A Newfoundland Pioneer

On December 7th 1961, Alex Faulkner became the first player from Newfoundland and Labrador to play in the National Hockey League.

Bishop’s Falls is a very small town located in the north-central part of the island of Newfoundland, Canada. With a population of less than 3,500 at the 2011 national census, Bishop’s Falls has one of the smallest town populations and areas in this book. Although not the most notable town, Newfies regard Bishop’s Falls as having the warmest summer temperatures in all of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The railroad played a significant part in shaping the history of Bishop’s Falls. The town became a central hotspot for people travelling on the “Newfie Bullet.” This helped to put the small community on the province’s hockey map as well. Senior hockey has always been the big draw in town, as the ‘Woodsmen’ and ‘Kinsmen’ were both senior hockey teams that represented Bishop’s Falls in Newfoundland playdowns.

Right now, there is one indoor hockey arena in town, the Pat O’Reilly Memorial Stadium. All other hockey is played on outdoor rinks and nearby ponds. It was on those ponds and rivers where Bishop’s Falls lone NHLer started his hockey journey way back in the 1940s. This person in question is also the first Newfoundland-born player to play in the National Hockey League. His name is Alex Faulkner, and he was a trailblazer who was instrumental over the years in promoting the growth of the sport in his home province.

I called up Alex one afternoon in 2015 at his home in Bishop’s Falls and asked if he wanted to do an interview for a book about hockey towns around the world I was working on called Hockey Hotbeds: Volume Two.

“How much are you going to pay me?” was his snappy reply. I laughed in my head and thought this is not going to go well. Luckily, I got him talking about his life story rather quickly, and the interview went off without a hitch.

Faulkner began playing as a little boy in his small town after watching the senior team play in a neighbouring town.

“When I was a kid, there was a senior league team here playing out of Grand Falls because they had the only arena in our area, so I’d go and watch them when I could. Hockey was the big thing going on in Bishop’s Falls,” Faulkner said. “A couple of pro players came from here, including my two brothers and me. Seven or nine guys from here are in the Newfoundland Hockey Hall of Fame, so hockey is massive here in my little town.”

“I had four brothers, there were five of us kids in the home, and we always had full hockey equipment with regular uniforms and socks. Even playing on the river, we were playing in full equipment. In the summertime, we had our soccer cleats and soccer balls. My father, with five boys, kept us busy as best as he could. The two ways he kept us busy was with soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter.”

Although he was good at the sport right away, growing up in the middle of nowhere in Newfoundland gave little hope that an NHL career could come about one day.

“I didn’t give pro hockey a single thought until I got that call from the Toronto Maple Leafs. We started on ponds and rivers because there was no rink in town when I was growing up, so we made up our own on the river. We would clear off a sheet of ice and play all day, go in and have supper, and then come back out to shovel for the next day of hockey. I was only four or five years old when I started playing, but that’s how it all kind of came about when I was a little kid.”

Faulkner started playing senior hockey when he was 15 years old for various Bishop’s Falls and Grand Falls teams. When he was 22, he left home for the first time, moving to Harbour Grace, where he became a prolific scorer. It was while playing for the Conception Bay Cee Bees that he was discovered by a very important figure in the hockey world.

“We moved from Bishop’s Falls to Harbour Grace which is right on the east coast, an hour’s drive or so from St. John’s. The owner of a fish plant over there was a very rich man, and he bought my brother George and myself to play there for his Conception Bay Cee Bees. George had just come back after spending six years in the Montreal Canadiens organization, two years of juniors and four years with Shawinigan. He didn’t think he was going to make the NHL, so he came home. It just so happened that Howie Meeker, the Toronto Maple Leafs star of the 1940s, was working in St. John’s while I was playing hockey in that area. The assistant general manager of the Leafs was King Clancy at the time, and he was visiting Mr. Meeker, and they saw a game me and my brother were playing in and wanted us to go to Toronto for a tryout. George didn’t want to go because he’d already been gone for six years, but Clancy talked me into going. That’s the first time that anyone really suggested that I could play, so I went away on a tryout with the big club.”

Alex went to Toronto and impressed the team enough that they offered him a contract with their AHL farm team, the Rochester Americans. Faulkner kept up his scoring ways in Rochester, putting up 73 points in 65 games. He even made his NHL debut in the 1961-62 season, playing one game in that famed Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.

“It was not as exciting as you think it was,” said Alex. He quickly cut the act and admitted it was a big deal for him and for his home province.

“Newfoundland was going bananas that I was the first guy from there to play in the NHL, so it was a bit of an exciting time. Everything along the way was exciting. The first player is always first. Most people don’t know who was second, so that’s always been a plus for me. It’s even got me into places and got me jobs in different businesses that I would not have been able to get if I hadn’t been the first Newfoundland NHLer.”

Even though he played a game with the big club, Faulkner didn’t think he could have a decent shot at making the team in the future because the Leafs were already stocked with established centermen. The Red Wings made a claim for his services in the 1962 Intra-League Draft, and it was off to Detroit, where he found himself a permanent position on an NHL team.

“Toronto already had Dave Keon, Billy Harris, Red Kelly, and Bob Pulford as their top four centermen. I wasn’t going to replace any of them, so for me to be drafted by Detroit at that time gave me the opportunity to play full-time in the NHL. I went to Detroit and scored ten goals and ten assists in my first year. I wasn’t playing special teams ever, and my ice time was very limited. In the playoffs that year, I scored five goals in eight games, two of them being game-winners. So it was a pretty good run.”

An excellent run indeed for Mr. Faulkner. Although his Red Wings ultimately lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Maple Leafs, Alex was a hero in Newfoundland for scoring so many vital goals during that year’s postseason. When he returned to his home province for the offseason, Newfoundland declared it as “Alex Faulkner Day.” All of the schools were closed for the day, and there was a big parade and ceremony hosted by the province’s Premier Joey Smallwood, who presented Alex with a lovely pair of gold cuff links.

Alex seemed poised to have a breakout season in 1963-64, but a broken hand and ankle-ligament damage limited his season to thirty games. It signalled the end of his NHL career.

“My second year in Detroit, I had nine points in the first nine games of the season, and then I broke my arm. I came back and played three games, scoring a goal and two assists in those games, and then broke my ankle. So that killed me for that year, and I never got back playing in the NHL.”

In the years following, Faulkner played for a number of minor league teams, including the Cincinnati Wings, Pittsburgh Hornets, Memphis Wings, and most notable, the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League.

“I spent a year in Memphis, which was a Detroit-owned team and then San Diego for three and a half years. That was a private team. They bought players and brought them in and bought my contract from Detroit. The Western Hockey League was made up of many guys who played in the NHL at one time or another and were still borderline NHLers. I remember Bill Sweeney, he played for Springfield and was always one of the leading scorers in the league, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to play in the NHL. Players like that made up the WHL, so it was a pretty good league.”

Faulkner’s NHL totals were 32 points in 101 regular season games. Add that to five goals in twelve playoff games, and it became a case of what could have been had his sophomore year in Detroit not been riddled with injuries.

“Looking back on my second year in Detroit, I always wonder how many points I would have gotten if I didn’t get injured because I was already halfway to the total I had the year before after only nine games. It seemed reasonable to think I would have a pretty good season. Of course, playing in the NHL itself was number one for me in hockey. It meant I was at the top of my profession. Lots of players say you’re pretty good, but that depends who you’re getting compared to. If you’re comparing me to Gordie Howe, then I’m not very good, but compare me to players in the WHL or American League, and I guess I was pretty good.”

After returning to Newfoundland, Faulkner still played hockey for various senior teams. Still, more importantly, he had to find work to supplement his income for the first time in many years.

“Because I played hockey, I didn’t spend much time in school. It’s not like these days. I had no profession when I came back home. When I first went away to Toronto, I was apprenticing as an electric lineman for a power company, but I wasn’t far enough advanced to continue with it when I stopped playing hockey professionally to consider it. I got a lot of sailors jobs for different companies when I returned, and then I ended up getting a job at a senior home.”

Being in Newfoundland, Faulkner doesn’t get to see that much NHL these days because of the late start times.

“I don’t watch that much NHL anymore,” he says. “When the first period is over, I’m just about ready for bed. The hockey doesn’t start until 9:30 pm our time. If you’re watching a period, it runs you to 10:30 or 11. With our business, I have to carry people to the hospital or to the dentist, so I’m usually on the go fairly early, so I got to bed fairly early!”