greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

department of bright ideas: refs in glass cages

Switch Up: In 1940, Herbie Lewis was out of the NHL, steering the AHL Indianapolis Capitals as player-coach. He had a bold plan to renovate the way referees called games, and where from, that put them in command of a system of lights. He even had a working model to show how it all might work.

Jason Kay is on the case in the latest edition of The Hockey News. “Do The Refs Really Suck?” is the headline over his editor-in-chief’s note therein in which he wonders whether NHL referees deserve the derision they get at playoff time. No, he concludes, they don’t. “Hockey officials arguably have the toughest job among pro sports referees,” he writes. “The question of speed + physicality + instantaneousness decisions = occasional errors.” Fans should understand, sympathize, stay civil. Oh, and hey, the NHL? Kay’s not the first to advocate, and reasonably enough, for the league to give officials “at least as much access to technology as viewers and spectators.”

None of that is going to calm the city of Boston, its Bruins, their fans, most fair-minded independents, pundits, and/or interested passersby. The story of Thursday night’s game, if you missed it:

Headlines from across the Boston mediascape echoed and amplified the local incredulity:

Marred by another controversial non-call in an already contentious postseason
(Boston Herald)

The clown show continues in Game 5: The NHL gets faster while the referees fall behind
(The Athletic)

Series deficit about more than officials, but Game 5 was a crime
(Boston Globe)

Meanwhile, down at the St. Louis Dispatch, the mood glowed a little lighter:  

Missed calls and the fallible refs whose whistles fail to blow aren’t new to hockey, of hockey; controversies relating to hockey’s rulebook are as old as the league itself. So too is the question of what to do about them. Social media takes care of defaming and dunning officials who are perceived to have erred, and the NHL is in the habit of exiling those who blunder, but the shaming and the shunning doesn’t actually solve anything. Twitter sizzled with suggestions (go back to the old single-referee system; call more penalties, period; wake the fuck up, @NHL).

Also:

This last notion isn’t an entirely new one.

It’s positively antique, in fact. Herewith, a couple of notions of how hockey refereeing might be overhauled from a couple of would-be hockey innovators of old. They dreamed, no question, of enhancing the quality of hockey officiating, but their missionarying also had mercy in mind: they wanted to remove referees to safety, where wrathful fans and players couldn’t reach them.

First up, Irvin Erb, who in 1930s served as manager of a couple of OHA teams in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. His main concern seems to have been for health and well-being of the referees, which is commendable. Here’s what he wanted to do, from a 1931 newspaper report:

Instead of having the officials on the ice, as at present, he would enclose them in a glass, sound-proof cage along the sidelines where they would be safe from the stormy protests of the crowd which sometimes takes the form of showers of coins, peanuts, chairs, and bottles.

The cage would be equipped with loud speakers, through which the referee’s decision could be made known. Competent referees who have found officiating on the ice too strenuous could return to the game, in Erb’s opinion.

Almost a decade later, Herbie Lewis, a Hall-of-Fame left winger, had his own plan for preserving referees from harm. Lewis played his entire career, 11 seasons, in Detroit, where he started as a Cougar in 1928, morphing subsequently into a Falcon when the franchise did, and then a Red Wing. By 1940, he was out of the NHL, coach the AHL’s Indianapolis Capitals while also still playing on their forward line.

“This may sound like a fairytale,” a report on his brainstorm began, “but there’s a hockey player who wants to do something for the poor, downtrodden referee.”

Lewis aimed to elevate officials above the fray:

Herbie would build a high perch for the referee, somewhat like those used by tennis officials. From there he would regulate the game with a system of lights and be out of the reach of irate players.

The lights, I guess, would be set into the boards, as shown in Lewis’ pictured prototype, above. A flash of red would stop play, with the amber indicating where the foul had happened. “Other lights on the scoreboard would show the nature of a penalty and on whom it was called.”

And so players would … escort themselves to the penalty bench? Restrain themselves from tussling, police their own fights, just skate away? Possibly would there be further, much brighter lights that the referee could zap into players’ eyes to illuminate their misconduct and/or temporarily blind them?

Lewis probably had it all worked out in detail. It’s likely he was ready to explain the whole luminous scheme just as soon as someone took it seriously.

“If we can get this kind of a system installed,” he advised, “we’ll have better officiating and less trouble.”

today’s matinee: in 1933, the nhl played its first afternoon game

Wing, Dinged: A year after they met in the NHL’s first afternoon game, Detroit and Chicago met in the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s Detroit’s Herbie Lewis taking the fall here, in the first game of the series, won (like the Cup itself) by Chicago. At right, numbered 2, is Chicago defenceman Taffy Abel.

The Chicago Black Hawks weren’t going anywhere on this date in March of 1933 — they already knew they’d be missing the Stanley Cup playoffs as they limped into the last weekend of the NHL regular season. Beset by injuries and under investigation, they might have been looking forward to the cease of hockey as a mercy that couldn’t come soon enough.

Still, that March 19, the Black Hawks did have one last home game to play, and they made history playing it. That Sunday, along with the visiting Detroit Red Wings, Chicago took part in the first afternoon game in NHL history.

About 6,000 spectators showed up for a game that faced-off at 3.30 p.m. instead of the usual 8.30. When it came to the gate, that was a better number than the last time the Hawks had played at Chicago Stadium, earlier in March, when they beat the Ottawa Senators in front of a crowd of just 3,000. Two days before that, at their previous (nighttime) Sunday game, the crowd that saw them fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs was 7,000.

A few other notes from the Detroit game: the first-place Red Wings prevailed on the afternoon by a score of 4-2, getting goals from Hap Emms, Ron Moffat, Doug Young, and Eddie Wiseman. Mush March scored both Chicago goals. By a Detroit account, the game was a “free-swinging battle” wherein “two fist fights and a free-for-all narrowly were averted;” referee Cooper Smeaton called 11 penalties. Chicago defenceman Roger Jenkins suffered a gash to a cheek that needed four stitches to close. Another Chicago blueliner suffered a worse fate: Billy Burch left the game with a compound fracture of the left leg after he went into the boards with Detroit winger Frank Carson.

It turned out to be the last game of Burch’s distinguished career. At 32, he was playing his 11th NHL season. Starting in 1922 with the late, lamented Hamilton Tigers, he’d was a fast forward in those years, winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP in 1925. When the Tigers sank, he went to New York, where he prospered as the first captain of the expansion Americans. He’d be elected, eventually, to the Hall of hockey Fame; 1930swise, the news was that he was back on skates again by the fall of 1933, trading in stick for whistle as a referee in the minor Can-Am League.

Also in the house in Chicago that March afternoon was NHL President Frank Calder. He was on a mission to investigate the conduct of Chicago coach Tommy Gorman who, five days earlier, had pulled his team off the ice in Boston, forfeiting the game to the Bruins after a dispute over a goal Boston scored in overtime. The latter wasn’t sudden-death at the time, so there was still some time to be played, or would have been, except for the fracas that saw Chicago players attacking goal judge, and Gorman exchanging punches with referee Bill Stewart. In the aftermath, Stewart ejected Gorman, who took his team with him; that’s where the forfeit came in.

I don’t know that Calder took any further action, for all the fuss that was stirring in the days that followed. It’s possible Chicago was fined $1,000 for departing the ice; otherwise, the team’s punishment seems to have been to subside away into the off-season.

A year later, the Black Hawks found a better way to end their season’s story when they made it all the way to the Finals, meeting and beating the Detroit Red Wings to take Chicago’s first Stanley Cup. Mush March scored the goal that clinched the championship.

Hawks Asquawk: A Chicago crew of a slightly later vintage, circa 1938. From left, that’s Jack Shill, Carl Voss, Cully Dahlstrom, and Mush March making some noise.

for faster and flashier hockey: building a better, oilier skate

WO-00579

Skateguard: King Clancy, circa 1953, strikes a pose in the Maple Leafs’ dressing room — with a plain old unimproved skate. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, R11224-2910-X-E, Walter Curtin, Liberty Magazine)

In Gordie Drillon’s dream, he sped and stole pucks. “I dreamt I had on a pair of motorized skates,” he told a teammate the next morning, not long after the Hall-of-Fame right winger joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1942. “Nobody could get close enough to me to tap me on the heel with a stick. It was a great feeling.” He was equipped with a telescoping stick, too. “I pressed a button in the handle and the blade shot out a couple of feet. It was great for backchecking. I was taking the puck away from everybody.”

Drillon did fine without enhanced equipment — he was a first-team all-star in his heyday, leading the league in scoring in 1938 as a Maple Leaf, and taking the home the Lady Byng, too, as the NHL’s gallantest player.

That doesn’t mean other dreamers, including the NHL itself, haven’t entertained waking designs over the years of stretching sticks and speeding skates.

Actually, I don’t know about the sticks — but enriched skates definitely figure in NHL history.

Maybe you recall Tory Weber. Or, no, probably not. But his big idea might ring a bell, if only because it attracted Wayne Gretzky’s interest and endorsement a few years ago, and looked like it might even be on the verge of a breakthrough onto NHL ice.

Weber was the Calgary inventor who dreamed that heated skate blades would revolutionize hockey, increasing the speed of players and thereby the game they were playing. His Thermablades started to gain traction in the hockey world in 2005. Gretzky was an enthusiastic investor, and so was Harley Hotchkiss, one of the owners of the Calgary Flames and the presiding chairman of the NHL’s board of governors.

Skates glide on a film of water that’s created by pressure. Heated by a tiny lithium battery, Weber’s prototypes increased the layer of lubrication that forms, reducing friction, enhancing smoothness, increasing speed.

Gretzky testified that that its “performance benefits” would boost the game by making it “more exciting to play and watch.” Hotchkiss felt that it could reduce injuries. NHL players who tried Thermablades liked them; Craig Conroy of the Calgary Flames was getting ready to wear in his team’s home opener in 2008.

That was before the NHL nixed them. The league’s GMs had their doubts, including concerns about cost and damage that might be done to the ice. They wondered whether Thermablades might make hockey too fast. Without NHL support, Tory Weber’s company struggled. By the summer of 2009, it slid into bankruptcy.

It wasn’t the first time a speedier skate almost accelerated onto NHL ice. Forty years earlier, another inventor had a flash of inspiration not so far removed from Troy Weber’s, and by 1960, Wilfrid Vaillancourt — Monk, to his friends — was on the brink of his breakthrough with the — well, it was either the “lubri-skate” or the “lubra-skate,” depending on the newspaper you were reading back then.

Vaillancourt was a steelworker at this time in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. We know that he later went on to take charge of maintenance projects at the Soo’s International Bridge, a job he kept for 33 years, through to his retirement in 1995. A sizeable idea that came out of that job was a new and efficient mobile scaffolding structure he conceived of that (he said) would slash maintenance costs on big bridges by 70 per cent. Continue reading

footnote

art ross

Nikolai Kulemin was the first Leaf winger to fall to what the papers were calling friendly fire. This was October and the season hadn’t even started when in practice he caught a teammate’s shot on the ankle, which chipped the bone. Two weeks he was out of the line-up. Same thing happened at the end of the month to Joffrey Lupul, “plunked” in practice, as The Toronto Sun put it — though Lupul’s was only a bone-bruise, and he missed but two games.

That was no solace to Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. Both players should have been wearing plastic foot-guards over their skates, as mandated by the team for players at practice. It was just common sense, said Carlyle. “You don’t drive your car any more without a seatbelt. It’s basically the same principle.”

Modern-day foot-guards — they’re also called shotblockers — are light and resilient. They’ve come a long way since the steel-mesh prototype that the man they called “hockey’s Edison” came up with in 1939. By then, of course, Art Ross (above) had long since retired from a stellar playing career. He’d been managing the Boston Bruins since 1924. He’d already re-invented the hockey net by the time he turned his attention to trying prevent foot and ankle injuries, and in 1940 he’d get his patent on a refined puck.

In December of 1939, at the NHL’s Board of Governors meetings in New York, Canadian Press was reporting that Ross’ skate chainmail was an experiment tried and abandoned, having “proved unsatisfactory.” Already he had a new idea, and the league had approved it for trial: “a new-style stick, which combines a wooden handle, steel tube shaft and wooden blade.”