under review: reading your way through a hockey hiatus

Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.

In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?

Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?

Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.

San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.

Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:

In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.

Hockey Canada weighed in:

Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:

To which some of us answered back:

I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.

So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.

I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?

That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them. So: stay tuned.

 

garden city orioles

The Orioles’ line-up in February of 1937. Back row, left to right: Ben Walker (secretary), Chuck Smith, Doug Nicholson, Ted Smith, Touch Woods (sponsor), Alex Nicholson (business manager), Dick Nicholson, Amos Dorsey, Reverend J. Ivan Moore (pastor, British Methodist Episcopal Church). Front row: George West, Ted Wilkins, Wilfred Bell, Ken Bell, Larry Dorsey, Hope Nicholson (captain), Gordon Dorsey. Sylvia Moore, centre, is listed as the team’s mascot. (Image: St. Catharines Museum, St. Catharines Standard Collection, S1937.37.3.2)

Formed this month in 1937, the all-black St. Catharines Orioles played two seasons in the OHA’s intermediate Niagara District Hockey League. As Stephen Hardy and Andrew Holman write in Hockey: A Global History (2019), the players were all members of the British Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Catharines. The hockey team was the brainchild of several local (white) businessmen, including Harold “Touch” Woods, a prominent advocate of amateur sport who owned Dominion-Consolidated Transport, a trucking company. Outfitted in orange-and-black uniforms, the Orioles played a shortened schedule their first year on the ice, losing four and tying one of their five games. They went winless the following year, too, finishing the 1938 schedule 0-8. They featured, from time to time, in Toronto newspapers and beyond as a novelty; the coverage was, often, openly, racist. “Occasional individual plays earned praise,” Hardy and Holman write,

such as Hope Nicholson’s blistering shots or the frenetic skating of George “Ninny” West, “a whole show in himself.” But nothing would have convinced reporters that the Orioles were the real deal. Modern hockey — white hockey — involved speed, system, and science, the attributes the Orioles sorely lacked. Their white opponents, such as the Thorold Arena team that defeated them 9-2 in March 1937, all seemed to have “too much finish.” That the Orioles could not win against all-white teams must have been interpreted by readers as a convenient confirmation of the popular “truth:” real hockey was the brand of hockey fashioned by the all-white NHL.

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