Lionel Hitchman was steady, aggressive and defensive-minded defenseman who was often paired with Eddie Shore to form one of the greatest defense tandems in hockey history. Hitchman's flawless defensive play allowed Shore more freedom to play an offensive game, a rarity among rearguards in the early days of hockey. The duo formed a feared one-two defensive punch, with their favorite target being Montreal's Howie Morenz.
Because of his defensive role, Hitchman was an unheralded player. The Toronto-born Hitchman never made an All-Star team and never scored more than 11 points in a season but was integral to the success of the Boston Bruins and prior to that the Ottawa Senators.
"Hitch" started his professional career with the Senators in 1922-23, arriving just in time to play with the legendary Eddie Gerard en route to the playoffs. He played his typical quiet style and even helped the Sens win the Stanley Cup that season.
Though he was a NHL rookie, he played with great composure and dignity. That was never more so evident than in a playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens. Noted goon/superstar Sprague Cleghorn of the Habs cross-checked the lanky Hitchman in the face, knocking out the some of Hitch's teeth and breaking his nose. The foul was so flagrant that not only did the dirty Cleghorn earn a match penalty on the play, but he was suspended by his own team for the final game of the series. Hitch kept on playing, with plaster on his nose, helping the Sens win the NHL title.
The Senators then had to travel west for the Stanley Cup finals where they defeated Vancouver and Edmonton. Frank Patrick, PCHA president, called this year's Senators team the greatest team he had ever seen.
Hitchman was already a player of some notoriety in the Ottawa area before he signed on with the Senators. He had played amateur hockey with the Ottawa New Edinburghs for two seasons while also working as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
But it wasn't until he joined the Boston Bruins that he got some recognition of his own. The Bruins, who had long admired his heart and physicality, acquired Hitchman in the 1924-25 season. It seems Ottawa somehow found Hitchman expendable, probably due to the arrival of highly touted local amateur Ed Gorman (who never really amounted to much in the NHL).
Hitchman, who interestingly would become teammates in Boston with his old nemesis Cleghorn, went on to help Boston to its first Stanley Cup final (the B's fell in two games to Hitchman's old Ottawa teammates) with a solid, 3-6-9 campaign in 1926-27. Late in the final loss to Ottawa Hitchman became involved in a brutal fight with former teammate Buck Boucher, drawing a match penalty and $50 fine.
He then added five goals, eight points and a career-high 87 penalty minutes to the cause as Boston finished first in the American Division -- the club's first first-place finish -- in 1927-28. Although the Bruins had players with far more name recognition, Hitchman was named the first captain in the club's modern history that season.
Everything fell into place in 1928-29. Hitchman had a unremarkable offensive season -- one goal, no assists in 38 games, during which he logged 64 penalty minutes --but he led a defense that was virtually impenetrable. The Bruins surrendered only 52 goals over 44 games, then gave up only three more in five playoff games. After a three-game sweep of Montreal in the first playoff round, Hitchman and the B's allowed just one goal in the two-game final with the New York Rangers and claimed the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Hitchman matched his regular-season scoring output during the playoffs, contributing the only assist of his post-season career.
Hitchman continued to play the same steady, physical brand of defense through 1933-34, even playing with a broken jaw for part of the 1929-30 campaign. During his 10 seasons on Boston's blue line, the Bruins finished first in the American Division five times (four years in a row between 1928 and 1931) and played in three Cup finals. He played in 377 games as a Bruin, collecting 26 goals and 26 assists for 52 points and 466 penalty minutes. His post-season career included 31 games, three goals, four points and 52 PIMs.
Today fans attending Boston Bruins games will notice Hitchman's number three hanging high in the rafters along side much more familiar hockey legends like Shore, Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and Cam Neely. Hitchman may be all but forgotten by history, but know this: Hitchman was so good in his day that he became only the second player in NHL history to have his jersey retired.
The late Frank Frederickson would agree Hitchman was one of the all time greats. Frederickson, the Canadian Olympic hero turned Hockey Hall of Famer, once compared Hitchman and his partner Eddie Shore:
"To me, Shore was a country boy who had made good; he was a good skater and puck carrier but was not an exceptional defenseman like his teammate Lionel Hitchman who was better because he could get them coming and going."