what a shame to see a great morale-building game like hockey go into the discard

With the NHL preparing for the mid-January launch of a second COVID-era season, I’ve been reporting for The New York Times on how hockey fared in some past times of crisis and contingency. That’s on the page in today’s paper, as well as online over this way.

This part didn’t make it into the Times piece, but as I was charting back through the challenges the NHL faced during World War II, I was reminded of another echo of former times that 2020’s fraught hockey season awakened.

Back in far-off February of last year, the NHL got a first inkling of the disruptions that were to follow when two major suppliers of hockey sticks, Bauer and CCM, shut down manufacturing operations in China as the coronavirus continued its insidious spread. Equipment managers fretted, along with some prominent players. None of them, of course, imagined at the time that the entire league would be summarily shuttered — along with everything else — just a month later.

World War II tested hockey’s supply chains, too. It was a lack of manpower at North American sawmills and lumberyards that raised the spectre of a scarcity of sticks in 1946, not a global pandemic. “We’re still making a few,” a Spalding spokesman warned early that year, “but we have no reserve stocks of lumber on hand. When these are finished, there won’t be any more this year.”

CCM faced a similar predicament. Disaster seems to have been averted — hockey carried on — but several minor leagues did wonder whether they’d be able to play, and those with sticks in hand were advised to wield them with caution, to preserve what they had.

Associated Press report from January of 1942.

Wartime shook hockey to its core — specifically, the small, black one at the centre of every game. In 1941, with war in the Pacific limiting the supply of raw rubber even as military demand was increasing, news of North American shortages began to spread.

In December of the year, just a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe, announced a ban on the sale of all rubber tires save those new vehicles. Two months later, one of Howe’s deputies, Alan Williamson, warned that Canadians didn’t understand just how dire the rubber situation was: it was “the gravest problem confronting” Canada and the Allies, he told the Canadian Hardware Convention and Exposition that February.

In another address, he upped the ante even higher, saying that he did not consider it “an exaggeration to say that anyone who uses rubber for any unnecessary purpose is committing an act of treason.”

For effect, Williamson enumerated some of the things for which rubber was no long being made available: “rubber soles, rubber heels, rubber bands, rubber bathing suits, garters, suspenders, foundation garments, tennis balls, flooring, rubber mats, shower curtains, tires for passenger cars, bathing caps.”

In January, the Canadian Press quoted Williamson as saying that while his department did not propose “to tell manufacturers of hockey pucks, tennis balls, and golf balls to stop making them, it would be ‘nothing short of a miracle’ if they were to get the rubber to do so in 1942.”

“New Composition Expected For Hockey Pucks,” an Ottawa Journal headline announced that winter, without offering any specifics: “the future of this staple article in Canada’s winter sports calendar is still obscure” was as far as the accompanying article was willing to go.

NHL teams were already doing their best to maintain their strategic puck reserves. The Chicago Black Hawks posted signs at the Stadium asking fans to return any puck that found a way into the crowd because, well, the very future of the league depended on it.

A New Jersey newspaper reports on puck paucity in December of 1941.

“This is a great national emergency,” a team spokesman reasoned. “Everything must be saved. Rubber is in great demand and we must conserve it. Pucks are made of rubber and we must conserve them, too. It would be a great shame to see a great sport and morale-building game like hockey go into the discard because of a shortage of pucks. That’s why we call upon our fans to throw back our pucks in the interest of sport and conservation of valuable defense material.”

Earnest as it was, this appeal didn’t convince everyone. When the Black Hawks hosted the Boston Bruins on Sunday, December 14, 1941, the only puck to leave the rink during the teams’ 3-3 tie was not returned, proving (as Edward Burns wrote in the Tribune) “a souvenir bug will cling to almost anything.”

Efforts were made at other rinks, too. Madison Square Garden was still home in 1941-42 to two NHL teams, the Rangers and the Brooklyn Americans. Games there began with advisories over the public address system emphasizing that that repatriating pucks that strayed was the “patriotic” thing to do.

Those who tossed them back, it was duly noted, were cheered lustily. Louis Schneider, a syndicated financial columnist, reported on the fate of the bold soul who tried to hang on to a puck in New York. “The hockey fan that grabs one and refuses to throw it back is all but mobbed by soldiers and sailors in addition to being booed by the crowd.”