The Chicago Blackhawks are just two wins away from taking home the Stanley Cup, and Al Suomi couldn’t be happier.
Despite Wednesday night’s disappointing overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, Suomi, likely the oldest surviving Blackhawk player, is certain his team has what it takes to bring home the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961.
Watching the championship series from his family’s Minnesota getaway, Suomi, at 96, is believed to be the oldest living player from the entire National Hockey League. He says speedy Hawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remind him of the days when he wore the Blackhawks sweater in 1936.
That’s the year Hawks founder Major Frederic McLaughlin fired all the Canadian players on the team to put an all-American squad on the ice.
It was Suomi’s big break. Even though he didn’t score a goal, make an assist or spend a minute in the penalty box he has vivid memories of those days—especially his shot at scoring a breakaway goal at Boston Garden. It would have been his first NHL point and possibly just the thing to secure a spot on the team for good.
“But some guy caught me from behind,” Suomi says. “Man, I wish I would have made that shot.”
After just five games—and a 4-1 record—Suomi was cut. He was devastated. “I thought I was kind of a failure because I didn’t make it with the Hawks,” Suomi says. “But the situation was such it was almost impossible to do it. Eh, what are you gonna do? I had more chances than thousands of other kids.”
On the fast track
This run at the Cup for his Blackhawks—who hold a 2-1 lead going into Friday’s game—has him reliving those glorious days when he made a living on the ice. All he ever wanted to do in life was play hockey.
Suomi grew up in Eveleth, Minn., home of the world’s largest hockey stick, the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, NHL Hall of Famer Frank Brimsek, former Blackhawks goalie Sam Lopresti and a long list of other hockey stars. Almost every day from November to March Suomi and his pals played hockey on frozen ponds. He was a fast skater, once clocking 45 mph.
“No one ever taught me anything about hockey,” Suomi says. “I learned it from observation and wanting to play.”
In 1934, Suomi was a teenager when a scout spotted him on a small-town rink and offered him a job playing for the Chicago Baby Ruths, a pro team named after the candy bar.
He played for the Baby Ruths until 1935—when referees clacked bells instead of blowing whistles—before moving to Detroit to play for the Detroit Tool Shop, a minor league team. Then, after his short tenure with the Blackhawks, he played for the Detroit Pontiacs for the remainder of the 1936-37 season.
In 1936, Suomi was very close to playing for the U.S. Olympic team. He had the jersey and everything. But he was cut because he was paid to play for the Baby Ruths during a time when the Olympics was an amateurs-only competition.
Suomi got to keep the jersey as a souvenir; the rest of the guys got the bronze medal.
Reinventing his life
Suomi’s biggest regret is that he didn’t keep his Blackhawks jersey. All that’s left of his playing days are a few pictures and his top-of-the-line skates, which in the 1930s cost about $50—equal to some $600 today.
After his short stint in the NHL, Suomi played for the Chicago Hornets of the long-defunct Chicago Arena League until 1940.
A pal he met while playing hockey helped him get a job at a paper manufacturer, where he worked until his late wife, Ann, talked him into opening a small hardware store in Countryside, a tiny Chicago suburb.
His namesake Al’s Hardware was open for 46 years. Suomi worked there almost every day until 2008 when at age 94 he sold the place. He says he “got too old and competition was too great.”
These days, Suomi lives with his daughter, Marilynn Twigg, and takes life at a slow pace.
He still has fans. Every month he gets about six letters—some from overseas—from people asking him to autograph pictures, Twigg says.
For now, all Suomi wants is the young Hawks to bring the Cup back to Chicago. “They got a good team. They’re hustlers,” he says.
And if he could get the team’s ear for just a moment he’d tell them to “just keep playing their game …. There’s no reason they can’t do it.”
Mark Konkol is a writer in Chicago.
Editor’s note: Al Suomi got his wish—the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in a sudden death overtime, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in game 7.