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Frozen Four Feature: The Hobey Baker Award

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning

As the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Tampa Bay Sports Commission prepares to host the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship, the Hobey Baker Award will reside in several areas of the arena until the conclusion of the tournament later this spring, continuing to earn its reputation as a storied and well- traveled figure much like the trophy’s namesake. Here’s an inside look at Hobey Baker, the man behind the legend:

On April 6 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, when the 2012 Hobey Baker Award is distributed to the individual deemed to be the best player in NCAA Men’s Division I ice hockey, several thousands of fans will witness perhaps the next up and coming superstar to grace the National Hockey League.

Baker himself won’t be there, of course. At least not in person.

He died 93 years ago, at age 26, test-piloting a World War I fighter plane in the cloudy skies above Toul, France.

But as one Philadelphia sports writer put it, the remarkable resume he amassed in that brief lifetime reads like an early 20th-century hybrid of the Boy Scout Oath and a Jack Armstrong novel. An all-American athlete and a war hero, Baker was Pat Tillman without the ambiguities.

Hobart Amory Hare Baker, or “Hobey” as he is known today, was born to aristocratic parents in Philadelphia who were descendants of some of Pennsylvania’s earliest and most prominent Quakers. Blonde, handsome, affluent, courageous, honorable and athletic, it almost seemed as if Baker was pre-destined to become the first athlete ever to be inducted in both the Hockey and College Football Halls of Fame before he ever laced up a skate or gripped a pigskin.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, who attended Princeton as a classmate of Baker’s, borrowed the hero’s gilded persona for This Side of Paradise, the novel whose main character, Amory Blaine, also bears his middle name. Princeton's hockey arena and NCAA hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy are today named in his honor.

“As a college hockey player, it’s always an honor to win an award,” said Lightning defenseman Matt Gilroy, who took home the Hobey Baker Award following his national championship-winning season in 2009 with Boston University. “But you hear the stories and the legend that goes with the Hobey Baker trophy and it makes winning that one just a little more special.”

Baker spent nights skating on frozen ponds in pitch darkness to improve his ability to move with the puck while not looking down, but being forced to look ahead. He was named to the school's varsity team at the age of fourteen and helped his hometown school, St. Paul’s, defeat some of the best prep schools and universities in the United States.

In every sport he attempted, Baker soon demonstrated proficiency with little difficulty or regression.

In fact, his success across the gamut of sports performance only added to the lore that today defines him.

After his first attempt at golf, he was able to score in the low 40s on the school's nine-hole course. After using roller skates for the first time, he had no trouble performing one-legged stunts within minutes. He once entered St. Paul's annual cross-country race just for fun, and won, defeating some of the school's most proficient runners. Then, at the age of 15, he was named the school's best athlete for his talent in hockey, football, baseball, tennis, swimming and track. It is rumored that most of his former classmates recalled their time at St. Paul's with Baker solely based off of his athletic achievements alone.

In reality, his accomplishments in sports served as only half of what made Baker such an appealing character.

Seeking a more serious and also thrilling hobby, Baker took up piloting in 1916 upon joining the civilian aviation corps, for which he led a squadron of 12 aircraft which performed several maneuvers to the delight of the crowds at Princeton football games.

His passion for flying was only heightened by the entry of the United States in World War I, as it finally gave him a purpose to make good use of his pilot training.

After one year in the service, Baker was promoted to lieutenant in March of 1918 and was finally sent to the front lines in April where he was assigned to the 103rd Aero Squadron, with which he recorded numerous kills and gained an exceptional reputation as a fighter pilot and a marksman.

Several months later, the thrills experienced in battle led Baker to struggle with accepting that the war had ended. He took one last flight in heavy rain before enduring engine failure a quarter-mile into the trip, but rather than performing a crash-landing which he had done numerous times before, opted to attempt to land at a near-by airbase instead.

A few hundred yards from the airfield, his plane crashed nose-first into the ground, and although he was quickly freed from the aircraft by his men, proceeded to die in an ambulance just minutes later. Newspapers reported that Baker had died as a result of engine failure, but rumors began to circulate that his death was not accidental.

While it remains uncertain the exact cause of Baker’s death, there’s no denying the legacy he left on the American sporting lexicon.

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