Historic college hockey rink honors sports star turned war hero

hobey rink
hobey rink

The 2022-2023 NCAA Hockey season marked a significant anniversary for Princeton University in New Jersey and college hockey as a whole. Hobey Baker Memorial Ice Rink, home to the Princeton Tigers Men's and Women's Ice Hockey teams, turned 100 years old. A cathedral of college sports, this venue opened on January 5, 1923, making it the second oldest active arena in NCAA Division I Hockey behind Northeastern University's Matthews Arena.

Hanging in the rafters of this historic arena is a banner emblazoned with a black and orange Princeton Ice Hockey jersey and the text, "Baker '14." This banner is dedicated to the stadium's namesake, Hobart Amory Hare "Hobey" Baker, a college ice hockey and football star for the Princeton Tigers. A 1914 college graduate, Baker worked a number of jobs, including journalist, banker, businessman, and amateur ice hockey player, before turning his attention towards the emerging field of aviation. It was as a military aviator during World War I that Baker, to the shock of the American public, lost his life in a plane crash in France.

Born into a prominent Philadelphia family in 1892, Baker gravitated towards sports at a young age. In 1903, Baker and his brother were sent off to boarding school at the prestigious St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, where he became a star athlete across multiple athletic disciplines. There, he first discovered his talent for hockey under the tutelage of legendary ice hockey coach Malcolm Kenneth Gordon, who is credited with developing and popularizing the sport in the United States.

baker hockey player
Hobey Baker in his St. Paul's School Hockey Uniform. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Baker's widespread popularity on the ice and football field began in 1910, when he enrolled as a freshman at Princeton. At Princeton, university rules restricted Baker to playing only two varsity sports. This rule forced the young man to drop baseball and focus his athletic attention on football and ice hockey. Baker played a key role on the Princeton Tigers football team. A quarterback who also specialized in punt returns and kicking, Baker's crowning achievement on the gridiron came during the 1911 season when he scored 92 points in one season. This team record would stand until the 1974 season. As a senior, Baker was named captain of the football team during the 1913 season. As captain, he led the Tigers to a winning record season of five wins, two losses, and one tie. The 1913 campaign was part of an overall successful string of seasons resulting in 20 wins, three losses, and four draws during Baker’s three years of varsity football.

Baker’s most notable achievements came on the ice. In three seasons of varsity hockey at Princeton, Baker scored 80 goals in 37 games. His four goals a game average at Princeton completely revitalized a sport previously known for relatively low-scoring games. Baker was named captain twice of the Tigers squad and considered the best amateur hockey player in the country during his playing days. His speed and skills on the ice earned him the unofficial title of "King of Hockey" by adoring teammates, coaches, and Princeton fans. Baker was a key member of two Tigers squads that captured national championships, the 1911-1912 and 1913-1914 teams.

princeton hockey
Hobey Baker in his Princeton Hockey Uniform. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Following his graduation from Princeton in 1914, Baker spent the summer touring Europe and working as a correspondent for The New York Times. Following his return to the United States, Baker went to work in the insurance and banking fields on Wall Street before transitioning to his family's upholstery business. He sought relief from his workplace boredom by joining the St. Nicholas Hockey Club in the American Amateur Hockey League (AAHL) in 1914.

A member of St. Nicholas Hockey Club from 1914 to 1916, Baker continued to excite hometown fans at the St. Nicholas Rink (also known as St. Nicholas Arena) in Manhattan. The league was in large part composed of semi-professional players from the United States, who previously played at the college level, as well as Canadians working in New York City. His popularity amongst fans was displayed on the home arena’s marquee, which often read, "Hobey Baker Plays Tonight.” Despite all his fame and accomplishments on the ice, Baker never turned professional due to his family’s standing in society, and a personal belief that sports should solely be played for the love of the game and not as a career.

With the First World War raging in Europe, and the likelihood of United States involvement in the conflict looming, Baker took up flying. His first experience came as a civilian aviation corps volunteer on Governors Island off the coast of New York City. This program was established to train civilians, qualify them as military aviators, and receive reserve commissions in the United States Army’s Aviation Section, Signal Corps. This experience provided Baker with the necessary flying training and experience he would later leverage in combat during World War I. According to numerous sources, flying provided Baker with the same rush of excitement and joy as sports did.

hobey baker in uniform
Lt. Hobey Baker. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In anticipation of the formal entrance of the United States into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers, Baker, filled with excitement, embarked on a journey to Europe in the summer of 1917. Hoping to join the Allied war effort on the front, Baker set out to get certified to fly by the French military. Training delays, a lack of instructors, and aircraft supply shortages delayed Baker from joining the fight.

Baker's dream of fighting in the ongoing conflict became a reality in April 1918, when he was assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron, a U.S. Army Air Service unit that was composed of numerous American pilots who had previously served in the disbanded La Fayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps. These French units, named in honor of the American Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de La Fayette, were established earlier in the war and filled with American volunteers. Following his first confirmed kill in French airspace on May 21, 1918, Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government. This military decoration, first awarded during World War I, is awarded to individuals who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces.

During the summer of 1918, Baker was assigned to the 13th Aero Squadron. After shooting down another German aircraft, Baker was given command of the 141st Aero Squadron, a unit that consisted of 26 pilots and 180 enlisted service members. While assigned to the 141st, he was promoted to captain in October 1918. As a flier with this squadron, Baker downed two more enemy aircraft, on October 29 and November 5, respectively.

Baker took his final flight just over a month after the armistice that ended World War I was signed on November 11, 1918. On December 21st, Baker took off from his squadron's airfield in Toul, France. The plane that carried Baker had recently been repaired and was in need of a test flight. Shortly after take-off, Baker's aircraft experienced what appeared to be a mechanical failure. He crash-landed the plane nose-first in a field a few hundred yards from the airfield. Members of Baker's squadron quickly responded to the accident, removing Baker from the wreckage. Despite this valiant effort to save their comrade, Baker succumbed to injuries minutes later in an ambulance. The true tragedy is that Baker had received orders to return home to the United States from France earlier that day.

hobey baker award fighter pilot
Hobey Baker the Fighter Pilot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For over 100 years, Baker has captured the imaginations of countless people, ranging from close relations to strangers, for his feats in and outside of sports. The admiration he experienced in life continued well after his death with numerous tributes pouring in from notable figures in literary, military and sports circles.

Famed American writer and fellow Princeton student F. Scott Fitzgerald saw Baker as, “an ideal worthy of everything in my enthusiastic admiration, yet consummated and expressed in a human being who stood within ten feet of me.”

According to numerous sources, Baker served as an inspiration for characters in two of Fitzgerald’s notable works, Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Both Baker and the fictional Buchanan achieved much national notoriety in their youth as football stars at prestigious Ivy League universities. The fictional Buchanan is described in the book as, ''one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.''

Baker's former commanding officer and fellow Princeton alum, Major Charles Biddle, wrote about the character of the man who was Hobey Baker in an article for the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

As a man Captain Baker was a striking example of the finest that America can produce. In the course of several months of living and flying with him on the front I came to know him intimately. He was a thorough gentleman and a true friend on whom one could always rely… In spite of all the well deserved praise that was heaped upon him for his success in athletics and in the service, he was totally unspoiled by it and he was modest almost to a fault. His record as an officer was a splendid one, and he was a son of whom Princeton may well be proud.

Sports columnist and editor W.O. McGeehan listed the late Baker as one of three men who he considered Princeton University greats. In a 1930 article, he wrote:

When one looks for personification of the spirit of Princeton University one must consider three men who went out from Nassau Hall: Woodrow Wilson, the World War President of the United States; Johnny Poe, the restless soldier of fortune who fought in many lands and died with the Black Watch; and the radiant young Hobey Baker, who crashed in an airplane in France. You can choose according to your day and generation. The careers of all three were brilliant and tragic. 

In a 1991 article for Sports Illustrated, longtime sportswriter Ron Fimrite described Baker as a man whose “influence extended far beyond the printed page.” He went on to write, “Through his spartan example, he imposed a code of behavior on athletes, particularly college athletes, that was accepted, if not faithfully observed, for the better part of four decades.”

Baker was originally buried in a military cemetery near Toul, however, his remains were returned to the United States in 1921, where they were re-interred in his mother's family plot in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Visitors to his gravesite continue to leave hockey pucks on his tombstone as a sign of respect to the memory of the man who accomplished so much during his young life, most notably on the ice. A fitting tribute to the young athletic star and war hero, his tombstone poetically reads:

You who seemed winged, even when a lad,
With that swift look of those who know the sky,
It was no blundering Fate who stooped and bade
You break your wings, and fall to earth and die.
I think one day you may have flown too high,
So that Immortals saw you and were glad,
Watching the beauty of your spirit’s flame,
Until they loved and called you, and you came.

hobey baker grave
Gravesite of Hobey Baker in West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In December 1921, just three years after Baker’s death in France, Princeton announced it would build a hockey rink on campus. This announcement was met with much fanfare, as the Tigers' new home of hockey would be named in honor of the university's greatest athletic hero. Hobey Baker Memorial Rink opened on January 5, 1923. The first of many ice hockey games played in the rink was a contest between two of Baker's former hockey teams, the Princeton Tigers and St. Nicholas Hockey Club. The Tigers emerged the victor by a score of 3-2.

Despite renovations and upgrades to the venue over the years, the rink has remained relatively unchanged over the decades. A trophy case on the concourse contains a number of items associated with Hobey Baker and the Princeton hockey program. The highlights of this display are a pair of his ice skates and a portrait of Baker in his U.S. Army aviator uniform.

hobey baker award
Portrait of Hobey Baker in Princeton's Hobey Baker Memorial Rink. Photo: Author's Collection

Baker was part of the first class (1945) of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and the first American enshrined in this prestigious institution. This was the first of many honors for one of America's first ice hockey stars; he was later inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. Baker was posthumously awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy by the National Hockey League (NHL) and USA Hockey in 1987, an award that recognizes the recipient's outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

The greatest honor associated with Baker is the prestigious Hobey Baker Award. Established in 1981, this award honors the top college ice hockey player each season. Past recipients of this award include numerous players who went on to have careers in the professional ranks, including Hockey Hall of Famer and former University of Maine star Paul Kariya, who received this honor in 1993.

The legacy and honors bestowed upon Hobey Baker prove the adage that legends never die.