men o’ the north: the most talked of hockey outfit in the world

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At Ease: One of the 228th Battalion’s junior teams turned out for inspection. Standing in as coach, centre rear, is Captain George McNamara, Dynamite Twin, who played for the professionals. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on December 31, 2016.

In Canada, the kinship between hockey and war is implicit. Our understanding of the relationship may be more intuitive than fully reasoned out. Both (of course) stoke patriotic pride, and there’s the recognition (maybe) that the vivid game that remains closest to the national heart reflects the confusion and desperate violence of the battlefield, while also (somehow) naturally honouring warrior values of bravery and perseverance.

Today’s NHL teams regularly celebrate the service of military men and women. Armored cars invade pre-game ice, players take warm-ups in camo. In 1916, war and hockey intersected as closely as they ever have in an episode without parallel in professional sports, before or since. A hundred years ago this winter, an active infantry battalion on its way to the front competed in a league with the world-champion Montreal Canadiens and other well-established teams.

Taking the ice, the hockey-soldiers of the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force wore khaki-colored uniforms, just like their brothers-already-at-arms along the bloodied Somme River in France. Known as the Northern Fusiliers or just plain Soldiers, the 228th was, briefly, one of hockey’s best teams.

It didn’t quite work out: after skating against the storied likes of Newsy Lalonde, Frank Nighbor, and Georges Vézina, the 228th had to retreat from the rink halfway through the season, in a welter of lawsuits and unhappy generals. But if they never quite got to play for the Stanley Cup, the ructions arising from their 1916-17 campaign did contribute to the demise of one league and the rise of another: the NHL.

For Canadians, another carnivorous year of war started in 1916 with a new year’s address from Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden. “Already we have learned the full meaning of sacrifice,” he intoned from Ottawa, vowing to double the size of Canada’s army to 500,000 men.

Major Archibald Earchman, 33, was one officer called on to help fulfill that promise. He’d already been to France when he was promoted and, that February, charged with raising a new battalion, 800-strong.

Headquartered in North Bay in Ontario’s near-north, the 228th quickly filled its ranks. “Probably the most diversified unit ever recruited in Canada,” Toronto’s Globe romanticized, “including such picturesque types as hunters, trappers, guides, prospectors, Hudson Bay company employees and Cree Indians from the James Bay district.” Flocking to enlist, some were said to have paddled for days on “swift rivers of the great northland;” others tramped 250 wilderness miles to reach a railway station.

It would have been impossible, in Canada, for the unit not to absorb hockey players, picturesque or otherwise. Some military minds thought they had the ideal fighting stuff. A 1916 book suggested that boys used to handling hockey sticks were naturals with rifles: “Firing for hours during a hot and sustained engagement does not fatigue them as it otherwise would. In the rough work of the bayonet charge, they keep their heads ….”

When high-profile hockey players joined the 228th in May, future Hall-of-Famers among them, the news crossed the country. Rising star Duke Keats was aboard, and the brothers McNamara, doughty defensemen known as “The Dynamite Twins.” Goldie Prodgers, meanwhile, had scored the goal that secured Montreal’s Stanley Cup championship that spring.

By July, the 228th was at Camp Borden, an open plain 65 miles north of Toronto where 50,000 men from 40 battalions were living under canvas. Like everybody else, the men of the 228th practised their marching, complained about dust and mosquitoes, suffered from poison ivy and heat exhaustion. They also gained mascots — a cat dubbed Kitty Borden along with a friendly red fox — and signed up for every sport their officers could think of to keep the boredom at bay: soccer, lacrosse, cricket, baseball.

Beyond camp lines, questions of just how sports should be conducted in wartime kept pressing. Did hockey leagues divert precious resources (e.g. young men) from duty or were they vital to morale? In early 1917, with the United States about to join the Allied cause, baseball’s leadership wondered how to proceed. Yes, said the president of the American League, certainly the New York Yankees should incorporate military drills into spring training — he also pointed out, politely, that nobody had asked for batting to cease during the Spanish-American War.

The first hint that the 228th might be angling to play pro hockey came as summer waned and military planners pencilled the 228th for transfer to winter quarters in the southern Ontario city of Hamilton — or maybe nearby St. Catharines? Problem: it would be hard to play professional hockey if they were going to be stationed down there. Colonel Earchman soon convinced his superiors to shift the battalion to Toronto, where they occupied two public schools. The Arena was an easy march away.

Players were plentiful enough in the ranks for the battalion to enter five teams in amateur competition. If the National Hockey Association was surprised by the 228th’s application for a franchise, the eight-year-old league quickly saw the advantages of granting it. With a history of erratic ownership and contract spats, plagued by “rowdyism” — a.k.a. brutal violence — the now six-team league was not only welcoming some of the nation’s best players back into its rinks, it was adding a fine patriotic finish to its profit-minded enterprise.

Lieutenant-Colonel Earchman okayed the battalion’s major-league hockey operations with his superiors. Sort of — with some of them. He made the case that a team as good as his would surely bolster recruiting; exposing shirkers to their quality would, no question, “induce eligible men in the audience to see their duty more plainly.”

The players took to the ice in early November. First, though, the 228th did what pro teams do: chased free agents. They helped themselves to Art Duncan, a star defenceman from the west coast, and enlisted a brilliant centreman, Eddie Oatman.

Afternoons in November, the Soldiers worked out at the YMCA, supervised by another new recruit, trainer Frank Carroll. They did some soldiering, too, joining the battalion in a parade of Army might that put 10,000 men on the march into Toronto’s streets. A few days after that, the 228th turned out for maneuvers through neighbourhoods on the city’s northwest fringe, Blue Army attacking White, 5,000 men in all, infantry, artillery, cyclists.

Hostilities commenced at 11 a.m. By the fight wrapped up at 2.30, the 228th had played a decisive role in a White victory. “It was the greatest and biggest sham battle ever staged,” The Toronto Daily Star exaggerated, “which carried with it all the grimness and realism of actual warfare.” Well, maybe not all: “Had it been real warfare, the casualties would have been appalling.”

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The Canadiens were favourites to top the NHA’s 20-game schedule, with the 228th next in the betting. They showed why as they opened the schedule at home to Ottawa just after Christmas. Fans paid a war tax of two cents on their 50-cent tickets, which also bought intermission performances by the battalion’s brass and bugle bands.

The score, as reported in next day’s paper, past the page commemorating three more Toronto men killed in action in France: 228th 10, Ottawa 7.

“The soldiers,” advised The Toronto World, “were a little loose around their own goal.”

They worked on that, and for the next three games, the 228ths were unstoppable. They overran Montreal’s Wanderers, drubbed Toronto’s team, the Blueshirts. A crowd of 5,000 saw that game, or didn’t, through the fog of war: despite a strict no-smoking policy, cigarette smoke shrouded the ice.

Keys to the Soldierly success? They were fitter, faster. And while Sergeant Goldie Prodgers may have broken an ankle playing summer ball, he’d mended sufficiently to score 12 goals in three games.

Correspondents covering the team did their best not to overdo the battlefield allusions. When they lapsed, the team comprised gallant troops who fought gamely in a battle royal by means of raids on entrenchments.

It was the Canadiens who finally stopped the Soldiers, which is to say they spiked the artillery of the fusiliers. Another loss came in a bad-tempered meeting with Ottawa, which saw Captain Howard McNamara charge from the defence to wrestle with referee Cooper Smeaton, who wrestled back. The goal that McNamara was disputing stood, and so did the fine imposed.

Falling 10-4 to the Wanderers, the Soldiers lacked dash; perhaps, the papers suggested, their bands should be rehearsing dirges.

Still, halfway through the schedule, the Northern Fusiliers stood third in NHA standings, behind Canadiens and Ottawa. But even as the Ottawa Journal was celebrating “the most talked of hockey outfit in the world,” military officials began to wonder if in pursuing its pucks, the 228th might be neglecting its training.

In February, the Soldiers returned to Ottawa, only to be trounced, 8-0. “No fighting spirit,” a local paper diagnosed. Was the rumour true that they were headed for France? It was. Orders came through clear: “This Battalion is warned for Overseas.”

They played their twelfth and last game on a Wednesday, losing 4-3 to Toronto. By Friday, news of the 228th’s imminent departure vied in the pages of Toronto papers with urgent appeals for public donations of socks: while the hockey players may have been well-supplied, other ranks were sorely lacking.

The 228th shipped out next day. Instead of travelling to Quebec to play the Bulldogs, the hockey team deployed to the 3 p.m. train for Saint John, New Brunswick. Six days later, the unit sailed for England aboard S.S. Missanabie. Unwilling to abandon their hockey gear, the players would get in one more game, in London, at a tiny, quirky rink in Knightsbridge, the Prince’s Club, where Sergeant Keats’ team beat Sergeant Prodgers’ in front of an attentive tea-drinking audience.

Hockey carried on, as it does, in Canada. The NHA had to adjust itself for the remainder of the season, and did so, shedding the Toronto team in the process (nobody liked the owner). Come spring, the Montreal Canadiens would end up NHL champions — even though they lost their hold on the Stanley Cup, to the Seattle Metropolitans.

The papers made their farewells to the 228th fond: there was a greater, grimmer game underway, after all, in France. The battalion’s role in it was shifting: they soon transformed from the infantry into a railway construction unit, spending the rest of the war laying track to keep men and supplies on the move to the front lines.

It’s probably only in retrospect that changing identity seems like something you’d do as a fugitive trying to shed your shady past. But the 228th’s stirring legacy of on-ice exploit was giving way to talk of misconduct and even, in the press, scandal.

Several Soldiers were reported to have been turfed from the battalion before it sailed to war. Eddie Oatman was ready to tell all: he’d never been a recruit, had only acted the part to play hockey, for which he’d been promised $1200. Where was his money?

There was more, too: the NHA was soon demanding $3000 as redress for the Soldiers’ sudden withdrawal from the league. Military authorities received this news with surprise and, in private, outrage. Whose permission did Colonel Earchman have to be running the team? Army inspectors also learned that ticket profits had somehow detoured from battalion accounts to the players themselves. Several non-skating officers lodged complaints, itemizing irregularities they’d witnessed, from hockey players being excused from parades to Earchman’s highly improper habit of gambling with the men.

Military authorities weren’t pleased. If Earchman wasn’t disciplined — continuing in his command, he went on to win medals for his unit’s railway work — was it maybe just easier to forgive the 228th’s excess of hockey enthusiasm?

Though the battalion’s hockey accounts weren’t the only ones in disarray.

The 228th had departed without paying many Toronto bills. William Nielson & Co. was owed $899 for ice cream, Vogan’s Cakes $40.63. Claims dating back to summer piled up, from peeved brewers, printers, tobacconists. A Toronto music store sought $1874.21 for flutes and clarionets sold to the band. Toronto Wet Wash wanted $150: “This unit left here leaving unpaid their laundry account.”

No surprise, then: A.G. Spalding & Bros. reported that the 228th hadn’t paid for its hockey sticks.

The stars of the 228th hockey team all survived the war. Art Duncan transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where he was twice decorated for conspicuous aerial gallantry. Back in hockey, he would coach Detroit’s initial NHL team, the Cougars. Wounded in 1918, Goldie Prodgers recovered to return to a six-year NHL career. Others turned up, post-war, in the new league: Howard McNamara, Howie Lockhart, Amos Arbour.

Further ownership squabbles would see the NHA dissolve in November of 1917 — right before it reincarnated, later the same day, as the NHL. The legacy of the 228th would linger longer. It was 1918 before a court dismissed the old league’s claim against the battalion outright, deciding that war was more important than hockey — and, anyway, it wasn’t entirely clear that the Soldiers were even properly enrolled in the league in the first place.

War ended, peace took weary hold. The trustee liquidating the 228th’s debts finally got the news in 1920 that the government would write off the last of what was owed at public expense. The amount charged to the nation was $452.43 — the cost, more or less, of the gear that Spalding’s had contributed to hockey’s war effort.

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Band Camp: Members of the 228th bands regularly entertained spectators at hockey gams through the winter of 1916-17. (Image: Discovery North Bay Museum)