Deke/Deek/Deak and Duck!

I received another email from Don Weekes recently. He’s the guy who got me going on the Fred Waghorne story two months ago. This time, Don was asking about the derivation of the hockey term ‘deke’ … which isn’t used as much as it used to be since the cool kids decided they prefer the term ‘dangle’ (which I don’t like!).

For those who don’t know, the word deke (or dangle) refers to when the puck-carrier makes moves to fake out the goalie or another opposing player. The easy answer to where the word comes from is that it’s a short form of the word decoy.

The longer answer is a little more interesting.

What do Turk Broda and Ernest Hemingway have in common? The word deke.

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

Deke originated as a shortened form of decoy. American writer Ernest Hemingway used deke as a noun referring to hunting decoys in a number of his works, including his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees (“I offered to put the dekes out with him”). In the 1940s, deke began appearing in ice-hockey contexts in Canadian print sources in reference to the act of faking an opponent out of position—much like how decoy is used for luring one into a trap.

The Oxford English Dictionary has things happening later, noting a Time magazine story about Dickie Moore in 1960 as the source:

On the ice, Moore is one of the league’s best players in the split-second art of faking a goalie out of position. ‘I’ve developed a little play of my own,’ he says. ‘It’s a kind of fake shot—we call them “deeks” for decoys’.

Apparently, The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online says it took a few more years for the word to be spelled as deke.

But that certainly isn’t the case.

The Toronto Star, February 9, 1937. Page

The story about Dickie Moore and deek/deke made the rounds again after his death on December 19, 2015. His obituary in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper resulted in four straight days of letters to the editor that attracted the attention of writer Gregory Bryce, who commented on it in his WordWatching column for the Whitehorse Star on January 8, 2016.

Bryce reports that the first letter quoted the Oxford English Dictionary and the 1960 Time story. The second letter writer argues that “Dickie Moore may have invented the term ‘deek,’ but he most certainly did not invent” the move. The third letter was from a woman who said that, as a young girl in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, she played tackle football with the boys and “was always picked for a team because of my speed and ‘deaking’ ability.”

The fourth letter states: “While several dictionaries do indeed date the term’s first appearance in print to the Nov. 21, 1960 edition of Time, it was feinting its way through hockey’s lexicon long before that. Writing in the Toronto Daily Star on March 3, 1937, for instance, Andy Lytle described Toronto Maple Leafs owner and manager Conn Smythe watching his team practise, ‘squirming in sympathy as Apps or Conacher would burst through and “deke” [Leafs goalie Turk] Broda.”

Turns out that letter, which appeared in The Globe on January 1, 2016, was written by my friend and colleague Stephen Smith, and when I went looking for the term in newspapers after receiving Don’s email some eight years later, I also came across that 1937 story. So, it certainly seems that “deke” is older than the 1960s, the 1950s, and even the 1940s.

But how old?

Using the terms “deke” and “hockey” together, I found hits in Canadian newspapers going back to the 1890s, American papers to the 1880s, and British newspapers to the 1830s. And yet, in most of those early hits, the article was as likely as not to be about someone whose last name was Hockey … or Rockey … and instead of “deke” it was often Duke.

Even into the 1900s, when the search term “hockey” almost always hit on the ice sport, you’d get Duke, or desk, or disk, or duck for “deke”. And when you did actually get the word deke, it was almost always someone whose name, or nickname was Deke, or a reference to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, whose sports teams — and even whose general members — were often referred to as the Dekes.

The Toronto Star, February 10, 1937. Page 1

But when all was said and done, the earliest usage of deke as a hockey term really does seem to come in 1937 … although a month before that March 3 Toronto Star article.

In an earlier column for The Star on February 9, 1937, Andy Lytle quotes a conversation he’d had with Turk Broda in which the Leafs rookie goalie rated Neil Colville and Cecil Dillon of the New York Rangers near the top of his list of troublesome opponents.

“That Colville,” says Broda, “he dekes me.”

“He what?” responds Lytle.

“Dekes me,” Broda explains. “D-e-k-e-s. You know. Makes me take the first move then makes a sucker of me.”

Now, Lytle had been a newspaper man in Vancouver since about 1914. He wrote for the Vancouver Sun starting around 1921 and was their sports editor for years before moving to Toronto in 1934. So, he knew hockey … but he doesn’t appear to be familiar with the term “deke.”

Lytle was obviously enamoured of the new word, and used it in his lede the next day after the Rangers’ 5–1 victory over Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. “Five times last night,” writes Lytle, “Lester Patrick’s Rangers ‘deked’ our Mr. Broda and all we got back in return was a third period goal by Gordon Drillon.”

Dickie Moore would deek. Paul Thompson deked.

So, clearly, NHL players were using the word deke as early as 1937. It’s hard to believe Broda was the only one … unless he’s the one who actually coined the phrase. (No proof of that yet.) Still, it doesn’t really seem to become prevalent in hockey writing until the 1940s.

The earliest reference to deke in a Montreal paper appears to come in a Dink Carroll column in The Gazette on December 31, 1941. In that column, Paul Thompson (who was then coaching the Black Hawks) speaks of his improvement as an NHL player in Chicago from 1931 to 1939 after struggling in New York from 1926 through 1931:

“You get smarter as you go along,” said Thompson. “Instead of freezing when you get inside a defence and find you’ve got only the goalie to beat, you start using your noodle…. You take a good look first and see if there’s an opening. If there isn’t, you try to make one by faking the goalie out of position. ‘Making a deke,’ we call it. If you can get him to make the first move, you’ve got him beat…”

Interestingly, the first use of the word deke I found as an actual short form for decoy in a story about ducks comes in The Modesto Bee (of Modesto, California) in 1940. So, perhaps the hockey players actually beat the hunters — and Hemingway! — to this one.

But probably not… Deke as a short form of decoy just seems to make too much sense.

6 thoughts on “Deke/Deek/Deak and Duck!

  1. Hi Eric,

    Of course, you can deke somebody out. The term was commonly used throughout my prairie childhood, but then, everybody played hockey or the kid’s version of it on their backyard rinks every winter. I was a lousy skater so my brothers made sure I played goal. They took great joy in ‘dekeing’ me out.

  2. 1937 was a very banner year. May 23rd. I appeared.
    Excellent story. Shows how language evolves and how sport can influence the non-sport world.
    You are always so through in your research. Many writers, and politicians, just make it all up.

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