Few NHL players ever have long careers in the NHL. It’s not only hard to stay in the NHL, but it gets especially hard as players age. This was even more rare in the 30s, when it was common for players to retire in their early 30s. Dit Clapper was the first player to really break that trend, becoming the first NHL player to play in 20 NHL seasons. Clapper, born in 1907, had the rare ability to play both as a forward and a defenseman, though he’s often better known as a defenseman.
Clapper joined the Boston Bruins as a young 20-year old in 1927, right in the midst of their heyday. Despite playing as a defenseman before entering the NHL, Clapper was tried out as a right wing for the Bruins. Clapper’s first two seasons were relatively low-key, but he exploded onto the scene with Cooney Weiland and Dutch Gainor in the 1929-30 season, scoring 41 goals and 61 points in 44 games, finishing 2nd in goals to his teammate Weiland. Clapper capped off the season with a Stanley Cup, Boston’s first. Clapper had another strong season the next year, being named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. The 1931-32 season saw Clapper set a new career high in assists with 22, good for 7th in the league. Following this season, Clapper was named the fourth captain of the Bruins in team history.
Clapper’s numbers would drop a bit for two seasons before jumping up again in the 1934-35 season, at 21 goals and 37 points in 48 games, good for a Second All-Star Team honour again. In the 1937-38 season, despite having a strong team, the Bruins’ defense needed shoring up, so they put Clapper back onto the back end, playing him as a defenseman. Clapper would team up with fellow veteran Eddie Shore to create a devastating combo between the offense and defense of Boston. In Clapper’s second season as a defenseman, he score 13 goals and 26 points, good for first in goals among all defensemen. Clapper was honoured with a spot on the First All-Star Team. Clapper and the Bruins finished off the year with their second Cup victory.
The tear continued for Clapper as he tied teammate Flash Hollett with an identical stat line of 10 goals and 18 assists, tying him for the league lead among defensemen in both categories. Clapper was not only voted to the First All-Star Team again, but he finished third in Hart voting. Clapper again had the league lead in assists in the 1940-41 season and tied for the most points at 26. For the third consecutive time, Clapper was on the First All-Star Team and this time finished even closer to a Hart victory, placing 2nd in the final voting. Clapper captained his team to their third Stanley Cup at the end of the season.
At this point, people started to recognize just how long Clapper had been in the league. He was 33 years old and had just finished his 14th season. Following a couple of seasons with injury problems, Clapper returned to form, with 31 points in 50 games, his 25 assists tying Earl Seibert for 4th in the league among defensemen. Clapper was honoured with a position on the 2nd All-Star Team, a remarkable feat for a 36-year old. In the 1945-46 season, Clapper assumed the role of player-coach, giving him a much less prominent offensive role on the team, but leading his Bruins to the finals before losing there.
At 39 years of age, Clapper played 6 more games in the 1946-47 season, the 20th of his career before finally retiring. Later on that season,the Bruins held a ceremony for him, retiring his No. 5, making his the third number to be retired, just over a month after Eddie Shore’s had been retired. Clapper went on to coach the Bruins until 1949 with moderate success. When Clapper retired in 1947, he was 6th all-time in points and first in games. It took ten seasons before Maurice Richard finally passed Clapper as the all-time games leader, but it took 23 seasons before Johnny Bucyk became the first Bruin to pass Clapper, a testament to Clapper’s remarkable longevity. Clapper was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, immediately after he retired, given the rare waiving of the usual mandatory three year period.