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Then and Now: Son of Sudbury pioneer first Jewish player in NHL

Signed in 1924 by the Montreal Maroons, Samuel Rothschild was with the NHL until 1928, even winning a Stanley Cup

Samuel Rothschild, the son of Sudbury pioneers, was the first Jewish player in the National Hockey League. He was an enthusiastic member of the city's sports community and coach of the 1932 Cub Wolves when they won the Memorial Cup.

Before he died at the age of 88 in 1987, he shared his family’s story in the Spring/Summer 1983 edition of Polyphony, Sudbury’s People, published by the Multicultural History Society of Ontario.

His father, Daniel, with uncles Max, Manuel and Jacob, in order to avoid compulsory army training in Russia, immigrated to the United States. They landed in New York City before moving to Montreal. They all became successful businessmen in Northern Ontario.

Daniel sold merchandise from a backpack to railway labourers as they forged west to Sudbury in 1883. It quickly became apparent that this muddy construction camp offered numerous opportunities.

He opened a general store across the street from the original CPR station at Elgin and Cedar. Brother Max owned a butcher shop next door.

The Rothschild brothers are considered Sudbury's first Jewish settlers. From 1900 to 1915, they had a licence from the province to operate a liquor store. The store closed in 1916 when the Ontario Temperance Act prohibited the sale of alcohol.

As the Rothschilds prospered as merchants, opening branch stores and investing in sawmills and hotels, they built a handsome brick building at Elgin and Cedar streets in 1915.

The building, with its simple rounded lines, would have been very modern-looking at the time. 

It has had many owners and occupants over the last century and is listed on the city's historical building registry. It is now home to Hard-Line Solutions, a company specializing in remote control and automation, mostly in the mining industry. 

Other current occupants include the Cedar Nest Cafe and La Fromagerie.

In 1927, when the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) was established at the end of Prohibition, it opened one of its first 16 stores in the Rothschild building. The LCBO operated out of this original location for more than 60 years.

In 1888, Daniel married Annie Harris. Rothschild remembered his mother saying his father told her Sudbury was just an hour or two from Montreal. She soon learned it was a world away from the life she knew in New York City.

The couple had seven children and lived for a time in a house on Elm Street near Paris Street before moving to a larger home at Pine and Dufferin streets.

Daniel donated land at 7 Dufferin – the upper part of Dufferin at Elm later merged with Pine – for the city’s first synagogue, which held its first service in October 1915. He was also instrumental in helping other Jewish immigrants find work and get established in northern communities.

Daniel died in 1929 after losing much of his fortune in the fur wholesaling business.

Born in 1899, Samuel or "Sammy" Rothschild was a talented baseball and hockey player. He played with the Sudbury Junior Wolves and five seasons with the senior Sudbury Wolves.

He attended McGill University for two years, but by his own admission, was a poor student interested only in pool and bowling. 

He told local historian Gary Peck in a 1981 CIGM Music and Memories interview that he wasn't allowed to write his exams because he had missed too many classes.

In 1924, he signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Maroons. He received a $1,000 signing bonus and his annual salary was $3,500.

The left-winger played three seasons with the Maroons including the 1926 season

when they won the Stanley Cup.

Weighing about 125 pounds, at five foot six, he was one of the smallest players. He distinguished himself by wearing a cap, on and off the ice, to cover his premature balding head.

Rothschild played 91 regular season/playoff games with Montreal before signing as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates* at the beginning of the 1927-28 season.

After 12 games with Pittsburgh, the team suspended him for breaking training rules. He was released and signed with the New York Americans. His coach was Sudbury's Shorty Green.

Rothschild told Peck, "I reported to Pittsburgh and I played a few games there and I got the flu and went home, back to Montreal. 

When I was in Montreal I got word from the New York Americans that they'd bought my contract. New York had bought it because, as I was the first Jewish player in the NHL, (and with) the number of Jewish people in New York, I should be a big attraction there. 

So that's where I went and I played about a month and a half...until this one night when I went to hit some big guy and, and I threw my whole 125 pounds at him and, and he weighed about 220 and he got the better of the brawl."

A knee injury ended his professional hockey career in 1928. Family friend Sam Bronfman, owner of Seagram's, offered him a job. 

Rothschild was the liquor company's representative in Northern Ontario for 40 years and used his influence to secure Seagram's sponsorship of local sporting events.

Back in Sudbury, he coached amateur hockey teams, including the 1932 Cub Wolves when they won the Memorial Cup over the Winnipeg Monarchs. The Sudbury Star obtained a special license to broadcast the final game on the radio from Winnipeg.

In the 1983 book, "Sudbury, Rail Town to Regional Capital," C.M. Wallace wrote, "When the final whistle was blown and the Cub Wolves won by a single goal, people rushed into the streets of Sudbury, shouting, singing and dancing around bonfires...Rothschild and (manager Max) Silverman became local heroes, and one of the players, Hector 'Toe' Blake, a hockey figure of national prominence."

Rothschild married Eva Yackman, a teacher, in 1933 but the couple did not have children. As he grew older, he enjoyed golfing and curling. 

In 1953, Rothschild led the organizing committee for the national men's curling championship, the Brier, which was held at the new Sudbury Community Arena.

(Watch a documentary about the event on YouTube).

In 1958, he was elected president of the Dominion Curling Association.

During this time, he secured Northern Ontario’s “special status” at the Brier. To this day, there is a Northern Ontario team and an Ontario team.

In 1975, Rothschild was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame. He is the only person from Sudbury to achieve this honour.

He was a city councillor for two terms, president of the chamber of commerce, and active in the Lions Club.

Rothschild gave three half-hour interviews in 1981 for the Music and Memories radio program. The interviews indicate Rothschild was a colourful character with a gift for the gab and an incredible memory.

Consider this excerpt. "The Stanley Cup (1926) was really the crowning thing. That is when I began to think of getting out of hockey and getting into a business and trying to capitalize not only on my own popularity but the popularity of some of the fellows I was playing for.

"A Montreal businessman came to me and asked if I knew (NHL star) Howie Morenz. Well I knew Howie fairly well. I knew his wife when she was a little girl...and so could I get him (because) they wanted to start a hat shop, Howie Morenz's Hat Shop.

"The idea was this fellow would finance it, and I'd be running the shop and Howie would use his name and he'd be in there to sign autographs or something like that. I approached Howie but he wouldn't go for it. "

*Pittsburgh Pirates were an American professional ice hockey team in the NHL in the 1920s.

An earlier version of this article appeared on sudburylivingmagazine.com June 1, 2011.

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. She is a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living magazine, and has a special interest in local history. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

Sources:

ontariojewisharchives.org

Spring/Summer 1983 edition of Polyphony, Sudbury’s People, published by the

Multicultural History Society of Ontario

Music and Memories, CIGM, March 8, 1981, transcript

The Story of Our Times: Greater Sudbury Souvenir Anniversary Edition (Laurentian Publishing) 2008