Eveleth’s Al Suomi: 96

Albert William Suomi bundled his clothes in a cardboard box in 1934 and left Eveleth on the way to a new life. He was handed a $5 bill by his mother, Hilja, took a bus to Minneapolis and then a train to Chicago.

Hockey scout Jack Manley had convinced Suomi he had a future in the sport, starting with the minor league Chicago Baby Ruth team. The idea was appealing for a 21-year-old left winger from Garfield Avenue.

“I didn’t really think of hockey as my future, but I thought it would be an interesting thing to do for a while,” Suomi said last week from his summer home on Eveleth’s Long Lake. “I said, ‘Pa, I’ve got to go because there’s nothing up here for me.’ He didn’t like that, but it was time for me to move on.”

What Suomi didn’t expect was a telegram from the Chicago Blackhawks two years later asking him to join the NHL. With goalie Mike Karakas of Eveleth already on the team, Suomi said OK. He played just five games in his only season, in 1936-37, and didn’t record a point or a penalty, yet his perseverance has made him the oldest-living former NHL player.

At age 96, Suomi still follows the game, especially in 2010 as the Blackhawks seek their first Stanley Cup since 1961. Chicago is home tonight against Philadelphia in Game 5 of the championship series, which is tied 2-2. Suomi lives most of the year in La Grange Highlands, Ill., outside Chicago, with his youngest daughter, Marilynn Twigg, and will be watching the game there on TV.

Suomi and his late wife, Ann, had four children, and now there are 13 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. Although he says his pro hockey memories are dimming, those five glorious games in the NHL are worth recounting. All were road games.

“I don’t know why the Blackhawks got hold of me. I was just a punk kid,” Suomi said. “But I got to skate in Toronto, Boston, Montreal and Madison Square Garden (against the New York Rangers). To skate on that ice, with everyone staring at you, was a big thrill. It was fantastic.”

From Finland to Eveleth

Henry and Hilja Suomi emigrated from Finland to the U.S. in 1909 and settled in Eveleth, where Henry found work as an iron miner. Al Suomi was born Oct. 29, 1913. He and his buddies, like so many Eveleth generations, learned hockey from future U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Cliff Thompson, the Eveleth High School coach from 1920 through 1958 and the Eveleth Junior College coach.

Suomi skated at the Eveleth Hippodrome and outdoors, west of the city, in Leonidas, a mining subdivision.

An invitation to join the Chicago Baby Ruth team meant the start of a four-year pro career. Baby Ruth games preceded Chicago Blackhawks games in 1934-35, and Suomi then skated for the Detroit Tool Shop team in the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League in 1935-36.

According to reports, coach Clem Loughlin, in the last of three seasons with the Blackhawks, asked a handful of American players to try out for the team in 1936-37 as an experiment. Suomi, wearing No. 14, played with Chicago alongside fellow Iron Rangers Milton Brink and Paul Schaefer, in addition to Karakas, in the NHL for eight years. Suomi, 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, remembers pro hockey paying about $25 a week at the time.

“I thought, ‘Here’s my chance, let’s take a crack at it,’” he said.

After being released by the Blackhawks, Suomi played with the Chicago Hornets of the Chicago Arena League and came back to finish his degree at Eveleth Junior College. He began working for box manufacturer Container Corporation of America in 1941 and opened Al’s Hardware in Countryside, Ill., in 1962. After being in business for 45 years, Suomi closed his store in 2007 at age 94.

The NHL’s oldest

Louis Holmes, who was born in England and grew up near Edmonton, Alberta, had been recognized as the oldest former NHL player until dying March 11. He was 99.

Holmes, a center, played 56 games for the Chicago Blackhawks from 1931-33.

In 1931, as a rookie, Holmes recounted traveling to attend a Blackhawks camp in Minnesota.

“I trained with Chicago at Duluth before being farmed out to Pittsburgh for experience,” he told the Toronto Globe and Mail. “However, the Hawks got (off to a bad start) and the first thing I knew, a wire came ordering me to report back to the big-league team.”

An Internet list of former NHLers listed by age now shows Suomi as the league’s elder statesman. Second in line is Don Willson, 95, of Chatham, Ontario, who was a forward in 22 games for the Montreal Canadiens.

Suomi’s status earned him a recent story in the Chicago Sun-Times and a feature on WLS-TV in Chicago, and he gets autograph requests through the mail. He figures his last trip to the United Center in Chicago, to see the Blackhawks in person, was about seven years ago. He’s impressed by this season’s team and believes the Blackhawks can win a title for the first time since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita led the charge 49 years ago.

“They’re hustlers. I’d just tell them to keep playing their game, and there’s no reason they can’t do it,” Suomi told the Sun Times. “They’re good skaters. How I envy them flying around the rink.”

Just like he did for five games 73 years ago.