game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

the only goaltender ever to have won a game in the nhl? for an hour or two in 1917, that was bert lindsay

Goaltender Bert Lindsay was 36 by the time he took his first NHL turn — though to be fair, before he skated out for that debut in the waning days of 1917, there was no NHL.

Tending the nets for Montreal’s Wanderers, Lindsay started the league’s very first game on the Wednesday night of December 19, 1917, against the team from Toronto. (The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators also played that night, but that game was delayed, and started later in the evening.) Toronto’s goaltender, Sammy Hebert, conceded the first goal in league history when the Wanderers’ Dave Ritchie beat him a minute into the first period.

The game, let’s just say, was a tough one for any of the goaltenders involved. After Montreal put five pucks past him in the first period, Hebert gave way to Art Brooks, on whom the Wanderers scored a further five goals. Going the distance, Lindsay was beaten on just nine occasions, helping his team to eke out a 10-9 win. That meant that he was not the first goaltender to win an NHL game: briefly that night, he was the onlygoaltender ever to have won one. That distinction, of course, expired as soon as the Canadiens finished their game in Ottawa, beating the Senators 7-4, and Georges Vézina joined Lindsay as the NHL’s winningest goaler.

Bert Lindsay was born in the village of Belwood, Ontario, just north of Guelph, on the 23rd day of another July, this one in 1881. He eventually found his way north and east, to Renfrew, which is where he made his name as a professional hockey. For a couple of years starting in 1910, manning the nets for the NHA’s star-studded Renfrew Creamery Kings, Lindsay had Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Lester and Frank Patrick lining up in front of him. He subsequently played six seasons for the PCHA’s Victoria Aristocrats before returning east to join the Wanderers in Montreal.

He was the man in their nets for the final two NHA seasons. That gets us to 1917 and the NHL, wherein Lindsay guarded the Wanderer goal in the only four games the team ever actually played in the league. That opening-night win was the only one the Wanderers managed in its brief history in the league: Lindsay was on the losing end of four subsequent games.

The Wanderers were already undermanned, desperate for players, when in early January of 1918 the Montreal Arena burned down. While the building’s other tenant, the Canadiens, saw fit to make a move to the Jubilee Arena, Wanderers’ owner Sam Lichtenhein decided to disband his team. They defaulted two more games before their final extinction, and while many of their players joined other NHL teams for the remainder of the year, Lindsay didn’t catch with the Toronto Arenas until the following year, his last in pro hockey.

There are a couple of other facets to Lindsay’s place in hockey history. For one thing, Bert begat a Hall-of-Fame son, Ted, who was born in Renfrew towards the end of July of 1925.

For another, some 20 years after that auspicious event, Bert Lindsay devised a new and improved piece of hockey furniture.

This is 1947 we’re talking about now. Bert, who’d originally retired to Renfrew to run a car dealership and coach some hockey, was north now, living in Kirkland Lake. I don’t know long he spent cogitating on a safer hockey net, nor whether it had been in the works going all the way back to his own goal-guarding days.

It was a serious effort that almost (but not quite) made it to the big league.

The standard NHL net in 1947 was one that Lindsay’s old coach and teammate with the NHL Wanderers had invented: the Art Ross Patent Goal Net.

After his long and distinguished career playing defence came to end with the demise of the Wanderers, Ross took up as an NHL referee and then as a coach, originally with the Hamilton Tigers. When Boston entered the league in 1924, he signed up to shape the newborn Bruins.

As shrewd as he was a judge of hockey talent, and as careful a tactician, Ross was also one of the game’s supreme innovators, constantly working to refine the game and its tools.

He designed a better puck, one that the NHL officially adopted before the 1918-19 season.

To mitigate the damage those very pucks threatened to do to players’ feet, he devised a chainmail boot to fit over skates long before plastic skateguards became commonplace.

Ross experimented with metal-shafted sticks, too, years before aluminum and composite models became fixtures in the hands of hockey players everywhere.

As Ross himself told it, he was forced into renovating the nets that had been employed on NHL ice for the league’s first decade. This was the same model that had featured in the old NHA: flat-backed, all straight lines, it looked a bit like the unfinished frame for a chest of drawers.

Introduced in 1911, this net had been designed by another famous goaltender, Percy LeSueur, who’d end up (like Ross, if not Bert Lindsay) in the Hall of Fame. The problem: pucks could, and did, bounce out as quickly as they made their way into the LeSueur net, often defying the best efforts of referees and goal judges to discern their passage.

Bounceback: From Percy LeSueur’s 1911 patent application, a rendering of the flat-backed net that served the NHL for its first decade on ice.

Ross’ patience for this lasted through the 1926-27 NHL season but not beyond. His solution was to invent the net that, in basic design, is the one we know today. Built on a base shaped like the number three, it featured angled metalwork within, along with a strip of interior mesh, all of which helped to corral pucks and keep them from bouncing out.

“After a game in Boston last winter in which four goals were disputed,” Ross said in the fall of 1927, “I began to plan it, and here it is.”

Net Work: In 1927, Art Ross unveiled his new net. Adopted for the 1927-28 season, it served the NHL for almost 60 years without alteration.

Hockey’s managers and mandarins were impressed when he revealed his prototype. “I wish we had thought of such a net years ago,” said Frank Patrick, no mean hockey visionary himself. The NHL was on board from the start, adopting the new Ross net for service effective that very season.

Affixed to the ice with steel pegs, the net that Ross conceived in 1927 did duty in the league for nearly 60 years, and it went more or less unchanged until 1980. That was the year that Mark Howe, then of the Hartford Whalers, suffered a horrific injury when he slid into and was badly sliced by the Ross net’s protruding middle plate. It was in the aftermath of that that the NHL did (eventually) get rid of the latter and switch out the uncompromising steel pegs in favour of the magnetic anchors used today.

While the fix that Bert Lindsay proposed in 1947 wouldn’t have adjusted the way nets were secured to the ice, he was focussed on the damage they could do to players, and how to improve their “yieldability”

That’s a word from a patent application of his. “It is well known that in ice hockey,” Lindsay explained in his filing, “a player is frequently injured by collision with a rigid goal post. The object of this invention is to provide a goal that precludes or lessens such injury and is accomplished generally by the provision of yielding posts in the goal structure.”

Lindsay’s design put hinges in the goalposts, and backed them with heavy springs. Say Maple Leaf winger Gaye Stewart lost a wheel driving for the Detroit net one night, crashing into one of Harry Lumley’s posts. By Lindsay’s design, a mere seven pounds of pressure would cause the upright to give way. “When the force of the impact has been removed, the section … promptly returns to its normal position under the action of the springs.” The net itself might not be displaced, but Lindsay’s contention was that injuries to players would be “much less severe than if a rigid post were struck.”

Try, Try Again: Drawings for Bert Lindsay’s second patent application show his spring-loaded collapsible net.

Lindsay’s collapsing nets got some play in 1947, on the ice in Kirkland Lake, apparently. Then they gradually worked a way south. Following a demonstration in North Bay, Ontario, Lindsay Sr. arranged to ship a prototypical pair to Toronto towards the end of March.

He’d had discussions by then with the NHL president, Clarence Campbell, and it seemed possible that the new pliable nets would get a run out at Maple Leaf Gardens, where the Leafs were hosting a Stanley-Cupsemi-final. Starring for their opponents from Detroit was 21-year-old Ted Lindsay, all grown up now, and in his third season playing truculent left wing for the Wings.

 

Bert Lindsay’s nets didn’t get their chance in the NHL on Saturday, March 29, 1947, as it so happened. Press reports don’t get into the details but in the end, the experimental nets only ended up being tested before the second game of the Toronto-Detroit game that night. The Toronto Daily Star reported their findings, awkwardly and without attributing them to anyone by name: NHL officials “found them fine after they smooth out a few rough spots.”

While his net didn’t make the opening line-up, Bert Lindsay did get to see his son put a pair of pucks into the old Art Ross cages, as the Wings overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 9-1. It was a big night all around for Red Wing parents: Sid Abel’s mother had travelled from Melville, Saskatchewan, to see her son play for the first time in his seven-year NHL career.

The next time Bert Lindsay’s nets rated a mention in the popular press seems to have heralded their last gasp. It was a year later, 1948, when they showed up in New York. I don’t know much about this, but they seem to have had a trial in (I think) in the Eastern Hockey League, (possibly) at Madison Square Garden. They also seem to have been given a test run in Windsor, as the caption for the photo below suggests.

They didn’t catch on. A rough spot that hadn’t been sufficiently smoothed was the concern that sly goaltenders would seek to bend back the posts to help them keep pucks out.

Their failure to prosper that year seems also to have had to do with the problem that Art Ross had wrestled with 20 years earlier. The Lindsay nets were, the Boston Globe advised, too shallow: “pucks bounce out too easily.”

The old goaltender kept on working on his novel nets, retooling, refining. This we know because in 1950, two years after he’d filed his original specs, Bert Lindsay was back at the Patent Office with paperwork for a new and improved version of his innovative net. In vain, it seems: while he may have fixed its early flaws to his own satisfaction, nobody else in the hockey world seems to have given it a third chance.

Bert Lindsay died at his home in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1960. He was 79.

neo conn

Conn Man: Jean Béliveau with the silverware he accumulated on a Saturday of this date in 1965, when his Canadiens won their 13th Stanley Cup and the Montreal captain was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. (Archives of Ontario)

“General opinion in these parts is that NHL governors should be herded to the saliva box if they fail to name Montreal’s master craftsman Jean Béliveau for the new Conn Smythe Trophy and the loot that goes with it.” Easy (if not entirely sanitary) for columnist Vern DeGeer to write, as he did in the Montreal Gazette on a Saturday of this same date in 1965 ahead of the game that would decide the winner of that year’s Stanley Cup. By the time it was over, the hometown Canadiens had dismissed the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0 to win the seven-game series and claim the 13thCup in franchise history. Sure enough, when NHL president Clarence Campbell stepped up to announce the winner of the inaugural Conn Smythe, recognizing the playoff MVP, it was the Montreal captain’s name he spoke. Fifty-five years ago tonight, Béliveau, who was 33, won the handsome new trophy and its accompanying loot of $2,000 (about $16,000 in 2020 dollars), half of which was awarded by the NHL, half by the Canadiens.

It’s true that Chicago’s Bobby Hull had been in the Conn conversation, earlier in the series, when there were also fleeting mentions that Montreal defenceman J.C. Tremblay deserved a chance. Hull did end up as the playoff scoring leader, gathering ten goals and 17 points in 14 games to Béliveau’s eight and 16 in 13 games. The Montreal captain’s showing in the latter days of April sealed the deal: he recorded two goals, including the winner, as well as a pair of assists in Montreal’s 6-0 game-five win. May 1 he again scored the game-winner, and later added an exclamatory assist.

If nobody really disputed Béliveau’s worthiness, there was a brief hue and cry in the days leading up to the decision. The new trophy, which cost $2,300, had been donated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in honour of their influential president, coach, and manager, who was also an honorary NHL governor. While NHL’s other individual awards were decided by a poll of sportswriters, by Smythe’s own request it was decreed that the winner of the new award would be annually voted by the league’s governors.

There were six of them, at the time, august names all, adorned with initials to prove it. From Toronto there was C. Stafford Smythe, Conn’s son; Bruce A. Norris stood for Detroit while his half-brother, James D. Norris, represented Chicago. The New York Rangers had William M. Jennings. Weston W. Adams was Boston’s man, and from Montreal it was J. David Molson.

The arrangement was this: at the conclusion of the final game of the finals, the jurors would file their ballots with Clarence Campbell and he would duly announce the winner. I’ve seen a single reference suggesting that the governors would decide on a shortlist of three names before they did their voting, with points awarded on a 5-3-1 basis, but I don’t know whether that’s how they actually proceeded, in ’65 or the years that followed — there’s no public record that I can find of finalists or voting tallies.

The hue that was cried was, mostly, Jim Vipond’s. Another leading columnist of the day, he was sports editor at the Globe and Mail, wherein he lit a small rocket on Thursday, April 29, 1965, under the headline “Smythe Trophy Vote a Farce.”

His issue? Three of the NHL governors — Boston’s Adams, New York’s Jennings, and Norris of Detroit — hadn’t attended a single game of the final round. Chicago’s Norris and Montreal’s Molson had been at all five games to that point; Toronto’s Smythe had seen four.

“Each absentee delegated authority to an executive member of his organization who is probably more qualified than his boss,” Vipond allowed. “But this was not the intent nor the meaning of the terms of reference.”

“The missing governors are at fault on at least two counts. First, they should have been in attendance out of respect for the man after whom the trophy was named. Second, this is the world series of what they loudly refer to as major league sport. By their absence they depreciate the league they represent.”

He continued:

“Considerable thought was given to the method of selecting the winner. Managers, coaches, and newspapers all were rejected.

“Obviously the system in use is a poor one and if the governors are really interested in advancement of hockey they should consider a better scheme before next year.”

Vipond liked an idea floated by Ron Andrews, the NHL’s publicity man and chief statistician. “It is his proposal that the league invite six former players, one from each team and stars in their own day, to attend the playoff as guests of the NHL. There would be three at each game of the semi-finals, will all six at all games of the finals. They would cast a ballot after each game with the league president counting the votes at the end of the series.”

“That would produce a worthy winner and would be far better than a remote control system operating out of Florida or some other place far removed from playoff action.”

I don’t know how the governors reacted to Vipond’s reproach — or if the three absentees were sufficiently stung to fly in to see the final game of the series. There was no official response, and no change to the system.

That didn’t come for another six years. Since 1971, the winner of the Conn Smythe has been voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. They picked Montreal’s goaltender, Ken Dryden, that spring, after his Canadiens won their 17th Cup. By then, the league loot accompanying the Conn Smythe seems to have grown to $1,500 (about $10,000 in today’s money). And while I’m not clear whether Canadiens were matching that figure, it is the case that Sportmagazine stepped up to give him a car for his efforts.

For Béliveau, the 1971 Cup was the tenth and final one he won as a player: he announced his retirement later that summer.

A Stitch In Time: Toronto artist and editorial designer Nadine Arseneault’s embroidered rendering of Béliveau and his ’65 Conn Smythe. You can find her on Instagram @nadine.design.

callithumpian kenny: at madison square garden in new york, they had a hate reardon club

Bruising is an word you often see associated with Ken Reardon’s colourful stint as a defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens during the 1940s; others are rugged, rambunctious, pugnacious, and full of zeal. Beloved by Hab enthusiasts, he was known, as the Montreal Gazette noted in 1950, for stirring other teams’ fans into a dither. “At Madison Square Garden in New York,” the paper levelly recorded, “there is a Hate Reardon Club, whose members have dubbed the tough Irishman ‘HORSEFACE.’”

Born in Winnipeg on a Friday of this same date in 1921, Reardon had what Dink Carroll described in 1966, on the occasion of his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame, as a “brief but meteoric NHL career.” Debuting in 1940, he played two seasons in Montreal before enlisting in the war effort. The RCAF turned him down (for colour-blindness), but the Canadian Army took him. He won an Allan Cup with the Ottawa Commandos in 1943, then headed overseas, where his non-hockey service in Europe was rewarded in 1944 with a Commander-in-Chief’s Certificate for Gallantry, which he received from Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself. In ’66, Carroll recalled that Reardon’s dynamic on-ice stylings earned the nicknames The Locomotive and The Express. “He had a unique skating style — he ran rather than stroked — and bowled over anyone who was in his way.” The Wild Irishman was another moniker. It was this time of year in 1950 that Canadiens took on the Rangers in New York in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After Reardon drew five penalties in a single game at MSG, he returned to Montreal as a newly minted 29-year-old to find birthday greetings from his sister in Regina awaiting him in a telegram addressed, simply enough, “Care of penalty box, Forum.”

It’s true that Reardon’s renown was built, too, on fights with fans (he and Montreal teammate Leo Gravelle were briefly jailed in Chicago in 1949) and tales of his vicious ongoing feud with Cal Gardner of the New York Rangers and, later, Toronto’s Maple Leafs. In 1950, after Reardon threatened vengeance on Gardner in a magazine interview, NHL president Clarence Campbell fined him $1,000. It wasn’t so much a penalty, Campbell said, as a personal cash bond to guarantee Reardon’s continuing good conduct. The money was returned when back injuries precipitated Reardon’s retirement in the fall of ’50. The New York Times carried the latter news by way of a CP article identifying Reardon as the bushy-browed basher. As a player, he’d helped Montreal win the 1946 Stanley Cup. Working in management — he served as Canadiens’ assistant GM and, later, as vice-president — he was aboard for five more Cups from 1956 through 1960. Ken Reardon died at the age of 86 in 2008.

gordie howe, 1964: you want a punch in the mouth?

Cover Story: Tex Coulter’s handsome portrait of a happy Gordie Howe adorned the cover of a 1957 edition of Hockey Blueline. The accompanying story was bylined (if not, maybe, entirely written by) Ted Lindsay. No buried ledes here: “Gordie Howe — The Greatest!” laid out the author’s premise in the first two lines: “Gordie Howe is the greatest player in hockey! Gordie, in fact, may be the greatest hockey player ever.”

March of 1964 was a busy month for Gordie Howe. To finish up his 18thseason with the Detroit Red Wings, he scored four goals in 10 games, giving him 26 on the season and 566 for his career. He ended up, again, as Detroit’s leading scorer, fifth overall in the NHL. Both The Hockey News and the Associated Press voted him to their Second All-Star teams, which is where he’d end up when the official NHL version was named in April. What else? As his 36th birthday loomed, on March 31st, and Howe was signing a 10-year promotion deal with Eaton’s department store, he mentioned that he planned to play two more years of pro hockey before he retired and went looking for a coaching job.

Also: on this very date in ’64, another Sunday, deep in Chicago Stadium, Gordie Howe asked a young fan a question that — just guessing here — he thought of as rhetorical. Did the fan, Howe inquired, want a punch in the mouth?

Having just helped his team even its first-round playoff series with the Chicago Black Hawks at a game apiece, Mr. Hockey might or might not have gotten the answer he was or wasn’t looking for: we just don’t know.

What’s clear is that Howe put down the bags he was carrying to deliver the aforementioned punch — “a good one,” as he described it, later, to reporters.

Robert Rosenthal, 20, was the fan. He and his friend George Berg had gone down after the game to wait outside the Red Wings’ dressing room. This we know because the next day, Monday, Rosenthal presented himself at Chicago’s Monroe Street municipal court with an idea of obtaining a warrant for Gordie Howe’s arrest on a charge of assault.

“When the player came out,” Rosenthal recounted, “I said, ‘Why don’t you learn to play a little cleaner?’” Howe’s reply: “You want a punch in the mouth?”

To that, Rosenthal told the court, he said this: “You’re good at fighting guys smaller than you.”

Howe hit him.

Rosenthal testified that he’d retreated south, to nearby Cook County Hospital, where he’d taken on eight stitches to close the cut to his mouth.

Judge John Sullivan wasn’t impressed. “I will not,” he told Rosenthal, “perform a useless act.”

“On the basis of the evidence you’ve given me, any judge in my opinion would find Mr. Howe not guilty, since you admitted that you provoked him.”

Boston Globe headline, March 30, 1964

Back in Detroit, Howe told reporters what he knew — and added several new punches to the mix-up.

“This guy got in the way and said to me, ‘The ref called ’em right for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, all right.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, he didn’t call them right, huh?’” He wasn’t making much sense.”

“I asked him if he was looking for trouble. Then he stepped into me and I let him have a light punch on the nose.”

“I took another step toward the bus and he hit me on the back of the head, so I put down both travelling bags and let him have a good one.”

“I don’t think they have the right to swear at you,” Howe said, summing up, “and I’m not going to stand for it when they use my mother’s and father’s name in vain.”

Rock Island Argus (Illinois) headline, March 30, 1964

In the aftermath of Rosenthal’s dismissal at court, his mother, whose name may have been Veronica but is given in at least one account as Veronia, mentioned that lawyers would be consulted. Sure enough, before the week was out, just in time for Howe’s birthday, Rosenthal filed a lawsuit seeking US$25,000 for damages from number 9 and the Red Wings, claiming “Howe’s unprovoked attack humiliated, embarrassed, and held him up to public ridicule.” He noted, too, that his wound had become infected and swollen to three times its regular size.

Howe and/or Wings may have settled the suit — whatever happened, the incident vanished from the press. They had largely, true to Rosenthal’s claim, sided with the hockey player over the man who accosted him. A scrapbook of not exactly sympathetic headlines from that week, 56 years ago, might include:

Detroit Hockey Player Socks Annoying Fan

Fan Learns What NHL Players Know — Don’t Mess Around With Gordie Howe

Gordie Howe Decks Abusive Fan

Fist in Face Worth $25,000, Figures Fan

As for the NHL, president Clarence Campbell said he’d investigate, though he didn’t expect anything to come of it. “I’m not too excited about it,” he said, “and I doubt there’ll be any league action against Howe. After the game is over and he’s out of the rink, it’s not really an NHL affair, although these incidents can’t do anything for our public image.”

Calgary Herald, March 30, 1964

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.

Continue reading

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.”