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

under review: in bed and in nova scotia, hockey’s fiction is heating up

A version of this review appeared in the December, 2018 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

I tend to talk on the ice. I’m speaking here not of the regular chorus of swearing and middle-aged male complaint that is the usual soundtrack of your typical Friday-morning pick-up hockey game — this has more to do with narrative. As the guys I play with will testify, if I’m not the one who’s going to score a goal, I will probably have something to say about whether the puck rollicked into the top corner or jinked there — or did the goaltender just plain foozle it? It somehow seems of vital importance, out there on the ice, lagging behind the play, to find just the right words for the hockey we’re playing here.

Hockey always did have trouble expressing itself. Part of that has to do, I think, with just how ridiculous an enterprise it remains. Don’t agree? Try to explain its fundamentals aloud, as if to someone who’s never heard of it — the skates and the sticks, the elusive puck, the fact that you’re not supposed to punch an opponent in the head, but go ahead, why not, it’s fine so long as you’re willing to sit for a full five minutes in the penalty box to ponder the assault you’ve committed and had committed on you.

That’s not to say hockey isn’t beautiful, with a power all its own that has to with its speed and surprise and its chaos, and how it distills our childhood and pride and hopes. This is also what makes it so challenging to translate it from ice to page. It may also turn out (as I’ve noted before) that the form by which hockey best expresses itself is … hockey. But that doesn’t mean the sport’s literature isn’t abundant and rewarding, and that it’s fiction can’t articulate the game as its played, gleaning its finer meanings, defining its passions, and unpacking why some of those might be problematic.

You still hear the old echo of a lament that hockey has never really generated a literature the way that other sports have — baseball, for instance. Hockeywise, I can confirm that it’s just no so. It may be that the game has yet to inspire a single towering all-encompassing piece of national prose — an icy Quixote, a Shahnameh containing all the hockey multitudesbut that’s probably a whole other discussion.

Many of the best novels are widely enough celebrated, some of them less so. If I were the one listing necessary hockey novels, I’d volunteer Roy MacGregor’s Last Season (1985) and the sweetly funny Understanding Ken (1998) by Pete McCormack, some Paul Quarrington and a Mark Jarman, a Bill Gaston, a Lynn Coady, a Richard Wagamese. That would be a start, and a rich one in style and story and character; from there I’d carry on.

As for what’s new, here’s what I’ve learned from surveying the spectrum of the season’s newest hockey fiction. Judging by the latest in both end-of-times annals and promising literary fiction, Nova Scotia seems to be at the centre of things. Out in the wider world, the most prolific and (I’m guessing) bestsellingest of hockey novelists would seem to be Swedish. None of them makes too much of an effort to express the game — most of the actual hockey is in the background or the past. Also: while I can’t really speak with any authority of what’s going on in the real world, fiction’s hockey players seem to be having a ton of sex.

Maybe should we start there?

I can’t say for certain when the words brooding and hockey and hunk were first put together in a sentence in novels populated by characters named Bex or maybe Kaija (whose bodies may or may not be made for sin), who catch the eye of and subsequently end up with hockey players called Duke or maybe Dante, colliding with them for several pages at a time in athletic ways that are (if they do say so themselves) so very hot.

How did this happen? I can’t tell you that, either. I know that five years ago when I made a project of reading as many hockey novels as I could, there were already Harlequins with titles like Her Man Advantage on the shelf, but nothing like the proliferation of hockey romances that’s now fevering the genre fiction aisle of your local e-reader.

This fall, I didn’t really know where to start scouting. I’ll tell you where I stopped short. Books I didn’t read include Kristen Echo’s Playoff King (Puck Battle Book 7) and Dumbass Trade: The Jock by Gavin Hardrock. I bypassed Kari Sawyer’s Nightfall— “a story of vampire-themed fantasy romance and ice hockey.” Also: Riley Knight’s The Goalie’s Secret: A Friends-to-Lovers Hockey Romance and Hockey Obsession: An Older Man Younger Woman Romance by Flora Ferrari.

I was browsing Jillian Quinn’s Pucking Parker(Face-Off Legacy Book 1) when I decided to all-in on Kelly Jamieson’s latest.

Jamieson, who hails from Winnipeg, has published a whole roster of novels featuring players from a fictional Chicago NHL team called Aces. These are books called Major Misconduct and Back Check, Slap Shot, Playing Hurt. I read the latest feverish installment, Big Stick, in which we’re introduced to Nick Balachov, hard-working fourth-line winger, gorgeous yet fragile. The book’s title — I don’t think I’m giving anything away here — refers to his penis.

I can’t remember who first makes the comparison — is it Nick or Jodie? The latter, whose surname we never learn, is a plucky single mum who’s a partner in a company manufactures sex toys for women. She and Nick don’t really hit it off at first, but then (spoiler alert) they do. How do we know? Something turns over in Nick’s chest; Jodie’s, meanwhile, fills with a soft warmth. Between them, they soon generate a whole lot more heat, which we know because Jamieson tells us. It — the heat — races through veins, and flares in bellies, where it also pools.

Need, too, is at work, twisting and throbbing; hearts squeeze and bump.

The anatomy lesson soon goes external, and escalates: it’s only a matter of moments before we’re into satiny neck-skin and sliding tongues. The adjectives taut and lush lead to verbs, ache and clench; there are needy noises and wordless cries.

This is just before, obviously, everything gets a whole lot more thermally explicit.

The hockey, by comparison, is relatively inert. It’s what Nick does when he’s not with Jodie. Chicago has a pretty good year, and Nick does solidify his place on the team, but when it’s not warmly exerting itself in bed or on sofas, Jamieson’s story is situated in restaurants as much as in rinks.

That’s not to say that there isn’t dimension to the story. Can I express my surprise here without it clinking with condescension: Jamieson amid all the lustful lurching, it’s actually a fairly layered story that Jamieson has rendered. There’s a sad sub-plot about Nick’s late brother and his concussions, and a bit of backstory to fill in his tough youth in the wilds of Scarborough, Ontario.

That explains some of the strife that Nick and Jamie get into, which they do, though don’t worry, it’s nothing too stressful. During my time among the hockey romances, I kept seeing the phrase repeated in blurbs and synopses, HEA guaranteed. That was new. You may have known that it wasn’t some sort of money-back offer or allergen alert, but I had to look it up to discover that what I was being promised was Happily Ever After. Big Stick doesn’t go so far as to flag it, but that’s the way it goes all the same, cruising along to its pre-ordained ending.

“Why does anyone care about hockey?” If you read Beartown, Fredrik Backman’s popular 2017 novel, that’s the question you might have faced up to — guiltily? — as you paged over to Chapter Five. Backman, who’s Swedish, made his debut with a non-hockey success of a novel called A Man Called Ove (2012) that has sold upwards of 2.8 million copies worldwide.

“Because it tells stories,” was the answer to the question in Beartown, a novel with hockey (and worse) at its core. Us Against You picks up where the previous story ended, offering thisrecap of the terrible heart of the first book: “A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl.”

As it was in the first novel, the game is more than simply a sport or a pastime here: hockey is a lurking, primal force that sustains the people even as it seems to punish them. In this new novel, an existential crisis that threatens not just the future of hockey in the town, but the future of the town itself. It’s all very menacing — if only merely minimally affecting.

The idea that hockey persists against all challenges is one that The Last Hockey Player pursues, too. Self-published by Halifax writer Bretton Loney, this is a novel I came across while I was out traipsing the tropics of hockey romancing. Loney’s brief tale has some of that, though mostly the story motors along on a bit of a Walking-Dead vibe.

The epidemics that devastated North American civilization 18 years earlier led to what’s known as The Crumbling. It’s an almost medieval life the people are living, now, in the little Nova Scotian village of The Barns, all bows-and-arrows and moose-skin cloaks. Sicknesses stalk the land still, along with marauders bent on murder. “The New Times are a nightmare,” is how our sort-of-hero sums it all up, the titular Hockey Player. The good news (I guess) amid all the lethal grimness: mankind may be breathing its last ragged breaths, but hockey — the cockroach of sports! — has survived.

Loney has fun with allusions to the all-but-lost hockey past, and also teasing out just how the hockey gets played on the ice of Sweet Water Pond, gliding on shinbone skates, batting a wooden puck with their hand-carved sticks. Before the big game with the neighbouring village, the home team bleeds out a rabbit to paint the lines on the ice. There’s a little fable about the corruption of this game that brings the people such joy to their everyday present, though this falters and like the novel as whole, it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its premise.

The season’s other Nova Scotia hockey novel is Searching For Terry Punchout, the first by Calgary-based writer Tyler Hellard. It’s an assured debut, wryly funny, and if it doesn’t carve any new, I’m still ready to count it as a quiet triumph.

The Nova Scotia Hellard depicts isn’t quite so dire as Bretton Loney’s plague-ridden version. There is some sex, none of it Nick-and-Jodie vigorous; mostly here it’s played for humorous rather than erotic effect.

It’s 2005 and Adam Macallister has come home, to Pennington, Nova Scotia. He left in a hurry, years ago, to pursue a career in journalism. He was escaping, too, It’s a retreat, sure: the pursuit didn’t really work out, though he has one last chance: Sports Illustrated has (more or less) commissioned him to write a profile of his father, who just happens to have been the NHL’s all-time fightingest fighter, known to all by the nickname he acquired as a young goon, Terry Punchout.

Fearsome as he once was as a fistic Toronto Maple Leaf — think Tiger Williams or Tie Domi, but unrulier — Terry is much reduced, an ancient 58, now, “weak and worn and wizened,” angry at the world, which means at his son, too. Adam arrives home bearing some ire of his own — and so, in quite a different way than it was in Big Stick, the heat is on.

“Beating people up on the ice would become Terry’s calling in life,” Adam writes. He means to dissect that, lay bare the meaning of what his dad was and has become while at the same time jump-starting his career as a journalist. Running into an old high-school buddy, Adam explains the slant he’s hoping to lend his article. It’s going to be, he says, “about how hockey’s violent culture fits into today’s society.” Oh, and also: “about redemption.”

His father, he posits, is “swimming in regret, and it could be that hockey — our national sport, so entwined with our sense of Canadian identity — is to blame.”

The fact that Adam (and, therefore, the novel itself) doesn’t really end up taking on these subjects in any sustained or serious way doesn’t really seem to matter, in the end. It’s a satisfying story all the same, with plenty of incident and smart insight into smalltown sociology.

I would have liked to have read the feature Adam files, finally, to Sports Illustrated. Does he redeem his career? Chart a course for his future? Tyler Hellard makes the decision to wrap up his story without answering all the questions he raises. Hockey does that, too, so this feels like familiar territory. We’ve been here before, as fans and readers, stranded out at mid-ice, somewhere between the apocalypse and HEA.

Searching For Terry Punchout
Tyler Hellard
Invisible Publishing, 208 pp., C$19.95

The Last Hockey Player
Bretton Loney
Self-published, 128 pp., C$10.40

Us Against You
Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith
Simon & Schuster, 436 pp., C$24.99

Big Stick: An Aces Hockey Novel
Kelly Jamieson
Loveswept/Random House Canada (Kindle Edition), 264 pp., C$5.99

under review: plan like subbans

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2017 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or that you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.

If hockey fathers (necessarily) antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing The Shots At Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.

The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey, and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.

Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”

The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.

The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan For Success In Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K. — at? nearing? — the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as he might be hoping to seize an opportunity while his son is at centre-ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.

•••

A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from Wi-Fi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them — kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”

He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room, and with his own coach, Michel Therrien, who was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. And as a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.

 Debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t — and don’t want to — forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to raise $10-million over seven years for the city’s Children’s Hospital.

For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whined Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”

Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.

There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.

Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either — the slurs or the morons — is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes.   Continue reading

under review: housing hockey

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance. “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”

Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game — especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.

But since Fleury isn’t the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts — or for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.

Shubert6Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold, and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.

That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.

You’d think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture (1994), for example, all but passes them by.

On the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas — Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof On Winter (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.

Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards the end.

 •••

What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter pastimes to beguile us. We’re back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.

Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.

There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,

ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.

Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.

Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned 20. War didn’t help — with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.

Canada’ first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill-halls.

Early hockey remained mostly outdoors — the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight? Continue reading