The Legend Of Sudden Death Mel Hill
Mel Hill earned his famous nickname after recording three overtime goals in one playoff series during the 1939 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Boston Bruins coach in the 1930's and 1940's was a man by the name of Art Ross. One of the premier defensemen of his era, Art always considered his first Stanley Cup win with Kenora in 1907 to be his greatest thrill in hockey. His second greatest thrill? Being front and center for Mel Hill's three overtime winners in the 1939 Stanley Cup playoffs.
This just begs the question: Who is Mel Hill?
Mel Hill may not have been the biggest superstar in the NHL in his day, and he'd be the first person to tell you that. But he will always be remembered in the folklores of hockey history for his NHL record of three overtime goals in the same playoff series. That's why he's forever known as simply "Sudden Death" Mel Hill.
"I was a basic, unspectacular player who usually performed well when it counted, but I just happened to get super-hot in that series with New York," said Hill. "It wasn't an easy tag to carry the rest of my career. It seemed like I was expected to be the hero in every playoff game from that moment on. The name 'Sudden Death' was easier to live with after I retired."
Mel Hill was born on February 15th 1914 in Glenboro, a small town about an hour southeast of Brandon. His parents came over to Manitoba from England shortly before he was born, and as a youngster, Mel started playing hockey on the local outdoor rink in Glenboro.
Shortly after he started attending school however, his family left Glenboro and moved to Saskatoon. Mel remembered his childhood as being from a typical poor family that worked hard. He later said that he got a lot of his fun from hockey and listening to the radio. To help supplement his family's income, Hill worked at a series of odd job throughout the early parts of his life. For example, one summer he worked in Regina cleaning bricks when the old Crystal Brewery there was being dismantled.
It was in Saskatoon that Hill's prowess in hockey went noticed by reporters and scouts. He wasn't just a one trick pony however. A multi-sport athlete of sorts, Mel also played baseball and some competitive soccer on the left wing for the Saskatoon Legion in the late 1930's. He was selected to play on several Saskatchewan all star teams that went up against the touring Islington Corinthians from England in 1938 and the Scottish F.A team in 1939.
Hill played junior hockey as an eighteen and nineteen year old in the early 1930's for the Saskatoon Tigers and Wesleys of the Saskatoon City League. Somebody watching one of his games one night must have liked what he saw, because Hill left Saskatoon for the 1934-35 season and moved to Northern Ontario where he played with the Sudbury Cub Wolves Jr. team of the Nickel Belt Hockey League.
At the beginning of the 1934-35 season, Mel attended the New York Rangers training camp in Winnipeg at the old Amphitheatre. Rangers manager Lester Patrick got a good look at Hill over the course of the camp, but ultimately let him loose because as Lester said he was "too frail for big time hockey." Hill later recalled, "I was 5'10'' and weighed about 140 pounds at that camp and Lester Patrick told me, 'You're too small, son. You might last the 50 games, but you'll never survive the playoffs. You'd better go back to the farm.'"
What a mistake that would turn out to be for Lester Patrick.
After his first season in Sudbury, Mel got a job working in the Frood Mine and played hockey for the Sudbury Frood Miners/Tigers. One day when Mel was working in Sudbury's Frood Mine, a stope collapsed about 100 yards from him and four men were killed. He later said that incident changed his outlook on life and it helped him persevere in the sport of hockey.
In the 1936-37 season, he scored a league leading eighteen goals in fifteen games. He was the main reason why his Sudbury squad went on to win the Allan Cup that year, defeating North Battleford Beavers three games to two for national senior hockey supremacy.
The Boston Bruins caught wind of Hill senior hockey exploits and quickly signed him as a free agent on October 26th 1937. At the time of the signing, Globe and Mail writer Vern DeGeer was calling him "the swift-moving sharpshooter who waves a flaming torch," while Saskatoon sportscaster Lloyd Saunders recalled that, "Hill had one hell of a shot and it was so accurate too."
It wasn't straight to the National Hockey League by any means for Hill. His first professional hockey season was spent primarily with the Providence Reds of the AHL. Hill did make his NHL debut that season however, appearing in six games.
The 1938-39 season was for all intensive purposes, Mel's rookie NHL campaign. It was also be his best season in the league. He scored twenty points during the regular season, but it would be his performance in the playoffs that would make this season his career highlight.
Mel Hill's hockey career can be defined by his heroics in the 1939 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In the semifinals against Lester Patrick's New York Rangers, Hill scored three overtime winners. It's a record that has stood the test of time. No player in the history of the National Hockey League has ever scored three overtime goals in the same series.
Lester Patrick at the time was probably thinking to himself, "Oops!" I guess even the greatest of hockey minds can be wrong about a player once in a while it goes to show.
Game 1 of the series went three overtimes, in fact it was only thirty-five seconds away from a fourth overtime when Hill struck the winning goal. It was 1:10 in the morning when Bruins centre Bill Cowley skated swiftly along the boards into the Rangers zone and centered a high pass directly in front of Dave Kerr's goal. It was then that 23-year-old rookie Mel Hill skated in and batted the puck clean past Kerr and into the side of the Rangers goal. The Bruins bench swarmed Hill without showing any signs of fatigue from the marathon game and practically carried him to the dressing room to celebrate the win.
Two nights later, it was more of the same as once again the Bill Cowley, Roy Conacher, Mel Hill line produced the overtime winner to give the Bruins a two game lead in the series. Mel scored the overtime winner at the 8:24 mark of the first overtime on another fantastic play by Cowley who jumped the Rangers forwards, and when they came tearing in on him, he swiftly passed the puck over to Hill, who was coming in at full flight and he proceeded to take the puck and rifle it through the legs of Bert Gardiner, a rookie goalie recalled from Philadelphia to replace the injured Dave Kerr. It was almost a mirror replica of the Hill's overtime winner in Game One.
Boston won Game Three as well to take a commanding three games to zero lead in the series, but the Rangers fought back. They won three straight games to set the stage for a pivotal Game 7 at the Boston Garden. The game became a high drama affair and after three of periods of play, the teams were locked in a 1-1 stalemate. Once again, overtime was needed. Still nothing. A second overtime came and passed as well.
The game extended into the wee hours of the next morning into triple overtime where once again, a familiar hero got the winner for the partisan Boston crowd. Eight minutes into the third overtime period at 12:40 AM, Hill took a pass from Bill Cowley, who himself received a nice pass from Roy Conacher and let go a blistering shot from fifteen feet out that beat Rangers goalie Bert Gardiner to send the Bruins crowd into hysterics.
"It was around eight minutes of the third overtime, " Hill remembered. " Cowley fed me a pass from behind the net and I was right on top of Rangers goalie Bert Gardiner. I held the puck for a second then flipped it up into the net on the short side. The fans went wild and it was a tremendous thrill to win a series for my team."
With that triple overtime winner in Game Seven, Boston advanced to the Stanley Cup where they met the Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston continued the roll they were on and quickly blasted the Maple Leafs in five games to win the Stanley Cup. Bruins rookie goalie Frank Brimsek, otherwise known as "Mr. Zero," held the Maple Leafs to just six goals in the five game series.
In the Cup final, Hill picked up where he left off and assisted on both of Roy Conacher's goals in a Game Four victory. He then opened the scoring in the cup clinching Game Five that the Bruins won 3-1. It capped off quite the rookie season for Hill. He had twenty points during the regular season and scored nine in the playoffs, including six goals. The Stanley Cup was the cherry on top on just a fantastic rookie season. Also, the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP wasn't around yet, but had it been, Mel would have been right in line to win the award along with teammates Bill Cowley and Frank Brimsek.
Hill credited a lot of his success with the Bruins during that playoff run to his four teammates that lived with him in a big suburban Brookline, Massachusetts rooming home. He also had high praise for Bill Cowley, the centre who gave him the passes for all three overtime goals.
"The Krauts (Schmidt, Bauer, Dumart) lived together last winter and they asked Roy Conacher and me to come live at the house when Art Ross made us regulars this season," Hill explained. "We clicked right away, and soon we were talking, eating and sleeping hockey. None of us can sleep until three or four o’clock in the morning after a game, so everybody gathers in one of the room and sometimes we play cards for a while to take the edge off. But mostly we just talk over the games, figuring out what we should have done in such and such a case."
To put things into perspective a little bit, Mel's salary that season was only $3,000. He got a bonus of $2,000 for winning the Stanley Cup and an extra $1,000 for his overtime heroics. Simply put, salaries weren't anywhere near what they are today.
Hill spent two more seasons with the Bruins after that dream rookie year. He would go on to win another Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 1941. During the summers he would return home to Saskatoon to see his family and friends. He was a little bit of a celebrity you could say back home. After all, he was Sudden Death Mel Hill! And he had a lasting impact on one particular young player who would go onto be one of, if not the greatest player in the history of our fine sport.
Gordie Howe was a young hockey prodigy, a star in the local Saskatoon junior hockey scene. There were lots of great players in the NHL that Gordie could have idolized, but when he was growing up, he aspired to be like "Sudden Death" Mel Hill.
"There was a great name in hockey by the name of Mel Hill," Gordie recalled. "When I was a young fellow about nine years of age, he used to drive by our house in a great big convertible, sitting proud as a peacock, and that was a professional hockey player. I used to dream that maybe one day that could be me."
Howe also had fond memories of the time that Mel spotted him shooting tin cans on the rink in the school yard one summer night, stopped and went over to him, and advised him on how to get more power on his shot. Gordie then said that he didn't stop practicing that night until his mom had to come out and get him. He was forever grateful for the advice from Mel, because that shot that Gordie worked on became one of the most lethal in the National Hockey League, scoring 801 goals in a career that spanned 26 seasons (plus six in the WHA).
Mel was traded to the Brooklyn Americans for cash on June 27th 1941. He played one season in Brooklyn, scoring 37 points. During the offseason, the franchise folded and Mel was entered into the dispersal draft where he was picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Hill's best season points-wise came in 1942-43 when he scored 42 points in 49 games. Two seasons later, in 1945 with the Leafs, Mel won his third and final Stanley Cup, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in a seven game Stanley Cup final.
After one more year in the NHL, Mel was sent to the minors where he closed off his professional career with the AHL's Pittsburgh Hornets. He came back to Saskatchewan for good after that and played some senior hockey with the Regina Caps, losing an Allan Cup final in 1949.
Hill officially retired from hockey in 1952. He finished with 198 points in 324 NHL games over nine seasons. A utility player for most of his career, Mel was always a threat when it mattered most. His overtime record is proof of that.
After his hockey career was done he returned to Saskatchewan and got into the soft drink business, owning Mel Hill Beverages in Regina until 1970, when he and his wife Jean retired to a farm in the Fort Qu'Appelle area.
"I was happy being a businessman," Mel recalled. "I had my own soft-drink plant and I did alright for myself, but I always feel sorry for the fellows from our time who got out of the game and haven't got a nickel today. When you think about what we made and then you see guys holding out for an extra hundred thousand, well, that's sad. But nothing in this life is easy."
Mel passed away in Fort Qu'Appelle on April 11th 1996, a little over a month after his wife Jean died. He was 82 years old.
In an old Globe and Mail article I found that had interviewed Mel in his later years, he had to say that, "I've achieved every ambition in life I ever had. My wife and I have the land now, and our four children are grown." said Mel. "And hey, If I didn't score those goals back then, nobody would know I'm alive."
To this day, every time a Boston Bruins playoff game heads to overtime, "Sudden Death" Mel Hill gets mentioned and people remember his exploits in the 1939 playoffs. And that itself is a pretty cool thing for someone that was supposed to be too small and frail to even play in the National Hockey League.
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