Archive for the ‘History Lessons’ Category

Eddie Shore- Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library

“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.”

-Eddie Shore

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.

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The most amazing thing about World War I, then called The Great War because people had no idea there was going to be another one, is that men volunteered for it, which is something like volunteering to be shoved into a meat grinder with a plunger. In practice, going to World War I meant sitting in a trench for months at a time being shelled and gassed at intervals. “Battle” meant crawling out of the trench on your stomach, getting shelled, gassed, and machine-gunned, and maybe, if you were lucky enough to survive, advancing a few meters, where one might then sit in a new trench. It was a war of mud and inches that decimated a generation of men on both sides. If there is anything in this world that simultaneously proves both the badassness of our ancestors and the folly of human nature, it is this: people volunteered to fight in World War I.

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Hockey at McGill, 1884. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Someday you will have a question about hockey. Something that doesn’t make sense, maybe, or seems offensive. Or less than that, something that just seems somehow off, in a slight, nagging way, like a persistent itch. Why is this huge open-ice hit not considered charging? Why does the NHL still have touch icing? Why do some extremely talented players talk about dump-and-chase as though it were the height of tactical brilliance? Why do the Canadiens still have middle-aged guys in track suits shoveling their ice when every single other team has long since moved on to attractive women in halter tops? There are a lot of mysterious things in this game. Even the hardest-dying fan will sometimes have questions.

So maybe, when this question occurs, you bring it to a hockey person of long experience and great sagacity for clarification. This person might make a logical argument, or they might tell you a story, but chances are at some point you will hear the phrase that’s hockey. It may be offered with a shrug- the hockey gods move in mysterious ways- or it may be yelled- that’s the way it is and if you don’t like it go back to Florida, princess- but it will probably come up. That’s hockey is what the guardians of tradition tell to the young, the inexperienced, and the annoying. It is both the last line of defense and an obligatory disclaimer, the one phrase that explains- supposedly- everything.

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History Lessons: Howie

I always wonder what Leo Dandurand must have thought when the crying started. This was the 1920s, after all, when gender roles were still fairly restrictive and the spectrum of male social expression ran pretty much from ‘enraged’ to ‘stoical’. And anyway, it’s hockey. There is no crying in hockey. And yet here he is, the managing owner of the Canadiens, sitting in his office, staring across his desk at the single most promising prospect of the young century, who is sobbing and blubbering into his handkerchief.

I have no idea what Dandurand was thinking then, but I’m pretty sure it was not complimentary.

Howie Morenz didn’t want to play hockey. That was why he’d come to Montreal; that’s why he broke down in tears: he wanted out. A Canadiens scout had seen him play in Stratford and seen what everyone else had seen, that the boy was talented beyond talent, faster than anyone in the game then, faster possibly than anyone had ever been. He was that rarest of creatures, the natural hockey prodigy. Unfortunately, his great dream was to become a railroad engineer.

It had been hard for Dandurand to convince him to sign with the Habs, but not that hard. Howie was bad with money and already $800 in debt, a phenomenal sum for a twenty-year-old in 1922. Over his father’s objections, he’d signed the contract, mostly for the $1000 signing bonus that had been offered on the spot. But later that summer he changed his mind, and sent the checks and the contract back to Montreal with a note saying that he was very sorry, but he simply didn’t want to play professional hockey, and would Mr. Dandurand please be sportsmanlike and let him out of the deal?

Now, in 1922 no owner ever let any player out of a contract for anything save injury, incompetence or death, so of course Dandurand said no. Howie came to Montreal begging, weeping, saying, please don’t make me play pro hockey, and Dandurand said, kid, you don’t play for me, you’ll never play again for anyone, professional or amateur, your whole life long, and Howie gave in. He showed up at training camp with all his worldly goods in a box and skates so battered it was a wonder he could stand in them, resigned to his fate.

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Tear gas in the Montreal Forum, 1955

The exploits of the fan are sadly underrepresented in hockey history. Although there are many more fans than players, although it is their money, their attention, and their presence that keeps the show going, fans are nevertheless the least-studied population in the game. We have hundreds of books devoted to professional players, dozens more on amateurs, coaches, GMs, and owners, but in all of these the fans are seldom anything more than spectators who pay passive tribute to the individuals who really matter. Sportswriting, perhaps by nature, perhaps by choice, is the last subgenre of history where the ‘Great Man’ theory is alive and well, where the study of individual careers is considered more important than the study of movements. This needs to change. True, the fans are not the show, but socially speaking, culturally speaking, they’re more important than the show. They’re the reason for the show.

Moreover, it’s not as though there’s nothing to write about. Hockey fans have a long and storied history of their own. Unfortunately, it’s kind of an awful, ignominious history. Not because fans have never done anything good- we all know intuitively that they do lots of cheering teams and celebrating records and other virtuous things- but because nobody records stories of fans behaving nicely. Like peasants, fans are most interesting when they are most unruly, and so the annals of hockey are full of tales in which fans break the boundaries of good taste and, occasionally, the law.

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According to reports, a press conference has been scheduled for this afternoon in Seattle, where Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to announce an official proposal for a new arena. Chris Hansen, a hedge-fund manager originally from Seattle, has plans to build an arena and bring in an NBA team to Seattle, but hockey fans are interested because the lack of arena appears to be the only thing keeping the NHL out of the Emerald City.

While Hansen himself is interested only in the NBA, having been a Sonics fan growing up, but other groups have been rumoured to be interested in bringing the NHL to Seattle, including Don Levin, part-owner of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

Seattle seems like a prime market for the NHL: it’s USA’s 12th largest television market, 3rd biggest on the west coast and has a long history with hockey stretching back to the Seattle Metropolitans, who were the first team from the United States to win the Stanley Cup way back in 1917. The Metropolitans competed for the Cup two more times, including the only time the Cup wasn’t awarded as their series with the Canadiens in 1919 was cut short due to the Spanish Flu epidemic hitting both teams, leading to the death of Joe Hall of the Canadiens.

I have personal reasons for wanting to see the NHL come to Seattle, as I am a Canucks fan married to an American from near Seattle. Having a potential rival just 3-4 hours down the road with family in the area and tickets that will undoubtedly be cheaper than those in Vancouver is an exciting thought.

There are a couple reasons to be hesitant, however. After all, Atlanta is an even bigger television market than Seattle and hockey didn’t exactly work out there. Also, Seattle has come close twice already to having an NHL franchise, only to have it snatched away at the last second. There’s reason to be a little cynical about their chances this time around.

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A Nineteenth-Century Ice Boat Crossing- Image Courtesy of the McCord Museum

 

One of the great, enduring questions about hockey is why it developed a culture that is so tolerant of violence comparative to other sports. Most other sports tend to regulate violent acts tightly and punish them severely. Hockey is more cavalier; rather than outright prohibiting most acts, it offers a kind of karmic trade off: do the crime if you want, so long as you’re willing to do the time. Like some other games, hockey celebrates legitimate violence within the rules; unlike other games, it tolerates even illegal violence. Every sport has its demons, but few others are quite so comfy-cozy with them.

I have my own hypothesis about this, and it is as follows: Hockey tolerates violence because hockey is a sport that evolved in Canada in the late nineteenth century. Canada in the late nineteenth century was an extremely dangerous and unpleasant place, and the people who lived in it had to be, of necessity, very tolerant of pain and danger. Not, of course, in the refined gentlemen’s sporting clubs of Ottawa. Not in on the posh playing fields of McGill. But out in the rest of the country? All those little mining towns and lumber concerns, windblown fishing villages and lonesome ranches? Life out there, from what I can tell, was #*%&ing hard. It was often dangerous, and when it wasn’t dangerous it was certainly arduous. Between the manual labor, the climate, the disease and the isolation, a man of hockey-playing age might expect to encounter rather a lot of pain, suffering, and near-death experiences in his lifetime. On the grand scale of a modern life, a punch in a hockey fight seems like a huge assault, but on the grand scale of those lives, the lives of the great-grandfathers, it would have been a relatively minor irritation. Hockey is dangerous because, once upon a time, life was dangerous.

In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, I keep a little running collection of incidents from early hockey history where we can see not just the events on the ice but something about the lives of the players off the ice- the context in which they played. The idea is to show by example that the kind of physical pain and distress occasioned by the game back then was more or less proportional to the kinds of pain and distress that took place in everyday living. Today, in belated honor of Hockey Day in Canada, I’m going to relate one of these incidents- a story about hockey players’ lives off the ice. Or rather, on an entirely different kind of ice.

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