it’s a hell of a job: hockey officials on the ladder to the big league

Whistleblowers 101: Officials line up on the ice in Buffalo at the 2019 NHL Exposure Combine for up-and-coming referees and linesmen (and women).

A version of this post appeared in Section B, page 8 of The New York Times on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Jessica Leclerc skates into the corner of the rink, she blurs. As she stops, she’s already hoisting an arm and whistling a penalty. A decisive chop of hand on sleeve signals a slash.

This is what hockey justice looks like, as it’s summarily served — or would, if this were an actual game. It’s just a drill. No actual hockey players have strayed or been sanctioned as Leclerc makes for the blueline to do it all again.

Welcome to day two of the National Hockey League’s Officials Combine, an annual late-summer festival of phantom calls and pucks dropped mostly in rehearsal. Over four days in mid-August, 86 young referees and linesman from across North America convened at Harborcenter, the two-rink training facility in Buffalo, New York, next door to the NHL Sabres’ lakefront home at KeyBank Center.

Every spring, on this very ice, the NHL puts the best draft-eligible juniors through their paces. This is a showcase like that, but with fewer fans, not so much media, and many more striped sweaters in evidence.

Part training camp, part clinic, the Combine is a job fair for some. Since 2014, the NHL has hired 27 officials who’ve auditioned at the Combine. Others here are in an earlier, exploratory phase, first-timers with a whistle, just trying to figure out whether the officiating life might be for them.

“Not everybody gets to the NHL,” said Al Kimmel, the league’s director of scouting and development for officiating. “It’s similar to the players: two or three per cent, just the very elite.”

As much as anything else, the idea in Buffalo is to create a safe, positively charged space for officials, empowering and building up a brand of fit, confident, assertive hockey arbiters who’ll go forth unto the ice of North America to keep its hockey players in line.

Chat Room: Camp attendee Jessica Leclerc consults with Stephen Walkom, head of NHL Officiating.

For more than a century, NHL officials have been policing the game with flawless efficiency, faithfully upholding the rulebook while tidily getting the job done without fear or favour.

Nobody remembers any of that.

It’s the errors that fix in the minds of players, coaches, and fans, the penalties that weren’t called, the goals that maybe shouldn’t have counted. “It’s a hell of a job,” NHL president Clarence Campbell said in 1964, ruminating on the referee’s lot. “A man has to have iron in his soul, the will to command.”

The fact that Campbell himself refereed in the NHL in the 1930s doesn’t seem to have softened his sympathy. As president, he once fined a linesman $50 for working a game unshaven. Several referees quit the NHL outright during his tenure, decrying a lack of league support.

Hockey is a whole other game than it was in those years, faster on the ice and an altogether bigger business. One thing that’s remained constant: the culture of high-definition scrutiny, complaint, and blame that officials inhabit.

For all the drama attending the St. Louis Blues’ unlikely June championship, this spring’s playoffs were also skewed by several officiating miscues. Notable among those:  an overtime goal in theWestern Conference finals between the Sharks and Blues that saw San Jose’s Timo Meier palm the puck to a teammate. That should have stopped play, but none of the four officials presiding saw it. Under the rules then in place, the play was unreviewable.

The goal, and the outrage, stood.

Asked for his view after Meier’s handling, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman barely kept his cool. “What I thought was, it would be good if I kept my head from exploding.”

Soon after the season’s end, the NHL’s Board of Governors approved a new raft of rules, expanding video review.

“You’re always doing a debrief,” Stephen Walkom said in Buffalo. Before he took over the top job for the first time in 2005, the more than 600 NHL games he refereed included a pair of Stanley Cup finals. He now oversees a staff that includes 44 referees and 38 linesmen as well as a network of managers, supervisors, and scouts.

“Officials make mistakes,” Walkom said, “and they’re always held accountable in that regard.”

If the speed of the game makes it more exciting to watch, it also heightens the challenges for those trying to keep tabs of hurtling pucks and bodies. The advent of video-review has aided officials; it can also raise stakes and pressures.

“At one time,” Walkom said, “people would think, oh, the referee was great because he got 80 per cent of the calls right. Now, if he gets 99 per cent of them right, but gets one wrong, it’s a big issue.”

“When you sit in my chair, you always hear that officiating needs to improve,” he said. “So you think, okay: how?”

Launching the Combine in 2014 was part of the answer. Going back to Campbell’s time and beyond, the NHL’s system for keeping the league supplied with officials was never particularly systematic.

“The resources and the focus on officiating was kind of limited,” said Al Kimmel. “We run it just like a team now. Bring in new draft picks every year and watch them develop and push the group in front of them to make everybody better.”

“In this day and age,” Walkom said, “whether you’re a linesman or a referee, you need to be an athlete.”

Schooling: In Buffalo, officials clattered, skates on, into classrooms to face-off with laptops that took them through suites of visual drills appraising depth perception and information-processing.

In Buffalo, Leclerc and her colleagues divided their wakeful hours between ice and the nearby gym. There they dashed and pedaled and planked, working themselves into one sweat after another under the attention of high-performance fitness instructors and staff from Walkom’s NHL officiating office.

They clattered, too, skates on, into classrooms to face-off with laptops that took them through suites of visual drills appraising depth perception and information-processing. In another room they focussed on interactive screens streaming an app, uCall, designed to test how fast they reacted to plays unfurling in real time.

Throughout the weekend, attendees also picked up sticks to play in a tournament of scrimmages in which they took turns officiating under the guidance of Combine graduates now working in the NHL. The hockey was fast, skillful, and mostly whistle-free. The clamor from the benches wasn’t all for goals that went in: on this ice, with this crowd, an iffy offside was just as likely to bring down the house.

Corey Syvret was a Florida Panthers draft pick who played eight seasons as a minor-league defenseman before he attended the Combine in 2017. He adapted quickly enough to be hired by the NHL that same fall. Now 30, he’s worked two full American Hockey League seasons along with more than 30 regular-season NHL games.

The intensity is what he values in his new calling, being “captured” by the game he’s in.

“As a hockey player, you’re kind of reckless of there,” he said in Buffalo between mentoring sessions with the new generation of officials. “You’re trying to see what you can get away with.”

A native of Saco, Maine, Leclerc, 34, came to the Combine having officiated hockey since she was 13. When she’s not on the ice, she works as an administrator at an assisted-living facility; when she is, she has supervised youth and tier-one junior hockey and served as a lineswoman at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Women are still waiting for their chance to work an N.H.L. whistle. Eleven women attended this year’s Combine, four of whom went on to work NHL pre-season rookie tournaments. Without committing to a timeline, Walkom said that it was a matter of when they took the next step, not if.

Leclerc isn’t sure she’ll be part of that, but that doesn’t stop her from focussing on the ceilings she’s intent on breaking. “Hopefully,” she said, “by being here this weekend it really shows that women can compete, and that gender really has no role in officiating.”

“You better love it,” Walkom said of those wondering whether a life in stripes might be for them. Friday lunchtime, as camp attendees lined up for tuna wraps and pasta salad, TVs overhanging the concourse showed highlight reels from the NHL season past. Instead of extravagant goals by Sidney Crosby, the cameras followed mic’d–up refs as they colorfully called it like they saw it.

Walkom stood by smiling. “You’re perfect at the anthem. And then you’re slipping away.”

“The best golfer in the world is the one that recovers the quickest from the bad shot,” he said. “In hockey, you make mistakes, and you recover quickly. You need that mindset, as a ref.”

(All images: Stephen Smith)

hockey coaches in hospital beds: down goes dutton

American Lit: Red Dutton gets a light for his cigarette from an unnamed nurse during his stay at Gotham Hospital in February of 1938.

Another month, another loss.

That was the story in the winter of 1938 for the New York Americans, who ended January with a 4-2 home defeat at the sticks of the Montreal Canadiens. Four days later, the Amerks started their February schedule with a 6-1 drubbing at Madison Square Garden by the Detroit Red Wings. That was their fourth loss in a row, and extended their winless streak to nine games. With a little over a month to go in the regular season, the Americans were in a fight for their playoff lives, just two points ahead of the Montreal Maroons and the basement of the NHL’s International Division.

Forty-year-old Red Dutton was in his third season as the New York coach and manager. His interest in the team, shall we say, ran deeper still: having captained the Americans as one of the NHL’s most effective and bruising defencemen until his retirement as a player in 1936, he was also a co-owner of the team.

The Americans’ slump had Dutton in a rage. He bent Harold Parrott’s ear after the Red Wings’ shellacking and Parrot, the hockey writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was only too happy to share the coach’s none-too-complimentary musings with his readership.

Were the Americans altogether too clean-living to prosper in the rough and the tumble of NHL hockey? Dutton wondered, citing the example of his goaltender, Earl Robertson. “He never looks at a drink or a girl,” Dutton was quoted as saying, “goes to bed early and trains on a running track just to be in shape for hockey — and yet there must be spots in front of his eyes.”

Turning to defenceman Joe Jerwa, Dutton speculated that maybe he had too much money in the bank to care about buckling down and playing effective hockey. “But that can’t be the trouble,” Dutton went on, “because most of the other men haven’t the price of a ham sandwich and they still seem to play as if they didn’t care.”

Dutton advised Parrott that the team’s biggest lack was a defenceman who could rush the puck. He was apparently willing to name those he thought weren’t getting the job done, deeming fifth-year defender Al Murray “the worst of the lot,” according to Parrott.

I’m not the one who’s going to draw the line between that very public scorn and what happened next. It’s not for me to say that Dutton ending up in hospital a week later had anything to do with payback. I’m just reading old newspapers here and patching together what I’m seeing there.

That’s this:

The Americans played their next two games against the Montreals, tying the Canadiens 3-3 in Quebec, then coming home to beat the Maroons 3-1.

That was on the Tuesday, February 8. The Americans didn’t play again until the following Sunday, away to the Red Wings. With the annual Westminster Kennel Club moving in to occupy Madison Square Garden for the week, Dutton decided to take his team to Detroit early. Doc Holst of the local Free Press reported the exchange Dutton had with Jack Adams, his Red Wings counterpart, when the Americans showed up Friday at the Olympia to practice.

“Whatsa matter, Mervin [sic], no ice in the Gardens?” Jack Adams asked.

“Nope, no ice,” Red answered. “They drove us out to put on a dog show.” There was a bit of hurt pride in the redhead’s voice.

It was during that February 11 practice that Dutton suffered the injury that put him in the hospital and into the picture above. The coach was out on the ice, skating with his team when — well, here’s how the Associated Press accounted it:

He tried to carry the puck past his best body-checker, 155-pound Al Murray. Murray smacked his boss with a sound body-check, and Red went flat on his back.

He suffered through the weekend, much of which he seems to have spent abed at his hotel convinced that it was just a bad case of lumbago. He still managed to arrange a trade from that prone position, gaining winger Johnny Sorrell from the Red Wings in exchange for Hap Emms. The Sunday game finished as a 2-2 tie, whereupon the Amerks headed for home.

It was more than lumbago.

At some point back in New York, Dutton ended up in Gotham Hospital up on East 76th Street, under the care of Dr. Morton K. Hertz. A Thursday dispatch in The Daily News reported him to be “encased in a 10-pound plaster cast” as a result of his collision with Al Murray. The diagnosis was dire:

Dutton had torn the lower back (latissimus dorsi) muscles loose from the hip. They must heal before he can stand erect. Hemorrhages that produced a kidney stoppage further complicated his condition, causing intense pain.

The AP listed him as resting uncomfortably, if “very much ashamed of himself,” insofar as he’d never been seriously injured during his 15 professional seasons as a player. The last time he’d been in hospital, the Winnipeg Tribune cheerfully noted, was during the First World War, when he suffered “a bad dose of shrapnel.” That was a reference to his service with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, with whom he’d been badly wounded near Vimy in 1917. During his recovery, he’d been in danger of losing a leg to gangrene.

In 1938, with Dutton sidelined, veteran defenceman Ching Johnson stepped out of the Americans’ line-up to take his place on the bench for a Tuesday meeting with the Canadiens. The As won that game, 4-0.

In fact, Johnson continued to steer the team through a further four games.

That in and of itself is worth a notation: nowhere in the annals of NHL coaching records can I find Johnson getting credit for this brief coaching career of his, including in the NHL’s online register, here. Attention, NHL coaching historians and stats-keepers: Johnson’s name should be added (and Dutton’s adjusted) to reflect the respectable 3-1-1 record that then Americans compiled under their emergency-measures boss.

Red Dutton returned to duty for the Americans’ February 27 home game against the Montreal Maroons. Though they lost that night, 4-2, Dutton’s crew did make it into the playoffs later in March, going two rounds before they fell to upstart Chicago Black Hawks in the semi-finals.

Clarence Campbell was the referee for the second game of that series, controversially calling back a goal by the Americans’ Eddie Wiseman that would have won the game for New York and sent them to the Stanley Cup finals. As it was, Chicago prevailed in overtime and in the next game, too, ousting the Americans. Dutton’s protests didn’t help that, of course, but they did include a vow that his team would have no part of any subsequent playoff game officiated by Campbell.

Campbell’s post-reffing career was in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. His return to hockey came in 1946, when he took over as president of the NHL, succeeding the man who’d taken the job after Frank Calder’s death in 1943 — Red Dutton.

The end of the 1938 season saw Ching Johnson call it quits as an NHL player, subsequently taking his talents west to serve as playing coach for the American Hockey Association’s Minneapolis Millers. Before leaving New York, he was rewarded as all the Americans were that season: as reward for their ’37-38 playoff successes coach Dutton handed each man a bonus of $250.

 

 

greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

a man has to have iron in his soul

Whistle Stop: Originally from Rochester, New York, Tyler Edwards, 27, played Division I college hockey for Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. In August, he took part in the annual NHL Officials Combine in Buffalo, taking a turn in stripes for the first time. “I’m getting to the point where I think this is a cool thing to explore and to figure out if it’s something that I want to do in the future.” (Image: Stephen Smith)

“It usually starts on a frozen pond,” Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times in 1964, “in British Columbia or Saskatchewan or Ontario, when a boy on skates realizes he will never be as quick and strong as his friends. So he offers to referee their games.” So began Lipsyte’s review of the life and lot of NHL referees. NHL president Clarence Campbell, himself a former referee, was one authority Lipyste consulted. “It’s a hell of a job,” Campbell told him, memorably. “A man has to have iron in his soul, the will to command. And he can’t be a drinker — he’ll have thousands of hours with nothing to do.”

Fifty-five years on, I have a feature in today’s Times reporting from the NHL’s annual Officials, the late-summer festival of phantom calls and practice puck-drops that prospective officials attend in Buffalo, New York, to train and test themselves while being assessed by the NHL’s officiating high command. You can scout the online version here.

 

just a little is enough: hockey fit for a (soon-to-be) queen

princes 1951

Pleased To Meet You: Prince Philip greets Chicago Black Hawk captain Black Jack Stewart at Maple Leaf Gardens on the Saturday afternoon of October 13, 1951. At right is Conn Smythe; Princess Elizabeth, left, holds her program close. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

When you’re the queen, your schedule is hockey’s schedule. Actually, you don’t even have to be queen. You can be not-quite-but-almost-queen and the NHL will, not a problem, don’t mind a bit, bend its calendar to accommodate yours.

Well, maybe not now. Years ago, though, once upon a time, in October of 1951, when Canada’s own Queen Elizabeth was still a 25-year-old princess on a five-week tour of the Dominion with her husband, Philip, the NHL twice twisted its schedule on her behalf.

The royal couple saw the defending Stanley Cup champions first, Toronto’s own Maple Leafs — though not exactly fully and completely.

Next, 68 years ago last night, the royals stopped in at the Montreal Forum to watch the Canadiens. That was the last Canadian hockey Princess Elizabeth would witness before the death of her father, George VI, in February of 1952 and her succession to the throne.

It wasn’t all hockey during that 1951 tour: the royal couple did take in half of a football game, in all fairness to the gridiron, arriving at halftime to see a Western Football Union semi-final in November wherein the Edmonton Eskimos upended the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers by the meek margin of 4-1.

Icewise, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who was 30, were in Toronto on Saturday, October 13, so they could, in theory, have caught the Leafs’ home opener against the Chicago Black Hawks that night.

But they were busy with a state supper at the Royal York that night. Instead, the Leafs and Hawks obliged with an afternoon exhibition game that doubled as a benefit for the Ontario Society for Crippled Children. Fourteen thousand (mostly young) fans packed into the Gardens for the three o’clock face-off, after which, at precisely 3:15, the royal party was supposed to leave to visit Riverdale Park.

Originally the park was going to have the Princess for 15 minutes longer than the rink, but in the end she didn’t get out of the Gardens for a full half-hour.

In The Gardens: Princess Elizabeth heads up the VIP parade at therein. Behind her, befezzed, is Reginald Shaw, acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners; Prince Philip; and Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

I’m willing to take at face-value the notion that the royal schedule was the reason for truncating the game and that it didn’t have to do with hockey’s bigwigs, its Clarence Campbells and Conn Smythes, in a cold flash of self-abnegation, realizing that there was only so much hockey a serious person who’d never seen the game in full fig could be expected to endure the first time out. I’ll accept that it was a scheduling decision. Even so, it still raises the essential Shakespearean question of whether hockey is hockey which alters when it alteration finds.

Turk Broda seems to have worked the Toronto net, though he was, at 37, no longer the team’s regular goaler — indeed, over the course of the regular 1951-52 season, he’d appear in just one game in relief of Al Rollins. One other Toronto roster note: the Leafs were hitting the ice that fall without the man whose timely goal had won them the Cup back in April — Bill Barilko disappeared that summer, as the song goes. With his fate still unknown, the Leafs left his sweater, number 5, hanging in the dressing room as they headed out to the ice — “where it will stay, presumably,” the Canadian Press reported, “until its owner is found.”

The Globe reported next day on the festivities. The royal couple was “introduced to a new phase of Canadian life” and heard a sound “that must certainly have been unique in their experience.” The scream of an aggrieved Gus Mortson? Joe Klukay cursing out Rags Raglan? No. “The roar of a hockey crowd as a home player sweeps in on goal is different from any other sound in any other game. It builds up quickly to a crescendo and explodes when the shot is made.”

The VIPs sat in Box 50, west side of the Gardens, bookended by Gardens’ president Conn Smythe and Reginald Shaw, who wore the fez of the acting potentate of the Ramses Shriners. A large Union Jack adorned the front of the box. The regular seats had been removed, replaced with chairs. Before the puck dropped, they royal couple met the respective captains, Ted Kennedy of the Leafs and Chicago’s Black Jack Stewart. One witness rated Stewart’s obeisance as “markedly similar to his hockey technique. He bows, in other words, with a short and choppy motion in contrast to the deeper, more eloquent method employed by Mr. Kennedy.”

“Big time hockey is a thrilling game,” said The Globe, “and the Royal couple seemed to enjoy their first taste of it.”

Actually, Prince Philip had been to hockey games before, lots of them, in London; she’d only watched on television. That’s what the Princess told Conn Smythe, who later gave the Globe’s Al Nickleson a moment-by-moment account of sitting with HRH.

“The Princess asked me many technical questions,” Smythe said, “while the Prince, behind me, laughed heartily at the rugged play. Every crash increased the tempo of his laugh and he slapped his thigh in delight a couple of times.”

She wondered how fast the players could skate and what their sticks were made of. Were there special skates for hockey? “She asked,” Smythe reported, “if many players were injured, at the same time commenting because the padding would protect them.”

The Hawks had the better of the play. “Body contact was hard but no fights broke out,” the Globe’s sports reporter wrote. “The Princess betrayed her emotions by a wide-eyed look and an automatic jump of the royal shoulders when a player was hit hard.” The crowd divided its attention between the game and the royal couple.

Smythe: “She sensed right away that players were allowed to do practically anything in the way of checking with their bodies, but that they were governed in the use of sticks.”

Leaf defenceman Jim Thomson did what Leaf defenceman do, no matter era, coughing up the puck to Chicago. Noticing that Ted Kennedy was open and awaiting a pass, the Princess was displeased, Smythe said. “That was not good combination,” she confided.

Getting the royals into the rink and settled in their seats had taken time, and the teams had only been playing for five minutes when an aide alerted the Princess that she was falling behind on her schedule. “Surely,” she said, no question mark necessary, “we can stay and watch some more of this.”

They stayed, they watched. Alongside Kennedy, the Leafs had Tod Sloan and Sid Smith and Max Bentley skating that afternoon, while the Hawks iced Max’s brother Doug and Bill Mosienko, who’d finished the season as the NHL’s second-best goalscorer, after Gordie Howe. For all that firepower, no-one could put a puck past Turk Broda, the veteran back-up who took to Toronto’s net, or Harry Lumley in Chicago’s. Under royal scrutiny, no goals were scored.

Conn Smythe confided that the Princess said she felt sorry for the goaltenders and “didn’t fancy playing that position in hockey.”

“Or any other sport, I suggested, and she agreed wholeheartedly.”

At one point, after a heavy crash of bodies on the ice, the Princess asked Smythe: “Isn’t there going to be a penalty in this game?” Eventually there was: Chicago winger Bep Guidolin took the scrimmage’s only penalty, for holding.

We Are Amused: Princess Elizabeth shares a laugh with Conn Smythe. (Image: Archives of Ontario)

That night, when the Gardens returned to regular service, the Leafs unfurled their Stanley Cup banner. NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hometown goaltender Al Rollins with the Vézina Trophy he’d won as the league’s top goaltender. As they tend to do in Toronto, the pipes and the drums of the 48th Highlanders played the Leafs into the new season — whereupon the Hawks beat them, 3-1. Al Nickleson thought the home team was still dazzled from the afternoon’s exposure to royalty — they “appeared in somewhat of a trance” all evening.

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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

won and all

Yours, Truly: NHL President Clarence Campbell, suited on the right congratulates Toronto coach Hap Day, on the ice at maple Leaf Gardens on April 16, 1949. Arrayed behind are (from left) Leaf captain Ted Kennedy, Vic Lynn, Bill Barilko, Garth Boesch, (obscured by the Cup, so hard to say, but maybe) Sid Smith, Turk Broda, Cal Gardner, and Tod Sloan. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132795)

“The boys were whooping it in slightly mad fashion,” The Globe  and Mail’s Al Nickleson wrote of the April night in 1949 that the Toronto Maple Leafs wrapped up another championship, “when through the bedlam of the crowded Maple Leaf dressing-room came the stentorian tones of portly Tim Daly. “‘I don’t know why you guys are so excited at winning the Stanley Cup,’ he needled. ‘We do it every year.’”

The long-time team trainer wasn’t far off: the Leafs had just, it’s true, won their third consecutive Cup, and their fifth in eight years. (They would claimed it again two years later, in 1951, on the strength of Bill Barilko’s famous final goal.) In ’49, coached by Hap Day, Toronto had dispatched the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep. They won the decisive game 3-1 at Maple Leaf Gardens on goals by Ray Timgren, Max Bentley, and Cal Gardner. Ted Lindsay scored for Detroit. Once it was all over, NHL president Clarence Campbell presented hockey’s most coveted trophy to Leaf captain Ted Kennedy — as seen above — before the Stanley Cup was carried in the Gardens’ press room and (as Nickleson recounted) “filled with bubbling champagne.”

In street clothes, Leafs joined officials, newspapermen, and friends to sip from the Cup. Garth Boesch, hard-hitting defenceman, stroked the outsize trophy gently, and said, “See you again next year, honey.”