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)