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

black hawks at training camp, 1929: wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey

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Field Force: The Chicago Black Hawks on the Notre Dame field, October 25, 1929, lending an ear to new coach Tom Shaughnessy. Back row (from left): Assistant trainer Hayden, Johnny Gottselig, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Frank Ingram, Charlie Gardiner, coach Dick Irvin, Stew Adams, trainer Tom Dyer. Front row: Vic Ripley, Tom Cook, Ty Arbour, Lolo Couture, Art Somers, Bobby Burns, Earl Miller, Mush March.

The Chicago Black Hawks shuffled through coaches after the coffee baron Major Frederic McLaughlin bought them into the NHL for the 1926-27 season. When Tom Shaughnessy’s turn came up in the spring of 1929, he was the fifth man to take the job. He wasn’t like the rest, all of whom were Canadians, all of who had played the game at the highest level (three of them ended up in the Hall of Fame). Shaughnessy was American-born, a Chicago lawyer, and the hockey he’d played was back in college at Notre Dame, though he was active, too, in Chicago’s amateur leagues. He’d played Fighting Irish football, too, as a teammate of the legendary Knute Rockne.

And maybe he was just what the Black Hawks needed. They’d finished each of the last two seasons sunken down at the bottom of the ten-team league. And Shaughnessy did have a plan, which he put into motion in early October of 1929 when he took his team, 15 players strong, for 12 days of pre-season training on the football fields of his alma mater at South Bend, Indiana. For an assistant he had Dick Irvin, just retired as a player, who’d also coached the Hawks from the ice at the end of the 1928-29 campaign. To crack the whip, the new boss looked to trainer Tom Dyer, a former British Army sergeant-major.

American press reports were only too pleased to declare Shaughnessy’s innovations that October, one of which was said to be the notion of putting hockey players under “military discipline” — even though Conn Smythe had his Leafs in Toronto under command of Corporal Joe Coyne a year earlier.

Among the Hawks at Notre Dame were veterans Cy Wentworth, Mush March, Johnny Gottselig, and goaltender Charlie Gardiner. Newcomers included Tom Cook, Taffy Abel, Helge Bostrom. Only captain Duke Dukowski was absent — he’d stayed back home to tend to his wife’s illness.

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Blocking Party: Black Hawks at work in South Bend. From left, Taffy Abel, Ralph Taylor, Cy Wentworth, Ty Arbour, Johnny Gottselig.

Harland Rohm was on hand to report on the preparatory proceedings for The Chicago Tribune. The labour was hard, he said, but the hockey players had reported in fair to good condition. “The weight sheet for the first five days shows no man to have lost more than two pounds and several of them have put on a pound or two.”

The camp was ice-free: the daily routine featured a three-hour field workout, with calisthenics, medicine balls, wind sprints. “A few dashes the length of the field and the boys are dropping on the grass, panting for breath — which isn’t unnatural, considering they’re wrapped up in woolen sweaters and trunks of hockey.”

Later, in the afternoon, they took to the softball diamond where two teams — Dick Irvin’s Shadows and Shaughnessy’s Plugs — vied for a $50 prize put up by coach Shaughnessy. (Irvin’s team won the first game 22-21 and the second 5-2, with Lolo Couture and Mush March distinguishing themselves.)

After lunch, those who wanted to golf headed out to the green (Ralph Taylor and Vic Ripley were among the keenest), while the rest of the team went for a walk.

Supper was at 7, followed by “a roundtable conference on hockey plays and rules” and lights out at 11.

Harland Rohm proved to be a serious scout:

Moving over to the shower, a casual server gets a surprise. Frank Ingram, rookie wing from St. Paul, weighs 172 pounds and has a physique a Big Ten coach would like to see among his candidates for back field. Art Somers, another rookie, a center from Vancouver, is like him, only twenty pounds lighter. Big Abel, who always looks fat when dressed, hasn’t a sign of any fat around his waist and appears ready to step on the ice. He weighs 224 now and is usually over 220 in playing condition.

Finishing up in Indiana, the team entrained for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they started the season’s exhibition schedule against the local Oilers, champions of the American Association. Once the regular season got underway in November, Shaughnessy had his new and improved Black Hawks ascending the NHL standings. By the new year, he had them sitting second in the American Division, just back of the mighty Boston Bruins.

When the two teams met in mid-January, Chicago became the only team to beat the Bruins twice. Dousing the joy of victory somewhat was the news, next day, that Tom Shaughnessy was resigning. The official word was that he needed to devote more time to his law practice, but I’m going to venture here that there more to it than that, and that it just might have been that he and Major McLaughlin didn’t see eye to eye.

What we do know is that for the next several years Shaughnessy laid steady siege to the Major’s hockey dominion in Chicago. In the summer of 1930, he bought the American Hokey Association’s Minneapolis franchise for $60,000 and talked it about moving it west to the Lake Michigan shore. With James Norris’ backing, he also looked into buying the beleaguered Ottawa Senators and shifting them. McLaughlin was able to veto that, though Shaughnessy did eventually fall in with the upstart American Hockey League and get a team, the Shamrocks, into Chicago Stadium. As Bruce Kidd writes in The Struggle For Canadian Sport (1996), the Shamrocks actually outdrew the Black Hawks in 1931.

That was the year the AHL challenged the NHL for the Stanley Cup and the NHL refused, declaring they’d prefer to forfeit than face the “outlaws.” J. Andrew Ross has a full and fascinating account of this in his book Joining The Clubs (2015), which I recommend. The short version: the AHL and Tom Shaughnessy lost, and the league disbanded.