(Artist: Arnie Levin)
With the NHL preparing for the mid-January launch of a second COVID-era season, I’ve been reporting for The New York Times on how hockey fared in some past times of crisis and contingency. That’s on the page in today’s paper, as well as online over this way.
This part didn’t make it into the Times piece, but as I was charting back through the challenges the NHL faced during World War II, I was reminded of another echo of former times that 2020’s fraught hockey season awakened.
Back in far-off February of last year, the NHL got a first inkling of the disruptions that were to follow when two major suppliers of hockey sticks, Bauer and CCM, shut down manufacturing operations in China as the coronavirus continued its insidious spread. Equipment managers fretted, along with some prominent players. None of them, of course, imagined at the time that the entire league would be summarily shuttered — along with everything else — just a month later.
World War II tested hockey’s supply chains, too. It was a lack of manpower at North American sawmills and lumberyards that raised the spectre of a scarcity of sticks in 1946, not a global pandemic. “We’re still making a few,” a Spalding spokesman warned early that year, “but we have no reserve stocks of lumber on hand. When these are finished, there won’t be any more this year.”
CCM faced a similar predicament. Disaster seems to have been averted — hockey carried on — but several minor leagues did wonder whether they’d be able to play, and those with sticks in hand were advised to wield them with caution, to preserve what they had.
Wartime shook hockey to its core — specifically, the small, black one at the centre of every game. In 1941, with war in the Pacific limiting the supply of raw rubber even as military demand was increasing, news of North American shortages began to spread.
In December of the year, just a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe, announced a ban on the sale of all rubber tires save those new vehicles. Two months later, one of Howe’s deputies, Alan Williamson, warned that Canadians didn’t understand just how dire the rubber situation was: it was “the gravest problem confronting” Canada and the Allies, he told the Canadian Hardware Convention and Exposition that February.
In another address, he upped the ante even higher, saying that he did not consider it “an exaggeration to say that anyone who uses rubber for any unnecessary purpose is committing an act of treason.”
For effect, Williamson enumerated some of the things for which rubber was no long being made available: “rubber soles, rubber heels, rubber bands, rubber bathing suits, garters, suspenders, foundation garments, tennis balls, flooring, rubber mats, shower curtains, tires for passenger cars, bathing caps.”
In January, the Canadian Press quoted Williamson as saying that while his department did not propose “to tell manufacturers of hockey pucks, tennis balls, and golf balls to stop making them, it would be ‘nothing short of a miracle’ if they were to get the rubber to do so in 1942.”
“New Composition Expected For Hockey Pucks,” an Ottawa Journal headline announced that winter, without offering any specifics: “the future of this staple article in Canada’s winter sports calendar is still obscure” was as far as the accompanying article was willing to go.
NHL teams were already doing their best to maintain their strategic puck reserves. The Chicago Black Hawks posted signs at the Stadium asking fans to return any puck that found a way into the crowd because, well, the very future of the league depended on it.
“This is a great national emergency,” a team spokesman reasoned. “Everything must be saved. Rubber is in great demand and we must conserve it. Pucks are made of rubber and we must conserve them, too. It would be a great shame to see a great sport and morale-building game like hockey go into the discard because of a shortage of pucks. That’s why we call upon our fans to throw back our pucks in the interest of sport and conservation of valuable defense material.”
Earnest as it was, this appeal didn’t convince everyone. When the Black Hawks hosted the Boston Bruins on Sunday, December 14, 1941, the only puck to leave the rink during the teams’ 3-3 tie was not returned, proving (as Edward Burns wrote in the Tribune) “a souvenir bug will cling to almost anything.”
Efforts were made at other rinks, too. Madison Square Garden was still home in 1941-42 to two NHL teams, the Rangers and the Brooklyn Americans. Games there began with advisories over the public address system emphasizing that that repatriating pucks that strayed was the “patriotic” thing to do.
Those who tossed them back, it was duly noted, were cheered lustily. Louis Schneider, a syndicated financial columnist, reported on the fate of the bold soul who tried to hang on to a puck in New York. “The hockey fan that grabs one and refuses to throw it back is all but mobbed by soldiers and sailors in addition to being booed by the crowd.”
For the cover for the 1960 Official National Hockey Annual, artist (and former NFL lineman) Tex Coulter painted Montreal’s Bill Hicke scoring on Chicago’s Glenn Hall, and while you can’t really see the expression on either man’s face, the sense of their mutual surprise is strong, as though the last thing either man expected to see was that puck find the back of the net. I wrote in my 2014 book about the journalist and pro tem goaltender George Plimpton and his suspicion that his failure as a netminder was largely a problem of acquaintance: he’d never really gotten to know the puck. “One would appear with the abruptness of a bee over a picnic basket,” he wrote in Open Net (1985), “and then hum away, all so quickly that rather than corporeal it could well have been an apparition of some sort. A swarm of them would collect in the back of the net during the shooting drills without my being sure how they got there.”
From the veterans of the crease Plimpton apprenticed with during his stint with the Boston Bruins he learned that you never bother with a puck that ends up behind you in the net. A bee no more, that puck has become your mess and your shame — “like dogshit on a carpet.”
In December of 1934, Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn American talked to Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor to the hockey players, boxers, and six-day bicycle racers who plied their trades at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mention of the Art Ross puck is noteworthy, though it may not be entirely accurate. A new Ross puck did see service in the NHL in the early 1930s, only to be subsequently revoked, but I’ve seen no other reference to its being metal-middled. Following here, an excerpt of Parrot’s profile, edited, and poemized.
Sticks carried high, or swung viciously, (as often happens)
can do more deadly execution than
“The goalies are the ones that feel the brunt of the attack,”
said Dr. Clauss, wincing visibly. “I find that
the better the goalie, the more he
gets cut up, because
he goes to meet the play —
takes chances, to save goals.
Shrimp Worters, in the Americans’ net,
“Can the puck break a bone?” I asked.
“It’s more damaging than a baseball
thrown by Mungo or Gomez,” said the Doc,
“and I know! It is heavy enough
to break bones now, although it is not
as bad as a few years ago,
when they used to use that Art Ross puck
with a metal center, and
they used to carry the players off
one after another. But the edge,
the cutting surface on the puck
makes it worse than
Overall it was a lacklustre night at times for the Leafs after a spirited opening stretch as turnovers and the frustrating inability to clear the puck struck back.
• The Toronto Sun, October 9, 2014
Ericsson’s season came to an end in mid-March after a puck struck the middle finger of his left hand. He had to have surgery to stabilize several fractures and repair a partially torn tendon.
• Fox Sports Detroit, September 10, 2014
Forward Boone Jenner could miss more than a month after a puck struck his left hand, the latest in a string of direct hits for the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first line.
• Eurosport.com, October 1, 2014
A few inches lower, and it would have been a grisly injury for Nick Ritchie in his first game of the season with the Peterborough Petes. On Thursday, the Anaheim Ducks first-round pick was cutting through the high slot against the Belleville Bulls when Petes teammate Matt Spencer stepped into a slapshot. The puck struck Ritchie’s cheek and tore the visor right off his helmet, causing a hush to fall over the crowd in Peterborough that was welcoming the team’s star player back to the fold.
• Yahoo! Sports Canada, October 3, 2014
“It’s just one of them things,” Calgary winger Curtis Glencross was saying between periods the other night. Was it really just a few weeks back that the Flames were striding so confidently towards a playoff spot, looking good? Yes, it was, but then they’d lost five games in a row. By last Saturday, their hopes for post-season playing were all but over.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Scott Oake wondered why. What happened? So Glencross told him:
It’s just one of them things where we weren’t getting the bounces, or the puck wasn’t going our way and, ah, all them games, we had a lot of shots and a lot of quality scoring opportunities and, and things just weren’t going in for us.
Right. Of course. It’s tough when the puck decides against you. A hockey problem, to be sure. Anyone who’s played the game knows that sometimes, for some reason, pucks turn fickle. Does anyone know why? Is it just caprice or is there some kind of bias involved — in Calgary’s case, a preference among pucks for the likes of San Jose and Colorado?
We just don’t much about it. There’s just no good solid research on why pucks might (a) have an interest in influencing the outcomes of hockey games and/or (b) have come by the power to exert their will.
All we really know is that puck animism is nothing new. “We’ve had enough chances to win the last two games, but the puck hasn’t rolled for us,” Jacques Lemaire shrugged in 1984, when he was coaching Montreal. Whether you’re a player or a coach, you can’t really get angry about it, because, really, what can you do? If anyone knows how to win the favour of pucks, they haven’t revealed it. Here’s Flyers’ coach Fred Shero in the 1975 playoffs, after the New York Islanders came back from three games down to tie the series:
We had enough opportunities to be three up. But there is nothing we can do if the puck won’t go in. If we weren’t getting chances I would be worried.
It happened to Montreal in 1964. “We’ve only scored five in our last four games,” coach Toe Blake said. “We’re getting the chances but the puck won’t go in.”
That’s the lesson, I guess: all you can do as a hockey player is get your chance, put the puck on the net. Once it’s there, hovering by the goal-line, there’s nothing more you can do: the puck has to decide whether it’s going in or not.
Chicago GM Bill Tobin was someone who thought there was more to it, maybe, on the puck’s side than mere whim. In 1949, when the New York Rangers scored four third-period goals in two minutes and 57 seconds to beat his Black Hawks, Tobin was the one who looked at it this way: “The puck,” he said, “has not been kind to us.”