“The pro player is called a ‘bad man’ if he plays the game and if he has his own way of playing it. Because I play a hard style which is wide open, I’ve been given a bad man reputation.”
It matters very much how things begin. Change, of course, is perennial, but it is the beginning that defines the first possible changes, and the first changes define the next, and the next, and so on and so on down the line. Nothing ever ends in exactly the same place it began, but it can only go so far away, just as a plant can only grow so far from its seed and its roots. And sometimes, some of the things that were there in the beginning never really change at all, but echo reverberation after reverberation down the line.
Eddie Shore, for example, began in Saskatchewan in 1902, and some parts of him never left. He grew up on a ranch some seventy thousand acres large, a vast expanse of short grass and cattle and wheat and not much else. At the time he was born, people on enormous empty ranches in the Canadian west did not have children for purposes of treasuring and coddling and protecting, they had children for working, and Eddie worked hard labor from the age of seven. At nine, he was breaking in wild ponies; by fourteen, he’d graduated to taming broncos. As a teenager, he had the responsibility of taking some of the herds out to graze at the farther margins of the ranch, rifle in hand, and was known in the area to be liberal with his warning shots. It was a life punctuated with accidents and injuries: by the age of sixteen, he’d been dragged by steers, thrown from horses, stranded alone on the prairies for days at a time, and beaten frequently by his father for any sort of bad behavior or inefficient work. He’d broken his legs a few times, his nose many, and shattered both shoulders.
It was also around sixteen that he began playing hockey. He’d tried the game before, according to the stories, but hadn’t been very good. When he finally decided to get serious about it, he began running five miles daily and built up remarkable stamina, but his first and greatest advantage was his utter indifference to pain. The Canadian hockey ethic of abhorring stick violence didn’t exist back then, and two-handers across the body and even to the head were far from rare. Games not infrequently degenerated into line-brawls so nasty and protracted that the match wouldn’t even be finished, the players just fleeing home when they couldn’t take any more pain. But Eddie Shore, somehow, could always take more pain. He played through anything, everything, not just the usual split lips and broken teeth but through fractured bones and infected skate gashes and ears nearly cut off. The only thing that could reliably get him out of the game was unconsciousness, and there was plenty of that too- his early playing days are full of stories of him being dragged off the ice insensate and revived with literal buckets of cold water and slaps to the face. He invariably returned to the ice, although sometimes he’d be completely unable to remember that he’d played the game at all.
There is something about Shore’s famous toughness that goes beyond admirable into the realm of the disturbing. It’s eerie, not just how much he endured but how casual he was about it. One begins to wonder if he even felt pain, or if he was one of those genetic mysteries who are wholly immune to the sensation. For example, he insisted on self-treatment, often preferring to set and sometimes re-set his own broken nose. When he almost lost that ear, he walked around town looking for a doctor to reattach it, the thing held onto his head with a piece of tape, and when he finally found a man willing to try to sew it on, he refused anesthetic and watched the procedure in a hand mirror, occasionally telling the doctor to take out a stitch and redo it. Eddie’s toughness wasn’t for the sake of the cause or the team, it wasn’t even because of hockey. It was just a kind of natural insensitivity, something born or bred or beaten into him back on that lonely ranch.
This is the man with whom the Boston Bruins began their franchise.
The Bruins were the first American NHL franchise, and had cultivated a scrappy, working-class ethos from the very first days. Their owner, Charles Adams, was a self-made man who’d built his fortune on a chain of discount grocery stores. He’d never played the game, but on a 1924 trip to Montreal he’d witnessed Howie Morenz at the height of his speed and creativity and decided that this was a sport that could sell in the States. He picked up Art Ross, also in Montreal, and less than a year later had the rights to start his team. Unfortunately, he had very little idea how to run one. In the first year, Ross picked up and let go half the journeyman players on the continent, the team finished at the bottom of the standings, and Adams lost seventy-five thousand dollars. The second year was little better.
The third year, however, brought an unexpected windfall. The Western Hockey League folded, freeing up a bunch of players previously unknown to the entirely eastern NHL. Eddie, whose father had lost the ranch and all the family money in some financial speculations and subsequently committed suicide, was now committed to professional hockey as a career. The Bruins bought his rights, sight unseen, and he dutifully headed southeast for the 1926-1927 season.
He was an instant star. Adams may have been drawn to the game because of Morenz’s speed and finesse, but fact was there were no players available for his Bruins with such elegant abilities, and the kind of hockey played by the leftover grinders rejected from the established Canadian squads was proving tough to market. But Eddie marketed himself: he maintained stringent conditioning habits in an era when most players didn’t even exercise off the ice, and he’d picked up a bit of a scoring touch in his seven years drifting around the West. He’d become a rushing defenseman, quick on the transition and exciting at either end of the ice. But he was also brutally, perpetually physical, attracting and generating violence in equal measure. There was hardly an altercation he wasn’t involved in, for even things that weren’t any of his business he made his business. Games Eddie played, somebody would get taken off unconscious, either him or someone who got in his way. The crowds didn’t care which. As Adams himself said, “The Boston fans didn’t know hockey in those days, but you didn’t have to know hockey to get delirious over Shore.”
Eddie became his own self-fulfilling prophesy. Ross built the team around him, finding that once he’d made toughness rather than finesse the ideal, suddenly it was much easier to find rejects from up north who could contribute something- a good fight if not a good goal. Hockey was, of course, a violent game in any city, but in Boston more than anywhere else it became the culture. Adams and Ross put on a bloody show and the local media bought in wholeheartedly, often framing their game stories more in terms of who dominated the physical battles than who dominated the scoresheet. The fans came in droves and themselves became legendary for their viciousness, both in pelting the ice with dangerous objects and in harassing visiting teams on their way to and from the arena. And it worked: Boston went from the bottom of the barrel in 1925 to a Stanley Cup in 1929. By that time, Eddie wasn’t just a player, he was an ethos. He’d built a tremendous local cult of personality around his ferocity and his toughness. He played right up to the edge- the edge of sanity, the edge of social acceptability.
And then he went over it.
In a game against the Maple Leafs in 1933, Red Horner tripped Shore, stole the puck, and sent him sliding into the boards. As the play moved away from him, Shore got up, looked around, sighted the closest available Leaf, and charged him at full speed from behind. The Leaf never saw it coming. He literally flew through the air before landing, backwards, on his head. The Leaf was Ace Bailey, and Eddie Shore had just committed the single worst act of violence in professional hockey history that far.
For two weeks, while the entire hockey world held its breath to see if Bailey would die, Shore stayed inside his apartment. The Bruins kept him on lockdown, away from hostile fans and media. His only visitors were teammates, friendly local sportswriters, and the Boston police, who let it be known they were considering charging him with manslaughter should the worst happen.
This was the beginning of something as well: the venerable tradition of hockey apologetics. While the Ontario papers, understandably, called for Shore to be suspended, banned from the game, and ideally thrown in jail, the Boston media threw themselves into painting their once fearsome star as an absolute sweetheart, the goon with a heart of gold. They dug up stories from old franchises of him apologizing to fans he’d accidentally hit, of him solicitously asking after the health of injured opponents. The clichés flew: He’s the kind of guy who gives change to the homeless! Who helps old ladies across the street! Off the ice, my friends, he’s soft as a kitten! Wouldn’t hurt a flea! In fact, he’s afraid of seriously hurting opponents! The whole thing was obviously an accident. Or at least… unintentional.
When Bailey’s condition looked especially dire, there came stories about how much Shore was hurting as well. The reporters who’d been allowed to see him described a wreck of a man, shaking and stuttering, a shell of his former self, clearly on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adams snuck him out of the city to rest in an unspecified country location, and when the suspension came down- sixteen games- the Bruins sent Shore and his family to Bermuda for the duration. A rest cure. For his nerves.
When he came back to playing, Eddie Shore was wearing a new helmet he’d designed himself. Another beginning.
Eddie, he was there for so many beginnings: the beginning of the Bruins, the beginning of professional hockey in the States, the beginning of the All-Star game. People toss around the phrase ‘larger than life’ quite lightly in sports hagiography, but if there was ever anybody it could accurately be applied to, it would be Eddie. He was huge and wild and dangerous, uncontrollable and unpredictable, frightening but also compelling. He cast a long shadow, and in many ways we are living in it still. Many of the old stars have been largely forgotten, faded into irrelevance. I’ve tried imagining how Howie Morenz must have played, and it’s difficult- in all the rule changes and the tactical advances, his style of game has vanished almost entirely. Many of the others are even further gone, their playing forgotten entirely, leaving only the folksy nicknames behind- Newsy, Cyclone, Rabbit. But Eddie? I can imagine exactly how Eddie played. So can you. We’ve seen guys play that way, that crushing, fearless, edge-of-sanity way. Eddie Shore’s game never left us. We are still living with the echoes of his legacy. It is a difficult legacy to live with.
It was difficult even for Eddie himself to live with. He had a long career by the standards of the day, playing for the Bruins from 1926 until 1940, but by the end he was already starting to show signs of mental deterioration. In 1941, he announced that he had cancer and had been given six months to live. He bought house trailer and drove out to California with his family. A few months later he reappeared, claiming that he’d shat out the cancer and thus been cured. As the owner and manager of the Springfield Indians AHL team, he instituted bizarre policies one on top of the other. He tied players’ knees together with skate laces to force them to take shorter strides. He tied a goalie’s neck to the crossbar to teach him not to go down. He insisted he could cure muscle injuries by dipping the affected limb in alternating tubs of hot and ice-cold water, made all of his players take regular doses of laxatives, and even tried to institute team wide sex-policies that he believed would ensure better game-day performance and also produce male offspring. All players on his team had to use identical sticks that he himself had designed, and every stick had to be taped toe-to-heel and held with hands exactly twenty-four inches apart. Later biographers have tried to spin these as eccentricities or even ahead-of-their-time hockey innovations, but there are other details that suggest deeper problems. His moods were erratic and unpredictable- screaming rages alternating with tearful apologies, habits of cruel greed broken up by episodes of extravagant generosity. In the last twenty years of his life, he had several serious heart attacks and no less than eleven strokes. It is impossible for a modern observer, familiar with the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, to look at the last half of Eddie Shore’s life and not see the signs.
Generations of young hockey players came up in a game that had, in part, been defined by Eddie’s preternatural toughness, sold on the notion that, although all these injuries hurt, they didn’t ‘really’ hurt, they weren’t doing any lasting damage. Eddie himself probably would have said as much- that he was fine, that nothing he’d gone through had done any permanent harm. But it did. It did harm to him, and its done harm to the guys who grew up trying to be like him, or be like one of the earlier guys who’d wanted to be like him. I admire Eddie, and deep down, I don’t think he really was such a bad man. But I think, sometimes, he was a very bad beginning.
Sources: For anything and everything about Eddie, please see the extremely thorough biography Eddie Shore and that Old-Time Hockey, by C. Michael Hiam.