Aside

red cross

By utilizing hooked end of hockey stick, ice victim can be hauled from water by skater whose prompt action and quick thinking may save a life. Victim should assist by kicking feet.

• “Hockey stick rescue,” American Red Cross, 1960

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rescue

“We’re coming,” Joe shouted. “Don’t be afraid.” And as he skated he tried to remember all he had learned at Scout meetings about rescuing people who broke through the ice.

“It’s lucky I have this hockey stick,” he thought, for as he drew nearer the terror-stricken child and felt the thinner ice begin to crack beneath him, he carefully went down flat on his stomach and held the stick out in front of him, pushing it slowly closer and closer to the hole. Once his heart was in his mouth, for the little red head disappeared and he was terrified lest the current should sweep the child under the ice, beyond all hope of rescue. The little boy was plainly growing weaker, but even such feeble attempts as he was able to make to clamber out of the hole kept breaking the ice around him.

At last Joe shoved the hockey stick close enough. “Hang on,” he pleaded. “Hang on to the stick. Just grab it with both hands and Joe will pull you out all right.” He kept his voice calm so the frightened, freezing child who had been sobbing piteously and thrashing into deeper danger in his panic, quieted for a moment — long enough to notice the stout stick on the jagged ice in front of him.

• Skating Today (1945), M.R. Renick, illustrated by Raymond Vartanian

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omen

In Damien: Omen II, the dubious appeal of the original — a toddler turns out to be the son of the devil — is missing. The sequel takes place approximately seven years later and the toddler is now a teenage brat. Frankly, there’s nothing particularly surprising or horrifying about a teenager in league with the devil. Also, the commotion the kid inspires this time is not particularly frightening. A crow eats an old woman. Big deal.

• Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune, July 6, 1978

Before Damien has finished this time, there have been approximately a dozen new victims, a couple of whom have succumbed to what appears to be internal disorders while others have been sliced in half, stabbed, burned, impaled, gassed, pecked (by a nasty crow) and in the film’s most inspired moment of cinematic nonsense, drowned beneath the clear ice of a Wisconsin lake.

• Vincent Canby, The New York Times, June 10, 1978

Chilliest of the horror sequences — imaginatively achieved — a drowning scene during an ice hockey game.

• Bernie Harrison, The Washington Star, February 5, 1980

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1966

It is the Christmas holiday for the boys. They are at play in the park. There is ice on the pond there. The boys think the ice is thick, but it is thin. One boy is in the middle of the ice when he trips and falls. There is a crack and the boy falls through the ice.

The boys call the park keeper to help their friend. He finds that he can reach the boy and he pulls him out of the water. The boy is not hurt, but he is very wet, so the park keeper takes him home.

• Enjoying Reading (1966), W. Murray

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pass that puck

Following a few series of “starts and stops,” Mr. Hopkins tossed outa dozen pucks that Whitey had handed him. This was the sign that formal practice had ended. The bay now became a madhouse of “shinny.”

After allowing a few minutes of this unrestrained fun, Mr. Hopkins called all but the seniors off the ice. Whitey Sherman limped out to the row of beams. He had to bring in the red flags that marked the boundaries. He watched Ted Dunsworth and Nat Collier skating down the ice passing the puck back and forth in mid-season form.

Just before reaching the boundaries, Ted stopped and fed a hard pass toward the beams, while Nat swung wide to pick it up. The puck, passed too hard, lifted slightly off the ice, hit the top of the beams, and skidded into the out-of-bounds area.

Without a bit of hesitation, Nat jumped lightly over the beams and skated in pursuit.

Aware of the closeness of treacherous ice, Whitey, who was nearest to him, shouted, “Nat come back here!”

The puck was sliding fast now. Nat reached it in a second, curled his stick around it, stopped suddenly and swept the puck back toward the beams. At the same time, Whitey and the others that were watching, saw the ice area around Nat suddenly sag and give way. With arms outstretched, hockey stick in the air, Nat Collier settled into the water.

• Pass That Puck! (1948), Richard T. Flood

falling through the ice: take your skates off, poletti, they’re weighin’ ya down

dangerSometimes in the hockey novels, the pond where the high-school team plays its big game is beautiful, black and smooth and deep, and the sound that skates make on it bespeaks power and gracefulness and cold outdoor air, such that young Jack Taylor, who watches the game, can’t resist heading out onto this same ice a few days later when the weather starts to warm.

I’m speaking here of Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins’ 1946 novel for young readers, and if you can see where we’re heading, well, yes, obviously. The pond doesn’t have a name, though it’s big enough, apparently, to be called a lake. The boys find a sheltered cove where the ice, soft as it is, seems thick enough. They ignore the signs warning them off. They shed their shoes, pull on skates. It’s older boys, mostly. Jack is younger, meek. At first, there’s no room for him in the game, but then one of the captains says he can tend goal. Poletti. Jack doesn’t want to play in goal but, okay, fine. Schulz is the other captain, and a jerk. It’s his wrist shot that hits Jack in the shin, fells him briefly, despite everybody having agreed to no raising. I’m not going to get into the bad blood that boils between Schulz and Poletti. Poletti pokechecks him — I will say that. And so:

Schulz, chagrined, watched the puck skim over the ice. Then his chagrin vanished as he saw the rubber disc slide serenely out of the cove onto the thin ice of the pond. Watching the puck and realizing what this would mean to its owner, Schulz broke into a laugh. “O.K., wise guy!” he cried. “There’s your pokecheck and there’s your puck. You go get it — and have a good swim!”

Poletti goes. It’s his puck, the only one he’s got. The rest of the players look on. He skates fast, gets to the puck, whacks it to safety, turns back.

Poletti was returning. The ice was sagging dangerously, rising up and down beneath him like a rippling snake. Poletti was skating uphill and downhill over the creaking ice. A boy yelled, “Come on, Poletti. You kin make it.”

No. Not true. He trips, cries out, crashes through the ice. O no.

The boys stood paralyzed. Then they broke into excited cries and skated in excited circles. “He’s up,” someone shouted. Poletti had pulled himself onto a ledge of solid ice and was pushing himself up with his arms. Suddenly the ledge gave way and Poletti dropped back into the icy water. Cakes of ice ground around him, seemed to promise support, and then sank under his weight.

ftti harkins - Version 2

Take off your skates, Schulz counsels from afar: “They’re weighin’ ya down!” No way: those skates cost him ten bucks. Jack’s the one who goes after Poletti, of course: it’s his job as the novel’s hero. Along with his nerve, he’s got a plan.

When he reached the thin ice of the pond, he dropped to one knee and, getting flat on his stomach, wriggled forward with extended hockey stick. He ignored the warnings of the other players.

“Grab my ankle,” he cried to them, and someone followed, lay down, and grabbed Jack’s ankle. Then another joined the human chain and another, and now there were four boys anchored to Schulz, who was kneeling on the thick safe ice of the cove.

Jack slid farther out near Poletti. Poletti thrashed against the heavy ice cakes, pushed them aside, and fought his way to solid ice. Jack stretched, Poletti strained. Then Poletti managed to grasp the end of the hockey stick which Jack extended toward him.

“O.K. Pull,” cried Jack. “Everybody hold on with two hands!”

Slowly painfully, Poletti came up out of the icy water onto ice that held under his weight, over the ice of the pond to the thicker ice of the cove, where he lay at last soaked, dripping, safe.

All’s well that ends & etc. Happy and proud, Jack joins Poletti for hot chocolate and hot dogs. What could be better? “A day that had started miserably,

with an assignment of goal tending and a painful bang on the shin, had turned out extremely well; by express invitation he was walking home with a big boy, a high school boy, a good hockey player.

icelanders

glsea_curThe Great Lakes are 85.4 per cent iced over, or at least they were yesterday, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, the U.S. federal body that monitors these things on behalf of science and shinny.

That’s an impressive figure by any standard other than that of impatient hockey players, or Canadians. True, most of us won’t make it out this winter with our Kohos, in our old Tacks, onto a frozen patch of Erie or Ontario or Superior, much less pick up a puck near Kingston and stickhandle it all the way west to Duluth. Still, to the rink born, we feel that such a stretch of ice should be available to us all the same in mid-winter, just in case. It’s what we’re owed, as Canadians — anything short of 100 per cent coverage is at best a disappointment.

If we’re not, at this point, calling it a natural national tragedy, that’s because we know what we’ve learned from all those flooding in our backyards: the freeze takes time. The good news is that the Great Rink is getting there: on Monday last, coverage was at 76.6 per cent. A few more icy nights and we should be good to go — maybe by the weekend, then?

In the meantime, maybe best to review the hazards of pond hockey. Hockey’s literature has been attentive to the dangers involved in venturing out on to natural ice, which you’ll know if you happen to have read all the hockey novels, only a few of which don’t include a scene in which the hero (a) falls through thin ice himself while chasing pucks and/or (b) rescues some other poor sap who didn’t listen and went under. I wrote about that in Puckstruck, citing some of the terrible fictional sounds associated with hockey/ice disasters:

• ominous creaking, anguished cry, crash (Lightning On Ice, Philip Harkins, 1946)
• silence (Pass That Puck! Richard T. Flood, 1948)
• “yow!” “crash!” “crack, crackle!” (New Heroic Comics, 1949)
• gentle splashing, shouts of people running (Brother of the Hero, Lev Kassil, 1968)
• “helllppppp!” (Forever, Roy MacGregor, 1996)

“In fiction,” I continued,

it’s a bit of a rite of passage for young players. If you’re going to learn the game, then you’re going to have to take a swim, losing if not your life then at least a boot. What often happens is that your brother Joe comes by with his hockey stick and lies down on his stomach and says, “That’s a brave boy” and “Wrap your arms around it and hold hard,” and so you do that, and he fishes you out and makes you skate to shore to get your circulation going instead of carrying you, which is smart. That’s what happens in Skating Today (1945), possibly one of the worst titled hockey novels of all, though still compelling as a story in its own hokey way.

You don’t, course, have to be a young scamp in a hockey story to have the ice betray you. It happens in history, too, to Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Whether you’re fulfilling your birthright as a Canadian or retreating from Napoleon with your artillery over a lake in what’s now the Czech Republic, the lesson to learn is the same: as the Ontario Provincial Police like to remind us, no ice is safe ice.

satchan lake

I seem to be able to get along with hockey players: the book peter gzowski never wrote

gzowskiIf you’re going to write a hockey book, I’m going to suggest you do it the way Peter Gzowski did it with The Game of Our Lives. First thing: hook up with a hockey team that’s just about to turn into one of the very best ever to play in the NHL, with a roster that makes room for names like Gretzky, Messier, and Coffey. Two: have Peter Pocklington own that team, so that in the fall of the year you’re publishing your book, he’ll pre-purchase 7,500 copies to give away to people who’ve bought season’s tickets to watch said team.

Pocklington did that in 1981, without having read Gzowski’s chronicle of the ascendant Edmonton Oilers that McClelland & Stewart published just as the team was preparing to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. I’m guessing Pocklington didn’t read the reviews, either, but if he had he would learned that in Gzowski he’d backed a winner. “He has captured everything about hockey,” Christie Blatchford effused in The Toronto Star. “And he’s done it so well, so eloquently, so plainly, that it breaks your heart.”

Readers who hadn’t bought Oilers tickets joined in with Pocklington to make the book a bestseller. Thirty-four years later, it remains one of the most perceptive books yet to have found a place on the hockey shelf.

The Oilers weren’t Gzowski’s first choice as a subject, as it turns out. As a journalist he’d been writing about the game his whole career, both in print at Maclean’s and The Toronto Star and for CBC Radio, on This Country in the Morning and Morningside. The book he first had in mind would focus on an institution that (as he put it) flourished in a time in which it was hard to flourish, one that demanded to be admired and celebrated, that made you feel good just thinking about them, “like a good piece of architecture painting or a Christmas morning.”

The hockey book Gzowski was going to write, first, was about the Montreal Canadiens. Class is what he wanted to call it.

This is all in a letter I was reading not long ago in Peterborough, Ontario. Gzowski was Chancellor of Trent University there from 1999 to 2002, and one of the campus colleges bears his name. I had lunch in the cafeteria on my visit — a Peter Gzowski Burger, no less — before walking back across the bridge over the Otonabee River to Trent’s Archives, where many of Gzowski’s papers are preserved. Studying a plan for a book that never was, I recognized the shadows of book that he did eventually write.

It’s two pages and a half, Gzowski’s letter, typewritten, on brown paper. It’s a draft of a letter, I should say, much edited and annotated, a little jumbled, certainly unfinalized, pencilled over, xxxxxxx’d, amended. It isn’t dated, but Gzowski talks about joining the Canadiens ahead of the 1978-79 season, so I’ll guess that he was working on it in the early months of ’78. I don’t know if there ever was a second, clean copy, much less whether Gzowski got it enveloped and stamped to send to the man it addresses. That would be Doug Gibson, the esteemed editor, writer, and publisher revered for his work with Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, among many others, not to mention the man who steered Ken Dryden’s The Game to print. He was, at this time, editorial editor of Toronto-based Macmillan of Canada.   Continue reading

hello, mr. nighbor

I and I: Frank Nighbor looks himself in the eye on a 1960s visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame display chronicling his distinguished career.  (Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame/ Library and Archives Canada/PA-048874)

I and I: Frank Nighbor looks himself in the eye on a 1960s visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame display chronicling his distinguished career.
(Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame/ Library and Archives Canada/PA-048874)

Nobody remembers Jack Walker now, though he’s in hockey’s Hall of Fame. He’s the man who originated and perfected the hook-check, though that’s not something hockey people talk about now, either, much less try on the ice. It’s lost like Atlantis. I wrote about Walker and the hook-check between hardcovers in Puckstruck and since then I’ve tried to explain it in more detail, too.

Mike Rodden said that hook-checkers invariably made better centreman. They tended to be more popular with their teammates, too, he said, naming names like Frank Nighbor, Joe Malone, Billy Burch, and Hooley Smith. He doesn’t explain it further, the connection between hook-checking and popularity. I guess it makes sense: if you’re a forward who makes the effort to skate back and help with the defending, yes, that’s going to endear you to your mates.

Nighbor is a favourite of mine. He’s better remembered than Walker, partly because he played so long and so well in the NHL while Walker stuck mostly to the Pacific Coast Hockey League. Nighbor won five Stanley Cups before he retired in 1930, not to mention — although I think I will —the first ever Hart Trophy and the first two Lady Byngs.

You Don't Know Jack: Third from the left, hook-checking Jack Walker poses with Seattle Metropolitan teammates in 1915.

You Don’t Know Jack: Third from the left, hook-checking Jack Walker poses with Seattle Metropolitan teammates in 1915. With him is (1) Bernie Morris, (2) Eddie Carpenter, and (4) Cully Wilson.

Nighbor partisan though I am, I do take issue with Mike Jay of the Vancouver Daily World and will seek here to correct his error of January, 1914, when he profiled Nighbor as though Jack Walker never existed and he was the man who developed the hook-check. In Jay’s defence, Nighbor was on the west coast at the time, playing for the Vancouver Millionaires, while Walker was still in Toronto, playing for the Blueshirts, and wouldn’t join the Seattle Metropolitans. Nighbor, we know, had learned the hook-check from Walker when they were teammates, first in Port Arthur and later as Blueshirts — but I guess nobody told Mike Jay so. Nighbor tried to, sort of, as you’ll see, but it didn’t really take.

To his credit, Jay did get Nighbor talking about his methodology, to an extent that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which makes this excerpt from Jay’s effusive ambulatory Daily World interview with a 20-year-old Frank Nighbor an important addition to the hook-check archive.

“Hello, Mr. Nighbor!” greeted the interviewer.

“Oh, hello! How are you?” returned the gentleman addressed, and he fell into step with the interviewer and continued up the street.

“Fine, never felt better in my life. How’s your arm?” And the scribbler of notes indicated the injured member.

“Getting better now. Doctor says I can play on Friday, but it’s taking chances.” The tape was off the hand, and Nighbor demonstrated the fact that he could move his hand well enough.

“So you don’t know whether or not you will play?” The pencil pusher got ready to take notes.

“I don’t know just when I’ll play again. I am not certain,” replied Nighbor, working his fingers to get the joints in action.

“Oh, by the way,” said the interviewer, as if he had suddenly remembered the reason of his walk in the rain, and as if he had had no previous intention of getting any notes, “can you give me an outline of your hockey career?”

“Sure! I come from the Ottawa Valley. I first played hockey with Pembroke, in Ontario. We won the championship that year. Then the next year I played in Port Arthur. We won the championship that year. In nineteen hundred and twelve I played with the Torontos.”

“Did you win the championship that year? asked the interviewer.

“No, we took a change and lost it. In the spring of last year I was out here and — well, this year I am here,” concluded Frank Nighbor.

“Good! Now, can you give me some sidelights of your career — that is, little incidents that — ? asked the interviewer.

“Sorry, old man, but I am not guilty,” interrupted the hockey player.

“Well, then, tell me about your shot — no, never mind that — tell me about your method of checking. I believe that you are the originator of the ‘hook’ check, are you not?”

“I have always used it, if that’s what you mean,” answered Nighbor.

“No; what I mean is, give me an account of how you work it.”

“Well, I always skate low and lay my stick close to the ice. I have a long reach and I put my stick out and take the puck,” explained Nighbor.

“That easy?” queried the interviewer, incredulously.

“That easy,” smiled Nighbor.

“Gee! Simple when you know how, isn’t it?” the interviewer remarked. Nighbor still smiled. The ‘hook’ check is so hard that only the originator is able to use it. Nighbor is the only man in either the Coast or the National hockey leagues that uses it.

The method is to follow the opponent who has the puck and as that opponent starts to go to the side of a man coming towards him from the goal, the man coming from behind lays his stick almost flat on the ice and hooks the puck away suddenly and turns up the ice towards the other goal. Frank Nighbor is the only player who can successfully use it. Others have tried and failed. It requires a long reach, a quick eye and the ability to stop suddenly while skating fast in one direction and take a directly opposite direction.

Then another style of back checking which Nighbor uses, but which is used by several other players like Ernie Johnson and [Didier] Pitre, is the ‘poke.’ This consists of skating backwards before a rushing forward and then suddenly jabbing the stick on the farther side of the opponent’s stick and taking the puck away.

The ‘poke’ style has been used for many years but the ‘hook’ check is a new innovation. Newsy Lalonde said that after the Torontos beat the Canadiens in 1912 that it was due to Nighbor’s style of back checking that won the game for Toronto. The way Newsy worded it was: “Frank Nighbor beat the Canadien hockey team.”

Then Frank Nighbor has a shot that tells, but he does not figure in the scoring so much as he does in the assist column. He is the cleanest player in the Pacific Coast Hockey League and his title to clean playing is acknowledged by every player in the league. Besides that he is the youngest hockey player in professional hockey in Canada and he takes care of himself. Just on account of that reason Pete Muldoon, the Vancouver hockey team trainer, says that “Nighbor will be playing hockey long after other players start drawing their pensions.”

this week: nothing that you can’t not say good about gordie howe

gordie howe day“Pond hockey!” wrote Scott Feschuk in Maclean’s (a while ago; it bears repeating). “Short of getting Gordon Lightfoot to write a song about Stompin’ Tom Connors singing a song about Anne Murray, you just can’t get any more Canadian.”

Eighty-six-year old Gordie Howe went home to Saskatoon. That was more recent, but still a week ago; the occasion was the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner. “Howe had a stroke late last year,” noted Saskatoon’s Star-Phoenix, “but has shown signs of improvement following a stem cell procedure in Mexico in December.” Everybody was thrilled to see him. Bobby Hull was on hand, too, and his son, Brett. Wayne Gretzky was the keynote speaker. “There’s nothing that you can’t not say good about Gordie Howe,” was one of the things Gretzky said.

“It is not just what he has accomplished, but who he is as a person that makes Howe especially beloved,” said The Star Phoenix in an editorial. “Howe’s qualities represent the kind of person Saskatchewan people most respect: humility, resilience and kindness.”

Could he have originated anywhere else? No.

It is impossible, however, to imagine Howe emerging from anywhere but the Prairies.

His tough, Depression-era upbringing shaped Howe into the resilient man who remains one of Canada’s great heroes. He skated out of those humble beginnings in Saskatoon and onto rough-and-tumble NHL arenas, throwing elbows and firing pucks, the shy prairie kid making himself impossible to ignore.

Brett Popplewell from Sportsnet Magazine paid a visit to Detroit coach Mike Babcock’s house:

He has an office, lined with hockey memorabilia and the sun-baked skulls of some of the animals he has killed — an African lion, a leopard, some bears and deer — but today he’s working in the kitchen.

Max Pacioretty pointed to Brendan Gallagher this week. The Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon was there and saw this and he wrote down what Pacioretty said as he was pointing: “He doesn’t dive at all, but maybe it looks that way because he’s battling hard, he’s smaller, he’s getting knocked over.”

Gretzky on the first time he played against Howe in 1978:

“I stole the puck from him and was going the other way. All of the sudden I felt a whack. He hit me and took the puck back. He said, ‘Don’t you ever take the puck from me.’ I said, ‘All right. It will never happen again.’”

The Star Phoenix:

He carries his hometown with him wherever he goes. Howe hasn’t lived here in a long time, but he’s Saskatoon through and through.

Las Vegas set out this week to find out how much local support there might be for an NHL team in town, taking actual deposits on notional tickets to convince the league why they should be expanding there soon. From http://www.vegaswantshockey.net:

Our story begins with a goal … to bring NHL® hockey to Las Vegas. And Las Vegas is ready — ready for the energy, excitement and thrill that only NHL® hockey can deliver. We’ve done the research, polled the community and rallied our local businesses. ALL are eager to support an NHL® team. Las Vegas is ready to join the elite list of “NHL® Cities”.

Why does Nevada need hockey? The franchise’s enthusiastic backers say its for the Community and

For Our Youth …

Hockey is an excellent motivator for our youth, teaching the value of team skills, hard work and determination. If we are able to secure a team in Las Vegas, we are committed to supporting youth hockey in Las Vegas through the development of youth hockey rinks, programs and other activities.

Another week, not this, Dave Bidini was writing in The National Post:

I play goal one night a week, likely as penance for some murderous sin I committed in another lifetime.

I’ve come to enjoy being hit, but one of the other small pleasures of the crease is when everything swooshes away and you’re left naked in the zone, the rest of the players having gathered up ice, leaving you like an abandoned party guest.

It’s during these instances that I ponder mortality, taxes, and whether I’ve left the oven on at home.

Also not this week: Ron MacLean was in Newfoundland, where he ate a seal burger at Mallard Cottage in St. John’s. When he told Don Cherry about it on national television, Cherry said, “What are you, a savage? A barbarian?”

Words that failed to please many people across the country, many of whom have Twitter accounts. Matthew Coon Come, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was one. “According to Don Cherry, my Inuk friends are savages because they eat seal,” he wrote. “The network should fire him for his racist remark.”

“I hope he apologizes,” said Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq, the Minister of Health, who called Cherry’s comments “hurtful and insensitive.”

“Our government will continue to defend Canada’s humane seal hunt which is so important to many of our Northern and coastal communities.”

Cherry took to Twitter the next day, posting an explanation if not quite an apology in one of his rawly poetic bursts of numbered tweets:

1) Evidently I upset some people about my seal burger comments. I would like to try to explain my comments. Not because I was told to

2) or forced to. I do it because I feel I have hurt the feelings of some people I like and admire. I have friends who hunt deer and ducks

3) and I myself have eaten venison and duck meat. Just the same as people who hunt seals and eat seal meat. I have no problem with my

4) friends who are hunters and eat venison and duck. Just the same, as I have no problem, with people who hunt seals and seal meat.

5) I do however find it very unusual, in my world, that a person would go into a restaurant and order a seal burger for lunch.

6) I meant no disrespect to the hunters who hunt and eat seal meat just like I have no disrespect for the hunters who hunt deer and duck

7) and eat their meat. Again, I do this explanation because I want to. I have hurt some people’s feelings that I like and admire.

8) If this explanation isn’t good enough, then let the cards fall where they may.

Continue reading

the day we invented pond hockey

SONY DSCDenis Smith grew up in Alberta, and that’s where he first played hockey, as told here. Later he pursued pucks in Quebec and Ontario, and then (as a member of the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club) in England and Italy and Germany and Switzerland. Otherwise, he’s a professor emeritus of political science and former dean of social science at the University of Western Ontario. His books include the award-winning Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker and The Prisoners of Cabrera, as well as the novel General Miranda’s Wars: Turmoil and Revolt in Spanish America, 1750-1816. He lives in Ottawa.

by Denis Smith

Once upon a time (almost a century ago in Alberta), there was a cold, cold autumn when the snow never fell. Winter came and there was still no snow. Every morning the sun came up in the east in a cloudless sky (though it didn’t come up until 11 o’clock in the morning, because this was a place in the far, far north) and shone right across the prairies, a thousand miles from east to west and 600 miles from south to north.

The sun shone through the cold, cold air, past all the clouds of steam that were made by all the people breathing out into the cold, cold air. When you looked down from above, you could see little puffs of white, steamy breath shining in the bright sunlight all the way from Winnipeg to Fort Whoopup on the Belly and beyond.

Down there on the ground, those frozen breaths were made by boys and girls as they walked home from school for lunch, thinking of peanut-butter-and-jam sandwiches. (They made the same frozen clouds of steam when they went to school in the morning, but the sky was still dark and no one could see them.)

Sometimes as they dawdled, the jokey ones would blow steam rings, and steam spirals, and steam skyscrapers, and those would drift high up into the cloudless sky. And since there were no real clouds, those strange shapes became the clouds that could be seen drifting slowly across the prairies: giant doughnut shapes, and curlicues, and spires. The birds flew in and out among them chasing one another from dawn to dusk (that is, from 11 until three, when the sun went down in the far, far north where we lived). And slowly, in the darkness, the shapes all faded away, leaving a clean blue sky to greet the sun when it came up the next morning.

Anyway, the best times came on the weekends in this cold, cold winter on the prairies when there was no snow. We bundled ourselves into our itchy long underwear and our knee breeches and our woolen sweaters, rushed through our breakfasts, and piled into the family automobiles, Fords, Nashes and Chevrolets, two-doors and four-doors and coupes with rumbleseats, and the dogs piled in on top of us, and we all set out for The Lake. The Lake is called Wabamun, or spelled backwards, Numabaw. (Most people didn’t spell it backwards because it was harder to say than Wabamun, and almost as hard to say as “certify.” That’s “yfitrec” and very hard to pronounce.)

Anyway. Here we were in our cars, driving west with the sun as it followed low behind us, on an early Saturday morning, to Lake Wabamun. When we got there what a sight we saw before us! From Kapasiwin in the east to Seba Beach in the west, there was solid ice for 14 miles, all smooth and shiny and bluish-white in the sunlight, without a single bulge or crack or pile of snow because there was no snow anywhere that winter.

At the top of the hill above the lake we scrambled out of the cars with our dogs and our scarves and our skates and our mitts and our toques, and tumbled down the footpath in a great rush to get to the shore. The dogs followed us, ran in and out among us, and sometimes tripped us up because they, too, were excited about what they saw (even though they saw the lake in black and white while we saw it in colour).

We had our hockey sticks too (didn’t I say that?), which the best-trained dogs among us carried down to the lake in their teeth. Continue reading

Aside

mush + milt 1Fifth-place Boston was trying to catch fourth-place Montreal that Thursday night in December of 1950, and by beating third-place Chicago, they pulled themselves two points closer. I’m not going to pretend: the thrills were few. Chicago played “in a dull fashion” (UPI) and the crowd that saw them was the smallest the Stadium had seen since 1935, just 6,297. Boston’s Vic Lynn scored the winning goal in the third period while Chicago’s defenders took a proverbial nap. Skating unmolested, he found himself alone in front of goaltender Harry Lumley. UPI: “The goalie, too, appeared not to be prepared and the puck soared past him.”

The home team got owly in the third. “There were several fights in the final period resulting from the Hawks’ general frustration at not being able to score, but no one was hurt.” Above, that’s the Bruins’ Milt Schmidt, the man who’d end up winning the Hart Trophy that year as NHL MVP, atop the Black Hawks’ Pete Babando. Doing their best to detangle the situation are linesmen Mush March (left) and George Hayes (right).