under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading

hoopla: woo-hoo the north

The Canadian Game: The Stanley Cup will be raised in Boston on Wednesday, but tonight it’s all about Toronto and the NBA championship that the local Raptors will be trying to wrap up. Above, an exhibition — because: why not? — of ice basketball played as between periods at an NHL game at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1940. There was, believe it or don’t, a bit of craze for the game in the 1930s and ’40s. “Basketball rules prevail in the main,” one explainer from those years outlined, “though altered to allow the ‘double-dribble,’ and players may advance with the ball during a rapid count of five before being called for ‘traveling.’ Fouls are penalized, as in hockey, by suspension from the game … for one minute or two, depending on the flagrancy of the violation. No free throws are awarded. Costumes of players include football shoulder harness and knee pads, long-sleeved jerseys, long stockings, basketball trunks and, naturally, skates.”

and so this is christmas

Happy holidays from the Toronto Maple Leafs of Christmas past, and their seasonally spirited owner, Harold Ballard. What else, really, can you say, faced with the team’s 1987-88 Christmas card? A mention of Leafs’ mascot T.C. Puck might be order, since he shows up in both photo and painting. The latter, painted by Joan Healey, is called “A Gift For The Giver.”

A very Merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

 

 

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

the intangiblest game

A version of this post appeared at thewalrus.ca, over here, on April 19, 2017.

Winter has had it in for hockey for a couple of years now, with all the willful warming it’s been doing. And while we’ve tried our best not to take the surge of planetary temperatures personally, it does kind of feel like an attack bullseyed directly on our identity as much as our backyard rinks.

Can you blame Canadians for feeling persecuted? Nature’s punitive thaw is only part of the existential crisis that hockey — our game — finds itself facing. Across the country, simpler, safer, come-from-away sports like soccer and basketball are luring our kids from the ice. And why wouldn’t their parents let them leave? Armouring up for hockey is expensive, plus why risk the concussions?

Over at the NHL, the men who run the low-scoring, high-gloss league are still disputing the link between hockey head traumas and the cumulative damages it’s doing to brains. Collecting franchise fees from new teams in the Nevada desert rather than returning hockey to Quebec City isn’t, of course, a symbol of just how far the game is straying out of our national interest, it just seems like one.

We can’t even claim, as we’ve done in other beleaguered eras, that the players are still mostly ours. It’s no longer so: last season, for the first time in a century of NHL hockey, the league’s content of Canadian-born skaters fell below 50 per cent.

Another traditional curative of ours in times of hockey crisis involves whomping foreigners on international ice. We’re having trouble with that, too: sure we won the World Cup, but Canadian juniors and women were both bettered by U.S. rivals in recent world championships. The news last week that the NHL has put a nix on going to the 2018 Olympics is an international shame—but somehow doesn’t it feel like it’s us, Canadians, who are being singled out for punishment?

It wasn’t long ago that Ken Dryden, the game’s resident conscience and better angel, was raising his voice to warn that hockey was in danger of drifting out of the mainstream. The game’s indifference to its own wanton violence, he argued, was steering it into outright irrelevance.

Now, even with fighting on the fade, does hockey seem like it’s corrected that course? Even as the games go on, there are days when it feels like the game is diminishing so fast that its only future might be as a fairytale that our grandchildren will tell to theirs. Continue reading

where gretzkys forge their gifts

rink-closed-version-2

A version of this post appeared on page 129 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

We know where hockey really lives: out the kitchen door, in the January cold, on the ice of our backyards, poured out by parents from a hose to freeze overnight. That’s where our Gretzkys forge their gifts, not to mention those of us whose only claim on the game is simple frigid passion. So the mythology says, at least, and it’s a beloved one. Now, in a warming world, outdoor rinks are increasingly at risk. A dire 2015 study projects that by 2090, the “skateability” of plein air rinks in Toronto and Montreal will have declined by 34 per cent. Maybe there are more pressing planetary threats, but this is one that skates to our very core. Of all the existential challenges facing hockey, from concussion crises to declining youth enrolment, this one seems a specially poignant threat: if the very ice won’t last, how can the game?

(Image: © Stephen Smith)