On the ice, Harvey Jackson was brilliant. He came to the Maple Leafs in 1929, 18 years old, and almost immediately caught on as a first-line winger and a natural scorer. Like a lot of old-timey players, his actual style has been lost, but the reporters described him as strong and athletic (a remarkable thing in the days before off-ice training and conditioning were commonplace on hockey teams), an agile skater with a gorgeous backhand. Frank Selke said he had “the profile of a movie star, the physique of a champion wrestler, and the poise of a ballet dancer.” In 1932, Jackson led the League in scoring and led the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup.
Off the ice, though, Harvey was a bit of a disaster. His career would last fifteen years, but he never really grew out of the teenage lifestyle. Jackson was handsome, generous, and popular. A naturally gregarious personality and a member of the most successful line in the short history of the Maple Leafs, he never lacked for friends and found it hard to say no to them.. He partied constantly and spent extravagantly on cars, vacations, and gifts to his posse. There were a lot of women. There was even more booze.
Conn Smythe never much liked his star. With his love of on-ice psychopathic violence and off-ice saintliness, Smythe more than any other single man is responsible for forging the archetype of the Good Canadian Boy. Although he was too competitive and too sharp a judge of talent to be wholly dogmatic about his roster, for preference Smythe wanted docile, obedient, humble, hard-working, team-playing, church-going, non-smoking, non-drinking grinders. He liked men who were prudent with their money and loyal to their wives. He designed the Leafs to be composed of good, honest, responsible dudes.
By all accounts, Busher was occasionally good, seldom honest, and never responsible. As his star rose he became more and more defined by his appetites, less and less able to control them. Smythe valued control above all else (both the self-control of the players and his control over them), and paradoxically that was probably good for Jackson, as team rules about drinking may have helped to keep is burgeoning alcoholism in check. But it was inevitable that the two should come to conflict, and in 1939, convinced that Busher was on the downward slope, Smythe traded him to New York. He spent a few years there, and then a few in Boston, and then hockey was finished with him.
No one gets hockey forever. Some guys- Smythe’s type of guys- they see the end coming, dismount from their skates with a triple backflip and stick the landing, healthy and wealthy and sometimes even wise. They become coaches or they go finish their degree; they start hockey schools or coffee shops and live out a comfortable old age teaching dekes to neighborhood kids on backyard rinks. Busher Jackson was not ready for the end of hockey, though, and he fell hard. He married, divorced, married again. He started a business, went bankrupt, started another, and went bankrupt again. He borrowed money from friends that he couldn’t return, and eventually just started asking for handouts. He began beating his wife, and possibly his son too. She ran away from him and hid in another town, writing to the NHL for money, begging for help and asking that they not, under any circumstances, tell her husband where she’d gone. Within ten years of retirement, Jackson was homeless, friendless, and penniless, his health and family both destroyed by alcoholism.
Surprisingly, given how rapacious and callous the NHL could be in the Original Six era, Clarence Campbell and Smythe made a coordinated and sustained effort to help the old player. It was they who’d tried to set him up in business twice over, and subsequently Campbell tried to get him regular jobs, like managing a gas station, but every time the drinking got in the way. Smythe sent money to Jackson’s wife for the boy’s clothes and education. He paid off Jackson’s debts and had his son Hugh, the Maple Leafs team doctor, take personal responsibility for his medical care, including several hospital stays intended to dry him out. Towards the end, when all else failed, the Leafs let him hang around the Garden doing odd jobs. He collected old sticks to sell to tourists as souvenirs of the Garden, and spent the money on booze. He lived with an elderly aunt, whom Smythe paid a monthly stipend to keep a roof over his head.
But although Smythe would help his faded star out with work and health care, although he’d send money to support his estranged children, he would not allow Busher Jackson into the Hall of Fame. He agreed, of course, that Jackson’s point totals were up to standard- he held several Leafs’ records, in fact- but insisted that membership in the Hall of Fame was about more than numbers. It was about virtue. It was about the honor of the game. Busher Jackson had been a great player, but Smythe was adamant that his behavior had dishonored the Leafs and dishonored hockey. He was a wife-beater, Smythe said, and that was that. So long as he was on the Selection Committee, Jackson would not be admitted.
Everyone thought this was ridiculous. Every year, when the Hall of Fame met to make its selections, the Toronto media would launch a campaign for Jackson’s inclusion. Every year, Frank Selke would introduce his name on the ballot, and every year, Smythe would veto it and send his critics a copy of the selection criteria with the words “integrity and character” highlighted. As time passed and virtually all the other Maple Leafs of the 30s were included, the outrage grew, and it persists still. Of all the weird and cruel things Smythe did in his career- and there were several- nothing seems to be more consistently condemned than his decision to stand on principle in between Busher Jackson and the Hall of Fame. The great hockey history blogger Joe Pelletier still calls it “his lowest act.”
I can see their argument. True enough, the man made a mess of everything else in his life, but he did this one thing brilliantly, and why shouldn’t he be praised for that? He didn’t drink the Maple Leafs out of business. He didn’t beat hockey up and send it fleeing into the night. Why should his off-ice failings restrict him from being honored as a player?
But you know what? Smythe had a good point. Institutions like the Hall of Fame are not comfortable with the ugliness of the game, but neither are they comfortable being entirely impersonal. Because it aspires to be more than just the record book rewritten in glass and sliver, the Hall of Fame takes an interest in not just the raw achievements of players but their cultural or social impact, their personalities, their legacies. It’s often willing to take those with less glamorous numbers if they had a particular golden moment or persona that was beloved by all. But it’s also willing to omit any mention of the ugly moments in order admit those who do have glamorous numbers. The result is an irregular mishmash of varying definitions of greatness- some men were great players, others were more like great figures, some were just in a great place at a great time. But without any criticism, without any darkness, all the greatness blurs together into one generic, shining facade. The structure of the institution encourages thoughtless, reflexive reverence.
Smythe, I think, knew that enrollment in the Hall of Fame would have this effect. Probably he wanted it to have that effect. But he wanted it to be honest. He wanted the halos to be reserved for legitimate saints, for people who were fully due the admiration of later generations. I can see that. If you had to watch Jackson abuse his family and squander all the support of his friends on drinking, if you’re the guy sending money to his terrified wife and sending your son to try to get him through detox, I can understand why you don’t want to see him go down in history glowing with bullshit schoolboy hagiography.
And Busher’s defenders did downplay his failings in a rather vile way. Selke said it was silly to keep him out “because of the amount of beer he drank,” as if Jackson was just a guy who liked to have a cold one in the backyard every now and again, rather than a raging alcoholic who beat his wife until she literally ran away and hid from him in fear. Red Burnett made his drinking sound almost like a virtue: “… always, until his final years, he found his way through the swinging doors to swap yarns with cronies and sample a glass of good cheer.” Yeah, he wasn’t homeless and utterly unable to support himself, he was just a friendly guy who liked to go to the pub now and again! Because Smythe did not drink himself, reporters angling for Jackson’s admission were apt to cast his opposition as a case of simple puritanism, but in doing so, they minimized and even denied the terrible effects that Jackson’s behavior had on others. Smythe didn’t want to punish him for drinking beer like any ordinary dude. He wanted to keep a man who used and abused his fellow human beings from being wrapped in glory. That’s not a bad principle to stand on.
The Hall of Fame continues to hide these things. His official bio, other than a brief and unexplained reference to Busher being ‘a controversial player’, has nothing even remotely critical to say. In fact, it makes no mention at all of his life outside of hockey.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the HHOF never said anything about off-ice life, but invariably, if there’s something good to say, they’ll scream it from the rooftops. If a player, off the ice, was really moral or educated or successful in business, if he had even the most limited kind of political career or community involvement, the biographies always mention it. If he had ambiguous qualities, they’ll spin them to the positive- madmen become ‘passionate’ and thugs become ‘tough’. The result is that the entire community of Hall of Fame members is presented in an almost undifferentiated mass of glowing compliments. For the players one remembers personally, it’s easy to read criticisms between the lines, in the spaces and elisions and the known truths that aren’t said, but the names in the distant past take on one uniform aura of sepia-stained perfection. Busher Jackson will smell like a saint forever just because of the breath of sanctity that wafts off Syl Apps.
Perhaps people should not speak ill of the dead, but it is generally better that cultural institutions- especially those that claim to be custodians of the collective memory- speak the truth. The Hockey Hall of Fame can either be a temple or a museum, but whichever it chooses, it should be honest. If it’s going to be a temple, then Smythe was right: it should elevate the players who were honestly worth reverence. If it’s going to be a museum, though, it should embrace players of diverse significance and speak the whole truth about them. It isn’t as if the Hall is entirely afraid of ugliness. The exhibits on Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore (which are sort of creepily right next to each other) make mention of their ugly encounter and all the trouble it caused. They don’t shy away from mention of the Richard Riot. If the Hall doesn’t feel compelled to whitewash the hockey part of hockey history, why is it so reluctant to show the full colors of the non-hockey part?
I think, maybe, it’s because there is no convenient moral Busher Jackson’s fall. Hockey likes to pretend it’s ‘solved’ a lot of the problems of the past. Sure, Ace Bailey nearly died of a brain hemorrhage, but now we have the All-Star Game! And helmets! Sure, French Canadians felt so mistreated by the Anglophone community which dominated the NHL that they erupted into to mass violence, but now the League has many adored French-Canadian stars! But there’s no redemptive lesson in Busher’s story: he lived hard, he did some bad shit, and he died early. Just like a bunch of other guys in the Hall of Fame whose biographies abruptly end at retirement. Just like some guys today.
It doesn’t have to be all the gory details. The shiny plaque doesn’t have to tell all the eager tourists that he hit his wife and lost his child. But the online biography, in the after-hockey paragraph, where it talks about Joe Primeau’s business ventures and Apps’ political career and the cancer fundraising work that other people have done in Charlie Conacher’s name, it could mention that Harvey Jackson struggled with alcoholism, unemployment, and the adjustment to life after hockey. Should he ever come up in the displays, it could mention that much, for him and all the others like him. We, the audience, are not so frail of mind nor idealistic of spirit to be traumatized by the simple acknowledgment of the obvious truth that not all great players are also great in the general sense. And it might do us some good, when we’re reverently contemplating the glories of the past, to be reminded that the figures we think of as old gods were really very mortal men living in very hard times, despite their gifts subject to the same weaknesses, failures, and disorders as ordinary people. The Hall of Fame should be able to tell us that much, and let us choose for ourselves which of the various kind of greatness we would like to revere.
Busher Jackson retired from the NHL in 1944. He died in 1966, and was finally admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Conn Smythe resigned in protest.
Research for this post was taken from The Lives of Conn Smythe, by Kelly McParland (a most excellent hockey book) the Wikipedia pages on Busher Jackson and The Hockey Hall of Fame, and Joe Pelletier’s indispensable Greatest Hockey Legends site.