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The Verdict: Inside the hat trick's Blackhawks heritage

Wednesday, 07.27.2011 / 1:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian
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The Verdict: Inside the hat trick\'s Blackhawks heritage

Winger Alex Kaleta inadvertently coined the term 'hat trick' in 1946. (Photo by: Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame).

Sammy Taft is speaking, and the voice is clear. The picture, on a disk via a film feature that is 20 years old, is a bit shaky, but not his story.

“Alex Kaleta of the Chicago Blackhawks,” says Taft, a Toronto haberdasher, who was 78 at the time. “A lot of players with the Maple Leafs used to come into my store to purchase hats, as well as players from visiting teams. And that’s how the term ‘hat trick’ started. With Alex Kaleta.”

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Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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Kaleta, a fleet winger, joined the Blackhawks for the 1941-42 season, then missed three full years during World War II. When he rejoined the NHL, Kaleta wandered into Taft’s establishment and took a liking to a fancy fedora. There was only one problem: He didn’t have sufficient funds to purchase it.

Taft, an entrepreneur with obvious promotional skills, made a proposal. If Kaleta happened to score three goals against the Maple Leafs that evening — Jan. 26, 1946 — he should return to the store and the hat would be his for free. Kaleta not only scored three goals. He scored four in a 6-5 loss to the Maple Leafs.

As Taft fondly recalls, the Toronto press ran with the story. On the radio that night, when he listened for hockey results, the big news was “Blackhawk Alex Kaleta’s hat trick.” The next day’s newspapers were all over it too. Although there are other versions about how one of the most famous terms in hockey — and the lexicon of all sports — evolved, the tale of Taft and Kaleta is officially recognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame.

If only Alex Kaleta, who died in 1987, had taken ownership of it. Instead, well, he basically kept it under his hat.

“Alex was very humble,” said sister Millie, who lives in Calgary. “When he was home, he never talked about what he did in hockey.”

Indeed, the hat trick story did not sink in on remaining family members until after Kaleta passed away.

“A few years after that, they had a show about it between periods on Hockey Night in Canada,” recalled brother Arthur, also a Calgary resident. “That’s the one you are referring to, with Sammy Taft talking about it in his store. Until then, we never realized how it came about. I was the youngest of seven children, seven years younger than Alex. He left the Blackhawks for three years during World War II to enter the armed service here in Canada. By that time, I was growing into his clothes. After he went back to Chicago, and had his big night in Toronto, one of the items I eventually grew into was this fancy gray top hat with a nice gray band around it.

“Alex, I remember, had worn it with the brim on the side. I took it over and wore it with the brim over my eyes, so I would look like a gangster. We didn’t come from money. When Alex first joined the Blackhawks in 1941, he had this cardboard suitcase. Eventually, he bought some fine luggage and nice clothes. He was very well-dressed, and when I began wearing his clothes, so was I well-dressed. He never said much about the hat. And when I moved from Canmore, which is about an hour from Calgary, somehow the hat disappeared.

“That was 1955, the last I wore it. Almost 40 years later, we’re watching this hockey game, and here’s the story about my brother and the hat trick. I was shocked. If I had kept that hat, I’d be a millionaire. Actually, if I had kept that hat, it would be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, where it belongs. But that was typical Alex. He was a terrific player but never put himself above anybody else and never said a word about the hat trick. We found out about it through Hockey Night in Canada.”

There is another link between the Blackhawks and Kaleta. Follow closely. Bruce MacArthur, cousin of current team chairman Rocky, is married to Susan, whose sister Allison married Rick, youngest son of Frank Manzardo, who played with Kaleta in Canmore and currently lives in Springfield, Mo.

“I was decent,” says Frank Manzardo, “but not nearly as good as Alex. He was so fast; his nickname was ‘Seabiscuit,’ after the horse.”

In October of 1948, after four seasons in Chicago, Kaleta was traded by the Blackhawks to the Rangers along with goalie Emile “Cat” Francis, who went on to become a Hall of Fame executive/coach in New York. Kaleta, also adept as a defenseman, was on the 1950 Rangers’ team that lost to the Detroit Red Wings in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final. Although not soft, Kaleta was so gentlemanly and good-natured that he was also referred to as “Killer” by fans in New York, where he was extremely popular.

Kaleta played a total of 387 games in the NHL, after which he spent four years in the Western League.  In 2008, he was inducted into the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame, where his younger brother spoke.

“I didn’t hold up too well,” recalled Arthur, who also is addressed by some friends as “Art” or “Archie.” “But I got through it. Alex was a fine man. He talked about Chicago and the Blackhawks, how he enjoyed playing there with his teammates. But, as I said, he just wasn’t one to talk about himself. We all learned how to skate as kids on the rink in our backyard in Canmore, where we grew up. But only Alex made it to the big time. He had 24 goals in Chicago one season (1946-47) after he came back from the armed service, a lot in those days. He stayed in hockey after he retired and did some coaching, always smiling, never telling us about how he was behind a term we all know now, the hat trick.”

When Alex Kaleta was buried on July 9, 1987, a Chicago Blackhawks’ jersey was tucked under his arm.