The most amazing thing about World War I, then called The Great War because people had no idea there was going to be another one, is that men volunteered for it, which is something like volunteering to be shoved into a meat grinder with a plunger. In practice, going to World War I meant sitting in a trench for months at a time being shelled and gassed at intervals. “Battle” meant crawling out of the trench on your stomach, getting shelled, gassed, and machine-gunned, and maybe, if you were lucky enough to survive, advancing a few meters, where one might then sit in a new trench. It was a war of mud and inches that decimated a generation of men on both sides. If there is anything in this world that simultaneously proves both the badassness of our ancestors and the folly of human nature, it is this: people volunteered to fight in World War I.

Especially in Canada, and especially especially in Ontario. Over the course of the War, 10% of the population of the province enlisted. For the National Hockey Association, the precursor to the NHL and the first sustained attempt to make professional hockey work as a spectator sport in Canada, the War meant a serious loss of manpower. Hockey drew from the exact population pool- healthy, 18-35 year-old men- that the War did, and many players viewed enlistment as a patriotic duty. The Association could not very well block their talent from joining the war effort- it would be legally dubious and damage their public image severely- but the fact was that by 1916 it was getting tough to find enough competent players to field a six-team league. The Association had great dreams of expanding in the Ontario market, but as more and more Ontarian players went off to the trenches, it was becoming difficult to keep a toehold in the province, much less grow there. In 1915, they had to fold one of their two Toronto franchises due to a lack of warm bodies, leaving only one team in the region.

At the same time the NHA needed players, the Canadian military needed something to drive further recruitment and boost its image. The Battle of the Somme, in the summer of 1916, had been one of the most disastrous offensives in the war. In five months, over six hundred thousand Allied troops were killed in order to capture what amounted to six miles of territory. 24,713 Canadians died in that initiative alone, representing both manpower that had to be replaced and a national trauma that needed to be bandaged. That same summer, one-sixth of the NHA signed up, enough players to force the closing of another franchise. The military and the Association serendipitously realized there was a solution to both their problems at once: a military hockey team, comprised entirely of star players who had volunteered to serve in the War.

They were called the 228th Battalion, or the Northern Fusiliers. Recruited primarily from North Bay, Nipissing, and Sudbury, they had 12 professional or semi-pro hockey players in their ranks, including several celebrities: Goldie Prodgers, who had scored the Cup-winning goal for the Canadiens the previous season; George McNamara, who had one the amateur championship in 1912 with the Toronto Tecumsehs; Roxie Beaudro, who had won a Cup with the Kenora Thistles (best vintage hockey team name ever) in 1907. In other words, these weren’t just army recruits who could play a little hockey, they were genuine hockey stars of the era. If there had been highlight reels, these guys would have been on them.

The 228th Battalion was an unabashed advertisement for the military and they were insanely popular. Rather than normal hockey gear, they played in their uniforms, which fans found dashing and inspirational. They sold out their games and, perhaps more importantly, attracted the sort of aristocratic fan who had a tendency to cling to the amateur ideal and turn up their nose and the sort of pro hockey marketed by the NHA. The Governor General gave the team his blessing. Editorial cartoons showed the Kaiser quaking in fear before the muscular, handsome hockey players of the 228th. Sportswriters in Toronto praised them as both braver and cleaner than the standard sort of hockey player.

It helped that the 228th was a scoring team. In their preseason promotional matches, they destroyed All-Star teams drawn from the rest of the Association franchises by scores of 10-0 and 10-3. They went undefeated in their first five games, climbing to the top of the standings and outscoring their collective opponents 40 goals to 20. Although they slumped a bit in their last month, for the beginning of the season, the player-soldiers confirmed to the public every hyperbolic fantasy of the transformative power of military zeal. The storyline- that Canadian boys would kick just as much ass on the battlefield as they did on the ice- wrote itself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was around this time that a then-14-year-old Howie Morenz snuck away from Stratford to Toronto to attempt to enlist in the army.

In February 1917, at the height of their popularity, the 228th Battalion received orders to ship out to the front. The NHA was furious, since a team departing mid-season threw both its schedule and its finances into chaos. The antagonism was deepened a few months later by a new scandal: when the unit arrived in New Brunswick for their pre-deployment training, two of the offensive  forwards were sent back to home as unfit for service. Gordon Meeking revealed that he and other players had been recruited with the promise of officers’ commissions, only to find once deployed that the commissions had not been approved and they would be serving as ordinary grunts. Eddie Oatman’s revelation was worse: he had never had any intention of going to the war. The Battalion had simply offered him $1,200 to play hockey for them- and, insult to injury, only paid him $500. The soldier-hockey team had been, at least in part, a publicity stunt intentionally fabricated by the military in order to drive enlistment. The departure of the 228th left the NHA a wreck, and the series of team closings and lawsuits that followed this ill-fated experiment in hockey-war synergy eventually led to the collapse of the Association and the founding of the NHL.

As far as hockey history is concerned, the story ends there: when the 228th left for Europe they might as well have shipped off to the moon for all the sources say about them. Fair enough; for the most part none of these men had any significant impact on the game after the War, and obviously the franchise was never resurrected, so there isn’t much more to talk about as far as the impact of the 228th on hockey goes.

But the men didn’t vanish just because the hockey did. Recruited as hockey players and promoted as celebrity soldiers to put a shiny gloss on one of the most existentially troubling wars in human history, they actually had to go to the front. For them, the 228th wasn’t just a propaganda experiment, a flickering oddity in the history of the game. It was a military unit they lived in for two years, until the end of the war in 1919. The soldier-hockey players spent more time as soldiers than hockey players, but the soldiering part of their lives is left out of their legacy.  Which, considering what they went through, isn’t entirely fair.

In England, the 228th Battalion was abruptly reassigned from a combat unit to a construction one, the 6th Canadian Railway Troops. Their job was exactly what it sounds like: they built railways from the coast to the trenches at the front lines, designed to deliver weaponry and supplies to the combat troops. The fact that no one in the unit, least of all the hockey players, had any experience building railways does not seem to have perturbed the military strategists. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out so well for the players.

Like so many things in the Great War, the railway effort was an exercise in existential despair. Firstly, because these men did not know how to build railways, progress on the tracks was slow and often repetitious. Derailments were common, as sections of track already laid frequently proved faulty. The unit scuttled back and forth from building new lines to repairing old ones, often relaying the same section several times. Moreover, because they were building across land that had already been interlaced with trenches, cratered by shelling, and trampled into loose mud, the ground was generally unsuitable for rail lines- even a well-built section was apt to be bombed, washed away, or caved in at any time. Work on the tracks was constant, hard labor for very little reward, setting up supply lines that were constantly jammed and failing.

Moreover, it was incredibly dangerous. As one might expect from any construction crew comprised of professional hockey players and teenage volunteers, industrial accidents were frequent, and soldiers were as apt to be maimed by their own machinery as by the enemy. Although they frequently worked close to the front, the railway crews never had the shelter of trenches, meaning they were completely exposed to shelling and aerial bombardment. And, because they weren’t a combat unit, they were unarmed.

Imagine this. Imagine waking up every day in a field of mud and old blood, trying to use early-twentieth-century industrial machinery to build something you have no experience building before, while planes periodically scream overhead and drop artillery on you. You have no weapon to defend yourself. You have nowhere to hide. Many of the men you work with have shell shock and are apt to break down into incoherent twitching and even hallucinations at any loud noise or surprise. And day after day after day you do the same work, often on the same sections of track, building and rebuilding, only to have your efforts destroyed again and again. Imagine doing this for two years. This how the players from the 228th Battalion team, the valiant soldiers the Toronto papers envisioned terrifying the Kaiser with their strength and toughness and sharp khaki uniforms, spent the war: laying tracks in the mud. It’s not surprising that many of them never played professional hockey again, after the War.

***

Sometimes I go to games, OHL games, AHL games, and often at these games they honor servicemen. At some point during a commercial break, they’ll flash a picture of some khaki-clad man on the screen and rattle off the list of places he’s worked like a laundry list of the world’s still-bleeding wounds: Libya, Haiti, Afghanistan. Evacuation, relief effort, peacekeeping mission. I know people who have varying views on these honors- some see it as a noble tribute to men who fight valiantly to defend their principles, others as propaganda dressing up horrible global injustices in the finery of valor and honor. I have some friends who would never consider staying seated during such a tribute and others who feel they cannot in good conscience stand up for one.

When I’m at a game, now, and I see these soldiers on the Jumbotron, I invariably think of the 228th Battalion. The wars of our time are the heirs of World War I rather than World War II, long grinding things that shred not just bodies but psyches, that offer miles of ambiguity and few clear victories. People who serve today are likely to find themselves doing railway-unit-type work, trying to build infrastructure and security while being subjected to sudden, unpredictable explosions from invisible foes, and like the men who served in the railway units, they’re likely to be living with scars that go far beyond the physical.

I feel guilty, then, for all the times I have taken hockey so very seriously, when I’ve spoken about hockey violence as though it were the single greatest moral dilemma confounding my generation, when I’ve dramatized games as though there were lives on the line, when I’ve thrown around words like courage and cowardice and despair without contemplating the real, terrible depth of those experiences. There is a legend that says that, when a Roman general was granted a triumph for a great victory and paraded through the streets with all his retinue to claim the laurel wreath, a servant would walk right behind him the entire way, whispering memento mori in his ear. Remember that you will die.

When I see a soldier at a hockey game now, I don’t think of it as a referendum on the cause, but as that essential reminder. Remember that people have died. Remember that people are dying still. Remember that this, however important to you, is only a game. Remember that the story of the 228th Battalion didn’t end when they left the NHA in February 1917, no matter what the hockey books say. Remember that the men who were cheered wildly before they left received no accolades when they came back, although the courage it took just to live on the battlefields of France was a thousand times more than what it takes to do anything whatsoever in a hockey game. Remember that there are those among you who bear the scars, visible and invisible, of things you cannot imagine.

Sources:  Information on the 228th Battalion team in the NHA may be found in Deceptions and Doublecross and Putting a Roof on Winter (both of which have been cited in this space before).  Information on the work of railway units was taken from this general account and the 6th Battalion’s war diary, available online here.