It was in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip that Snoopy famously donned goggles and a white scarf and perched atop his doghouse. In his mind, Snoopy was in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel fighter plane, soaring through the heavens in World War I, shooting down enemy aircraft for the Allies.
That daydream made for a memorable story line in the funny pages, but Detroit’s first professional hockey coach actually served as a fighter ace in World War I. William James “Artie” Duncan actually piloted a Sopwith Camel, shot down German planes, and was awarded medals for his heroism in the clouds. This was a decade before he roamed the ice and bench as a player/coach of the Detroit Cougars in the first National Hockey League season for a team wearing Detroit sweaters.
Duncan was born just across the border from Michigan in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1891. By the time he was 18 he was skating circles around men much older than him, and in 1913 he debuted with the Eskimos of Edmonton, starting a long pro career. When Great Britain entered World War I amid the tangled web of alliances in 1914, Duncan, as a Canadian subject of the British Empire, was also at war. In 1916 he entered the Royal Flying Corps, and after training as a fighter pilot, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Duncan was sent to France in 1917 and in November he recorded his first aerial victory. Several more quickly followed, and within a few months he was promoted to the rank of captain. Heralded for his skill and bravery, Duncan was also a natural leader. In 1918, Duncan was awarded the Military Cross by the British Empire, a result of his 11 combat victories, which included an impressive destruction of a German balloon and the capture of an enemy commander.
His commendation read:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On one occasion he attacked and shot down an enemy plane which had been engaged at firing on our infantry. He then led his patrol over the enemy’s lines, dived down to an altitude of 100 feet, and attacked large numbers of hostile infantry with machine gun fire, causing the utmost panic amongst them and inflicting heavy casualties. His continuous gallantry and initiative have been most conspicuous.
A later commendation stated:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer sighted fifteen enemy scouts attacking eight of ours and immediately joined in, destroying one enemy aeroplane, which fell with a wing off. He then attacked and drove down three other machines, maintaining the fight until the eight had got back to their lines. He has also, with another officer, destroyed an Albatros scout, which he followed down to a height of 200 feet, in spite of heavy machine-gun fire from the ground.
Having been away from the ice for nearly three years, when the war ended late in 1918, Duncan wasted little time getting back to the rink. He signed with Vancouver of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, where he played for seven seasons. A defenseman, Duncan was a tall, muscular fellow. He rattled opponents with the same ease he showed when he guided his single-seat bi-plane through the skies in battle. In 1923-24, Duncan led the league in scoring (21 goals and 10 assists in a 30-game season), making him the first defenseman to lead a pro league in scoring, a feat matched only by Bobby Orr several decades later.
In 1926, when Detroit joined the NHL, Duncan was signed by owner Charles A. Hughes, who desired a leader and veteran to helm his fledgling team. Duncan played and coached the Cougars for 33 games in 1926 and early 1927 but he had little success with an overmatched roster of players. His lackluster record was 10-21-2 before he was fired. Ironically, Duncan never coached the team in Detroit. Because the new franchise had yet to build an arena, they played their home games in Windsor, Ontario.
After being dumped by Detroit, Duncan signed with Toronto, where he played three more full seasons and coached in two of them. He was Toronto’s coach when they wore the famous Maple Leafs’ logo on their white sweaters for the first time. Duncan lived long enough to see the world go back to war again, and to witness both Detroit and Toronto become powers in the NHL. He died in Ontario at the age of 83 in 1975, buried with both his Military Cross and a pair of skates.