housing hockey

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance. “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”

Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game — especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.

But since Fleury isn’t the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts — or for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.

Shubert6Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold, and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.

That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.

You’d think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture (1994), for example, all but passes them by.

On the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas — Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof On Winter (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.

Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards the end.

 •••

What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter pastimes to beguile us. We’re back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.

Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.

There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,

ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.

Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.

Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned 20. War didn’t help — with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.

Canada’ first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill-halls.

Early hockey remained mostly outdoors — the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight? Continue reading

andy bathgate writes: second wind is difficult to describe

Credit: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505654

Andy Bathgate in New York Ranger vestments, circa 1959. (Photo: Weekend Magazine / Louis Jaques / Library and Archives Canada / e002505654)

Andy Bathgate’s distinguished NHL career is being remembered today following his death yesterday in Brampton at the age of 83, Ontario. Worth your while are Richard Goldstein’s obituary in The New York Times and Lance Hornby’s appreciation from The Toronto Sun.

Otherwise, maybe we’ll pause to salute to Bathgate’s literary legacy. As Goldstein and Hornby both recall, he did publish a notorious 1960 article in True magazine calling out the league’s spearing artists — more to come on that. There was a book, too, in 1963, co-written with sportscaster Bob Wolff. There’s a bit of autobiography to Andy Bathgate’s Hockey Secrets, some scenes from his childhood in Winnipeg, but mostly it’s focussed on the how-tos, from tying your skates and making the most of your wristshot to avoiding the grim dangers of goal-celebrations, all in the interest of guiding the next generation of NHLers into the league. He wasn’t going to play forever. “In a few years,” he mused, “there’ll be new headliners on the ice. There will also be some other talented youngsters who will not savor big league glory and gold unless they learn the all-important extras along the way. This book is mainly for them. I want others to benefit by what it’s taken me years to learn, so they can be ready when those openings occur in the National Hockey League. And there’ll be openings, I can assure you. One of the vacated spots will be mine.”

Herewith, twelve select sentences from the body of the book, extracted live from their context if not their wisdom:

I did not learn my hockey from books.

You just can’t be successful in a sport like hockey or football if you worry about injury or looks.

A good stick man never changes grips.

Talking plays a most important part in passing.

If you want to see a master at it, watch Henri Richard.

The injuries that hurt the most are the foolish ones.

I find that staying condition is a pleasant, year-round job.

If things are quiet, I’ll start clowning round a bit or needle a teammate to get some chatter and kibitzing started.

Second wind is difficult to describe.

When you fire the puck properly in a power shot, you feel it right from the blade through your hands, your wrists, your arms.

I’m no longer sure within my heart whether I’ve had a special aptitude for this game or not.

The secret is toe control.

all georges vézina’s children

vezina 17

For as long as the NHL hands out trophy for goaltending excellence in his name, Georges Vézina will be remembered for his proficiency in stopping pucks. Still, it is 90 years this fall since Vézina played his last period of NHL hockey, which means we don’t really have much of a sense of the man, his demeanor, or how he conducted himself, on or off the ice. His goaling statistics remain impressive, if not exactly overwhelming. Between 1910 and 1925, he was the only goaltender to ply the Montreal Canadiens’ net. He won two Stanley Cups before the NHA made way for the NHL. Of the 203 games he played over nine seasons once that happened, 113 of them were wins. You can study all this at one of the online stats archives, where you’re liable to learn that Vézina’s lack of a QSP and his relatively modest career GPS of 38.8 don’t seem to have affected his standing on the Elo Fan Rating ladder.

Not a fan of analytics? Fair enough. What about fantastical stats? Those are different from the fancy metrics with which the NHL game is now measured in that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with on-ice performance and, plus, they’re not true. For instance: you may have read, possibly in a book published newly this fall, that by the time he died in 1926, 39-year-old Georges Vézina had fathered 24 children.

myths sticksIf the book in question is Kevin Gibson’s Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences (Douglas & McIntyre), then you may know already that it doesn’t profess to be a major work. It’s a slim volume, light-hearted in tone, “a lively compendium of little-known hockey trivia,” as the publisher promises, from a “stats archaeologist.” More than a third of its 176 pages are devoted to a humdrum calendar of on-this-day-in-history reminders from the hockey past.

“I am,” Gibson volunteers in his introduction, “the TSN Research, Stats and Information Department.” As such, he’s all about facts, a word that choruses through both the author’s manifesto and the book’s marketing material along with notable others like urban legends, conspiracy theories, debunking, and falsehoods. The truth is, when it comes to hockey history, you just can’t believe what you’ve read. “I’d like to go through some old wives’ tales,” Gibson announces, “legends and confessional stories and get to the bottom of what is fact and fiction in the world of hockey.” Never fear, Gibson’s here, to separate the faux from the facts, all of which he’s analyzed and researched and uncovered.

Great. Happy to hear it. Lots of us who love hockey history revel in fine detail and quirky ephemera, and we’re always eager to learn more. Some of us have even gone before where Gibson goes, delving (for example) into Georges Vézina’s family history. That’s how we found out that the story of his multitudinous children is exactly that: plain fiction, a fanciful not-true made-up fallacious falseness that has been making the rounds for almost as long as the Montreal Canadiens have been around, ever since Léo Dandurand put it on a hook to see whether the newspaper boys might bite.

For the record, Vézina and his wife Marie (née Morin) had two children, no more. Both were sons: Jean-Jules, born in 1912, and Marcel Stanley, who made his debut in 1916, on the very night the Canadiens won the Cup whose name he inherited.

Dandurand is, of course, a towering figure in Montreal Canadiens history, an owner who also coached and managed the team. He could have been a serial fabricator, I guess, but then again the story of his goaltender’s populous family might just as well have been a moment’s joke taken up by a newspaperman who didn’t bother to verify it with Vézina himself. The goaltender’s English doesn’t ever seem to have been very good, so maybe that was part of it. D’Arcy Jenish dates the original Dandurand telling to the spring of 1925, when Montreal was in Victoria to play for the Stanley Cup.

Gibson certainly isn’t the first reputable writer to repeat the error. When Vézina fell ill and left the Canadiens in the fall of 1925, various newspapers gave him a brood of 17 — “enough for two hockey teams, plus substitutes,” according to The Springfield Missouri Republican, who also saw fit to add six years to his age and promote him to police chief of his hometown, Chicoutimi.

After his death the following March of 1926, newspapers variously pegged his progeny at 17 (an Associated Press report in The New York Times) and 22 (Winnipeg Tribune). While I should say that the French press seems to have gone unfooled from the start, Montreal’s English papers preferred the fantasy version in which, for example, (The Gazette) “two sets of twins were born in the first two years of his married life.”

The numbers have fluctuated over the years. By 1936, The New York Post was at 18 — though two years later they’d revised themselves down to 14. Strange to say, but Rosaire Barrette’s 1952 biography of Léo Dandurand reiterated its subject’s original lie, hoisting the number back up to 22.

Stan Fischler settled on 20 in The Flying Frenchman (1971) but 22 is the number that’s proved the most persistent. It’s the one in both Ron McAllister Hockey Stars (1950) and Andrew Podnieks’ otherwise authoritative Players: The Ultimate A-Z Guide of Everyone Who Has Ever Played in the NHL (2003). Podnieks notes that only two of the many were alive by the time Vézina died — true enough, in its way.

“He began fathering babies like he was aiming at a world record,” Brian McFarlane breezes in The Habs (1996). In Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes (2005), Mike Leonetti mentions Vézina’s devout Roman Catholic lifestyle: “He was married at 20 and produced 22 children!” That’s good enough, too, for Jack Falla, who paid tribute to Vézina in his 2008 book Open Ice, devoting a whole chapter to the man in which he described a pilgrimage to visit Chicoutimi and alluded awkwardly to Mrs. Vézina’s partnership.

The truth is out there. Michel Vigneault’s straightforward entry in The Dictionary of Canadian Biography gets it right. Online, The Hockey Hall of Fame successfully splits myth from truth, as does Vézina’s Wikipedia page. In ‪The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory (2009), D’Arcy Jenish makes no mistake. And as recently as this very fall, Pat Hickey’s 100 Things Canadiens Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die tells (a little wearily?) the truth.

Is it such a big deal that Of Myths & Sticks: Hockey Facts, Fictions & Coincidences gets it wrong? Other than the several times the error is trumpeted on the book’s cover and in marketing materials, Vézina’s imaginary family occupies one small paragraph within one slim book. It is interesting that Gibson ups the ante more than almost anyone previously — only Stephen Cole, in The Canadian Hockey Atlas (2006), has ever claimed 24 minor Vézinas before now — but in the wider swing of things, it’s not such an egregious blunder.

Except for … it’s not the only one in the book. I gave up looking after not too long, but just before I got truly exasperated, I came across a glaring error of fact involving Gordie Howe hattricks along with a pair of Ching Johnson mistakes. I don’t have a ratio on how much faux Of Myths and Sticks contains compared to its facts, but whatever the number, it’s not favourable. Continue reading

veal scallopini sather, with a side of beef gretzky stir-fry

The Edmonton Oilers published a cookbook during the 1980-81 season as fundraiser for the Evelyn Unger School for Language and Learning Development. I don’t know what they were selling it for, but I can report that the cerlox-bound, 62-page epic includes everything you need to know to whip up Jari Kurri’s Karelian Ragout, Glenn Anderson’s Cherry Cheese Cake, and/or a Kevin Lowe Tourtiere. Not to mention:

gretzky beef

sather veal

messier cake

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

gzowski

If 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 another one 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

margaret atwood, hockey writer

Happy birthday, today, to Margaret Atwood, who’s 75. Time to consider her place as a hockey novelist, then? Yes, probably so, high time — or at least it would be, if indeed the game had any presence in her work. It doesn’t. None. Oh, she gives it a glance, here and there. How else was she going to begin a poem called “February” (1995) other than the way she begins it:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey.

Still, let’s not be fooling ourselves — from there on in, it’s a cat poem.

Should it worry us that our greatest novelist has no room for hockey in her vast dystopian vision? I don’t think so. I counsel calm. And offer this: Survival, Atwood’s brilliant 1972 study of Canadian literature, is a seminal text when it comes to understanding why we play on the ice. “It is in their attitudes towards winter,” Atwood writes, “that Canadians reveal most fully their stance towards Nature — since … winter for us is the ‘real’ season.” Hockey is part of the war we wage on winter, our continual campaign to drive it back, conquer, defeat it; it’s also how we embrace the season, celebrate and honour and love it. Doesn’t matter that the game doesn’t figure at all in the pages of Survival. That’s just how it is, here: if you’re writing about literature and landscape, climate and Canadianness, who we are and how we live in this land, then you’re writing about hockey whether you say so or not.