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Eveleth’s Al Suomi, Oldest Living NHL Alumnus

1930 Eveleth High School

Al Suomi’s National Hockey League career was far from extensive.  In retrospect, it was but a vapor in the mists of hockey history. But his short 5-game stint with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1936-37 was long enough to earn him the distinction as the oldest living former NHL player.  A son of Finnish immigrants who grew up on Eveleth’s Garfield Street, Suomi, still as sharp as the blade of good hockey skate, will turn 97 years young on October 29.  Suomi was playing semi-pro hockey in Detroit when he got a telegram from the Blackhawks asking him to play for them.  “I thought, ‘Why would they want me?” Suomi said.

The story begins a century ago.  Coming to America Henry Suomi emigrated from Finland in 1910 to work in the iron mines around Eveleth.  Shortly thereafter, he was joined by his wife Hilja and toddler son John.  “He came through Ellis Island and came straight to Eveleth.  Then he sent for mom,” Suomi said.  Al Suomi was born in 1913, the third of two boys and two girls, five years younger than his brother John who went on to be a pretty good hockey player himself.  It was 10 years after the first recorded game of hockey in the fledgling town of Eveleth.  Suomi recalls that “everybody worked in the mines,” including his uncle and cousins, who also immigrated to the area.  He remembers that his father used to send a calendar every year from their new home back to family that remained in Finland. Inside, he would paste a dollar bill or two from his pay at the mines.  “Eveleth was the greatest little town to grow up in,” Suomi said.  “There was always something to do.”

One of those things was playing hockey. “Ya better keep your mouth shut!”  Suomi started skating at around age 5 and playing hockey a year or two later. Kids used whatever they could find to play the game.  “You’d go out in the woods and chop a crooked branch to use as a stick,” Suomi said.  “For pucks we used rubber balls, tin cans, even frozen horse turds.  If we were using (a horse turd), we used to say ‘ya better keep your mouth shut.’”  As Suomi recalls it, until an outdoor rink was built near the north side park, kids played hockey on Fayal Pond.  “We used to send a kid down every year around Thanksgiving to see if the ice was thick enough,” Suomi said.  “One year, a kid fell through when I was about 10 years old. We had to use a long branch to fish him out.”

The Hippodrome was a wood frame shell covering a rink when it was first built in the early 1920s.  Suomi and his friends used to find a way to get in to watch games for free and save themselves a few cents on the entry fee.  “We’d tunnel under the frame of the building to get in and watch the game.  The ground was usually frozen, but we were able to do it,” Suomi said.  “Then we’d spend the rest of the game avoiding the cops.  If they came our way, we’d hide or move to the other side of the building.”  Suomi also recalls the old Eveleth Recreation Building, the first building of its kind on the Mesabi Range, which was built a couple of blocks down the hill from where he lived on Adams Avenue when he was about 5. On the first floor it housed the curling club and an amateur team, the Eveleth Reds, played on the second floor.  “They used to clear the ice by opening a big door on one end of the second floor and shoveling everything out,” Suomi said.  “And I remember the ref didn’t have a whistle, he had a bell he would ring to stop play.”

The Eveleth Reds played against teams from Boston, New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Duluth, amongst others, until the United States Amateur Hockey Association folded in 1924-25.

1934 Eveleth Junior College

Playing for a legend and with a few, too

Suomi played hockey at Eveleth High School and Eveleth Junior College for the legendary Cliff Thompson, a 1973 enshrinee in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. Thompson coached both teams simultaneously and in 1928-29, Eveleth Junior College was the top-ranked college hockey team in the country.  One of its toughest games that year was against Eveleth High School, which it beat just 4-3.  (No one recalls which bench he was on for that game.)  In his high school coaching career which spanned from 1926 until 1958, Thompson posted an astonishing 534-26-9 record, including five official state championships.  Suomi was also the same age as and a high school teammate of Frank “Mister Zero” Brimsek, who went on to NHL stardom and was the first American inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

While the first official State High School Hockey Tournament was won by Eveleth in 1945, Suomi recalls winning several big tournaments including the “mythical” state championship when he was playing.

“We used to play in a tournament every New Year’s Eve in Fort Frances.  That was a lot of fun playing some good Canadian teams,” Suomi said.  “In 1933, Coach Thompson entered a team of us guys in a tournament at the Chicago Coliseum.  We got to the finals and met the St. Cloud Teachers College who also had five Eveleth guys on the team. “True story:  They were beating us 5-0 in the third period, and we came back and beat them by two goals in the last period.”  At one time in the 1930s, one area historian estimated that 147 Eveleth natives were playing pro, semi-pro and college hockey all around the country.

One of those was Suomi. "Five bucks and a Cardboard box", Suomi recalled as he was on the Hippodrome ice practicing one day in 1934 when he noticed “a strange guy by the side boards.”  It turned out to be a hockey scout from Chicago named Jack Manley, who offered Suomi, Leonard Saari and Johnny Rosinka $25 a week to play hockey for the Chicago Baby Ruths, who were coached by Eveleth’s Connie Pleban.  “You have to understand that this was in the middle of the Depression and $25 a week was a lot of money at that time.  We looked at each other and said, ‘What do we got to lose?  Let’s go,’” Suomi said.  “I went home and told mother and dad.  My mother looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to where all the gangsters are?’”

Nevertheless, Hilja scrounged the last $5 she could find in the house to give to her younger son.  Since he didn’t have a suitcase, Suomi threw his clothes in a cardboard box and headed to the Greyhound station where he and his friends took the bus to the Twin Cities.  While waiting for the train to Chicago from there, he dropped in on his brother John, who was playing hockey for the University of Minnesota.  John looked at him and said, “What the heck are you doing here?”  He scrounged up an old cardboard suitcase for his little brother who went on to Chicago to start his pro career.

A National Championship, but no Olympics

Suomi’s first year playing hockey away from home couldn’t have gone better for the 21-year-old, 5-foot-10, 170-pound left winger.  Not only was he pocketing the incredible sum of $25/week to play “amateur” hockey, but also his team was also opening for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks at the newly-built Chicago Stadium.  The Baby Ruths were a team started as a marketing ploy by the Curtiss Candy Company, named after its famous candy bar.  They won a national title in 1935 when they conquered the field in the National Amateur Athletic Union tournament held in Chicago, defeating the Boston Olympics in the finals. Nine players for the Baby Ruths were from Eveleth, while according to reports, one-third of the players in the tournament were from Eveleth.

However, the Baby Ruths were ruled out as the representative for the United States in the 1936 Winter Olympics as they were deemed too professional.  Instead, Boston, the team they defeated, represented the U.S.  “That was a little disappointing,” Suomi said.  “But that was a fun year.”  Suomi came home that summer but soon headed off to Denver to build a hockey rink and help start a Rocky Mountain hockey league.  But he and two other players were lured away from there on the sly to play semi-pro hockey in Detroit.  It was there that Suomi got the surprising telegram from the Blackhawks.

Al Suomi 1937 Chicago Hornets

An All-American team

The Chicago Blackhawks came into existence as one of the “Original Six” NHL teams in 1926, when Chicago coffee tycoon Frederic McLaughlin bought and relocated the Portland Rosebuds of the Western Hockey League.  McLaughlin had been a machine gun battalion commander in World War I in the 86th Infantry Division, which was nicknamed the “Blackhawk Division.”  McLauglin named the team in honor of his old division.  McLaughlin was very interested in promoting American players in the fledgling league, and Eveleth’s Mike Karakas was the first American-born goalie to sign and play in the NHL. (Karakas led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup in 1938, playing in the finals in a special steel-toed skate to protect a broken toe.)  Karakas was the goalie on the team in 1936-37 when McLaughlin and coach Clem Loughton decided to try to put an all-American team on the ice.  Looking around for players to fill out the squad, the Blackhawks came across Suomi, Paul Schaeffer and Milton “Curly” Brink and invited them to play.

The “All-American” experiment lasted just five games - some reports have the Blackhawks winning four of those while Suomi recalls winning two - but it was memorable for Suomi.  “The owner was Major McLaughlin.  I think he (fielded the all-American team) to promote McLaughlin’s Banner House Coffee,” Suomi said.  “We weren’t a very good team, but we played at some great arenas: Maple Leaf Gardens, Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden, the Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium.  It was quite a thrill.

“It was exciting, but it didn’t seem like we fit on the team and after five games, we were done.”  Suomi was likely part of the first All-American line ever in the NHL.  While he finished with no points and no penalties in his short-lived career, he said he nearly had a goal.  “I picked up a loose puck in Boston and had a breakaway, but I got tripped from behind just as I got close to the goal,” Suomi said.  Suomi finished his hockey career with the Chicago Hornets in the Chicago Arena League for whom he recalls scoring a hat trick against a Thompson-coached team in a tournament that year, and after the league folded, did some reffing a few years later.  He came home from his four-year stint in pro hockey with $600 in his pocket.  “That was quite a chunk of change,” he said.

Life after hockey

Suomi now lives with his youngest daughter in LaGrange Highlands, a suburb of Chicago.  He had four children with his late wife Ann and has 13 grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.  He still spends time in the summer at the family cabin on Long Lake outside of Eveleth.  Suomi opened Al’s Hardware in Countryside, Ill., in 1962 and remained active at the store until the age of 92.  He closed his doors in 2007 at the age of 94, saying “I couldn’t compete with Menard’s anymore.”

Suomi remains proud of his Eveleth heritage: “Name me another town that size that has put out so many good hockey players. Ten NHL players. That’s something.” Suomi got a particular thrill watching his old team, the Chicago Blackhawks; win the Stanley Cup title for the first time in 49 years last season.  “I predicted we were going to win it this year,” he said. “That was fun to watch.”

Suomi said he now gets fan mail from “as far away as Czechoslovakia” as the oldest living NHL player.  “That’s kind of neat,” he chuckled.  And you can bet Suomi will be watching when his beloved Blackhawks take the ice again in a couple of weeks for the start of their 75th season.  And perhaps while watching the NHL in high definition this season, he’ll reminisce on how much times have changed since curved branches and tin cans on Fayal Pond.  And perhaps, on how much they’ve stayed the same.

Article Used by permission of: Contributing Writer Brian Miller. Brian is a longtime local sports writer and the co-founder of iSports-North. He currently resides in Eveleth and can be reached at Article printed previously in

UPDATE:  Al Suomi passed away at the age of 100 on Spetember 23, 2014

1930 Eveleth High School - (Suomi Front Row Far Left)

1934 Eveleth Junior College - (Suomi Front Row Far Left)