Reginald Alexander Sinclair
Born: March 6, 1925 (Lachine, Quebec)
Died: November 14, 2013 (Quispamsis, New Brunswick)
Member: McGill Sports Hall of Fame (2003)
Reggie Sinclair, a versatile and tough winger, was the National Hockey League’s top rookie scorer in 1950-51. He showed great promise, but only stayed in the league for three seasons, eschewing a career on the ice for one in which he sold beverages improved by ice. He became a soda-pop tycoon.
He was a rare player in his era to have attained a university degree, an achievement made possible as tuition was covered by his veteran’s benefits.
Born in the suburb of Lachine on the island of Montreal, he grew up in a city where hockey was king, including rival NHL teams in the Maroons and Canadiens. He played his juvenile hockey for a team representing the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood. In 1943, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force, meeting his future wife while undergoing pilot training in Calgary.
He also enrolled at McGill University, where he was a prolific scorer for the varsity hockey team. He scored 53 goals in 52 games with the Redmen, twice leading the squad in scoring. In his senior year, Sinclair served as team captain and earned most-valuable-player honours in the Senior Intercollegiate Hockey League with a circuit-leading 21 goals and 14 assists in just 12 games.
Sinclair set several McGill scoring records, most notable recording 10 points (three goals and seven assists) in a game against the Université de Montreal Carabins on Feb. 25, 1949. He also established other school records, including most assists in a period (five) and most assists in a game (seven).
After graduating with a commerce degree in 1949, the hard-nosed forward spent a season with the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Senior League. The Saints lost the Eastern Canadian Allan Cup finals that season. He worked that summer as a disc jockey for a local radio station.
The NHL’s New York Rangers signed Sinclair as a free agent shortly before the start of the 1950-51 season. Rangers general manager Frank Boucher originally offered Sinclair a two-year, $14,000 contract. “I told Boucher I wanted two years and $25,000 and he said if he gave me a contract like that it would cost him his job,” Sinclair told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal three years ago. “I said, ‘Okay, then, let’s get someone in the room who can get it done.’ ” After negotiating with Reed Kilpatrick, a former football players and a decorated World War One veteran who became president of the Madison Square Garden Corporation, Sinclair signed Boucher’s contract for $14,000 — plus a $10,000 signing bonus.
Sinclair was the only rookie to crack the lineup of the Stanley Cup finalists. The investment seemed a worthwhile one, as he scored 18 goals and added 21 assist to lead all first-year players in the NHL that season. (A hat-trick scored against Chicago in the final game of the season helped pad his statistics.) He tied Don (Bones) Raleigh as team points leader. Despite his impressive performance, the Calder Trophy went to Detroit goaltender Terry Sawchuk with Toronto goalie Al Rollins as runner-up.
The take-no-guff forward also earned 70 minutes in penalties as he tried to establish himself in a league where the fainthearted were solely tested. In an early game against the Red Wings, he remembered riding Gordie Howe into the boards. “I caught him in the corner with everything I had,” he told the New Brunswick newspaper, “and at the last second my stick came up and caught him in the back of the head. We turned and started skating back up the ice and the next thing I know, I take one on the side of my head.”
In a game at the Montreal Forum on Oct. 29, 1951, Sinclair opened the scoring by firing a puck past Gerry McNeil in the Canadiens net. Among the spectators were Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. His marker would be the only one for the Rangers that night, as the home team went on to a 6-1 victory on the strength of Floyd Curry’s hat-trick in the second period.
In his second season, Sinclair cracked the 20-goal plateau, a standard for excellence at the time. He played in the All-Star Game in both his rookie and sophomore seasons. The Rangers missed the playoffs in both campaigns.
In the summer of 1952, Sinclair and the rights to Johnny Morrison were traded to Detroit for Leo Reise, Jr., a veteran defenceman. The Red Wings wanted the forward as a replacement for Sid Abel on the Production Line with Howe and Ted Lindsay. That assignment did not last and Sinclair only scored 11 goals in 69 games in his third NHL season.
He then walked away from pro hockey to take a job with Pepsi at $275 per month, a fraction of what he would have earned playing hockey. But he was eager to put his education to use and preferred to make money from drink rather than at the rink.
For many years, he lived in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield, often skating in charity games with the Canadiens Oldtimers, including Maurice (Rocket) Richard, who became a good friend. In 1965, Sinclair moved his family to New Jersey after he was promoted to vice-president of Pepsi International. Two years later, he joined Royal Crown Cola as an executive, living in Chicago and Columbus, Ga. He eventually moved to Rothesay, N.B., becoming president, partner, and a major shareholder in Maritime Beverages, a Pepsi bottler based in Saint John.
For three seasons, he was a part-owner of the minor league Halifax Oilers. Over the years, he attended countless games as a spectator, including Atlanta Flames games. He knew the northern game did not always travel well in the South. “There used to be two ladies that sat behind us in Atlanta,” he once told a Florida newspaper. “One night I heard one of the ladies telling the other, ‘I wish they would slow the puck down. It would be so much easier to follow.’ ”