days, an American-born player was treated with less admiration than if he had just been traded to Chicago from Devils Island. “There were times when nobody on my own Black Hawks team talked to me,” Romnes says. “They treated me a little like I was a thief. The Canadians wondered what an American was doing invading their preserve. That’s why I became a good playmaker, setting those fellows up so they’d talk to me. I eventually got accepted, but it wasn’t easy.”
What made acceptance less difficult was his assortment of skills, some of which helped Chicago win its first Stanley Cup in 1934. As a result, Romnes became the first Minnesotan to have his name on the silverware. A year later, he won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship and competent play.
But in 1938, for a brief moment, ‘Doc’ turned terrorist on the ice. Either Romnes lost his marbles or he was so bent on achieving justice he couldn’t contain his fury. This much is certain: he picked the wrong guy with whom to mess. George Reginald ‘Red’ Horner wasn’t a man to be trifled with, even when he was in a good mood. And in the eyes of many victims, he was regarded as the meanest man this or that side of the sin bin.
Romnes insisted he never would have acted so out of character under normal circumstances, but he had been brutalized by the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman during the 1938 Cup final between the Hawks and Leafs that Doc had no choice but to perform surgery on the redhead with a wooden stick instead of a scalpel. “In our first game against the Leafs, Horner broke my nose in five places,” Romnes says. “That game was played at Maple Leaf Gardens. I told ‘Red’ I’d get him in Chicago. Some people thought my coach, Bill Stewart, had something to do with my plan of retaliation, but that wasn’t true. It was all my idea.
“When the second game was ready to start, I was out for the faceoff. I skated up to Horner and swung my stick at his head. Remember, I wasn’t that kind of player, but in this particular instance I went berserk.”
Once the ice had cleared and the penalties were meted out, the teams settled down to hockey and eventually the Hawks went on to win their second Stanley Cup.
Despite the fact he got even with Horner, Doc’s hatred for the nasty Toronto enforcer didn’t abate with the head-knocking at center ice. Every time he faced the Blue and White, Romnes kept an Argus eye out for his nemesis. And then it happened.
The Hawks were on their first road trip in 1938-39 when GM Bill Tobin broke the news to Romnes: he had been traded to the Maple Leafs. “That meant Horner and I would be teammates,” Romnes says. “When the train reached Buffalo, I got off and headed for Chicago. I informed Tobin that I was through.
“Back in Chicago, Tobin sent a taxi and asked me down to the office. There was a bonus clause in my contract that stipulated I would be paid $1,500 if I scored a certain number of goals. Tobin told me the bonus would be waiting for me in Toronto if I would report. Well, I couldn’t afford to lose $1,500, so I went.”
During his journey to Toronto, he questioned whether he could co-exist with Horner. But when Romnes arrived in Toronto, he was in for a stunning surprise. “When I got off the train, the first person I saw was Red Horner,” Romnes says. “I didn’t know what to think, but Red removed all my misgivings in a moment. He said: ‘C’mon, Doc, from now on you and I are on the same side.’ He turned out to be a terrific guy.”
Romnes finished that season with Toronto, played part of the next with the New York Americans and retired in 1940. He died in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1984 at 77.