ice age

After two Covid-skewed seasons, the NHL gets back to something like regular programming tonight with the launch of a new winter campaign. It’s 104 years since the NHL first put to ice, in December of 1917, with four teams, all of them in eastern Canada, of which only three were around at the end of the 22-game regular season. Pandemics notwithstanding, it’s a whole new world now, with the newfound Seattle Kraken bringing the NHL’s membership up to 32 teams. They’ll each play 82 games — probably? maybe? — for a total of 1,312 before the playoffs get going next May. All being well, the league will pause in February for the best of its players to go to Beijing to play for Olympic gold.

Pictured here: an illustration from a Boston Bruins program from 1938-39. This year’s edition of the Brus start up on Saturday, October 16, when they host the Dallas Stars at TDGarden. Not to promise anything, or to jinx it, but in ’39 coach Art Ross ended up steering the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship.

sometimes strikes twice

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor got her wish. On Sunday, with the local NHL juggernaut known as the Lightning poised to sweep past the Montreal Canadiens to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup, the mayor hoped for hiccup. “What we would like,” told a news conference, “is for the Lightning to take it a little bit easy to give the Canadiens just the smallest break, allow them to win one at home, and then bring it back to the Amalie Arena for the final and the winning of the Stanley Cup.”And so it went, of course: after bowing to Montreal in overtime on Monday, the Lightning did bring it all back home, prevailing 1-0, in Game 5 on home ice to join the Pittsburgh Penguins of 2016-17 as just the second team in the last 15 years to repeat as champions. 

Pictured above, that’s Mayor Castor the first time around, nine-and-a-half months ago, after the Lightning did their winning in an Edmonton bubble. She was on hand at Tampa International Airport to greet the team as it arrived home in early October of 2020, and to receive the Cup from captain Steven Stamkos (left) for an obligatory hoist. “People say it’s 35 pounds,” an ebullient Mayor Castor told me in an interview a few days later, “I’d say it’s heavier than that.” 

“Born and raised in Tampa, 60 years old,” she said, by way of presenting her hockey bona fides. “I’ve never been on ice skates in my life, and I’m a rabid Tampa Bay Lightning fan.”

(Image courtesy Mayor Jane Castor)

mask mandate: what would ted lindsay do?

Ted Lindsay was 53 in 1979, with his left-winging NHL heyday firmly behind him: 14 years after he’d last turned out in a competitive game for the Detroit Red Wings, he was on the job as the team’s GM. He did still get in on a regular Monday-night pick-up game at the Detroit Olympia, alongside a motley non-Hall-of-Fame crew of friends, sportswriters, and Zamboni drivers. “Jeez,” said one of those scrimmagers as he watched Lindsay do his middle-aged thing one night in April of ’79. “He must have been unbelievable when he was 24.”

The mask? No, there was no pandemic on the loose in Michigan that spring. The tuque, Lindsay explained to an interested onlooker, was for style, while the mask was to help warm the rink air as it went into his lungs. “It’s the same skiing,” Lindsay said. “The cold air is rough on me.”

back to the garden

Putting On A Show: For the first time since March 7, 2020, there will be fans on hand in Boston’s TD Garden tonight, some 2,300 of them, as the Bruins take on the New York Islanders. Herewith, some views from the beforetimes, collected on February 12, 2020, when I saw the Bruins beat the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-1 on the strength of a David Pastrnak hattrick.

delay of game

It was just a regular night on the NHL’s late-season calendar, that Wednesday, March 11, a year ago, with five games on the schedule and a yield of regular outcomes: the Ottawa Senators lost, Connor McDavid scored a goal. But that, of course, was all for the league’s 2019-20 regular season as well, um, life as we knew it in North America. Maybe you recall: the next day was when COVID-19 stopped everything, other than the fear, uncertainty, suffering, and death. The year we’ve had since? Well, you know. As Nick Paumgarten, staff writer at The New Yorker, where he sometimes bends his paragraphs to hockey themes, notes in this week’s magazine, “If you were lucky, you were merely bored.” Herewith, a couple of Toronto front pages from a year ago, including (above) the Star’s only-in-Canada end-of-February virus-complimenting  front page.

Wear a mask.

Get vaccinated.

To better, brighter days, and anniversaries, ahead.

what to wear

Trending Twitterwise this morning (with a little help from his friends), Ken Dryden’s  reminder, here below, to (keep on remembering to make sure you) wear a mask — even if it’s over your other, famous mask.  Above, showing how not to do it, Dryden pauses at practice at the Montreal Forum in the early 1970s.

 

(Top image: Antoine Desilets, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)

department of throwing stuff: without your help, we would find it extremely difficult to win

Pelting Plea: in early 1935, the Stanley Cup champions appealed to their fans to discontinue the deluge.

A month into the NHL’s second COVID-modified season: how’s that going? As of last night, 175 games of 210 scheduled games had been played, 35 postponed. Around the league, 108 players on 26 teams have spent time on the COVID protocol list, not all of whom have tested positive, with 52 players from 10 teams now cloistered, along with a couple of linesmen. Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Louis are the teams that have, so far, avoided listing any players.

Time to be erring on the side of shutting it all down? Not according to the NHL. At least, there’s been no public suggestion of any hiatus in the interest of all-around health and safety. Must the show go on? Maybe not, but it will.

And maybe, soon, with more fans. The Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Dallas Stars have already been skating in front of diminished crowds, and now there’s word that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to be getting the public-health approval that will allow them to welcome a limited number of fans into their respective buildings, maybe in March.

All of which would seem to suggest that the time is right for a detour back through hockey history to a time when fans not only filled the seats of NHL arenas, but fulfilled their right to hurl whatever they might have in hand, or pocket, or on foot, onto the ice.

The throwing of stuff by fans at hockey games is, of course, as much of the history of the sport as the ice and/or referees that stuff has so often targeted. In a book I wrote about the culture of hockey (and vice-versa), I devoted six pages to the instinct fans have to throw stuff at hockey games; the variety of stuff thrown; and the dangers inherent in that stuff being on the ice — I could easily have filled a chapter of 20 pages.

Welcome, then, to a weekend’s series of posts focussing on Chicago’s old Stadium in the 1930s and ’40s.

Chicago is by no means the only NHL city with a history of dangerous debris:  the annals of stuff flung include them all, every franchise, every rink. Black Hawks’ fans were notorious, especially those occupying the high gallery seats at the Madhouse on Madison, for inundating the ice in outrage, protest, joy, or … just because they could. The 1944 Stanley Cup Finals stand out in this regard — more about that here — but there were plenty of instances before that of games delayed by coins and shoes and playing cards raining down from on high, paper airplanes, novels, fruit, empty bottles.

The Blackhawks did their best to curtail the bombarding over the years, deploying ushers and policeman, issuing threats and pleas. The entreaty reproduced here, above, dates to January of 1935, when Chicago was defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in the spring of ’34.

The Associated Press reported on this flyer, which was distributed to fans that winter. “So bold have the customers at the Chicago Stadium been getting that it was decided to appeal to their better natures in an effort to halt the aerial onslaughts.”

Fans had been growing bolder, the AP noted, since earlier in the season when a bottle-tosser, arrested by police, had been released at the request of Stadium authorities.

“Officials of the club were inclined to believe their printed appeal was conducive to better behaviour,” the AP noted, “because there was a noticeable depreciation in the amount of debris scattered on the ice the first night it was tried.”

Cleaner Sweep: Clearing the ice at the Chicago Stadium on Tuesday, March 23, 1965. The New York Rangers beat the home team 3-2 that night, the Blackhawks’ fourth consecutive loss. “The fans’ displeasure reached the high point in the final period,” according to a UPI account, when play had to be halted for 20 minutes while attendants cleared fruit, overshoes, playing cards and waste paper off the ice.”

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-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (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.