Back To Where We Started From: Catching Up With Ned Braden

Years after he left the Charlestown Chiefs, Ned Braden is still Ned Braden.
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Illustration by Lee Ginsburg.

The next issue of The Classical Magazine is called Talking, Sports and will become available for download in the next two days. It consists of conversations real (and imaginary) with sports-type people about sports-type things. We'll run selections from it over the next weeks, as usual, but here's an appetizer/proof-of-life before the main course is served. As ever, you can download the app (for free) and get yourself subscribed (for not very much), here.

The rental car’s wheels are already caked in Vermont mud as I drive up Ned Braden’s driveway. You can see the paddocks for his cows when you drive up on Route 105, but his house is down a dirt path that takes on the consistency of chocolate ice cream for most of the spring. Braden runs out from the paddocks to greet me. Tan, lean, with a crop of curly salt-and-pepper hair and a broad white smile, he looks like the typical retired jock that you’d see at a charity golf event. Except he’s wearing overalls and smells like cow shit.

Braden was the leading scorer on the 1976-1977 Charlestown Chiefs. Normally, the leading scorer on a minor league hockey team 35 years ago wouldn’t be worth the trip from New York City to a town a few miles south of the Canadian border, but the Charlestown Chiefs weren’t any minor league hockey team. I drove to Vermont so I could hear a story I already knew, told by one of those who made it happen. It’s a story about a team that only started winning when they started fighting, and how a perfectly timed on-ice striptease won them a Federal League title.

***

Edward “Ned” Braden III’s background was different than most of his teammates’. Most of them were blue-collar Canadians, but Braden’s father was a wealthy banker in Burlington. “He was basically Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life,” Braden told me. “He made his money foreclosing on farms in the Depression. I played hockey all day because it was better than the hell awaiting me at home.”

Braden wanted to play major junior hockey but his father refused and, per family tradition, Braden attended Princeton University, where he was the star of the hockey team. Not that anyone from the NHL cared. “To the NHL and WHA all college hockey was third-rate, and Ivy League hockey meant Love Story. When I graduated in ’74 there wasn’t a college player drafted until the third round. Never mind that I led the Ivy League in scoring, I wasn’t drafted.”

Braden had two offers, one from the Charlestown Chiefs and one from HC Davos in Switzerland. “My girlfriend at the time, Lily, begged me to take the offer from Davos. All her friends dating Princeton guys were moving to New York and L.A., they could’ve come to see her on ski trips. But I knew that I had to stay in America to make it to the NHL. So I moved to Charlestown and had to propose to her in order to keep her from leaving me.”

Charlestown, Pennsylvania hasn’t seen good days in a long time. The population has stagnated since World War II. By the 1970s the rising cost of electricity was forcing the town’s main employer, an aluminum mill, to curtail and eventually shut down its operations.

But Braden initially enjoyed his time on the Chiefs. “I was just happy to be playing hockey. And Reg was always a blast to play for.” Reg Dunlop, the Chiefs’ player-manager, cut a dashing figure across the Federal League. The rakish Canadian had bounced around the minor leagues for decades, keeping his career going on guile and charm. “He was in his 40s by the time I met him, and his skills were mostly gone,” Braden remembers, the affection palpable in his voice and half-smile. “But he had a way of keeping the espirit de corps up, a way of connecting with the fans. Management kept him around because he was so damn likeable.”

But by 1976 Dunlop’s charm was fading and nerves were fraying. As was Braden’s marriage. “We had this old Ford van and our Rumours 8-track was stuck in the player. In retrospect it was perfect because my marriage and Reg’s marriage were falling apart at the same time. We were basically Lindsey and Stevie.”

Except that Fleetwood Mac was successful. The Chiefs started out the season 2-13-3. “The low point was our loss to Hyannisport. Lily showed up to the game hammered and we had a fight on the way home. The fans weren’t much better - they knew that the aluminum mill would close, that the city would become a ghost town. And they’d take it out on us. I don’t blame them, we stunk.”

The Chiefs were desperate. As a last ditch move they signed the Hansons, a trio of Minnesotan brothers who’d fought their way to infamy in the state’s Iron League. “I don’t know where [Chiefs GM Joe] McGrath got them, but they carried all their stuff in cardboard boxes, they didn’t even own duffel bags,” says Braden. “They were a bunch of idiots that played with toy cars and drank soda while we played with girls and drank beer. Nobody knew what to do with them, least of all Reg.”

The Hanson Brothers, it turned out, couldn’t save the team. The aluminum mill was closing and the Chiefs were going to implode along with Charlestown. The players were morose after the announcement. “The next game was against the Long Island Ducks. Half the guys were hung over, half were still drunk. But in the first period Reg started sniping at their goalie, Hanrahan. We later found out that he kept saying that Hanrahan’s wife was a dyke.” Braden pauses. “Can I say dyke?”

I told him I’d have to check with my editor.

“Well, anyway, that’s what he said. Hanrahan was so pissed at Reg that he attacked him and got thrown out of the game. The fans loved it, the Ducks didn’t take their backup goalie on the road trip, and we won 7-2.” After the win the Chiefs were buoyed by even better news – that a retirement community in Florida wanted to buy a team.

“I didn’t buy the sale thing for a minute. The writer who floated the rumor, Dicky Dunn, was one of Reg’s drinking buddies. Reg was just trying to get our hopes up. Besides, why buy the Chiefs when it’d be cheaper to let us go under and just pick the players you wanted for a new team?”

But the Chiefs’ spirits were still high heading into their game against Broome County. “I don’t know if it was a sellout, but it was the most people I’d seen in the arena since I was a rookie. They were going nuts for the Hansons, who were pushing the refs as far as they could. Keep in mind that the refs only got paid if the league made money. So they’d let the Hansons do pretty much anything as long as they didn’t spill blood. I didn’t like it, myself – I could have been a carnival goon anywhere, but I went to Charlestown to play hockey.”

I was surprised to hear it, and apparently looked it. Braden sighed. “Walk with me.”

We walk from his living room to his kitchen and I can see an ice rink outside the window. “I have extra skates if you want to join me out there.”

I told him I was fine on foot.

“My wife hates it. Our kids are out of the house and it’s a pain to maintain. But that rink is a happy place for me. When I was in Charlestown that rink was my happy place, my only happy place. No wonder Lily was so miserable there – she didn’t have a happy place. And Reg took that happy place from me when he turned us into a goon squad. That’s why I was so mad.”

The Chiefs knew that they’d face trouble when they hit the road, and their strategy was to be as obnoxious as possible. The team mooned Hyannisport as their bus pulled in for a game. The harmless prank led to a tense atmosphere for the game. “The Hyannisport arena the next night was the loudest, drunkest, angriest crowd I had ever played against,” Braden said. “They wanted blood. But we were flying out there. When we were in goon mode we would feed off of opposing fans’ anger. The game was chippy all along but hell really broke loose after Steve Hanson scored to put us up 8-1. A guy in the stands threw his keys at him and Steve went into the stands.”

I told him it sounded like the Malice at the Palace.

“No, this was far worse. Initially just his brothers followed him up there, looking for the guy who threw the keys. But Steve’s glasses had broken and he couldn’t identify the culprit, so they just started fighting everyone. Pretty soon most of the Chiefs were in the stands fighting the fans. The Presidents, to their credit, stayed on the ice, they didn’t want to get involved. Thankfully our reputation preceded us so the state police were already in the arena to break up the fight. It could have been a lot worse.”

Amazingly, Hyannisport forfeited instead of the Chiefs, since it was their fans that instigated the fight. But the Massachusetts state police weren’t as lenient as the Federal League. After the game they arrested the Hanson Brothers and charged them with assault. “They could have arrested almost the entire team, so we lucked out. The Hansons didn’t mind; they used their one phone call to order a pizza.”

Wait, they did?

“Well, they knew that we’d just follow them to the Barnstable County Jail and bail them out. Which I did with my own money. Reg was complaining to the police that we’d been beaten by fans with tire irons. Meanwhile the Hansons were just sitting there eating pizza.”

***

Arrest notwithstanding, the Chiefs had turned things around. After their abysmal start they were about to qualify for the playoffs. And the players thought that a sale to a buyer in Florida was imminent. But Reg Dunlop started getting reckless. “I think Reg was starting to believe his own bullshit. The rest of the team did, so why shouldn’t he? But he should have known better. Before the Syracuse game he went on [Chiefs PA announcer] Jimmy Carr’s show put a bounty on Tim McCracken, their troglodyte of a captain. I mean, a bounty! How bush league is that?”

Pretty bush league, I allowed. Braden didn’t slow down.

“Meanwhile Lily had moved in with him. Just more of me being miserable and him being reckless. I mean, if I were her, I wouldn’t have wanted to be around me then. But Reg still shouldn’t have let her move in with him. She took our dog Ruby too. I was angrier about the dog than I was about her.”

Braden was still the team’s leading scorer, and he scored the Chiefs’ first goal against Syracuse. McCracken, whose nickname was Dr. Hook, slashed his knee after the goal but Braden refused to fight back.

“The crowd laid into me for not fighting back against McCracken. I have to be the first home player ever booed after scoring a goal. Then I blew up at Reg when I got back to the bench. He called me the biggest pussy in the league and told me I was benched. So I socked him in the face and ran up to Jimmy Carr’s booth.” Braden sighs. “Keep in mind, this was right after Lily left me. So I went up to the booth and just unloaded on her. Said everything I hated about her to the entire crowd. Of everything that happened that year, that’s what I regret the most. She didn’t ask for any of that.” Braden pauses to collect his thoughts. Then he cracks a smile.

“But then I started fighting Jimmy Carr because he kept calling me a chickenshit. He had one of those terrible ‘70s toupees and I just ripped it off his fucking head. It was fantastic. That might have been the best thing I did all year.” Braden starts laughing, really laughing, the memory seemingly thawing something in him. “Man, that toupee, it was so fucking fake. I elbowed McGrath on my way out, just so I could get the coach and the GM pissed at me at the same time.”

Braden was benched for the end of the season and the start of the playoffs. The Federal League used single-elimination playoff games because it cost too much to keep the stadiums cool in May. So a semifinal win against the Lancaster Gears put the Chiefs into the championship against Syracuse.

“Reg had gone to see the owner right before the championship game. He thought that making up a Florida deal with Dicky Dunn would actually get this lady to sell the team. Well, like I said before, nobody in their right mind would buy the Chiefs, even if we won the title. She told Reg that the team was still going to fold. His career was over. So Reg told us to play the game straight, since it’d be our last ever and we didn’t want to go out like a circus.”

But Syracuse had other plans. “We took the ice for the pregame skate but Syracuse didn’t show up. I was hoping they’d just forfeit and we could be done with it. But when they took the ice for the faceoff we saw that they’d signed the biggest goons in Federal League history. They already had McCracken. But they also signed Screaming Buffalo Swamptown, who started dressing up in Indian gear after Wounded Knee even though he was only like 1/32 Chippewa. A couple of other nasty guys too. And then there was Ogie Oglethorpe.”

Ogie Oglethorpe, a name you know. He’s a brawling ghost, a mythical creature of legendary goonishness. There is almost no concrete information available about him. I looked and found nothing, or nothing but stories.

“Ah, he was some Canadian punk. He had legal issues and problems crossing the border and that made him into a legend. But I’m not sure how serious those legal problems were. I mean, a barfight is serious, someone can get hurt, but it’s not like he was that different than the Hansons. He just got caught. But he spent so much time in jail that he got a reputation. Oh, and he had a massive fro. I mean, it had to be three feet in diameter.”

Still, the Chiefs were still determined to play the championship game straight. They let the Bulldogs run roughshod over them as the refs turned a blind eye to penalties and went into the first intermission down 2-0. “McGrath came into the locker room and tore us a new one. Apparently the NHL, which was competing with the WHA mind you, wanted to scope us out for some entertaining goons. So in the second period we came out fighting. Eventually the benches cleared, even our trainer went out there. But I stayed on the bench. I didn’t care who won, I just wanted the season to be over.”

But then it was time for Ned Braden to finally contribute to the Chiefs sideshow of a season. “So that’s when it happened?” I ask him, and Braden cracks another smile.

“I saw Lily in the crowd, wearing this fur coat. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss her. I didn’t want to fight, but I wanted her attention. I wanted her to know that I saw her. So I smiled at her and she smiled back. And it was the first time in a while I was happy. So, fuck it, I went out on the ice and started dancing.”

“And then what?”

Braden smiles again. “Thank God they didn’t have YouTube back then. But the season was already a joke, so I decided I’d participate in the joke in a harmless way. So I threw off my uniform. I was in my pads, skating around. And the high school marching band that McGrath had brought in started playing The Stripper. You know, Ravishing Rick Rude’s old theme song. And if the song is called The Stripper then I’ve gotta keep stripping.”

“All the way?”

“I eventually got down to my jock and my skates. The fight had stopped and the Chiefs were just staring and laughing. Syracuse was pissed though, they came for a fight, not a striptease. At some point McCracken pushed the ref and that, of everything, is what set the ref off. Not the fights, not the stripping, a fucking push from McCracken. Told you that guy was a prick. The ref decided that Syracuse forfeited because he got pushed. He basically handed us the trophy and told us to get bent. And damn if I didn’t skate around the rink in my jock holding that trophy up like it was the goddamn Stanley Cup.”

***

This is not where the story ends. The Chiefs had won the Federal League but they still weren’t going to exist past June 1977. The team’s status as a defendant in numerous lawsuits made them a particularly unappealing asset. “The owner should have listened to Reg all along!” says Ned. “She should have sold us while we were hot so she didn’t have to fight lawsuits well into the ‘80s. Barclay Donaldson from the Blades got a big settlement. Half the crowd in Hyannisport got something out of her. She tried to turn around and sue Reg but the court sided with him. He was always a wily fuck.”

Most of the Chiefs played the 1977-1978 season with a new Federal League team, the Minnesota Nighthawks. The owners thought the Chiefs would draw crowds but they misunderstood the state. “Turns out Minnesotans want to see actual hockey,” says Braden. “It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, the Federal League wanted to merge with the WHA, but when the WHA merged with the NHL instead then everything fell apart.”

Ned went to Minnesota with Lily but left without her. “We thought a change of scenery was what we needed, but the scars from the years in Charlestown wouldn’t heal.” He shrugs. “She’s in Florida now. The one person from Charlestown who actually made it to Florida. I hope she’s doing well. I know she’s married, but we don’t talk. I’m a part of her life that she just doesn’t want to revisit. I don’t blame her.”

Ned spent the 1978-1979 season in the WHA with the Cincinnati Stingers. “I thought for sure the NHL would take a team from Cincinnati instead of one from Hartford, but evidently I was mistaken.” After a few more years in the minor league AHL, Braden decided he was done with professional hockey.

A few members of the Chiefs went on to NHL careers. The Hansons made the Oilers, Kings and Flyers as goons, though they always refused to fight each other. Dave Carlson spent 15 years on the Blues, Capitals and Islanders before embarking on his long coaching career. And Morris Wanchuk spent 20 years in the Detroit system as a scout before he was fired for sexual harassment.

After the Federal League folded, Reg Dunlop seemingly had nowhere else to go. But the crafty, chippy forward turned out to be a canny hockey executive. When the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980 they hired Dunlop as a promoter. He retired from the organization in 1996 having won a Stanley Cup while a member of its front office. He passed in 2008, leaving no survivors. “None that we know of,” notes Braden.

Braden, who quit professional hockey once it became clear that he wouldn’t make the NHL, had moved on long ago. “Hockey just wasn’t fun any more. So I decided to backpack across Europe to get my mind straight. I was in a hostel in Stockholm when I received a telegram saying that my father had died and my mother wanted me to come back home and run the family holdings.” Braden waves his arm toward the dairy paddocks in his front yard. “As it turned out we owned some prime dairy farming real estate just as the organic movement was taking off.” Ned’s Essex County Dairy is one of the most prominent in the state, counting Ben & Jerry’s among its customers.

Braden and his second wife, Claire, live comfortably. Their youngest son plays hockey for the University of Maine and they travel to Orono for all of his games. Their two elder daughters live in New York City and Boston. Braden visits them often, and is quick to bring out the pictures of them on his iPhone.

I ask if he’s ever been back to Charlestown. He stares off for a bit and says, “I honestly never thought to. The town liked us after the title but we were an embarrassment afterward. It’s not like they ever wanted to honor us. And…” he pauses to collect his thoughts, “My friend once said your twenties are for suffering at work during the day and drinking at night. And I suffered a lot there. The ’76-77 season was entertaining for most people but personally I was going through hell. I’m happy to talk about it now, but it’s not really a period of my life that I want to revisit.”

“Besides,” he swings his arm toward his backyard, “I have a rink here. I’m still pretty good, especially since I got my new knee. Wanna play some 1-on-1?”

I tell him I will if he promises to keep his clothes on. He refuses to make that promise.


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