John William McGrath was born on March 10, 1891 in St. John’s, Newfoundland to parents James Francis McGrath and Catherine McCarthy. His father was a fisherman as well as a civil servant and political figure in Placentia and St. Mary’s, Newfoundland. James Francis McGrath was a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly from 1885 to 1894 as a Liberal.
John McGrath himself showed early interest in journalistic and political matters when he served as a shorthand reporter on the House of Assembly Staff, while he was still a student at Bonaventure’s College, a Catholic school in his hometown of St. John’s. He later went on to study at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he became a member of the university ice hockey team. He also played football and cricket at the school.
While in Halifax McGrath also played hockey for the Halifax Crescents of the Nova Scotia Senior Hockey League (NSSHL), between 1908 and 1911, although he wasn’t a regular member of the first team, playing mostly on the intermediate team of the organization. The sport had deep roots in Halifax and the Halifax Crescents themselves had challenged the Montreal Shamrocks for the Stanley Cup already in March 1900 in a losing effort (2-10, 0-11) at the Montreal Arena.
McGrath with Dalhousie University (left) and the Halifax Crescents
McGrath was a diminutive player, standing at only 5 feet and 2 inches, but nonetheless displayed a robust little frame. He was a right winger and a right handed shot, and he compensated for his lack of height with a fiery on-ice edge and a rough and tumble playing style. He also had a good and hard shot which helped him score many goals.
For the 1911–12 hockey season McGrath arrived in Manhattan, alongside Montreal native centre forward Billy Lacken, to play for the New York Athletic Club in the American Amateur Hockey League (AAHL), the premier amateur hockey league in the United States at the time. But both McGrath and Lacken instead jumped over to the rivaling New York Wanderers before the league schedule had started. The New York Wanderers had a successful 1911–12 season and almost managed to beat out the reigning champions Brooklyn Crescents for the league title, losing the decisive playoff game between the two clubs on March 13, 1912 4 goals to 1, with McGrath scoring the lone goal for the Wanderers. McGrath led the whole AAHL in goal scoring during his first season in New York with 18 goals, three goals in front of Artie Liffiton of the Brooklyn Crescents.
“McGrath, right, and McKay, left wing, also are new men.
The former is decidedly better than McKay and easily is
the best right wing man who has been seen in local
hockey circles in years”
– Brooklyn Daily Eagle from January 3, 1912
McGrath with the New York Wanderers
McGrath’s first season in New York would end a sour note, despite a successful on-ice showing both from himself and from his team, and not only because of the playoff loss to the Brooklyn Crescents. McGrath was expelled from the league by its executive committee after the season had concluded, alongside his teammate Ernie Garon, accused of being one of the “ringleaders” trying to hold up the St. Nicholas Skating Rink management for a share of the receipts before the March 13 playoff game against the Brooklyn Crescents. Expelled from the AAHL, McGrath didn’t play any hockey at all during the following 1912–13 season.
On his arrival in New York in 1911 McGrath had first planned to study law, but his proficiency as a stenographer caused friends to bring him to the attention of former President of the United States Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, during the time when Roosevelt launched the Progressive Party. This instead led McGrath to a private secretarial position with Roosevelt. The Progressive Party, colloquially known as the “Bull Moose Party”, was formed by Roosevelt in 1912 after he had lost the presidential nomination of the Republican Party to his former protégé William Howard Taft. McGrath worked as a secretary, confidential recorder and political advisor for Roosevelt for five years between 1912 and 1916, and he was with him on his presidential election campaign tour in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 14, 1912 when Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt by saloonkeeper John Flammang Schrank.
Theodore Roosevelt and John McGrath (right) in Milwaukee on October 14, 1912 shortly before
Roosevelt was shot in an assassination attempt – Photo by Library of Congress | UPI
McGrath was reinstated by the AAHL prior to the 1913–14 season. Despite interest from his former club the New York Wanderers for McGrath to rejoin the team he instead ended up playing for the New York Irish-Americans. He once again led the league in goal scoring, hitting the back of the net 12 times, with the New York Irish-Americans finishing third in the league standing behind the St. Nicholas Hockey Club and the New York Hockey Club.
For the 1914–15 season McGrath again suited up for the New York Irish-Americans. He scored a team leading 7 goals in 8 games for the club, 10 goals behind league leading goal-getter Hobey Baker of the St. Nicholas Hockey Club, with the New York Irish-Americans finishing fifth and last in the league standing. In 1915–16 McGrath didn’t play any hockey, but he was back with the New York Irish-Americans for one game during the 1916–17 AAHL season, which turned out to be his last showing as a player in competitive hockey. Outside of playing McGrath was also often involved as a referee in the AAHL, and in other leagues in New York and Boston, drawing mostly favorable reviews in the newspapers for his officiating.
McGrath wasn’t only a rough house actor on the hockey rink, but in 1916 he was arrested on an assault charge, along with his cousin William Powers, stemming from an incident at a café at St. John's Place and Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn on June 11, 1915, involving one Mr. Charles H. Lighte as plaintiff. Mr. Lighte had suffered a broken leg in the scuffle. McGrath spent several days in Raymond Street Jail in Brooklyn before being released on a $1,000 bail. He was first sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse at Blackwell's Island, but the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in Brooklyn later reversed the conviction, ordering a re-trial. The case was dismissed by the Court of Special Sessions on February 20, 1917.
McGrath later worked as a secretary for the American politician and businessman George Walbridge Perkins, a friend and political companion of his former employer Theodore Roosevelt. Through Perkins McGrath got involved in the fishing business and ran a fishing company – Interstate Fish Corporation – out of Boston, with agencies running from New York to Rockport, Massachusetts. Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919 from a blood clot, aged 60, and Perkins died only a year later in 1920 at an age of 58.
John McGrath died at his home in Newton Centre, Massachusetts on February 18, 1924 at an age of 32 after a brief period of illness, to great shock to the community back home in Newfoundland. He was survived by his wife Florence Stenbeck and six children. At the time of his death, according to his sister Betty McGrath, he was about to take a course that would qualify him to practice law in the United States.
 The Newfoundland Quarterly, Volume 23, no. 4, Apr. 1924
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 1, 1916
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar. 28, 1912
 New York Times, Oct. 15, 1912
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 20, 1913
 Boston Globe, Feb. 18, 1924
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb. 20 1917
Posted on Behind the Boards (SIHR Blog)