Hobey Baker: Princeton hockey star, decorated American pilot

Today is Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada.  Our collective moment of silence at the eleventh hour of the morning in schools or workplaces to solemnly reflect, appreciate and honour those who served our nations in wartime will be brief.  Yet in that brevity, we will remember – we must remember – the bravery of soldiers who responded to the call to defend our hard-won and cherished liberty.  There is a 33-word excerpt from Pericles’ Funeral Oration, carved in the stones of the Soldiers’ Tower at University of Toronto, that concisely explains why every generation must remember the sacrifice of servicemen:

Take these men for your ensamples. Like them, remember that prosperity can be only for the free, that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.

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Hobey Baker, America’s first hockey star of the twentieth century, demonstrated this courage to defend freedom when he served his country during the latter part of the Great War.  While many associate his name with the award given annually to the finest player in American collegiate hockey, Hobey Baker was much more than just an excellent hockey player.  Baker starred at Princeton in both football and hockey.  He captained both Princeton Tigers teams to national championships: the football club in 1911 and the hockey team in 1912 and 1914.

Even before the United States entered World War I, Baker had already taken flying lessons, anticipating the call of his country for prepared and trained pilots.  In 1917, as a First Lieutenant, he went to England then France for further flying and advanced military pilot training.  Baker became a member of the 103rd Aero Squadron in April 1918 and was posted to the Fourth Army where he was part of a group patrolling the lines in northern France.  At the end of the month, Baker participated in a counter-attack near Ypres in poor-visibility conditions due to mist, low clouds and smoke from exploding shells.  Despite accidentally getting separated from his fellow pilots and a faulty compass that caused him to fly inside German lines, the gritty Baker was able to navigate his way back to safety.

The following month, drawing on this experience, Baker went on the attack with a group of five from the 103rd Squadron in Ypres and took on twenty-five German scouts.  Baker shot down one of the planes and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, for heroism in combat against the enemy.  By the summer, Baker was promoted to flight commander of the 14th Aero Squadron and began training new pilots.  By autumn, his skills and leadership were once again recognized when he was promoted to Captain and in early November, days before the end of the Great War, he led his new squadron into battle and personally shot down two more German planes.

In wartime as in peacetime, Hobey Baker’s exemplary character and leadership were clearly evident.  On the ice and on the gridiron, he was known for his sportsmanlike conduct, often giving personal congratulations to the opposing team.  As a commander, the pilots under his authority respected, admired and trusted him.  He was reliable, unselfish and always willing to deflect credit to his fellow pilots.  Tragically, forty days after the Armistice was signed, Hobey Baker was killed when a repaired plane he was test-flying crashed in Toul, France.  He was twenty-six.  Major Charles Biddle, a fellow Princeton graduate and one of Baker’s former commanders had this to say about the deceased pilot: “I have never known a man who was more eager to fly or who tried harder to give to his country the very best that was in him. He fought whenever the opportunity offered and always with the most fearless courage.”

In addition to the Hobey Baker Award, Princeton has honoured him by naming the school’s arena the “Hobart Baker Rink”.  He was the first American to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945 and twenty-eight years later, became a charter member of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.  In 1975, he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Sources: Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, Princeton Alumni Weekly Blog
PhotographsWikimedia Commons, Flickr Creative Commons

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About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch

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