Clarence “Taffy” Abel was born May 28th, 1900 in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Taffy played in the NHL for eight years, and became the first player from the United States to become a regular NHL player, up until then, Canadians had held the overwhelming majority in the league.
Taffy’s nephew, George Jones, reached out to SaultOnline following an article I had written about the release of Fred Saskamoose’s memoir, “Call Me Indian”, in which the press release stated that Saskamoose was the first Treaty Status Indigenous player in the NHL. It is important to note that, in no way is recognizing Taffy Abel’s achievements meant to take away from Fred Saskamoose’s story and what he has done for Canadian Hockey and Indigenous communities as a whole.
“It’s a bit more personal. When it happens to one of your family members, you know, current, or deceased, or whatever, you’re stealing from this person’s legacy. And to me, that’s an injustice and dishonest, disrespectful, whichever way somebody wants to position it,” Jones explains, “for my family, it’s definitely defamation of character on the legacy of my Uncle Taffy Abel, a proud Native American, and a proud American.”
Taffy Abel kept his heritage as an Indigenous man to himself for many years, for many reasons. Taffy’s father passed away when Taffy was in his twenties, leaving him as the family breadwinner. In fear of racial discrimination, Taffy Abel chose not to disclose his background until many years later, and “passed” himself as white throughout his NHL career.
Taffy started his NHL career with the New York Rangers playing three seasons, winning his first Stanley Cup in his second season with them in 1928. Abel went on to play for the Chicago Blackhawks for five seasons, winning the Stanley Cup for a second time in the 1934 season.
Abel played 333 games in an era when defenseman rarely scored as no forward passing was allowed in the offensive zone until later in 1929. He totaled a whopping 18 goals and 18 assists.
Taffy Abel became the first American to carry the U.S. flag at the first ever opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games in 1924. He remains the only Native
American to have carried the United States’ flag at an Olympic Opening Ceremony.
The US Olympic ice hockey team played five matches in 1924, winning four of them by double-digits. USA lost their final match to Canada, 6-1. Taffy Abel won a silver medal in his only Olympic appearance, and scored 15 goals.
George Jones has been working to get Taffy Abel the rightful recognition as a figure in Indigenous hockey history. Recently, Jones had the International Olympics Committee change Taffy Abel’s athlete bio to reflect his Indigenous status.
Abel died of a heart attack at 64 years old in his hometown. His obituary, like those of his mother and maternal grandfather, did not mention the Native-American connection.
In fact, his heritage wasn’t known widely outside of Sault, Michigan until he was finally inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 1990. This was thanks to the effort undertaken by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Abel’s most recent honour came in 2012, when he was featured in an exhibition celebrating Native Olympians at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Taffy Abel’s Olympic silver medal has actually been missing since his passing. His wife wrote into the local paper, trying to locate the medal. To this day, it remains missing.
“I would pay a generous reward if it was returned, and I would put it on public display in the Sault. I just hope somebody knows where it is,” Jones shares.
If anyone has information on the whereabouts of Taffy Abel’s silver medal, please email George Jones at [email protected]