Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

Patrick Roy, having been scored on by Darren McCarty, suddenly realizes he's screwed.

In the Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse-Five, there’s a scene where Billy Pilgrim, after the war and before he gets kidnapped by aliens, is watching a war movie backwards. Not that he means to watch it backwards, but sometimes he gets unstuck in time and things go the wrong way. So the way Billy sees the movie, all these shot-up American planes full of corpses fly over Germany, and other planes come along, pulling out the bullets and bring the dead to life. Then the fixed planes fly over cities in flame and rubble and they vacuum up all the fire, suck all the destruction into metal canisters in their bellies and take them back overseas, where women in factories carefully dismantle them, chemists turn the explosives back into minerals, and miners bury it all in the ground. Seen in reverse, every war movie is about people healing, building, and freeing each other.

Some stories are better backwards.

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Harvey "Busher" Jackson (seated, right) poses with King Clancy and a Maple Leafs shareholder in 1932. Image courtesy of the Whitby Public Library

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.

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Brad Richards with his posse, who are the only people who loved him even more after he signed the NHL's biggest contract.

Everyone who suggests a game for me to watch has something in mind that they think I ought to see. Sometimes this thing is intrinsically dramatic- a major brawl, a famous series of goals, a great player’s single greatest performance- but other things are more subtle. Often, the Important Thing is an Emotionally Important Thing, something which through the lens of subsequent events has taken on mythic proportions for a particular faction of the hockey community. The Leafs’ Cup win in 1967 is a major example: it is not the game itself that matters but the context later history gives it.

I would put the Gelinas non-goal in Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final in this same category. I understand how the goal, a bounce off a moving skate that crossed the line but wasn’t called, invites lingering regrets and might-have-beens; had it been awarded, the Flames would have won the Cup. Or might have, anyway, unless the Lightning had come on strong (as is the way of trailing teams in the third period of elimination games) and tied it up. But fact is, the Flames had more chances after that. They had overtime and all of game seven, and they didn’t get it done. That incident, maybe it’s a kick in the nuts but it alone didn’t cost them the Cup. And anyway, it ain’t the worst misjudgment been engendered by the awkward phrase ‘distinct kicking motion’, nor the worst non-call in the history of Cup-losing. Watching the game in isolation, with no outraged commentary around it, the Gelinas ungoal doesn’t seem all that dramatic. It’s a plot point, not a storyline.

Things just don’t look the same eight years down the line as they did when they were freshly played, and the things that I notice are often not the things that people who experienced the event live remember most vividly. For example, watching this game, I noticed Brad Richards. Well, not Brad Richards himself, really, but the way people talk about Brad Richards.

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During the off-season, a hockey writer needs to have a project. There is a certain amount of material that can be squeezed out of the draft, and UFA day is always a hot drama. This year, the CBA negotiations are sure to provide some kind of morbid inspiration. But the blood of hockey commentary is games. Games are what give this work not just its subject matter, but also its color, emotion, and spontaneity. Without games, hockey writing is such a pallid business that it has been known to drive otherwise rational people to take up soccer.

Fortunately for me, there are a good sixty years worth of recorded hockey games that I haven’t seen yet, and so, as my off-season project, I decided to go back and watch all the highlights of hockey history in reverse-chronological order. The grand devolution of the game: from the lockout, back through the dead-puck era into the wild eighties, the upstart WHA lapsing into the expansion age and thence contracting to the inaccurately-named Original Six. I figure it’ll be fun- I’ll get to meet a lot of famous players I’ve only encountered so far as lists of names, develop a personal sense of the history of rules and strategies, and come up with new and exciting ways of mocking Leafs fans. And, as a bonus, I get to watch hockey during the summer. Perfect.

I decided to begin my mission, mostly for symbolic reasons, with the very last thing that happened in hockey before I discovered it: Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals, the cold spring of year 1 BE (Before Ellen). Excited, I told Julian of my plans- he’s an Oilers fan, and I had hopes he’d have some commentary to contribute.

Instead, he glared at me, and said only this: “That never happened.”

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The 1941-42 NHL season was the dawn of the Original Six. The Brooklyn Americans had survived that year, barely, but never made it to the next- the team was ‘suspended’ because of the war, never to be revived again. Through the 20s, the NHL had grown, featuring ten teams from 1926-1931, but the Depression killed off most of the experimental expansion franchises.  By the end of 1942, only six would remain: the eccentric Blackhawks and the faded Canadiens, the nasty Bruins and the star-chasing Rangers, the Leafs and the Red Wings.

When these last two met in the 1942 Stanley Cup Final, the Wings were the considered the underdog. In the regular season, they’d finished fifth, fifteen points behind the second-place Leafs, and although Detroit had two Cups to Toronto’s one, the Leafs had had an unmatched eight SCF appearances in the previous ten years. Both Jack Adams and Conn Smythe had built their teams up from nothing, but of the two, Smythe had been more successful. At the time, the Leafs were the most lucrative, most popular, and increasingly the most dominant team in the NHL. They were on the verge of greatness. The Red Wings, on the other hand, were still a work in progress. Although James Norris was willing to spend freely on players, Adams had not yet been able to net any stars of League-wide proportions. Fans in Detroit were still only half-educated about hockey, and Red Wings games were still subject to massive influxes of Ontarian Leafists, who would heckle the home team mercilessly in their own barn.

So if you’d gone down to the bull ring, where the bookies of Maple Leaf Gardens did their business, in March 1942, you probably would have found that most of the money was on the Leafs.  They were no Kingsesque juggernaut, but they were most definitely favored.  It came, then, as a tremendous shock to the hockey world when they proceeded to lose three games in a row and put themselves on the brink of a pathetic sweeping-out.

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Fred Taylor does not care what you think of him. Especially if you're from Ottawa.

There are a lot of things fans do not love about the business side of hockey: arbitration hearings, the CBA, the fact that sometimes it breaks down and destroys the League for a year at a time.  But most of all, they do not love players who treat hockey like a business.  When a team is stashing multimillion contracts in the minors or offloading struggling veterans for picks and cap space, of course, then most fans are fine with treating the game as a business.  But when a player, at the height of his powers and of his own free will, decides to leave the team that raised him up and go where the money’s better, the spectators are apt to get ornery.    What happened to loyalty?  they ask.  Players used to be loyal.  Now they’re just mercenaries.

Yet the mercenary impulse is inherent in the whole notion of professional sports. Professional sports are played for money, and whenever one is selling one’s skills for money, there is an element of greed involved. There can be other things involved as well, the atmosphere of the workplace and the challenge of the work and the worthiness of the cause, but for the most part, when people get paid to do something, they go where the pay is best. It has always been so: the first paid players were also the first mercenary players.

In the very earliest beginnings of hockey, all hockey in North America was amateur hockey, and was therefore naturally regional. The first generation of Ottawa Senators were composed of the government workers and displaced aristocrats who populated that city, just as the first Montreal teams were born of the gentleman scholars of McGill. People played where they were, the same way modern rec league players do. For the lower classes of society, getting paid to play a game was a practical impossibility, and for the upper classes, an ethical impossibility.  The social elites who composed most early hockey teams looked down on the notion of any kind of payment with the same disdain we have today for gambling on one’s own matches.

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This child is clearly troubled by the ambiguity inherent in the object he's holding.

Here are Terry Sawchuck’s shoulder pads, barely more than felt and worn to fraying at the edges. Here is a Jean Beliveau stick, circa 1969, with just the faintest hint of a toe curve. Here is Mario Lemieux’s junior jersey, adorned with some strange symbol like a three-dimensional rendering of a Tetris piece. Here are some NHA skates, low leather boots and barrel-mounted blades. Here are moth-eaten Bruins sweaters, knit from wool in stripes of caramel and mustard.

These are the holy relics of hockey. They were never meant to be venerated. Hockey stuff is not the stuff of forever, it’s the stuff of now, and it’s meant to be sweated into, spat on, bled through, and thrown away. Used hard and used up. Most sticks end their lives broken in a trash can, along with gloves worn through at the palms and skates gone soft at the ankles. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

But every now and then it doesn’t go that way. Sometimes, because a piece of gear was on a particularly special body at a particularly special moment, it doesn’t get tossed. Someone squirrels it away somewhere, in a closet or a basement or a cedar chest, and then some twenty years later when that specialness has had time to blossom into legend, they dig it up and send it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, where we can go to ooh and ahh over it while assiduously trying not to think about all the bodily fluids it must have absorbed in its pre-sanctified days.

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