Last Saturday, having played only one month of games, the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey Federation canceled the remainder of its season. When the NHL crashes, it crashes in a great fury of rants and protests, but when Taiwan hockey went down it went down quiet, barely even letting out a little Facebook whimper as it died. The reasons for the cancellation are a different post for a different time- blah blah IIHF blah blah transfer cards etc- but what is worth noting is the mechanism of destruction. The Federation does not run the hockey league in Taiwan, so it technically did not disband the teams nor dismember the institution. The Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey League, if it wants, can still exist on paper. The only place it cannot exist is on the ice. The Federation, you see, controls the arena, and to destroy the League, all it had to do was pull its ice time.
In Taiwan, as in most warm countries, as, indeed, in most cold countries until the modern era, the single most important question in hockey is this: who owns the ice?
We don’t think about this question so much anymore. In the contemporary NHL, most franchises have tight, direct control of their own arenas, which makes the issue seem moot- the ice and the team as inextricably linked institutions, the difference between the two barely worth considering. Nevertheless, it’s still an important question. Ask yourself this: why is it that NHL owners can afford to lockout their own product and cancel their own season with no fear of retribution? What is it that makes it impossible for a competing rebel league to rise up and put out a different brand of elite hockey in the NHL’s core markets? Certainly there is the audience for it, certainly there is the desire, certainly there are men wealthy enough and angry enough to take on the project. But there is no ice. The facilities that could even dream of hosting NHL-level hockey in NHL-quality markets are few and virtually all of them belong to the owners of NHL teams. A rebel league would have no profitable place to play.
This isn’t a coincidence, this tight NHL control of ice. The League learned it, and it was a hard lesson that took some time to get pounded through their thick skulls. More than any other game, hockey has always been dependent on its exotic, specialized playing surface, and throughout the history of the sport, those who’ve controlled the arenas have controlled the direction of the game. When the proto-professional leagues, the forbears of the NHL, fragmented against each other again and again, the faction who attracted arena support was the one that survived. When owners of franchises went toe-to-toe in the same market for the backing of the League, sponsors, and fans, the guy who owned the ice invariably won. When rebel leagues broke off and tried to challenge the NHL, there was always a man with an arena or two or three in the background. And when the NHL crushed those rebel leagues, they did so co-opting the arena, with or without the man. The history of North American hockey is the history of North American hockey arenas.
An arena is not the same as a rink. A rink is a place for playing hockey, and there are thousands of them across the cold swaths of the continent. In fact, anywhere with level ice is either already a rink or only 2-3 hours’ work away from becoming one- haul down a few nets, slap up some kind of boundary, boom, hockey rink. An arena, however, is a building for watching hockey, and while a rink makes players, only an arena can produce fans. You can have hockey-the-game with just rinks, but for hockey-the-consumer-entertainment-spectacle, you’ve gotta have arenas.
For twenty years after the first recorded game, hockey was played exclusively on rinks. Nice rinks, of course, big fancy rinks with colored bunting and brass bands and flickering gaslights overhead, but rinks nevertheless, square-cornered sheets devised for pleasure skating, where the thick petticoats and delicate sensibilities of lady spectators took the place of boards. Buy a ticket to a hockey game in 1887, to watch the very best team in the very best facility, and you would spend the night standing in your galoshes in a dim, unheated barn, a muffler wrapped up over your nose and a rapidly draining flask in your hip pocket. The only reason people did this at all was because the competition for winter evening entertainment in the late 19th century consisted of knitting and reading. It was a boring, uncomfortable time.
By 1898, men’s hockey was drawing large enough bored, uncomfortable crowds that some savvy Montreal businessmen had the brilliant idea that maybe, just maybe, they could sell more tickets to hockey games if going to one was, you know, a little bit less completely miserable. Together, they pooled $35,000 and built what was, for its day, the most luxurious hockey facility on the planet. The Montreal Arena, as they creatively named it, could hold 10,000 fans and seat about half of them. It featured a refreshment bar that sold hot drinks and rented thick blankets, smoking lounges in the back, and barriers to keep errant pucks from bruising the audience’s shins (it’s ice was also rounded at the corners, making possible the entire strategy of ‘ringing the puck around the boards’). For the first time in hockey history, watching a game was not just interesting but comfortable. The Montreal Arena made hockey watching itself a viable pastime, something one might want to do regularly on a Saturday night, something that could be a pleasant foundation for eating, drinking, and socializing. The Montreal Arena, essentially, invented the hockey fan.
The Montreal Arena and the other spectator arenas that followed quick after it belonged to no particular team. They were owned by independent groups who rented their ice to clubs, usually in exchange for a percentage of the gate receipts. In the early days of ostensibly amateur hockey, the split usually favored the arena, sometimes to the tune of 70%. How, you ask, could the facility owners demand such a huge cut? Because there were a ton of clubs hoping to sell tickets to their games and very few facilities that could sell significant numbers of tickets. Any team or league hoping to be profitable had to court the arena, and as such the arena was in a position to drive a bidding war for its services. But more than that, as different leagues battled for hockey supremacy, the arena could often pick the winners and losers. No matter how wealthy or accomplished their backers, no matter how good their players, no team could have any hope of making money without the arena on their side. No arena, no fans, no money. Like television networks today, back then the building was the arbiter of what hockey was seen and what wasn’t. In a world with many different competing brands of the sport, that was a powerful position indeed.
Over time, as audiences for hockey grew and the profits to be made from high-level games outstripped those to be made from public skating, ice shows, and whatever other entertainments could be put in an arena, arena owners became more active in directing the future of the game to their own ends. In 1905, when the CAHL wanted to exclude the Montreal Wanderers from its membership, the Montreal Arena owners threatened to refuse ice time to any league that didn’t feature the popular team, and so forced the foundation of the ECAHA. In 1908, E.J. Doran, owner of the Jubilee rink, became the first private individual to buy a hockey club (before that they had all been genuine clubs, owned by the membership), when he purchased the Wanderers in order to fill his building. The NHA triumphed, in part, over its rival the CHA when the latter’s inability to sell out the Montreal Arena pushed the owners to switch their loyalty to the other side.
And, in fact, the Montreal Arena had a hand in forcing the creation of the NHL itself. In 1917, with many of Canada’s hockey-age dudes already shipped off to the die on Flanders’ fields, the government instituted a conscription program which looked likely to claim even more of the nations’ athletic young bodies. Of the six teams in the NHA at that point, one- the 118th Battalion- had already been shipped off to war in its entirety, and it appeared that the others would lose players as well. Eddie Livingstone, owner of the Toronto St. Patricks, pushed the NHA to complete the season with a five-team circuit, no matter how depleted the rosters. The Montreal Arena Corporation, home ice provider for two of the five teams, retorted by threatening to lock out the entire Association of they continued to put a diluted product on the ice. As a way to escape Livingstone and placate the arena, the remaining four NHA teams withdrew and reformed themselves as a new league, our beloved NHL.
Will this fragile new league survive? Will Eddie Livingstone have his revenge? Is James Norris the most devious motherfucker in the history of hockey? Tune in next time!
Research for this series was taken from Lords of the Rinks, by John Chi-Kit Wong, Putting a Roof on Winter, by Michael McKinley, and Deceptions and Doublecross, by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.