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.”

 

 

hockey’s mr. clean

Born in Montreal on this date in 1936, a Tuesday, Reggie Fleming played professional hockey for nearly 20 years, a fearsome force for six NHL teams. Montreal was his first, and it was there that Henri Richard gave him the nickname “Mr. Clean” because he thought Fleming resembled the avatar for the popular Proctor & Gamble cleanser. The name stuck with when Fleming moved on to Chicago, where he helped the Black Hawks win a Stanley Cup in 1961. Later, he played a prominent role for the New York Rangers. That included scoring some goals and working effectively on the penalty kill, but mostly it played out with punches and sticks swung in anger.

Reflecting on Fleming in 1963, NHL referee Red Storey told Maclean’s this: “He may never be a great hockey player, but he probably works harder than anyone else in the league. He reminds me of what Leo Durocher one said of the ballplayer Eddie Stanky: ‘He can’t run, he can’t field, he can’t hit, but he’s a hell of a ballplayer.’ If every team in the league had a Reggie Fleming, they’d all be better teams.” Stu Hackel’s overview for the New York Times of Fleming’s career, published after his death at the age of 73, is worth your while — you can find it here.

Mention is made there of Earl McRae’s searing 1975 profile of Fleming and the cheerless end of his career, in which McRae introduces his subject as “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players; short on talent but long on the stick, a bully who carved his notoriety in the flesh of opposing players.” Read that, too, along with everything else you can find that McRae wrote about hockey, some of which is between the covers of his 1977 collection Requiem For Reggie.

The final, devastating chapter of Reggie Fleming’s story is the one that’s been written posthumously: late in 2009, researchers at Boston University disclosed that he was the first hockey player to have tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). I wrote about that, and him, in a 2017 feature for The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus. That’s here. 

(Image: HockeyMedia & The Want List)

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

rewriting the game: ken dryden on no hits to the head, no excuses

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”

Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.

That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.

A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.

As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.

In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.

In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.

How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?

It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.

I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.

Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?

I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.

You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?

It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.

At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.

You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.

What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.

As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?

They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.

But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.

In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.

And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.

You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?

Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.

You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?

Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.

So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take.

At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1. That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of disorderly conduct. At court, while both Hall and Skinner pleaded guilty, the magistrate presiding deemed that they already been “amply punished” by the referee who fined them $15 a man at the rink.

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to wear Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”

 

born with a black eye: one more requiem for reggie fleming

reggie-f-helm

Hat Trick: A hospitalized Reggie Fleming poses with Chicago policemen in his Hawk days in the early 1960s. In all his 14 years as a hockey professional, he never wore a helmet on the ice. (Image: Chris Fleming)

A version of this post appeared on page 132 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

Reggie Fleming’s brain made its NHL debut somewhere in the middle of January of 1967.  That, at least, is how the newspapers framed it.

By then, at age 30, six full seasons into his professional hockey career, Fleming knew the league’s penalty boxes better than its nets. He was a policeman, in the parlance, valued for his strength, bravado and professional surliness. Born with a black eye, a wag in the press wrote in 1961. He was a knuckleman, a bulldozer, a wild bucko. Reviews of his work are filled with references to his truculence and fistic prowess, his battle-scarred face.

But here was Emile Francis telling reporters that Fleming’s brain had caught up with his brawn. He wasn’t taking foolish penalties, only wise ones; he was scoring goals. “He’s playing it real smart,” said the coach of Fleming’s New York Rangers.

The truth is, Fleming could always play. He was just very, very good at being (as another chronicler put it) “one of hockey’s most brutal, meanest players.” Like hockey fighters before and since, Fleming was a beloved figure to teammates and fans alike, and much nicknamed: Reg The Ruffian, The Horse, Mr. Clean, Hardrock.

“He had a ferocious left hook, a decent right and a beautiful head butt,” Earl McRae would write in a famous profile that’s still known as one of the most penetrating pieces of hockey prose. “He fought all the tough ones: Howe, Fontinato, Lindsay, Harris, Ferguson — and seldom lost. His only clear defeats came in the last few years; he lost to age.”

Once he retired from the game, Fleming and his wild years might have lapsed into the background, the way the careers of workaday players do, enshrined on hockey cards and in the fond dimming memories of those who saw him play.

Something else happened. When he died in 2009, his family donated his brain for study by pathologists in Boston. What they discovered was a shock to both those who loved him and to the hockey world he’d inhabited for all his skating years. It not only shifted Fleming’s legacy, but it transformed — and continues to transform — the conversation about the calamitous toll hockey can take on those who play.

•••

If for some sinister reason you had to invent from scratch a comprehensive system for putting the human brain at risk, hockey might be what you’d conjure. The speed of the game, its accelerations and sudden stops, the potential for impacts in unyielding ice and boards, all those weaponized sticks and fists and elbows — just how is an innocent mass of neural tissue afloat in cerebrospinal fluid supposed to protect itself?

For much of the game’s history, guarding the head wasn’t exactly a priority. Toronto Maple Leafs’ star winger Ace Bailey underwent two brain surgeries in 1933 when he was knocked to the ice in Boston; he survived, though he never played again. Scared, many of his fellow NHLers donned helmets after that. Most of them soon vanished: they were cumbersome, hot. Even when they started to make a comeback in the late 1960s, hockey’s protocol for concussion cases remained simple: Got your bell rung? Shake it off, get back out there.

Not long before the Bailey incident, a pathologist in Newark, New Jersey by the name of Dr. Harrison Martland was studying boxers. In a landmark paper he published in 1928, he wrote about what every fan of the sweet science had witnessed, a fighter staggered by a blow to the head that didn’t knock him out acting “cuckoo,” “goofy,” “sluggy nutty” — “punch drunk.”

Dr. Martland was the first to propose that repeated blows to the head were doing deeper damages within fighter’s heads, and that it was cumulative, causing “multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.” His conclusions on “punch drunk” syndrome were limited — he may have been circumscribed, too, by the outrage he stirred among fight fans annoyed by his medical meddling in a sport they loved so well.

If Dr. Martland conceived that hockey players might be suffering similar injuries, he never wrote about it. Why wasn’t anyone making the connection between hockey and head trauma earlier? “I think because it’s an invisible injury,” says Dr. Ann McKee, a leading pathologist who heads Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. “Because players aren’t getting pounded in the head like they are in boxing. You see a hook to the jaw, you think, ah. It’s not a big jump for the layperson to say that might be hurting their brain.”

But hockey players? “They look invincible. There’s no blood, no pain, usually, so I think it was just — I think even the field of medicine didn’t recognize that these low-level hits, the ones that aren’t even causing concussions or any symptoms — just the repetitive impact injuries are leading to long-term loss of quality. We were all sort of oblivious.”

•••

Reggie Fleming didn’t mind talking about the role he played on the ice. He was open, affable — “a soft-spoken, mild-mannered quipster,” one interviewer wrote. Born in 1936 into a large Catholic family in east-end Montreal, he first stirred tempers as a star for the Junior Canadiens. His mother hated to watch. Seeing his cuts, the blood he wore home from games, she wanted to talk to coach Sam Pollock. Her son told her no. That’s my job, he told her, the only way I’ll make it.

Pollock went on to a management job with the big-league Canadiens, and Fleming eventually followed him there, first as a fill-in defenceman, always as a willing warrior when a teammate wanted revenging, or Canadiens felt a need to send one of hockey’s proverbial messages to their opponents. Although I guess there’s such a thing as message overload — as the story goes, Pollock traded Fleming to Chicago in the summer of 1960 after he roughed up a couple of teammates in practice.

Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s

Got To Knock Them Down: Reggie Fleming as a Hawk, c. the early 1960s.

Rudy Pilous was the coach of the Black Hawks when Fleming arrived in the early 1960s. “We can’t skate with most teams,” he was explaining around that time, “we’ve got to knock them down.” Fleming remembered his first game with his new team for the brawl he viewed from the bench. Unacceptable, Pilous told him: he should have been out there in the middle of the messing. “So I went out and fought,” Fleming recalled later. “I didn’t do it to be cruel, I was just following orders.”

His time in penalty boxes would eventually tick up to total 1,468 career minutes, or just over 24 hours. The websites that archive and revel in hockey’s fights don’t have a good fix on just how many he fought: at least 69, but maybe 96, almost certainly many more. Still, he was relatively restrained compared to some of his heirs, the fearsome likes of Tie Domi (338 fights in 1,020 games) or Bob Probert (302 in 935).

A ledger of the punishments he dispensed and received during his career isn’t hard to coax out of the newspaper archives. There’s a whole angry thesaurus of NHL violence in there: Fleming struck Jack McCartan with a vicious right (1960), slugged Wally Boyer (1969). The NHL fined him $175 for charging a referee (1964). Other uproars he sparked by swiping a goalie (1967) and trying to cross-check Bobby Hull’s face (1972). Eddie Shack clotheslined Fleming with his stick (1964), sending him to hospital with a concussion and cuts that needed 21 stitches to close. He was incoherent when he left the rink, the papers reported.

Fleming was a proficient penalty-killer, too, and he was a key asset of Chicago’s when they won the 1961 Stanley Cup. One year, in Boston, he found the net 18 times.

“I would rather have been recognized as a guy who scored a lot of goals like a Bobby Hull or a Stan Mikita,” he’d say in 1979, aged 43. “But I did something I loved: played hockey. If it meant I had to be a tough guy, then I was a tough guy. I was brought up in an area where you had to fight to survive. I worked my butt off to get to the top in hockey, and I had to work twice as hard to stay there.”

reggie-f-egg

Fry Guy: Reggie Fleming serves up breakfast to Chicago teammates (left) Stan Mikita and (possibly) Ab McDonald … unless it’s Murray Balfour …  in the early 1960s. (Image: Chris Fleming)

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john branch: derek boogaard and the damage done

boy on ice branch

The saddest sentences in John Branch’s biography of the late Derek Boogaard come one after another, on page 138, following an account of an NHL fight of workaday brutality:

The announcers shared a hearty laugh. The crowd cheered.

Although: there’s also a very sad sentence on page 87:

Derek wanted to be famous for the glory of goals, not the fury of his fists.

It wasn’t to be. Fists, of course, prevailed in Boogaard’s story, as they do in Branch’s devastating Boy on Ice, an unflinching chronicle of hockey damage that’s as shocking as it is familiar. Which may be the saddest part of all: how well we know the ugly side of the game.

A San Francisco-based reporter for The New York Times, Branch first wrote about Boogaard’s life in 2011, not long after the beloved New York Rangers fighter died at the age of 28 of an overdose of painkillers and alcohol. Meticulously reported, Boy on Ice goes deeper into the personal story that Branch started so powerfully to tell in “Punched Out” about the Saskatchewan-born left winger who lived the Canadian dream of making it to the NHL, where he died trying subdue the loneliness and pain he found once he got there.

There’s a lot to think about here, from the serious questions Branch raises about painkillers and prescriptions in the NHL and oversight of the league’s substance abuse program. There are the frightening facts that the posthumous examination of Boogaard’s damaged brain revealed to neurologists and how their ongoing studies into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) might affect the way the game is played.

And there are, of course, many furious fists, enough to fill a terrible thesaurus. Boogaard belts Andrew Peters and bombs Shawn Thornton (with three right hands). He himself is bashed and bitten. He drops Brendan Yarema (then pulls him back to his feet to punch him more). Assails Wade Brookbank (with a flurry of punches to the head. Clocks Trevor Gillies (in the face), whom he also, another time, deconstructs. Fells Brian McGrattan, mauls Jody Shelley, pops Colton Orr (in the face).

(With his right fist.)

If the book doesn’t explicitly indict the hypocrisy of a league that talks about player safety while continuing to pretend that fighting is a natural and necessary part of a game so fast and kinetic and contained, it doesn’t have to. For hockey, Boy on Ice is a devastating document that lays bare the violence that the game has institutionalized and continues to promote and celebrate while chronically pretending that it really isn’t much of a serious problem at all.

Can a biography change a sport? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say, anyway. Let NHL commissioner Gary Bettman read Boy on Ice and give us his review. We’ll wait.

John Branch was on the road this week when Puckstruck tracked him down to ask about the book and what it has to say about the game that Derek Boogaard loved so fatally well. From Branch’s keyboard, five answers for five questions:

What did Boy on Ice allow you to do that you felt you hadn’t done in the Times with “Punched Out”?
A lot of things. I’d like to think that the Times series portrayed Derek as fully as possible in a newspaper story, but — as many writers will tell you — the difficult part in storytelling is deciding what to leave out. I had a lot of material and a lot more questions, and I wanted to colour in the corners of Derek’s life. I felt he deserved that, and that the extra content and context would help explain him better to readers. The Times story made a lot of passing mentions to critical aspects of his life that I wanted to explain further — everything from his father’s work as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police member to his life with billet families, from his time in juniors to the final days of his life.

The newspaper story, for example, barely mentions his two long-term girlfriends and skips over most of his three-year career in minor-league hockey. It is focussed largely on his concussions, less on his prescription painkiller addiction. It mentions the tradition of fighting in hockey, but does not explain it in detail. There are love letters that Derek wrote as an adult and notes from the substance-abuse counsellors who treated him. While I could not be more proud of the newspaper story, I feel the book has the depth and nuance that wasn’t realistically possible there.

The facts of the Boogaard case are, on their own, an indictment of the NHL and hockey’s culture of violence. In your 2011 interview with commissioner Gary Bettman, he mostly deflects and downplays questions of the league’s responsibility for the safety of its players as well as those of the broader issues to do with the league’s permitting and promoting of fighting. Has that shifted at all, in your view? Have you had any reaction to the book from the NHL or NHLPA?
I have had no reaction, but I didn’t expect any. Both the NHL and NHLPA knew I was writing the book, just as they knew I was writing the newspaper story previously. What would they say? The league is now involved in lawsuits, which will only grow in size and scope in the coming years. And, frankly, I did not set out to write this book to explain the state of the NHL in 2014, but to tell readers a narrower tale of a boy who worked his way through the hockey apparatus to get everything he ever dreamed, only to die a lonely death at age 28. I wanted the book to be personal both personal and timeless, to explain an era in our sports culture that may change by the time someone picks up the book, now or many years from now.

Your portrayal of Derek Boogaard’s transformation into a fighter in the WHL casts a harsh light on the realities of Canadian junior hockey. Writing the book, did you feel like you gained a particular insight into the culture of the country where hockey means so much?
Of course, I wonder if the story would have been different had it been reported and written by someone either closely tied to junior hockey in Canada or, conversely, by someone with little understanding of hockey at all. I’d like to think that my background made me well-suited for the examination; I covered the NHL for a few years, but not much recently, and I’m an American. It’s my job as a newspaper reporter to learn, almost every day, about things and people I may not know well, and be able to explain them to a broader audience with both fairness and accuracy. Junior hockey is fascinating — rich in tradition, but filled with so many potential pitfalls. It’s not unlike the NCAA in the United States — teenagers enticed to move far from home for the promise of, at worst, an education, and, at best, a professional career. But the hockey players are a few years younger, so the risks might be greater.

It’s interesting that I’m answering this question at a time when we’re learning of a $180 million class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of junior players in the Canadian Hockey League, arguing that their compensation falls below minimum-wage laws.

With all that we’re learning about head trauma and CTE, do you think that hockey is headed into the territory in which NFL finds itself now, where the morality of watching and cheering for a sport that does such damage to its players is increasingly in question?
I do. At minimum, I think hockey will follow the arc of football, where increasing numbers of former players question the treatment they received, and parents of young players question the value of playing the game at all. The NFL, by its own testimony, estimates that close to one-third of its former players will suffer from effects of brain damage. The damage may not be so severe in hockey; we don’t know, frankly. But we now live in a time where we know enough to be worried, and, perhaps, not enough to know what to do. But if you knew that you had a one-in-three chance of having life-altering brain damage, would you still play? What ratio would be acceptable for professional athletes paid millions? For minor leaguers trying to crack the majors? For children?

Has the way you look at sports changed over the past four years?
I don’t think so. None of this comes as a great surprise, unfortunately. I learned a long time ago that the profit-making entities in sports will not always make decisions in the best interest of the safety of their athletes until such decisions are foisted upon them — perhaps in the guise of lawsuits, or a decline in popularity, or in an increasing number of brain examinations.

Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard
John Branch
(W.W. Norton, 372 pp., $32.99)

This interview has been edited.

ice time

Time again for the country to come to the ice, even if the vice-versa is not quite the case, yet. In Toronto, the thermometer dropped its mercury the first October weekend to help with the anticipation of the NHL’s new season. In Toronto, the chill briefly made the Hockey Night In Canada advertising a little more plausible, all those stern billboard Dion Phaneufs looming over Dundas Square, the shadowy Andrew Ladds striding out of darkness, into the light. But the cold didn’t hold — it wasn’t all the way convinced that it should be hockey season. Maybe out in New Brunswick, where they got a frost midweek, though not so much in Manitoba, home again to the Jets, fine, but also the hottest its been, 31 C, since they started writing these things down in 1871.

October is a crowded season for … well, seasons. In Toronto they’ve all been clamouring for attention. Vote! Give thanks! Don’t forget to figure out a good costume to wear for Hallowe’en! Time, too, almost, for winter tires! Also this was the week the flu started advertising the opening of its season — or no, sorry, it was the flu fighters who were making their case. The commercial I watched was a scary sequence of already pale and miserable-looking urban people grimly infecting one another by means of file folders, handshakes, and close contact on city buses. It made me want to hold my fare and stay home, though I know the intended message is more of an Up you get! Out! Go on! Get that needle into your arm! Continue reading