but the russians are trying

A birthday for Russian hockey today: happy 75th. It was on this date in 1946 that the USSR’s inaugural championship in what was then distinguished as Canadian hockey got underway.

Twelve teams took the ice that year: CDKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Dinamo Riga, VVS MVO Moscow, Sverdlovsk House of Officers, Leningrad House of Officers, Kaunas, Spartak Uzhgorod, Dynamo Tallinn, Dynamo Leningrad, Vodnik Arkhangelsk, along with the eventual champions, Dynamo Moscow. The IIHF has some handsome archival footage of the team’s triumph in its observance of the anniversary today.

Canadian notice of the upstart league/hockey revolution that winter was limited to a few brief, paternalistic, not-quite-accurate wire reports. One that Vancouver’s Province (among other papers) carried noted that Russia had spent previous winters playing at bandy. “Hitherto,” went that dispatch, “the Russians have played a form of ice hockey peculiar to themselves, using a ball instead of a puck and playing two periods instead of three as in the western game.” (Swedes and other Europeans had been bandying for some years, too, of course.)

The season went on without Canadian coverage, all the way to the end, in March of 1947. Ross Munro of the Canadian Press arrived in Moscow too late to catch any of the on-ice action in person. But that didn’t keep him from filing an end-of-season feature to report on what others had seen and scoffed at.

“The players, according to my informants,” Munro wrote, “wear curious uniforms featured [sic] by long woollen drawers which seem to be a combination of grandpa’s flannel underwear and track sweat pants. They complete the uniform by adding to this creation a type of quilted short-coat which is the usual dress of the poorer classes in Russia.”

“Instead of padded gloves,” he noted, “the players wear ordinary heavy workman’s mitts. At present the goalie is only lightly padded but padding and other refinements will be added as the Russians work out the details of the game.”

From what Munro had heard, “the game as played in Moscow is gentlemanly compared with its Canadian counterpart and there is little bodychecking. Sticks are carried high only by accident and the tripping seems entirely unplanned. Penalties are few.”

Munro reported that the championship final was “a fairly anaemic game.” For all his diligence, he managed in his second-hand reporting to get the result wrong: in his telling, CDKA (as the Red Army team that would become CSKA was then known) beat Dynamo, when in fact it was the other way around.

Globe and Mail columnist Jim Coleman had slightly better information — on the winner, at least:

The Moscow Dynamos — well-known in the soccer world since they whipped Arsenal — won the first Russian ice hockey championships, staged this winter. … One of their stars, Vsevolod Bobrov, was unable to play because he had undergone an operation on his quote “meniscus” unquote — undoubtedly it’s a Russian word for clavicle.

Winding up his dispatch, Ross Munro did take a glance at the horizon. Pondering on the future, he was generous — and prescient — enough:

Canadian and United States residents of Moscow who followed hockey in North America say that the Soviet teams gave a mighty long way to go before they get anywhere near Canadian standards. But the Russians are trying and they probably will be playing the game efficiently before they are through.

Beyond The Iron Curtain: Ottawa’s Journal reports on Soviet hockey developments in December of 1946.

the ice is in at long pond


The ice is in at Long Pond or at least it’s starting, the freeze is on at the Birthplace of Hockey, which is to say the Cradle. You wouldn’t want to be skating yet, you couldn’t be, not yet, it’s just a scrim so far on the brown water at the end of the long winding road that takes you back from the main road past the old farmhouse and the little museum and on through the gate that’s guarded by (probable) Jacques Plante and (possible) Fern Flaman or (maybe) it’s Leo Labine, I don’t know, I couldn’t decide. This was on Friday when I was passing through Windsor in Nova Scotia and the temperature that had fallen down below zero was rising again and while there was snow still salted over Howard Dill’s pumpkin fields, the puddles had thawed out and the winter that had started in back at the pond looked almost as though it was already over and done, just like that, departing before anyone had time to take a skate to it, a stick, a puck.


kolf season

 El puerto de Ámsterdam en invierno, Hendrick Jacobsz. Dubbels, óleo sobre lienzo, 67 x 91 cm, ca. 1656-60, Museo Nacional del Prado

Waiting For Hockey To Happen: “The Port of Amsterdam in Winter” by Hendrick Jacobsz (c. 1656-60) appears in the exhibition of wintry paintings that opened in Lisbon this week. (Museo Nacional del Prado)

If you have any interest in squinting into hockey’s past, I’m going to suggest you get on your way to Lisbon, where an important exhibition opened this week devoted to paintings depicting the early days of the long European struggle to figure out how to play Canada’s national, natural-born winter sport before we could get around to it.

That’s now exactly how the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is framing it: in fact, “Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain: Nordic Landscapes from the Prado Museum” somehow gathers a wide variety of hibernal works from Spain’s national gallery without mentioning hockey even once. (The catalogue does usefully explain that in the 16th and 17th centuries, while Italians considered “Nordic” any painters from beyond the Alps, they were mostly talking about the Dutch.)

Those of us who insist that there have to be hockey players in the paintings of old wintry Europe know well enough that it’s never in the foreground. In dim weather, under smoky January skies, it’s there, no question, somewhere through the trees, behind the vendors of vegetables, beyond the gambolling children, off away past the birds of distraction, watch out for the rutting couple in the hayrick. So much the better if you have a superior jeweller’s loupe, or even a medium-good one. That has to be a hockey stick, doesn’t it, way back at the back of Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot’s “Winter Landscape With Skaters” from circa 1632?

In the painted past, we maintain, the hockey is approaching from a great distance, skating hard to make it out of the background, never quite getting there.

What we know with certainty is that mankind has been hitting balls with sticks – well, they always did. For as long as we’ve been able to rummage up something sticklike with which to smack anything resembling a ball, we’ve done that, wherever we’ve been, in all weathers. The big question for the game’s historians — sometimes it seems like the only one – is when did the smacking turn into hockey? The Society for International Hockey Research has thought a lot about this, both as a collectivity and in its individual members.

I’m one of those, I should probably say, without claiming to be anything more than an attentive student of the diligent work that others have done. Members of SIHR’s Origins of Hockey committee, for instance, whose findings are widely considered to be the last word on how hockey happened. Or the two eminent Swedish researchers, Carl Gidén and Pat Houda, whose exhaustive Timeline (available to members on the SIHR website) traces the ubiquity of stick-and-ball games through history.

On the subject of paintings like the ones now on display in Lisbon, what they’d tell you is not to get your shinpad in a knot. That’s probably not how they’d put it: what they do say in their Timeline is that often, when you’re looking at old paintings in which skaters appear who seem to be wielding hockey sticks, sorry, those are just walking sticks.

Of Dutch paintings like the ones in the Prado’s Lisbon exhibition, they have this to say: kolf. And since that’s exactly what it sounds like — a Low-Country progenitor of golf — it’s not a team-oriented stick-and-ball game and is therefore excused from the hockey/shinty/bandy conversation. Gidén and Houda: “The only kolf player wearing skates appears on [sic] the often used engraving from ca. 1625 by Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) named ‘Kolver het ijs’ (‘Kolver on ice’).” Also: kolfers whack balls at targets rather than chase them with the idea of scoring goals; there’s never more than a few participants gathered together at a time: don’t be fooled.

Still, though, I don’t know. It’s hard to give up the where’s-Waldo compulsion to search for far-off ancient hockey players. Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Landscape with Iceskaters” (c. 1608) is as busy a canvas as you’ll find, full of what the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam calls “daring details,” including men urinating and a couple copulating in a hayrick. I can’t, myself, spy any hockey, though there are some definite ice-golfers in Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Canal,” and also in “Winter Landscape on the River Ijssel near Kampen.” “A Scene on the Ice Near A Town” has a Jacques Lemaire look-alike in the near-middle distance, where he may or may not be working on his face-offs. Continue reading