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Ironmen: A story of Seattle’s Wartime Hockey team

Let’s get to know a little more about the Reverse Retro sweater through the team that inspired it!

The official line on hockey in the American side of the PNW is that the Metropolitans existed for nine seasons, won the Stanley Cup in 1917, and then the Olympia Hotel needed a parking lot, ending professional hockey in Seattle until the Kraken showed up more than a century later. For the NHL’s purposes, that might’ve been true.

For history’s sake, it’s absolute hogwash.

The funny thing about hockey during it’s formative years is that professional and amateur “senior leagues” sprung up all over the place after the consolidation of the NHL, principally in the West; where the National Hockey League had ultimately forsaken after the dissolution of the first PCHL, having given former Vancouver Maroons/Millionaires owner Lester Patrick full rights to build a franchise out in the Pacific time zone...something he never actually did.

With the outbreak of the war, People still needed something to do after making airplanes and bombs all day, and while alcohol was definitely still available, people had long learned years ago it’s usually best paired with an activity to get drunkenly excited or mad about. And so many of the local factories and companies began forming their own hockey leagues in the winter, and in 1943, the Northwest International Hockey League was founded.

The team that would become the Seattle Ironmen started life as the Seattle Isaacson Iron Workers, comprised largely of factory men. It was a tough season for all teams in that little five team league; quotas for the war effort (and also Boeing) needed to be met and this was a time before hockey teams rolled four lines, sometimes players simply couldn’t get off work to play. Other times, it was because the number had come up, and players mostly went off into the Pacific, with no guarantee they’d ever return. Still, each team in that little league managed to compete hard every Sunday night, and were gearing up for another year in ‘44 when a barnstorming team from Los Angeles showed up and scoured half the league’s rosters for talent and signing them to salaries far beyond what any steelworker could expect pay for, effectively killing the league dead in it’s tracks had the teams not made a bold play: they were going to re-found the PCHL.

The original PCHL had collapsed as a result of the war, but with veteran Seattle City League Administrator/Referee/Alumni Al Leader, this new league merged the NIHL with the Southern California Hockey League to put a league of 9 teams on local ice halls across the Pacific Coast. It was here that the Iron Workers became Ironmen, dropping their Isaacson name for good. It was here that a long-standing Seattle tradition was born in 1944.

The Ironmen hit the ice under their current name in a tough division: playing a version of the Vancouver Canucks that was quite formidable and a Portland team that’d been coached by a long-time NHLer Jimmy Ward. But Ironmen coach Frank Dotten wasn’t concerned. Their 1944 season had them play 27 games. They lost a grand total of 7 times, and thanks to a technicality (ie: a cancellation), the Ironmen won the first ever PCHL championship in 1945.

After the war, men came home, and the league got a lot tougher: Vancouver and Portland surged back and for two years, the Ironmen struggled to find consistency. Part of it was acts of Man: In the ‘45-’46 season, the New York Rangers alleged that the Ironmen’s star players, Bill Robinson and Eddie Dartnell, were in fact going to take money to play for them that year and therefore couldn’t suit up to Seattle. They did so anyway. Others were acts of God: many of their roster got hurt over and over again. Some had emergency surgeries that required long recovery times...and some even just got blood poisoning — leading to a frustrated roster that could compete against some of the best, but couldn’t go the distance like they had in 1945.

Frank Dotten knew this. He needed to let their aggression run free. So in 1947, he let them go absolutely apeshit.

The Ironmen didn’t win the league in the ‘47-’48. That would’ve been incidental to the real the thing they created during their time, which was much more valuable to them as the PCHL decided to go pro. The Ironmen created an identity based in fear, terror, and much bloodshed. They went 42-21-3 in a 66 game season, won their division handily...and racked up over 1200 penalty minutes. Special marks went to Butch Marchant and Al McFadzen, who combined accounted for over 319 penalty minutes. Who cares if they lost in the 2nd round of the playoffs? Survival against those “Bad men from the Pacific Coast” was victory enough for most teams in that year.

Things calmed down in Dotten’s final year in ‘48, as only a handful of the maniacs that wore the Ironmen sweater opted to go professional with him, leaving the Ironmen to leave the playoffs for the first time...but surged right back into being the Bad Men a year later with a new coach and an honestly more unhinged attitude.

Referees got cross-checked. Women almost got decked in the middle of play (this was before the glass on the boards was taller than the first four rows, by the way). The police on one occasion had to get involved to separate officials from the players and fans (that we know of — given the way they played, it was probably more than once). The final years of the Ironmen were marred by that sheer ferocious energy; incidents like the ones described were not uncommon, and by 1952 the team had well and truly become a magnet of chaos, particularly against local neighbor the Tacoma Rockets, whose rivalry boiled over into coaches fighting coaches, players fighting was a complete mania of a team. It all unfortunately culminated in a bit of a wet fart of a loss to Tacoma in the first round.

I’m sure they had a very normal and nice time.

The Ironmen did not perish, so much as change with the times. The PCHL decided to simply refer to itself as the WHL, and with it, the Ironmen wished to start anew. They went through a couple of names; The Bombers and the Americans, both very mediocre and not really worth remembering...if not for having picked up a young fella by the name of Guyle Fielder, who would go on to become a Seattle Totems legend once the 70’s rolled in. The Totems themselves inheritors of the Ironmen’s legacy from the Bombers and Americans.

Most of the Ironmen that could call themselves Ironmen are either long retired or have passed on. They included Flyers coach Fred Shero and Stanley Cup winner Al Rollins, but quite a great many more that remained Ironmen for life: Gord Kerr was a scoring phenom who chose not to go professional, as a prominent example; Eddie Dartnell and Bill Robinson themselves decided that the pros were not for men like them.

The Ironmen were the ones kept the torch of hockey burning in Seattle for much, much longer than most realize, and we have them to thank for many of the burning embers of passion that inevitably became the Kraken.

Most of the time, teams like the Ironmen will exist for a short time, and then disappear into history books. They will exist as cute logos and local delights for a few years, and then be relegated to shelves in libraries and reels of newspaper print, only occasionally dug up every once in awhile for their logo (if it even was their logo and not a cartoon added to the programs) to be slapped on a t-shirt for 25 bucks.

We are fortunate that the Ironmen did not die so easily. We are fortunate they became the Totems and survived so long to create memories in people passionate enough to lobby the largest hockey league in the world into coming back. And we are very fortunate that the Kraken will take the ice giving homage to a team that helped pave their winding road into existence.

...It would’ve been nice to have the anchor, though.