fred sasakamoose, 1933—2020

On NHL Ice: Fred Sasakamoose skates for Chicago, circa 1953-54.

Sad news this hour, via Hockey Night in Canada‘s Chris Johnston, that hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose has died in hospital in Saskatchewan at the age of 86. His son Neil Sasakamoose shared the news this afternoon on Facebook, here.

sometime other than now

Brighter Days: Toronto is in the Grey as of today, under the coding of the Ontario government’s COVID-19 response, which is to say locked down again for a stretch of 28 days. In hockey terms, that means you could get yourself skating on an outdoor rink, if you felt the need and could find one, but not get anything resembling a game going, especially not in front of spectators: all that’s forbidden. Once, though, once … in this case, what we’re looking at is a scene of women facing off on the frozen field beside Burwash Hall at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. The date given is a general one, 1910-20, but since the building of Burwash Hall, a student residence, was completed in 1913, we can narrow that down a bit more. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 477)

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

party like it’s 1993

Traffic Jam: The Montreal Canadiens show how its done in a non-pandemic year, parading their 1993 Stanley Cup with hometown fans in June of that year. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94-1993-0307)

Sixty-five days after the NHL isolated 24 teams in Canada to see whether it could finish its 2019-20 season, the league’s numbers were impressive: 130 games played, 33,394 COVID-19 tests administered, 0 positive results, 1 Stanley Cup awarded.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were pleased to accept the latter a week ago, on September 28, from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. With Cup in hand, the Lightning were quick to burst the NHL’s bubble, arriving in Tampa the next day, and quickly arranging to share their championship and the storied Cup with Lightning fans at a September 30 boat parade (the first in Stanley Cup history) and a (sort of socially distanced) stadium rally. For the New York Times, I wrote about the revelry, and where it might lead from here: it’s online here, and in the paper later this week.

quaffing from the stanley cup: would a lot of shared consumption be a problem?

Bottoms Up: Readying the Stanley Cup for action in April of 1949 is Toronto Maple Leafs PR manager Spiff Evans. Steered by coach Hap Day (right) and managing director Conn Smythe (middle), the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in four games that year to earn the championship and the right to sip. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1257, series 1057, item 3015)

“I’d like to have a dollar for every time the Stanley Cup has been filled with champagne.”

When Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, said that in 1942, hockey’s most cherished trophy had already been won more than 80 times in its 48 years of history, going back to 1893, when the Montreal Hockey Club laid original claim on the Cup. Calder was in a storytelling frame of mind rather than a profiteering one, regaling reporters with tales of Cup shenanigans, some of them involving Lord Stanley’s chalice being misplaced, or maltreated, some of which may even be true. Calder wasn’t at the time harbouring a reliable quaff-count; his point was presumptive, recognizing that however hallowed a symbol it may be, the Stanley Cup will never escape its original self and purpose as a drinking vessel.

All of which gets us around to the question of the night: can you truly be said to have won the Stanley Cup if you don’t end up merrily slurping sparkling alcohol from its silvery bowl?

Seventy-seven times the Cup, in several incarnations, has been awarded since Calder spoke his piece in 1942. With a lock-out having washed out the 2005 season and Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning made it 78 last when they dispensed with the Dallas Stars in Edmonton to win these perturbed playoffs and receive the Cup from Calder-heir Gary Bettman, putting an end, finally, to the 2019-20 NHL season.

And, yes, champagne (and beer) was decanted into the Cup and duly poured out, into and onto the happy faces of the new champions. Was there ever any doubt that they  would partake, despite what public health officials might advise in, say, a surging  pandemic such as we’re in?

Not really.

No-one needs reminding how unlikely the whole idea of completing the hockey season seemed back in March and April when COVID-19 interrupted everything. Even when the NHL looked north for a bubbled restart at the beginning of August there was no guarantee that the summer’s emergency experiment would work out.

The NHL deserves credit for the fact that it has. Prudent planning, strict procedures, stringent testing, good luck: they’ve all played a part in getting the league to this point. When, back in August, I talked to some NHL high-ups for a New York Times feature I was working on, they were assuming nothing.

“I’m just hopeful we get to that point,” Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, theNHL’s chief medical officer told me when I raised a question about possible protocols involved in the eventual presentation of/sipping from the Cup. “We’re a long way away from that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.”

Embed from Getty Images

Everybody I spoke with emphasized that health and safety were — and would remain — the top priority.

I asked Dr. Meeuwisse specifically about infectious disease and risk and all the potential for Cup handling, passing around, kissing, and, yes, drinking from.

“Would hoisting the Cup be a problem? No. Would a lot of shared consumption be a problem? It probably would be.”

I asked the NHL’s deputy commissioner, too, Bill Daly.

“That’s a fair question,” he said. Without offering specifics, he suggested that it just might be something that the league would indeed regulate … maybe. The full quote: “For better or for worse, we’re roughly six or seven weeks away from having to deal with that. I think we have some time to figure that out. Quite frankly, I think that’s been a recurring theme in terms of our approach to the pandemic from the start, which is we want to remain nimble. We want to react, or be in a position to proact, where you can, but when as we learn more and new things become evident or apparent to us, we can and have you know proven to this point where we can we can adjust on the fly.”

I talked to Phil Pritchard, too, the Hockey Hall of Fame vice-president and curator who’s better known as the Keeper of Cup. “As we get closer,” he said, “we’ll see what rules and regulations we have to put into effect.”

I get it. Who, exactly, was going to tell Steven Stamkos, or Pat Maroon, that after 65 days sequestered in their Canadian bubbles, far from friends and family and fans, they weren’t allowed to touch their lips to the Cup in all the traditional ways?

Dr. Meeuwisse well understood the challenge. “At that point,” he told me a month ago, “is a player going to care enough about it to alter their behaviour?”

Dr. Andrew Morris was someone else I consulted in August. He wasn’t professionally involved in the NHL’s return to the ice, but he’s a fan and, as an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network, an interested observer.

Would the champions bow to best preventive practices and forgo the clutching of the Cup, the kissing, the swigging, maybe just wave to it across the distance in the dressing room?

“I think they’ll say, ‘We’ll live with the risk here,’” Dr. Morris. And that’s true for this disease in general: there are public health issues, and then there are people’s own personal risk assessment issues.”

 

crash course: hockey’s daily tutorial on how not to social distance

Hubbub: The Toronto Maple Leafs won their third consecutive Stanley Cup on the night of Saturday, April 16, 1949, beating the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 to sweep to the championship in four games. The game was not without melee: here Leaf captain Ted Kennedy and teammate Fleming Mackell dispute with a pair of Wings in the front of the Detroit bench. That’s possibly Black Jack Stewart with glove raised; in the foreground … maybe Ted Lindsay? Arriving to adjudicate is referee Bill Chadwick. (Image: City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 132811)

After a month of summertime hockey, we’ve learned what NHL playoffs look like when you play them in a pandemic: on the ice, they more or less resemble the game as it’s usually played, back in the pre-COVID past, with all the ensuing clustering, close-fought commotion, and bodily byproducts that players shed, the sweat, spit, blood, and teeth. If all goes according to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, in another month from now the Stanley Cup will be in the hands of hockey’s latest champions, riding high, and full of champagne. In today’s print edition of The New York Times — and online, here — I survey hockey’s daily tutorial — its crash course? — on how not to social distance.

 

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.”

 

 

wear a mask (or two)

Toronto digital artist Stephen Cribbin is the man behind a suite of one-inch buttons that accessorize some beloved old-time goalie masks for our 2020 times. “Original Sicks” is what he’s calling the series of six buttons, which feature masks made famous shielding the faces of Mike Palmateer, Ken Dryden, Terry Sawchuk, and Bernie Parent. For information on acquiring a set of your own, you can send an e-mail to cribbin@subtle.ca, or contact him via Instagram, @cribbin13.

therein lies the hub

The hockey players won’t be arriving until Sunday, but in Toronto yesterday the downtown lockdown that is the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs was underway as the NHL prepares to quarantine itself away to try to get to the end of its 2019-20 season. By this morning, the Leafs’ own Scotiabank Arena (above) was fully fortified behind the fencing that will keep out the (possibly contagious?) public + any media who don’t work for the league while the hockey players attempt to do their thing until its done. Also sealed-off is the nearby Fairmont Royal York (below), one of two Toronto hotels that will be housing hockeyists and only hockeyists for the next two months. Yes, that’s right: as Kevin McGran explained this week in The Toronto Star, the NHL is restricting all but its own NHL.com writers when it comes to covering these strange, sequestered playoffs.

In this, the year of our dread and disruption, 24 teams will gather, 12 in Toronto, 12 in Edmonton, as the league follows its Return To Play Plan that will see teams (probably) hit the ice on Tuesday for a quick round of exhibition games before (here’s hoping) they get into the competitive sort in another week’s time, on Saturday, August 1.

What’s hub life going to be like for those on the inside? The NHL got into that, a little bit, yesterday, here, which is how we know that Toronto’s hub will be guarded by “97 security guards and health ambassadors” (Edmonton gets 125), and that the league has secured “more than 1,000 cases of Gatorade, 1,000 practice pucks, and 12,000 shower towels” in each city to last through the early qualifying games.

And for those of us on the outs, peering in? The man in charge of overseeing what fans will see and hear on TV is Steve Mayer, the NHL’s senior executive VP and chief content officer. “We hope that we do something that is memorable, sticks out, something that our fans will really enjoy,” is what he told NHL.com.

There won’t be, he says, virtual fans or cardboard cut-outs, or teddy bears in the stands. Broadcasters NBC and Sportsnet will be employing twice as many cameras as usual. For atmosphere, the NHL plans to pipe in “goal songs, goal horns, in-arena music compilations and motivational videos from each of the 24 teams participating.”

And if, in the coming weeks, you get the feeling you’ve crossed over from the real world into the virtual confines of NHL ’94? Know, too, that the league is partnering with EA Sports to fake the ruckus you’d be making if you were in the Scotiabank in person — or, as they phrase it, “to use [EA’s] library of in-game sounds to mimic some crowd noise.”

 

 

slouching towards bethlehem

After four months of pandemical hiatus, the NHL and its players extended their CBA this weekend while agreeing on a plan to complete the 2019-20 season and get the Stanley Cup awarded by early October. With competitive games set to resume on August 1, Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return To Play plan gets going today as 24 NHL teams are on the ice for training camps. The league has answers to questions on just how it’s all supposed to work on tap here, along with a schedule of games (if it gets that far) here. Pictured: from a simpler if (gloriously) graphically gaudier NHL time, a pair of Esso pocket schedules.

 

returning to stanley cup play, 1919 edition

Messrs. Met: After battling Montreal’s Canadiens in 1919’s abandoned Stanley Cup finals, the Seattle Metropolitans returned in 1920 to represent the PCHA against the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. That 1919-20 line-up featured, up front, left to right, are Jack Walker, Frank Foyston, Bernie Morris, and Jim Riley. Backing them, from left: coach Pete Muldoon, Bobby Rowe, Charles Tobin, Muzz Murray, trainer Bill Anthony, Roy Rickey, Hap Holmes.

Spanish flu stopped the Stanley Cup finals in their tracks in Seattle in April of 1919, when players from both the visiting Montreal Canadiens and the hometown Metropolitans were stricken before the deciding game could be played.

That wasn’t the worst of it, of course: within a week of the series having been abandoned, Canadiens defenceman Joe Hall died in a Seattle hospital of the pneumonia he’d developed. He was 38.

Hall was buried in Vancouver in early April. Some of his teammates stayed on in Seattle to convalesce after their own bouts with the killer flu; most trundled home on eastbound trains.

Canadiens coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was back in Montreal by mid-April, where he told the local Gazette that Canadiens had received the best of care during their illnesses. “The games were the most strenuous I have been in,” he added, “and I would not like to go through another such experience for any amount.”

In this, the year of dread and disruption that COVID-19 has wrought, hockey’s 100-year-old experience of another pandemic has been much discussed. But while the deadly unfinished finals of 1919 have been documented in detail, hockey’s subsequent plans for returning to play — for resuming the series that sickness had interrupted, and for making sure the Stanley Cup was indeed awarded that year — have been all but forgotten.

Most recent accounts of the events of that first post-war Stanley Cup encounter keep their focus narrowed on those tragic April days of 1919 and not beyond. When they do consider what happened next — well, Gare Joyce’s big feature for Sportsnet earlier in our locked-down spring spells out the common assumption. In 1919, Joyce posits, “There was never any thought about a replay or rematch.”

That’s not, in fact, the case.

With the modern-day NHL marching inexorably towards ending its 2020 coronavirus interruption, let’s consider, herewith, those 1919 efforts to finish up Seattle’s never-ended Stanley Cup finals and how they kept the parties involved talking, back and forth, for nearly a year.

There was even a plan, if only short-lived, whereby two Stanley Cup finals, the 1919 and the 1920, would have been played simultaneously.

No-Go: Seattle Star ad for the final. never-to-be-played game of the 1919 Stanley Cup finals.

That final fated game in Seattle in 1919 was scheduled for Tuesday, April 1. But before a puck could be dropped at 8.30 p.m. sharp, with the players on both teams too ill to play, workers were in at the Seattle Ice Arena at noon to break up the ice in preparation for the roller-skating season ahead.

For the next week, all the pro hockey news in Canada was grimly medical, tracking which of the suffering players and officials were improving and who among them might be waning. After Joe Hall’s shocking death on Saturday, April 5, and his funeral in Vancouver the following Tuesday, the news moved on altogether.

Occasionally, in the ensuing weeks, a medical update popped up: towards the end of June, for instance, when Canadiens winger Jack McDonald was finally well enough to leave Seattle and head for home while still recovering from his illness. He’d been Hall’s roommate during the finals, and his own case of influenza was serious enough to have required surgery on his lungs.

Mostly through the summer the hockey world stayed quiet.

Until August. That’s when the first public suggestions that the Stanley Cup series might be revived started to appear. The reports were vague, no sources named. The Ottawa Citizen carried one such, towards the end of the month:

It is stated there is a great possibility of the Canadien Hockey team going to the Pacific Coast to play off the Stanley Cup series which was interrupted by the influenza epidemic last spring.

Whatever negotiations may have been happening behind the scenes, Toronto’s Globe had word a few days later that optimism for a resumption of the finals wasn’t exactly surging out on the west coast. “It is pointed out that the Seattle artificial ice rink does not open until late in December,” that dispatch read, and so any games after that date would clash with the regular PCHA schedule. Also: “the expense of the trip is an important consideration.”

Frank Patrick, president of the PCHA, was on the same page. “There will be no East vs. West series on the Pacific coast in December,” he said as summer turned to fall, “nor will there be any Stanley Cup series, until after our regular series.”

“Such a series is impracticable,” he went on. “The Seattle rink will not be open until December 26.  … There is absolutely no chance for a series with the East until next spring.”

As definitive as that sounds, the prospect of a return to Stanley Cup play continued.

In This (Western) Corner: PCHA president Frank Patrick.

In October, a report that appeared in the Vancouver Daily Worldand elsewhere cited unidentified Montreal sources when it reported that in the “scarcity of hockey rinks” out east, there was a “very strong probability” that Canadiens would indeed head to the Pacific coast to decide the thing for once and for all.

Names were named: Montreal coach and captain Newsy Lalonde was definitely up for the journey, as was teammate Didier Pitre. Passively voiced assurance was also given that there would be “no trouble about the remainder of the team.”

Canadiens’ owner George Kennedy was not only on board, he was happy to drive: “… it is even understood he is even considering to take the team, or at least part of it, to the Coast by automobile along the Lincoln Highway, which runs from Brooklyn to Spokane.”

The plan, apparently, was to play only a best-of-three series to decide the 1919 Cup, theWorldexplained. “The matches would be played about the second week in December.”

But for every flicker of affirmation, there was, that fall, an equal and opposite gust of denial. A few days further on into October, Vancouver’s Province was once again declaring the whole plan, which it attributed to Kennedy, defunct, mainly due to the persistent problem that Seattle Ice Arena wouldn’t be getting its ice until after Christmas.

“And furthermore, a pre-season series would kill off interest in the annual spring clashes.”

Towards the end of the month, Seattle coach Pete Muldoon confirmed that the plan hadbeen Kennedy’s and that it had been rejected. Under the proposed scenario, neither team would have been able to practice before an agreed date, whereafter the Montreal and Seattle squads would each have had a week or so to play themselves into shape before facing off.

“There was considerable merit to the proposal,” Muldoon said, but again, alas — Seattle would have no ice to play on before the end of the year, whereafter the regular 1920 PCHA season would be getting underway.

“Accordingly,” said Muldoon, “the proposition was turned down.”

With that, the certainty that the 1919 Stanley Cup would remain unfinished was … well, only almost established, with one more last hurrah still waiting to take its turn five months down the road.

In the meantime, as hockey’s two big leagues prepared to restart their new respective regular seasons, they found a new point of Stanley Cup contention to wrangle over.

There were many subjects on which the two rival leagues didn’t agree in those years. The eastern pro loop was the National Hockey Association before the advent, in 1917, of the NHL, while the western operation was a project of Frank and Lester Patrick’s. While there had been periods of cooperation and consultation between east and west through almost a decade of cross-continental co-existence, there had also been plenty of conflict.

Year after year, the rivals competed, not always scrupulously, for hockey talent. On the ice, they each played by their own rules. PCHA teams iced seven men each, played their passes forward, took penalty shots on rinks featuring goal creases and blue lines. They didn’t do any of that in the six-aside east — not until later, anyway, as the western league ran out of steam and money in the 1920s and was absorbed by the NHL, along with many of the Patricks’ innovations that hadn’t already been embraced.

Since 1914, one thing the two leagues hadagreed on was that with their respective champions meeting annually to play for the Stanley Cup, they would alternate venues between central Canada and the west coast.

That’s how the 1919 finals ended up in Seattle. If they couldn’t be completed, then the time had come to look ahead to 1920, the second-last year of the alternating deal.

The problem there? At the end of 1919, both leagues maintained that it was rightly their turn to host.

When the PCHA was first to argue the case, when it convened its league meeting towards the end of November in Vancouver. “The directors decided,” the Daily World’s reporter noted, “that in view of the fact that the series last spring was not completed, the series this season should be played on the coast. President Patrick was authorized to arrange, if possible, with the National Hockey League for the eastern champions to come west.”

There were scheduling and weather aspects to this position, too: with the PCHA season continuing through the end of March, the directors worried that the NHL’s natural-ice rinks wouldn’t be playable by the time the western champions made their way cross-country.

In This (Eastern) Corner: NHL president Frank Calder.

The NHL read the reports and issued a statement. “No official request has come to us intimating that the Stanley Cup series should be played in the west again this year,” president Frank Calder said. As for ice concerns, he noted that in fact Toronto’s Arena Gardens did indeed have an ice plant, and in the event of thawing elsewhere, the finals could always be played at the Mutual Street rink.

Meanwhile, both leagues continued to prepare to launch their own regular seasons. In the west, the same three teams would play among themselves, with Seattle’s Metropolitans in the running again along with the Vancouver Millionaires and Victoria’s Aristocrats.

For the NHL, it would be a third season on ice. The league’s 1919 session had ended, let’s remember, with a bit of a bleat. Having started the year with just three teams, the NHL reached the end of its second year with just two, after the defending Stanley Cup champions, Toronto’s Arenas, faltered and folded in February, leaving Canadiens and Ottawa Senators to play for the right to head to Seattle.

Ahead of the new campaign set to open just before Christmas, there was a rumour that Toronto might return to the NHL fold with two teams, and that Montreal could be getting a second team, too, with Art Ross reviving the Wanderers franchise that had collapsed in 1918, early in the NHL’s inaugural season. Quebec was another possibility.

By another report, Toronto was a no-go altogether — the city had never been a viable hockey market, anyway, the story went, and the league would be much better off concentrated in eastern Ontario and Quebec.

In December, when the music stopped, Quebec did get a team, the Athletics. So too did Toronto, when Fred Hambly, chairman of the city’s Board of Education, bought the old Arena franchise. Reviving the name of an early NHA team, they were originally called the Tecumsehs. On paper, at least: within a couple days the team had been rebranded again, this time as the Toronto St. Patricks.

One More Time? Speculation from August of 1919 that the Stanley Cup finals would resume.

Nothing had been resolved on the Stanley Cup front by the time the NHL’s directors met for their annual get-together in Ottawa on December 20. They did now have in hand correspondence from Frank Patrick confirming the PCHA’s provocative position. “The matter was brought up,” the Daily World duly reported, “but the Eastern delegates could not give Patrick a concession on his letter.”

George Kennedy of the Canadiens was “particularly riled:” was it Montreal’s fault that the finals had to be abandoned? Obviously not. (Kennedy was also said to be “het up.”)

There was a suggestion that the matter would be referred to William Foran, the secretary of Canada’s Civil Service Commission who’d served as a Stanley Cup trustee since 1907 and was the go-to arbiter in disputes between the two pro leagues. “His services will likely be called on in a short time,” devotees of the ongoing drama learned.

On it went, and on. By the end of February, the race for the NHL title had Ottawa’s Senators tied atop the standing with Toronto, with Montreal not far behind. Ottawa was feeling confident enough, or sufficiently outraged, to put out a public statement that the club was adamantly opposed to going west to play for the Cup.

“Patrick’s claim,” an unnamed team director said, “that the games should be played elsewhere than in one of the National League teams [sic] is based on a technicality and is a most unreasonable one.”

Asked for his view, William Foran “did not care to express any opinion as to the dispute.” He was willing to opine on the quality of the winter’s hockey that the NHL was displaying:, it was, he declared, “the finest and cleanest on record.”

Maybe was the answer in … Winnipeg?

That was an idea that Frank Patrick had floated earlier in February. W.J. Holmes, the owner of the city’s naturally iced Amphitheatre rink, was on board, and he had been in contact with Frank Calder, hoping to coax him and his league to a prairie compromise with a promise of hard ice through the end of March.

“We certainly could not play in the east before March 22,” Patrick said, “but would ready to play in Winnipeg no later than March 19. It is now up to the east.”

But the NHL’s governors put a nix on a Manitoba finals during a special February meeting at Montreal’s Windsor Hotel, where the league had been born just over two years earlier.

And so the debate trudged on in March. Out west, all three PCHA teams were still locked in close contention for the league championship, while in the east, Ottawa claimed their place in the finals, wherever they might be played, with three games remaining in the schedule. The season was divided, still, in those years into halves, but with the Senators having prevailed in both, there was no need for a playoff.

Frank Patrick still didn’t think an eastern finals was going to work. Apart from issues related to melting ice, his teams worried that they’d be undermanned. Vancouver, for instance, would be without Cyclone Taylor and Gordie Roberts, whose non-hockey jobs would keep them from travelling.

Ottawa’s position hadn’t changed. “The Ottawas feel that in fairness to their supporters,” a local report reported on March 3, “they ought to have the matches played here.” William Foran was now, apparently, involved, and though the team had no news of developments, officials remained confident that the western champions would yield and travel east.

If not, well, they had job-related problems of their own: several key Senators players, including captain Eddie Gerard and goaltender Clint Benedict, wouldn’t be able to get away for a western sortie.

This, despite a report from Calgary — on the very same day — that Ottawa had been inquiring about playing exhibition games in Alberta on their westward way to the coast.

The whole was just about resolved by the end of the week. “We will be in the east by March 22,” Frank Patrick was quoted as saying on March 6. “That has all been settled.”

And so it was. Still, the prospect that the 1919 Stanley Cup might actually yet be completed nearly a year after it failed to finish did rear its head one last time. With all three teams in contention for the PCHA title in mid-March of 1920, Montreal’s George Kennedy let it be known that Newsy Lalonde had been talking to his Seattle counterpart, Pete Muldoon, about the possibility of reviving the 1919 series even as the 1920 finals were getting underway.

One Last Try: A final whisper of a possibility, from March of 1920.

Seattle would have to lose out on the current year’s PCHA title, of course, for the plan to move forward. If that happened, Canadiens were said to be ready to head west to finish out the previous year’s finals while Victoria or Vancouver went the other way to take on Ottawa. Playing just a single make-up game wouldn’t be viable, in terms of cost, so as previously, the teams would settle the matter of the 1919 Cup with a three-game series.

Duelling Stanley Cup finals would have been something to see, but as it turned out, Seattle put an end to the possibility by surpassing Vancouver to win the right to vie for the 1920 Cup.

William Foran had been keeping the Stanley Cup safe ever since Toronto won it in the spring of 1918. (It seems that the vaunted trophy didn’t even make the journey to Seattle in 1919.) Now, as Ottawa prepared to host the finals, he loaned it to the Senators so they could put it on display in the shop window of R.J. Devlin’s, furrier and hatter, on Ottawa’s downtown Sparks Street.

The weather was mild in Canada’s capital the week of March 15, prompting one more last-ditch offer from Frank Patrick to switch back west. Ottawa was quick to decline, and by Saturday, temperatures had sunken well below freezing.

Along with the weather, the Spanish flu was still in the news. Back in 1919, Joe Hall had died during the pandemic’s third wave. Now, almost a year later, alongside the inevitable ads for cure-alls like Milburn’s Heart & Nerve Pills and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil (“a reliable anti-septic preventative”), newspapers across Canada continued to log the insidious reach of the illness.

In late January of 1920, influenza cases were surging in Detroit and New York. In February, an outbreak cut short an OHA intermediate hockey game and closed the Ingersoll, Ontario, arena. In the province’s north, near Timmins, another caused the popular annual canine race, the Porcupine Dog Derby, to be postponed.

By mid-March, daily influenza deaths in Montreal were down to seven from 265 a month earlier. “Epidemic Shows Signs of Breaking,” ran the headline in the Gazette.

Ottawa papers from the middle of that March are mostly flu-free, though it is true that the federal minister of Immigration and Colonization was reported to be suffering the week Seattle and Ottawa were tussling for the 1920 Stanley Cup. J.A. Calder was his name, no relation to Frank: the Ottawa Citizen reported that the minister was planning to “go south” to recover.”

The Senators, meanwhile, were in receipt of a telegram on Wednesday, March 17, from Seattle coach Pete Muldoon:

Left Vancouver last night. Coming by way of Milwaukee and Chicago. Will arrive in Ottawa Sunday afternoon. Ready for first game Monday night.

P.R. Muldoon

William Foran was on hand at Dey’s Arena for that first game and he addressed the players on the ice before dropping the puck for the opening face-off, “expressing the hope” (reported the Citizen) “that the traditions of the Stanley Cup would be honoured and that the teams would fight it out for the celebrated trophy in the spirit of fair play.”

Seattle’s team was almost the same one that had faced Montreal the year before. Hap Holmes featured in net, Frank Foyston and Jack Walker up front. “That irritating couple,” the Ottawa Journal called the latter pair, “the centre ice wasps,” warning that they would cause the Senators more worry than any of the other Mets.

Ottawa’s formidable line-up included Benedict and Gerard along with Sprague Cleghorn, Frank Nighbor, Jack Darragh, Punch Broadbent, and Cy Denneny.

The home team won that first game, played under NHL rules, by a score of 3-2. They won the next game, too, 3-0, when the teams went at it seven-aside. The weather was warming, and by the time they met again on March 27, players were sinking into the slushy ice as the Metropolitans found way to win by 3-1.

The teams made a move, after that, to Toronto, where the final two games were played out on the good, hard, artificial surface of Arena Gardens.

Seattle won the next game, 5-2, but Ottawa came back two nights later, a year to the day that workers had broken up the ice in Seattle, to earn a 6-1 victory and, with it, the Stanley Cup. The Senators’ first championship since 1911, it heralded the opening of a golden age in Ottawa, with the team winning two out of the next three Cups through 1923.

Games On: Ottawa Journal ad ahead of the 1920 Stanley Cup finals.