Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

The interior of the Montreal Arena, the first modern ice hockey arena, in 1899.

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.

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The title of this post is a quotation from Randall Maggs’ “Different Ways of Telling Time”, which can be found in Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.

When I ask people what games I should watch out of the past, people mostly recommend the great works of their own favorite team.  Bruins and Flyers fans give me dates out of the middle 70s, Devils and Red Wings fans sing the praises of the 90s.  But everyone tells me to watch the 80s.  And within the 80s, everyone tells me to watch 1987.  Even people who couldn’t care less about the Oilers, even people who hate the Flyers, even people who, like me, were too young that year to really understand hockey- everyone, apparently, knows that this was a great series.  It is one of those rare moments in NHL history for which there is a swell of nonpartisan nostalgia.

No matter how widely beloved the game, though, I’m always afraid I’ll miss the hook.  What older fans remember is not always apparent to me, and often the thing that catches popular memory seems small and inconsequential to my eyes.  Do I really care if this goal was waved off?  Or that call was bad? Why should it matter to me, ten-twenty-thirty years later, if it’s not my team, if it’s not my long-nursed grudge?

At some point, all old hockey just looks… old.  Watching an historical game is always a process of cataloging the quirks of the era, and often it’s hard to get beyond that. Ah yes, 1987, when moustaches were unironic and mom jeans were still for moms. No ads on the boards! No jerseys in the crowds! No suit on Craig MacTavish! The announcers have heavy, unrepentant East Coast American accents, not the smooth Midwestern tones of standard broadcast English, and when they say “Coffey” it comes out Caw-fee. The Northlands Coliseum has its own weird symbol at center ice, not the Oilers teardrop. The only festive gestures in the whole building seem to be a few clusters of blue and orange balloons, average size, like you might get for a child’s birthday party. I can just see the event planners now: “This is the Stanley Cup Final, boys, game seven. It doesn’t get any bigger than this. I think, just this once, we can spring for a helium tank.”

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When the Stanley Cup first came into being, no one really knew what exactly to do with it.  Lord Stanley famously gave the Cup to Canadian hockey, but he was rather hazy on the details. Not his fault, really, the poor man didn’t know what he was starting. He thought he was giving a punch bowl to the provincials, a small treat for a small victory in a small game. He called it the ‘Dominion Challenge Cup’, and made up five rules for it, which may be summarized thusly:

1. Don’t break it.
2. Put your name on it if you win.
3. Anybody can challenge for it.
4. These here two guys will figure out whatever other shit comes up.
5. If one of those guys doesn’t want to do it anymore, find another guy to replace him.

And with that, Lord Stanley patted himself on the back, washed his hands of hockey, and went back to England to earl over his Earldom.

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Take the Roof Off

In its natural element, hockey is a very short-term game. In the mind’s eye, Canadian winters are magnified to epic proportions, as though they bled on year after year like the decade-long freezes of Westeros. In real life, though, even in the parts of the world that have the climate for the game, that climate only holds steady for three or four months at a time. For most of the Canadian population, living low along the south border, hockey played on natural ice is of necessity an irregular thing. It gets more so every year, as we look at the forecasts and grumble louder and louder about global warming, but the truth is that even in our grandfathers’ classical winters, good ice would come and go, battered by sun and snow, rain and thaws.

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Lester Patrick c. 1907, i.e. about four years before founding the PCHA. Now let's all feel old and unaccomplished.

Lester Patrick is an important guy in the history of the NHL. As a young man, he was one of the first professional players to openly defy the amateur code. He sold his services at a premium to teams from Brandon to Montreal, and is said to have been the first defenseman ever to score a goal. As an old man, he was the first manager and coach of the New York Rangers, building the American expansion team from a boxing promoter’s plaything in 1925 to a Cup-winning team by 1927. If you’re going to make a list of guys who invented modern hockey, Lester Patrick is like top three. Maybe, by some standards, top one.

But although Patrick was born in Montreal and played several years in the NHA, although he would go down in history as the architect of a venerable Original Six team, his greatest contributions to the game weren’t made within the confines of the NHL. Unlike other early NHL figures, your Conn Smythes and Art Rosses, Patrick wasn’t just a manager and a coach. He didn’t just shape the tactics of the game. He shaped the structure of it, developing many of the rules we now take for granted as essential to hockey. Lester Patrick honestly, literally, directly, for reals, no hyperbole, revolutionized hockey. But in order to do it, he had to found a rebel league.

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A picture postcard of the Duquesne Gardens, one of the largest hockey rinks in North America c. 1904 and home ice of the IHL's Pittsburgh Pros. From the Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The NHL has survived for 95 years. That is, if I may say so, a very long time for a professional sports league to survive. So long, in fact, that we here in North America are apt to occasionally confuse the NHL with hockey itself. It’s been so dominant for so long that its product often seems like the only meaningful version of the game on the landscape. It seems terribly, inevitably, depressingly permanent.

But the NHL does not represent the whole of hockey in North America. Not now, and not in the past either. Other leagues have been, and are still. Many of these alternative leagues have been somehow less than the NHL- minor leagues, junior leagues- but others have occasionally challenged the NHL and its direct forbears for control of elite level men’s hockey. And, in fact, often these other Leagues have done more to push the development of hockey than the NHL ever would. Anything so big, so wealthy, and so solid tends towards the conservative. Sometimes it needs to be threatened from outside in order to change.

In this time of instability, when the NHL cannot seem to make peace with its players or among its owners, when it feels so secure in its dominance that it can threaten not to play the game at all and still be assured of keeping it’s audience, I thought it might be nice for us all to spend some time contemplating some of these other leagues. We don’t have one now, and we might never again, but, you know, it would be a grand thing to try.  Even if it failed, even if the NHL crushed it like a bug after two seasons under its immense cloven hooves, it would still, just for a minute, scare them. Nothing forces a business to get its shit together  like the spectre of a little competition.

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Terry Sawchuck, makin' saves and terrifyin' spectators.

It’s a Monday at the end of July. The sun is hot and yellow, the trees are full and green, there’s beach volleyball on the television and dandelions on the lawn.  The neighborhood patios are full of women in floaty sundresses and men in unflatteringly short shorts.  Every green space more than three feet square has some size of children playing some variation of soccer.  There has never been an afternoon more summery than this one.

You know what this day needs? It needs a 9-minutes hockey montage from 1967 inexplicably set to a Tijuana brass score!

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