of fred: pam coburn talks lionel hitchman, hockey fame, ottawa infamy

Earning His Stripes: Lionel Hitchman was 21 when he made his NHL debut in early 1923,  quitting his job as an OPP constable to join the (original) Ottawa Senators.

Pam Coburn didn’t know her grandfather well: she was just 12 when he died in December of 1968 at the age of 67. Growing up, she learned that her mother’s father’s legacy is fixed in the annals of hockey history as surely as his name is inscribed on the Stanley Cup that Lionel Hitchman won in 1929 as captain of the Boston Bruins.

Should Hitchman, a truly outstanding defenceman from the NHL’s earliest decades, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Probably so. Pursuing the question of why he’s been consistently overlooked, Coburn ended up writing and publishing her grandfather’s biography.

Now in her 60s, Coburn is a former executive director and CEO of Skate Canada who lives south of Ottawa, where she runs her own digital communications firm. Hitch:Hockey’s Unsung Herolaunched in April. If it doesn’t solve the mystery of her grandfather’s omission, it does detail his life and times as it’s never been detailed before, not least in its revelations relating to Hitchman’s many concussions and the tolls that injuries took on him in his later years.

A barber’s son, Frederick Lionel Hitchman was born in Toronto in 1901. Friends and hockey fans knew him as both Fredand Hitch throughout his career, which got going when he signed to play with the (late, lamented, original) Ottawa Senators in 1923, having resigned his day-job as a constable with the Ontario Provincial Police to devote himself to hockey.

He skated for parts of four seasons with the Senators before being sold, in 1925, to the Boston Bruins. His first partner there was Bobby Benson; later he’d pair up with Sprague Cleghorn and, lastingly, Eddie Shore. Ten years he played with the Bruins, through to 1934 when, slowed by injuries, he stepped aside to take up as playing coach for Boston’s farm team, theCubs.

If Hitchman’s name doesn’t now often set the hockey world buzzing, contemporary proofs of his prowess aren’t hard to come by. They confirm that he was, above all, a defender, which may have something to do with why he remains so undersung. The forwards he foiled on the ice never doubted his worth. Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Joe Primeau said Hitchman was the toughest player he ever faced. Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers classed him the best bodychecker he’d ever run into. “You could be carrying the puck in your teeth and Hitch would steal it from you,” sportswriter Jerry Nason recalled in 1946. Hitchman helped make his more prominent partner’s dominance possible. “In spite of Shore’s prestige,” Niven Busch wrote in 1930 in The New Yorker, “[Hitchman] has been voted the Bruins’ most valuable player. Shore doesn’t seem easy in his mind unless Hitchman is on the ice with him.”

Legendary referee Cooper Smeaton was another who took this line. “Always remember,” he said, “that Hitchman was the man back there blocking them when Eddie Shore was doing a lot of the rushing. There was no gamer or greater defensive player in every sense of the word than the same Hitch.”

In August, I e-mailed Pam Coburn a raft of questions about Hitch, her grandfather, and the first time she saw NHL hockey in person. She was good enough to answer.

What was your feeling in June when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its 2019 inductees without (again) recognizing your grandfather? You say in the book “we are a resilient and optimistic family;” any signs that the message is getting through?

I’m very happy for the four players who made the cut in 2019, especially Hayley Wickenheiser. But it’s always disappointing when the latest class of the Hockey Hall of Fame is revealed, and my grandfather, Hitch, is again not honoured.

The goal of writing the book was to bring his story out from the shadows and to showcase his contribution to hockey. I’ve heard from many who have read the book or know Hitch’s story, and they can’t believe he’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

You talk about three Hall submissions that the family has organized over the years — any plans for formally mounting a fourth?

It’s a strong possibility! Since writing the book, I’ve heard from people like Don Cherry, Brian McFarlane, Eric Zweig, and Dave Stubbs who have all studied or knew about Hitch’s career and have expressed that he belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus I’ve heard from many who have read the book, encouraging me to mount another Hall of Fame submission.

The book is, itself, an answer to this question, but in a nutshell, why do you think he’s been overlooked for so long?

I think the Hall has overlooked Hitch because his contribution to hockey isn’t easily summed up with statistics.

On the surface, his offensive numbers are underwhelming, and when Hitch was playing, they didn’t keep defensive stats or have a trophy for best defenceman. Over time, the retelling of his hockey career became diluted. You need to delve into the reports of the 1920s and ’30s to fully understand his contribution to hockey, especially to its professional development in Boston. As Richard Johnson, the curator of the Boston Sports Museum, once told me, “Hitch was a gift to Boston.”

His Back Pages: Hitchman’s Boston scrapbooks reside in the vaults of Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

Again, the book lays out his virtues as a player in vivid detail, but if you were writing his citation for the Hall, what might it include?

February 22, 1934, was “Hitchman Night” at the Boston Garden and the Boston Bruins formally retired Hitch’s number 3. It was the first number they retired, the second in pro sports. That night, Bruins’ management, players, and fans also presented a silver plaque to Hitch the “Athlete — Sportsman — Gentleman:” a perfect description of the person he was.

During the 12 seasons that Hitch played in the NHL, he earned the reputation as the “greatest defensive” defenseman and greatest “money-player” of his generation. He was a pioneer of and perfected the poke- and sweep-checks, and delivered the hardest (and cleanest) body checks in the league, making him the toughest defenseman to get by. For 60 years, he held the Boston Bruins record for the most overtime goals by a defenceman.

Hitch broke into the NHL in late February 1923, and with a crucial goal and his crushing checking, helped the Ottawa Senators earn the hardest-fought Stanley Cup championship to that date. The following season, while still with Ottawa, he tied for most assists in the NHL.

After the Boston Bruins acquired him in 1925 during their inaugural season, Art Ross and began building a team around him. In his four seasons as Boston captain, the team accomplished the following:

  • four division titles,
  • two Stanley Cup finals, plus,
  • their first Stanley Cup championship (1929), and,
  • in 1930, they earned the best team winning percentage (.875) in the NHL, which remains a record today.

Also, in 1930, Hitch placed second in Hart Trophy balloting.

As the target of some of the most brutal violence in hockey history, Hitch became a catalyst for improvements in establishing regulations and penalties for fighting, cross-checking, and high-sticking.

After his retirement, Hitch remained with the Bruins organization for another seven years.

He first coached their farm team, the Boston Cubs to a Canadian-American Hockey league final and championship. Later, back with the Bruins as an assistant coach, he helped scout, and develop promising young players who became Stanley Cup champions and, in the case of Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer of “Kraut Line” fame, were inducted into the HHOF.

Hitch was the last original Boston Bruin, a cornerstone of Boston’s early success and the pioneer of its rugged style of defence that continues today.

You write about the first NHL game you attended, in 1969, and witnessing the infamous Green/Maki incident was a “horrific introduction” to the professional game. What are your memories of that? How did it influence your view of hockey and the NHL? 

That incident of nearly 50 years ago remains a vivid memory for me. Hitch had died nine months earlier, and my grandmother wanted to do something nice for my 13th birthday. She asked my brother to take me to the Boston/St. Louis exhibition game in Ottawa that fall with the tickets she received from Hitch’s protégé, Milt Schmidt, who was now the Bruins’ GM. I still remember what I wore to the game, as it was going to be a special night, meeting Milt after the game. According to my grandmother, he idolized my grandfather and wanted to let us know this.

We had great seats in the Ottawa Civic Center, just up a few rows at centre ice with an unobstructed view of Wayne Maki’s stick landing on Ted Green’s head. And the sound of the lumber hitting his skull was horrifying. I still get an uneasy feeling just thinking about it. It was awful watching Green writhe in pain as he tried to stand with a strange expression on his face. When he tried to climb the wire mesh at the end of the rink, I began to cry. Even as a kid, I knew his injury was really bad. Then to top it off the entire Boston team cleared the bench and went after Maki. I feared for Maki and all the players that someone else would get as hurt as Green did.

After this incident, I steered away from hockey for a long time, both as a player and a fan. In fact, at the time, I was a strong skater from my figure skating training and was looking to play a team sport, and hockey should have been the logical transition. But I chose basketball instead, partly because the rules didn’t permit body contact. I did teach power skating to hockey players for a time and started playing hockey a bit as an adult, but it was only when the Ottawa Senators came back into the NHL that I became a fan of the sport.

After all your research into your grandfather’s life and times, what was the thing that surprised you most? 

I learned so much about Hitch’s life and times, but the one thing that really sticks out is just how good a hockey player he was and how much his team depended on him.

 Towards the end of the book, you write about “Hitch’s increasing reliance on alcohol to manage the lingering effects of his multiple head and body injuries” and the fact that he was turned down for military service for “his documented multiple concussions.” Was the price he paid for a long and distinguished hockey career ever discussed in your family? Do you think his experience has any bearing or light to shed on hockey’s modern-day concussion crisis? 

 I chronicled Hitch’s hockey career on a micro-level partly to know more about the head injuries I had heard about from my grandmother and parents. I stopped counting at ten. I didn’t even put all of them in the book. Knowing what we know now about the effects of such injuries, his story is indeed a cautionary tale.

Hitch was remarkably talented, excelling at every sport he took up, gifted in music, and wrote poems and literature. He was mild-mannered, generous to a fault, and had a strong sense of right and wrong.

Hitch never lost the traits that made him who he was, but in the late ’30s, he started to lose the ability to concentrate, making it difficult for him to use his talents to their full effect. My grandmother told us that Hitch suffered wicked headaches, was in constant physical pain, and became less dependable over the years. He took to the woods where he was happy and at peace. Hitch had a keen interest in protecting the forests and fortunately found work in the lumber industry as an assayer, which allowed him to spend lots of time there and earn a living. Later he became a forest ranger.

How has the book been received? Has there been particular response from Boston and/or the Bruins? 

I’m delighted with the response to the book. Both the paperback and e-book are widely available online in Canada, the US and overseas and are doing well. For the fall, I’d like to get it into some local Boston bookstores.

The book has received supportive testimonials from hockey historians Brian McFarlane and Eric Zweig. I’ve heard from Don Cherry, who is a big supporter of Hitch, and the Boston Bruins Alumni has been very supportive.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Herois available in bookstores. For further news and advisories, visit pamcoburn.com.

Send Off: Cartoon clipped from a 1934 Boston newspaper on the occasion of Hitchman’s final NHL game.

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

ode to roy

Embed from Getty Images

A tribute, on a summer’s Friday, where tribute’s due: today is Roy MacGregor’s last day at The Globe and Mail, where he’s been a columnist for the past 17 years. That trim word, columnist, doesn’t quite contain his talents, of course, or do them proper justice: again and again across the almost 50 years during which he’s worked his words in Canadian newspapers, magazines, and books, MacGregor (seen here, above, in a 1983 incarnation) has reminded readers just how thoughtful and sharply incisive a chronicler of our hockey obsession he is. Beyond the Globe, the papers he’s improved have included The Ottawa Citizen and The National Post, and the magazines, Maclean’s and The Canadian. His work therein was duly recognized in 2012 when he won the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award for distinguished reportage. The marvelous books that confirm his standing as our finest hockey storyteller include The Home Team and the novel The Last Season. (Parents and younger readers might not forgive the lack of a mention of the Screech Owl mysteries, so here it is.) For all his icy writings, he is (again: of course) not only a hockey writer: do we have, on the page, any more reliable canoe and river guide, a better companion to Tom Thomson studies or Ottawa or Algonquin wildernesses? MacGregor is a true Canadian explorer; we’ll see where he leads us next.

The occasion seems to call for a look back at where he’s taken us before. Here then, from Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, the 1989 book on which he collaborated with Ken Dryden, a brief excerpt in which he carries us back to his Muskoka childhood in Huntsville, Ontario:

It is difficult now to convey how deeply hockey could penetrate a life back then. We had no television. My brother had a table-top hockey game, the kind where the metal players fit on and are controlled by steel rods running beneath. There were no slots, however, so the players could no go up and down the ice. All you could do was turn the rod between the thumb and finger so they could pass and shoot. All four defence rods eventually broke and we realized a shot was faster if we flicked the players from above rather than turned from below. And marbles were better than pucks. My brother found he could raise the marbles if he slightly bent his man, I suffered my first serious hockey injury wearing my pajamas in his bedroom.

Our father took us to Maple Leaf Gardens to see the Leafs play Detroit. Neither of us had ever seen lights so bright or felt air so alive. In an instant we more than doubled the number of other humans we had seen in our lives. The urinals spooked me. Our father pointed to Gordie Howe and said he was the greatest hockey player of all time. At least once a year in the thirty-odd years since he asks if we remember. We will always remember, even when he can no longer remind.

bruins’ captains + broken jaws: a stanley cup tradition

Chin, Chin:  Looking more than a little Zdeno Chara-esque, Lionel Hitchman models the headgear he wore in the spring of 1930 to protect his broken jaw.

The puck hit the captain of the Boston Bruins square on the jaw and he headed for the bench. The pain the big defenceman was in was obvious to anyone watching, but he finished the game. X-rays later revealed that the jaw was fractured, but that wasn’t going to deter him, and he was soon back on the ice as his team battled for the Stanley Cup.

No, not Zdeno Chara.

As Pam Coburn was recalling on Friday, the Bruins’ 20th captain isn’t the first to play in the Stanley Cup finals while wearing special headgear to protect a less-than-intact jaw: Lionel Hitchman got there first, the team’s second captain, in the spring of 1930. An Ottawa-area writer and former CEO of Skate Canada, Coburn knows the story well, having just published a Hitchman biography, Hitch: Hockey’s Unsung Hero, that makes the compelling case that the stalwart defenceman’s absence from the Hockey Hall of Fame is a wrong that ought to be righted. She also happens to be Hitchman’s granddaughter.

As Chara prepares to put his face, once again, to the fore in tonight’s sixth game in St. Louis, a quick review of Hitchman’s historical hurt is what we’ll undertake here. He was 28 in 1930, playing in his sixth season as a Bruin, the third as captain. If Eddie Shore, his brilliant, combustive partner on the Bs’ blueline, got most of the headlines in those years, Hitchman was considered by many to be league’s most effective and hardest-to-bypass defenders.

The Bruins, you may remember, were the defending Stanley Cup champions in 1930. At the beginning of March, cruising towards the end of the regular season, they brought along a 14-game unbeaten run to their meeting with the Ottawa Senators. It was in extending that streak with a 2-1 win that Hitchman suffered his damage, and Shore was the one to inflict it. In the second period, during an Ottawa attack, Hitchman fell to friendly fire: the puck that struck Hitchman came off Shore’s stick.

As mentioned, he finished that Saturday game, though by the next day the Bruins were announcing that, based on the breakage that team physician Dr. Joe Shortell was seeing in his x-rays, Hitchman wouldn’t be back in action until the playoffs.

That was almost right. Hitchman missed four games before making his return for the Bruins’ final regular-season date, on Tuesday, March 18, at home to the New York Rangers. Though their winning streak had ended earlier in the week with an overtime loss to Chicago, the Bruins were back on track again, walloping New York 9-2. The captain wore the headgear pictured here, above. After having missed almost three weeks, Hitchman was his usual steady self, “the same defensive star” as ever, according John Hallahan of Boston’s Globe, “his poke and sweep checks being as brilliantly executed as before his injury.”

Of note: the Rangers’ best defenceman was also back on the ice with a sore jaw to protect. Ching Johnson had broken his in a February collision with the Bruins’ Dit Clapper, only making his return to the line-up in the Rangers’ previous game. The device that he wore wasn’t so much a helmet as — well, in New York’s Daily News, Noel Busch described it as “a brown bib or choker of some sort, patterned after a horse collar and intended to ward off any injuries to his tender portion.”

Hitchman subsequently played in all six of Boston’s playoff games that spring. They first faced the Montreal Maroons, overwhelming them in four games. The limits of Hitchman’s headgear were apparent in both the second game, when a Montreal stick cut him over the left eye for two stitches and the fourth, during which Nels Stewart caught the Boston captain over the right, adding seven new stitches to his forehead.

The Bruins met the Canadiens in the final. Despite Hitchman’s best efforts, they couldn’t defend their title, falling in two straight games to the mightier of the Montreals. John Hallahan was at the Montreal Forum to see the decisive game, which saw Montreal prevail 4-3 after a puck that Cooney Weiland put past George Hainsworth was deemed to have been kicked in and so disallowed.

“After the final bell,” Hallahan wrote, “the players condoled and congratulated each other. Capt Lionel Hitchman and Manger [Art] Ross raced to the Canadiens’ dressing room to congratulate the winners.”

 

(Top image courtesy Pam Coburn)

 

tony o in the soo: of sock-hockey, smelts, and dandelion greens

Tony Esposito got his first pair of skates, used, from a cousin, when he was five years old. “I really thought they were something,” he would later recall, as a tender of nets for the Chicago Black Hawks. Older by a year, brother Phil had started off tying double-runner skates strapped to his boots. Phil’s first proper skates were several sizes too big — he’d remember, with chagrin, having to wear three pairs of woolen socks to find a fit.

This was in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, decades before the Espositos got to the NHL to launch their respective Hall-of-Fame careers. Tony, younger by a year than Phil, turns 76 today. Born on a Friday of this date in 1943, he would start his big-league career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. Understudying Rogie Vachon and Gump Worsley, Esposito got first start in December of 1968 against his brother’s Boston Bruins. Phil scored twice in a game that ended in a 2-2 tie; Tony made 33 saves. Backing up Vachon, he didn’t play a game in the playoffs that year, though he did get his name on the Stanley Cup when Montreal beat the St. Louis Blues in four games in the spring of ’69.

Chicago claimed him on waivers that same year, and while the Stanley Cup would elude his grasp in his 15 seasons there, his personal excellence was rewarded over the years. Starting his Black Hawks’ career in style, he won the Calder Trophy in 1969-70 as the NHL’s best rookie, along with the Vézina Trophy and a place on the First All-Star team. He’d claim two more Vézinas, in ’72 and ’74, and he was an All-Star again in ’74 and 1980.

In 1971, Tony and Phil collaborated with writer Tim Moriarty to publish a memoir, The Brothers Esposito, that offers first-person glimpses of their early years, indiscretions, and hockey formation. To kick off chapter three (“Mother Plays Goalie”), Phil recalls that he ran a little wild in the early 1950s as a teenager in the Soo. Nothing too serious, he says — mostly staying out late, stealing his father’s car, getting “nailed by the police” for “minor violations like disturbing the peace.”

Domestically, Phil summons up the family’s move from the city’s west end to a somewhat fancier eastern neighbourhood. The new house, he remembers, “had everything — an inter-com system, stereo and hi-fi, and large rooms, including a recreation room that must have measured 30 by 40 feet.” He goes on:

We used to hold some great practice sessions in that rec room. Instead of using a puck, we’d get an old sock, a big one, and roll it up and tie it with a ribbon. Then Tony and I would take turns shooting with the sock, which would slide very easily across the floor.

Most of the time, Tony was the goaltender. But I remember my mother [Frances] coming downstairs to check on us and we’d put her in goal. She’d get down on her hands and knees and we’d shoot at her. After beating her a couple of times, she would say, “Okay, boys, that’s enough. You’re taking advantage of your poor mother.” Then she would return to her kitchen and prepare our next meal.

My mother couldn’t play goal too well, but she was a great cook. One meal I loved then, which I haven’t had since I was a kid, was a special dish consisting of smelts and dandelion greens. We’d have them with fresh Italian bread from the bakery. Man, than was a feast. Tony, though, didn’t like the greens. He said they tickled his throat.

 

 

net presence

The first time Gerry McNeil defended the Montreal Canadiens’ net was in 1947, when he relieved an injured Bill Durnan at the Forum midway through a meeting with the New York Rangers. Montreal lost a 1-0 lead that night; the Rangers won 5-3. McNeil “wasn’t given the best of protection,” the Gazette’s Dink Carroll wrote, “but the fact remains that Durnan’s absence was felt.” McNeil started the next night, too, against Boston, holding the Bruins to a 2-2 tie. “Steady but unspectacular” was the verdict on that performance.

Born in Quebec City on a Saturday of this date in 1926, McNeil remains largely unsung in the annals of Montreal goaltending greatness. To demonstrate why that’s not fair you might cite the fact that in all four seasons in which he was Montreal’s first-choice puckstop, from 1950 through ’54, Canadiens made it to the Stanley Cup finals. “The plucky goaler,” Dink Carroll called him in 1953 when McNeil led his team to a championship with a fifth-game shutout of the Boston Bruins. Often remembered as the man Toronto’s Bill Barilko scored on to win the 1951 Cup for the Maple Leafs, McNeil ended up playing parts of seven seasons with Montreal. His last stint as a Canadien came during the 1956-57 regular season when he returned from retirement to sub in for an asthmatic Jacques Plante. Canadiens won a Cup that year, too.

Gerry McNeil died in 2004 at the age of 78. For more on his life and times, his son David McNeil very good book is the one you want. In The Pressure of the Moment: Remembering Gerry McNeil (2016) also happens to be a fascinating cultural study of the game as well an incisive guide to the arts and anguishes of goaltending.

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