We have all heard this story.
Once upon a time, in 1933, in a regular season game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Eddie Shore did something to Ace Bailey. The description of what exactly he did varies. Some say it was a charge, others a slew-foot, some just go with the classic, all-purpose hockey term ‘hit’. But whatever the description, everyone who was there agrees that it was vicious, illegal, and horrifying. When Bailey’s head hit the ice, the sound was so loud they could hear it in the cheap seats. Selke said it sounded like “a pumpkin cracked with a baseball bat.”
Bailey spent the next day convulsing intermittently and passing in and out of consciousness, and they said he would likely die. He had one surgery that he was not expected to survive, and then another with an equally dim prognosis, and then lay in a hallucinatory fever for days, last rights administered, the Boston police poised to take Shore in for manslaughter the moment he died. That he did not die, given that it was a catastrophic brain injury, given that it was 1933, is possibly the single greatest miracle ever to happen in hockey. And, to exorcise their guilt over his near-death and express their relief over his non-death, the NHL threw a party. The first All-Star Game was born from an epidural hematoma.
What is sometimes lost in this story of the first ASG is that such benefit games neither began nor ended with Bailey. It was, apparently, something of a custom in those days- not just in the NHL, but in other leagues, to have these events as a form of charity for the families of dead or maimed players. Professional hockey at the time was neither a prestigious career nor a lucrative one, and between the dangers of the game itself and the dangers of living in Canada in the early twentieth century, a hockey player’s wife might rather easily end up a widow with no money in the bank and no work of her own. An All-Star Game was, essentially, hockey’s way of expressing sympathy. In addition to Bailey’s famous benefit, there was one for Hod Stuart, who drowned in 1908, and another for Nels Crutchfield, who was crippled in a car accident in 1935. They had one for Howie Morenz when he died of a shattered leg and a broken heart in 1937, and another in 1939 for Babe Siebert- another drowning. In all cases, money was raised through the sale of tickets, programs, and assorted memorabilia and presented to the family to cover medical bills, funeral arrangements, and the difficult process of transition to life after hockey.
When the All-Star Game was finally made into an annual event in 1947, it was essentially envisioned as a generalized benefit game, the proceeds of which would go to create the first (and still surviving) NHL players’ pension fund. After decades of disingenuously pretending that hockey was just a sideline job that guys did in between bouts of summer farming or postmastering or railway-building, the playing population had realized two basic things: A) hockey was their vocation, and B) it was a vocation with an early expiration date. Few players’ careers would end like Bailey’s, in a single spectacular moment of severe head trauma, but all of them would grind down eventually and often leave the family in the same unenviable position. Eventually, all of them would be forced to retire. Eventually, almost all of them would leave a widow. The new, annual All-Star Game was going to be the charity benefit for all of them.
The early games, then, were goofy spectacles motivated by regret, horror, and fear. As the ASG has evolved, though, it has left these roots further and further behind, until now we come to the end, where we have a kind of shiny, loopy spectacle, fluffier than a bag of Persian kittens and slighter than anorexic mantis. It’s become so ‘fun’ that it’s not really fun, ‘fun’ the way shitty direct-to-DVD sci-fi movies are fun, fun if you’re drinking and don’t have anything better to do.
Every year, people observe this not-really-funnness, and every year there are a host of ideas floated for how to make it really fun, give it some of the depth and intensity that make other best-on-best competitions so exciting. Usually these ideas hope to appeal to player greed, as if you could bribe millionaires into playing hard in a game that has no consequences. It’s cynical and sad that the best ideas we can come up with for making the All-Star Game interesting involve exemptions from escrow. As a veteran watcher of a great many meaningless games, you will have to trust me on this: there is no way to make a pointless game exciting. Hockey is only exciting when players care intensely about the outcome, and there is no way to make the outcome of this particular game worth caring about. It is a fundamentally meaningless competition.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a point.
The fascinating thing about the early benefit games is how comfortable they were with tragedy. They were raucousness brought out of loss, like an Irish wake, and rather than hiding the dangers of the game- the dangers of life- behind a forced veneer of FUN, they confronted them directly. They brought out Ace Bailey and applauded him, they brought out Howie Morenz Jr. and comforted him. The original All-Star Games are expressive of a capacity the hockey world used to have to face its demons; a capacity we’ve lost somehow. Nowadays, when the NHL does charity for the sick or hurt, they’re careful to choose worthy causes far from the game- breast cancer, childhood MS, things that don’t happen to players, things that don’t happen on rinks.
Here’s a radical, ridiculous idea: the NHL All-Star game should raise money for hockey causes. It is not as if the game now is so very safe and sanitary, as if we have solved once and for all the great problem of what happens to players when they can’t play anymore; if we learned anything from the mounting deaths of last summer, it should have been that. Hockey needs, desperately, more studies on head traumas, concussions, and CTE- their causes, their treatment, their prevention. It needs research into safer equipment. It needs treatment programs for substance abuse and mental illness. It needs job transition programs for the hundreds of guys who don’t get to be All-Stars and find their pro career over at 24. Yes, many of these things are being done to some degree already, but how much have you, dear casual fan, heard about it? How much do you know about what the NHL is doing to help mitigate the human costs of hockey? If you’re into the game, in the past few years you’ve read dozens and dozens of alarmist articles about how dangerous hockey is and how SOMETHING MUST BE DONE, and yet I bet you’ve read less than ten about what is actually done. The All-Star Game could be an excellent occasion to showcase what is being done about hockey-tragedies, and to raise money for the work that still needs to happen- work that would benefit not just the superstars who struggle with these problems, but the thousands of other ordinary people who play hockey and suffer the consequences.
But that is so unrealistic as to be nearly unthinkable, isn’t it? That today, now, the League would do anything that would acknowledge that their game isn’t safe, that it takes a toll on people? The whole point of the modern All-Star Game is to present hockey from its safest, gentlest, sweetest angle, as though everyone who played was happy and healthy and rich all the time. Even when one of the game’s erstwhile superstars is on indefinite IR with post-concussion symptoms and another is on suspension for an illegal hit, even when everyone is talking about issues of injury and punishment, the ASG remains staunchly committed to the notion that absolutely nothing is wrong.
How did we get to this point, when it seems inevitable, even necessary, that hockey would deny its own victims at an event that was once explicitly intended to help them? Part of it, certainly, is that such a thing would be read as an admission of guilt by the great mass of thinkers-of-the-children, who will demand all manner of cuts and restrictions to the game in the name of preventing ‘even one’ concussion. But those people will say such things no matter what, and the comparative silence of the NHL on the issue only supports their contention that the game is vicious and exploitative and heartless. I don’t think it’s fear of the doves that motivates the denial, for even back in the 1930s, there were plenty of people decrying the violence of the game, and it didn’t stop the League then from acknowledging the danger. The change, I think, has come in the hawks. At some point in the mid-century, people who were in favor of hockey violence settled on the notion that ‘no one is getting hurt’ as the primary defense for fighting- or at least, not half so hurt as they would be getting without it. They committed to the lie that the little injuries of the game- the punches and the legal hits and the broken noses, lost teeth, and facial lacerations that come with them- were somehow preventing people from getting really hurt. It’s not true, but to admit it now undermines a major justification for not changing the game. It would have been wiser for the supporters of a tough game to admit the risks and stand on people’s right to make unsafe choices. Instead they chose a position of denial that makes them look at best callous and, at worst, delusional.
We haven’t lost the tragedies, but we’ve lost our ability to face them. People sometimes speak about ‘the hockey family’, and there was something familial in the early benefit games: shit happens, but we take care of our own. If there is one thing the discussions of CTE, drug abuse, and mental illness we’ve had to have this season have brought to light, it’s that contemporary hockey often fails to take care of its own. That needs to change, and it needs to change in a big, public, open way.
One of the less-emphasized features of the NHL All-Star Game is that the proceeds still go to the players’ pension fund, as was intended in 1947. Some commentators see this as almost offensive (they’re MILLIONAIRES, they don’t need a pension), and it is much harder to justify having a benefit game for NHLers in this day and age. But what if it were a benefit game for hockey players generally? There are still plenty of people- some NHLers, probably a great many more minor pros, kids, women, rec leaguers, people all over hockey- who have suffered something awful in the course of playing. There are still a lot of hockey players out there who could really use a charity benefit game. Maybe we should have one sometime.
Sources: Much of the research for this post came from The NHL All-Star Game: Fifty Years of the Great Tradition, by Andrew Podnieks. Online, check out this excellent article by Jo Innes on Ace Bailey’s injury, this summary history of the All-Star Game, and of course, Wikipedia (which you should be able to find on your own).