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Who is Hobey Baker? A legend

In hockey circles, the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey's top player, is one of the most prestigious individual honors.

"It's hockey's Heisman," said Lightning star Marty St. Louis, a three-time Hobey finalist. "It's special."

But it wasn't until 1984 winner Tom Kurvers learned about the "stature of the man" behind the award that made it especially flattering for him to garner the honor.

Hobey Baker, a Princeton legend and war hero, is the only person to be in both the college hockey and football halls of fame. He is, arguably, one of the all-time greatest athletes.

However, it was Baker's seemingly mythical off-the-field persona that inspired characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. Envied for his good looks and All-America ability, Baker was known for his grace, humility and bravery, dying at age 26 while testing a plane shortly after World War I.

That makes the site of Friday's Hobey Baker Award ceremony, MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, fitting, as the winner will get to see Baker's great-great nephew, Christo Morse, receive a Croix de Guerre award from a French dignitary.

"He died before his time — he was a legend," said Kurvers, the 1984 Hobey winner for Minnesota-Duluth and current Lightning assistant general manager. "The name Hobey Baker probably, outside of a few people who have studied it, doesn't mean a whole lot. But if you take a quick look at what he stood for, who he was and how he died, it makes you stop and think about it. They found a guy that really measures up."

•••

Baker, born in Wissahickon, Pa., on Jan. 15, 1892, the son of upholsterers, was a prodigy from the start.

Sent to the well-regarded St. Paul's prep school at age 11, there was nothing Baker couldn't master. He was an accomplished gymnast and swimmer. He could walk up flights of stairs on his hands and juggle five balls.

"He was a natural," said Emil Salvini, a Baker biographer. "He picked up a golf club for the first time, played nine holes and beat the experienced guys he was with. He was perfect with baseball, basketball. The only reason he played just hockey and football was the rule he could only play two varsity sports. Otherwise, he could have played every single one."

Baker, despite his 5-foot-9, 160-pound stature, became the big man on Princeton's campus, leading the Tigers to two national titles in hockey and one in football. He was a tantalizingly smooth and quick skater, and an electrifying quarterback no one could tackle. He once played every second of a 73-minute hockey game against Harvard.

Legendary Rangers coach Lester Patrick once said Baker was the only American at the time who could have been a pro hockey star in Canada.

"I'd have to think that he would be a (Wayne) Gretzky or a Sidney Crosby today," Salvini said.

When Baker played with the St. Nicholas Skating Club, a New York amateur team, the Madison Square Garden marquee read, "Baker Plays Here Tonight," But Baker, never wanting the attention, would ask it be taken down. Limousines still lined the streets, and "men and women went hysterical when Baker flashed down the ice," wrote sports writer Lawrence Perry.

The epitome of sportsmanship, Baker was called for just one penalty in his three seasons. Win or lose, he'd always go to the opponent's locker rooms after to shake their hands.

The mere thought that Baker broke a rule of the game nearly drove him to tears.

"I read a story about him where I found people on the opposing team said, 'My God, we slashed, we cut him, we almost killed him, and he came into our locker room, shook our hands and said, 'Good game,' " Salvini said. "He was that kind of guy."

•••

Upon his graduation, Baker received some pro offers. Salvini insists Baker wouldn't take money to play.

"In today's world, there's so much more attributed to sports, fame and money," Morse, 45, said. "And obviously, he was one of those Wayne Gretzky-type figures of his time, a man of great character and drive and just did what he loved."

Baker got a job on Wall Street, but it didn't satisfy his thrill-seeking spirit.

Said Salvini: "He was like a caged tiger."

Baker got into polo and began racing autos in his 20s. He also learned how to fly, and when America entered World War I in 1917, he volunteered to be a fighter pilot.

As daring in the air as he was on the ice, Baker became a squadron leader with the famed Lafayette Escadrille, taking down at least three enemy planes. The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre, awarded for acts of heroism involving combat with the enemy.

With the war ending in November 1918, just three months after he was made captain, Baker was set to return home.

Tempting fate on Dec. 21, 1918, Baker went to a French airfield for "one last flight" and was told another plane needed a test run. Baker said he'd do it — even in a driving rain. Almost immediately, the engine quit. He could have tried a crash landing, but it appeared he chose not to with the plane slamming nose-first into the ground. He died in the ambulance.

Salvini suggests Baker's death wasn't an accident; that the thought of returning to his old life, a boring job, was anticlimactic. He compares Baker to Icarus, the mythical Greek god who flew too high and his wings were melted by the sun.

"He was such an independent spirit," Morse said. "He was just a passionate guy. He had this whole vision with how he wanted to live his life. He wrote his own rules in many ways. (His death) goes with the way he always lived."

•••

Chuck Bard, former CEO of the Decathlon Athletic Club in Bloomington, Minn., conceived the idea of college hockey's top award in the late 1970s, saying it would be similar to the Heisman and Wooden awards in college football and basketball, respectively.

They came with four finalists for the name of the award, including hockey immortals Moose Goheen, Frank Brimsek, John Mariucci (Bard's neighbor) and Baker. But the more Bard learned about Baker, it became a "no-brainer," and he was the only name he brought to the committee for approval.

"There was no question," Bard, 86, said. "He was probably the greatest hockey player of all time; maybe the best athlete of all time."

Morse, an aspiring filmmaker in New York, said the award has drawn more attention to Baker's life, but he hopes to bring it to the big screen.

What would it be called?

"The simpler the better," Morse said. "Really, his story speaks for itself."

Information from Princeton and Times wires contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

.FAST FACTS

Hobey Baker finalists

This season's award will be presented Friday at MacDill Air Force Base:

Spencer Abbott, Sr., F, Maine: Leads the nation in points (62) and assists (41); undrafted, signed with the Maple Leafs last month.

Jack Connolly, Sr., F, Minn.-Duluth: Has 20 goals and 40 assists and played 164 consecutive games; undrafted and unsigned.

Austin Smith, Sr., F, Colgate: Leads the nation in goals (36) and has 21 assists; fifth-round pick of the Stars in 2007.

Who is Hobey Baker? A legend 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 11:23pm]
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