Olympic legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Taffy Abel and her history-changing firsts
Forty-eight stars and 13 stripes swayed as Clarence “Taffy” Abel, an ice hockey player from Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, walked the streets of Chamonix, France, holding the American flag at the first-ever Games Winter Olympics in 1924. Abel was the first Aboriginal athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. His heritage was a secret to most. Abel passed for white.
Almost a century later, 24-year-old Abby Roque made her Olympic debut at the 2022 Beijing Games as part of the USA women’s ice hockey team. Roque, a member of the Wahnapitae First Nation, is the first Indigenous player on the Team USA women’s hockey roster and the only BIPOC player on the team.
“I never understood how few Indigenous players play hockey around the world,” Roque told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “At home, there were so many Indigenous players around, and now I’m sitting here as the only player and first player on the US women’s team who is Indigenous. It’s a cool moment and something I’m so proud of, but something I obviously want to help change. I want to see more Indigenous players play the game and be on those teams. It’s really revealing.
Roque’s father, Jim Roque, now a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs, once played and coached at Clarence “Taffy” Abel Arena in Lake Superior State. Abel’s legacy is woven into the fabric of his Olympic journey.
According to Abel’s step-nephew, George Jones, 73, even before the Games it was in the family’s interest to keep their Aboriginal side a secret and racially ‘pass’ or identify as white .
“Once you started passing, you had to play the part or you’d be caught,” Jones said.
Growing up in Sault Ste Marie, a town on the St. Mary’s River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Abel and his younger sister, Gertrude, were acutely aware of their native heritage. His mother, Charlotte, was a member of the Chippewa Sault Indian First Nation. (The Chippewa peoples are now known as the Ojibwe.) His white father, John Abel, moved from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Michigan in the early 1900s. But apart from their close-knit community, their native identities remained obscure.
“As you can imagine, in the context of assimilation – in which native people were literally brought up to be ashamed of their native identity – mixed-race children who looked ‘white’ might have found it easier to allow yourself to be identified as ‘white’, ‘assimilated’, ‘civilized’ than to affirm an indigenous identity,” said Philip Deloria, a professor of history at Harvard University. He specializes in Native American, Western, and environmental history.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, hundreds of federally funded boarding schools were built near reservations across America. The schools were designed to force the assimilation of Native American children.
“Taffy and her sister didn’t want to be taken out of their house by people from a residence [assimilation] boarding school and [have them] try to beat the Indian out of them,” Jones said. “It was a big fear.
Abel and his sister then attended local public schools.
Hiding his identity was intimidating, but Abel found some solace in hockey.
According to Jones, Abel was mentally and physically aggressive on the ice. 6-foot-1 Abel thrived in the rink. After high school, he started playing amateur hockey, traveling across the country to compete.
“Word spread among people trying to put together the first ever winter hockey team,” Jones said. “And that Taffy Abel was at the top of everyone’s list.”
Prior to the 1924 Winter Games, the Olympic committee sent Abel a telegram asking him to report to Boston, where a ship would take him and other athletes to France. Wanting to perform on the world stage, Abel accepted. He then refused, citing lack of funds as the reason. As the head of the family after his father’s death in 1920, Abel’s money supported his family. But those who believed in his talent rallied to raise the money. Abel collected just enough to take the train from Sault Ste Marie to Boston. In January 1924, Abel’s passport was approved. He and other Team USA athletes traveled from the United States to Chamonix, France.
“If you look at that iconic photo, if he had identified as Native American, he would never have held that flag,” Jones said. “I can only guarantee you that.”
The United States men’s hockey team won the silver medal after losing 6-1 to Canada in the final. Abel continued his hockey career in the United States. He made his NHL debut as a defenseman in the New York Rangers’ inaugural season in 1926, where they won the division title and the Stanley Cup in Abel’s second season in 1928. Abel also played for the Chicago Blackhawks, the team won the Stanley Cup in the 1933-34 season. Abel retired from professional hockey shortly thereafter.
He continued to impersonate a white man throughout his career.
But after Abel’s retirement in 1934 and his mother’s death in 1939, he still seemed to struggle with his identity. According to Jones, everyone knew “passing” was the right thing to do at the time, but Jones believes Abel struggled with the decision.
“We know it was about survival in those days, especially in the beginning,” Jones said. “Uncle Taffy had to make a living for himself, his sister and his mother after his father died in 1920. Taffy was 20 at the time.
“My Uncle Taffy was sad. I know he was sad, and my Aunt Tracy [Abel’s wife] says he started drinking. (Tracy Abel is deceased. The couple had no children.) Every time I hear that, it means he was having some inner turmoil. Just because of the color of your skin, you had to make a drastic change in your life and in your network of family and friends to get there. I think there was a lot of torment there.”
Abel formed an amateur hockey team which he called the Soo Indians to honor his mother and their legacy after her death. He was also their coach. It was a way of giving back and claiming the part of him that had been denied for decades.
In 1964 Abel suffered a heart attack and died. Decades after his death, his family continues to plead for his story to be heard.
“I think it’s important to educate, in some way, what happened and why it happened,” Jones said.
“[Uncle Taffy] led an iconic and historic life.”
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