Taffy Abel: The “Michigan Mountain” and Ojibwe hockey hero gets his due
Clarence “Taffy” Abel was a hockey legend by any measure. He carried the American flag during the opening ceremony of the first ever Winter Olympic Games in Chamonix, France in 1924, then helped lead the U.S. team to a silver medal. The “Michigan Mountain” thrilled spectators with his size, endurance, and fierce style of play in an era before helmets and pads. He helped the New York Rangers win their first Stanley Cup in 1928, and he did the same for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1934.
But when Taffy Abel was posthumously inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 1973, one element of his legacy went overlooked: he was the league’s first Indigenous player, as well as the first Native American winter Olympian.
For nearly 40 years, Abel didn’t acknowledge his heritage publicly. And even when he did, it remained hidden in plain sight from those who weren’t paying close attention.
His mother, Charlotte Gurnoe Abel, was Ojibwe, on record in the 1908 Durant Roll as part of the Sault Ste. Marie Band of Chippewa Indians. His father, John Abel, was white. The family lived in Sault Ste. Marie, where they kept Charlotte’s background quiet among those who didn’t already know.
“[The family] knew what was going on,” said George Jones, Taffy Abel’s nephew. “The reason for passing as white was just rampant discrimination then. It was the fear of being taken away from your family, and put in a distant residential boarding school.”
The family’s compelled discretion spared Clarence and his sister Gertrude the brutal boarding school experience, said Jones. Clarence attended the local public high school, where he earned the nickname “Taffy” for trying to sneak the sweet in class so often. He played hockey outdoors and picked up a job as an ice sweeper at a local rink for skating time and income.
Abel almost didn’t compete in the Olympics, despite his commitment and talent. His father’s death in 1920 had left him as the sole family breadwinner. Athletes in this era mostly paid their own way to participate, covering the cost of everything from uniforms to steamship tickets.
“I'm convinced if they knew he was Native American, then he wouldn't have got chosen for the Winter Olympics, he certainly wouldn't have got chosen by his fellow teammates as the flag bearer, and especially he would have not got chosen to be in the white-dominated NHL."George Jones
“Taffy was so poor,” said Jones. “Even though he initially accepted an Olympic bid, he sent a telegram back, said, you know, due to family circumstances, I can't go.”
But, a friend loaned him money to travel, and A.G. Spalding & Bros. Inc. donated clothing, skates, and a stick. (Yes, the same Spalding you may know better for its basketballs today.) As an Olympian, and throughout his eight-year, 333 game NHL career, Abel kept his Ojibwe identity under wraps.
“I'm convinced if they knew he was Native American, then he wouldn't have got chosen for the Winter Olympics, he certainly wouldn't have got chosen by his fellow teammates as the flag bearer, and especially he would have not got chosen to be in the white-dominated NHL,” said Jones.
But Jones said he thinks that the weight of discrimination and secrecy “tormented” his uncle. Abel’s mother Charlotte died in April 1939. Just a few months later, Taffy Abel founded a highly successful amateur hockey team called the Soo Indians in her honor.
“Not only was Taffy a great hockey player, he was a great coach. He mentored Native American youth. He contributed via holding fundraisers and other things for them,” said Jones. “He was a stand up guy.”
When asked about his multifaceted career, which also included running a tourist resort, Taffy Abel routinely gave a single answer until his death in 1964: “I’m in the business of winning.”
“That's the thing that he imparted on me: you have to have a positive mental attitude. You have to have the spirit of winning, the spirit of survival,” said Jones. “The man lived it every day. I'm convinced of that.”