Cape Breton’s John “Junior” Hanna: First NHLer of Lebanese descent

Originally published in the Cape Breton Star –  March 21, 2015
Written by John White – Chronicle Herald


“Being an NHL player never ever changed him by any means. He was just John Hanna who grew up in Sydney. That’s who he was, and he wasn’t going to change for anybody.”

B97435197Z.120150319112439000GMI8SO1I.10The above comment comes from John Hanna Jr., proud son of the late, John “Junior” Hanna, all-around good guy, and the first of Lebanese descent to play in the NHL. John and I recently sat and talked about his father.

Hanna played 17 professional seasons as a defenceman from the 1950s through to the ’70s. For three full years he was a member of the New York Rangers at the time of the Original Six era. He later saw action with the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers and spent one season with the World Hockey Association’s Cleveland Crusaders. Hanna played for a few minor-pro clubs, including the AHL’s Quebec Aces and the Seattle Totems of the WHL, where he was highly respected. He also coached professionally for four years.

Remarkably, just 10 years before he made his Rangers’ debut, Hanna first began to skate at age 13. Think about that. Most kids who hope to play in the NHL start skating at age four, five or six and work their way up through the minor hockey ranks and beyond. Nearly all of them stand little chance of realizing their dream. Hanna, on the other hand, defied logic.

“That’s almost unheard of today. If you don’t have skates on before you’re 13 years old, you’re probably not going to resemble any kind of a hockey player,” son John said.

At age 19, which is considered reasonably old to embark on a hockey career, Hanna left Sydney for Trois Rivieres, Quebec and competed in the Quebec Junior League. After one season there, he graduated to the Quebec Hockey League, a semi-professional circuit, and played two years with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and one for the Trois Rivieres Lions. In 1957-58 the NHL Rangers came calling and assigned him to their AHL club, the Providence Reds.

Hanna broke into the NHL in ’58-59 and was able to crack a Rangers’ defense corps that included two future Hockey Hall of Famers: Harry Howell and Bill Gadsby, along with tough-guy Lou Fontinato. And Hanna wasn’t just a spare part; he played a regular shift and dressed for all 70 games. Not bad for a late bloomer, eh?

Of course, coming from Cape Breton and later living and playing in those tiny Quebec communities meant a huge adjustment when Hanna came upon the bright lights of New York City. Lucky for him, he happened to have relatives in “The Big Apple.”

“My father’s uncle, Simon Haddad, married a girl named Kay, who owned Kay’s Kozy Corner restaurant on Townsend St. in Sydney,” John said. “She had a sister in New York married to a guy named Howie Fuhrer, and my dad lived with them his first year or two with the Rangers. It really helped him settle in.”

Hanna was very people-oriented, and those of you who knew him would certainly agree. Not surprisingly, he developed a likeness toward the citizens of New York City, who oftentimes are handed an unfair rap for their so-called hostile mannerisms. “Before I came here,” Hanna said in a 1959 magazine article that John brought along to the interview, “I had expected all New Yorkers to be very cold and impolite. But that’s just not so. New Yorkers are pretty wonderful.”

Following three seasons in New York, Hanna was traded to the Montreal Canadiens, but unfortunately for him, the Habs were well stocked on defence. Consequently, most of his time in that organization was spent with the AHL affiliate, Quebec Aces. For six-plus years he called Quebec City home, and wouldn’t you know it, he fell in love with the place, and, of course, its people.

“Quebec City was probably one of my father’s favourite cities,” said John. “He was eventually team captain there, and playing in the Quebec Coliseum was a big thrill. He had learned French earlier in his junior days and was able to speak it fluently. My mother, Gloria, loved Quebec City, too. Of all the places she lived during their hockey travels, it was her favourite.”

In 1963-64, Hanna was called up to the Canadiens for six games. “That was a huge thrill for him,” John said. “And credit to Montreal, whether he played one game or six, they treated him like he was there for 10 Stanley Cups, no different. In fact, to this day I’m reaping the benefits of his time there,” said John. “I recently got a call from Rejean Houle, the president of the team’s alumni association. I had phoned him mentioning that I wanted to get up for a game and he returned my call asking how he could help. It all goes back to my dad.”

Next week: I continue my look at the career of Cape Breton’s John “Junior” Hanna with help from his son John.

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