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

this week: are you a hockey player or are you just someone who plays hockey?

Embed from Getty Images

Forty-three years ago this week, visiting Moscow with a Canadian rep team, a right winger, Waterloo-born, in Ontario, went shopping. The Minnesota North Stars’ Bill Goldsworthy that is, seen above: he bought a balalaika.

Fast forward to this past week, when an NHL deputy commissioner was talking about newly enhanced security measures at all 30 of the league’s rinks. Fans going to games will now have to walk through magnetometers — those metal detectors you know from airports.

“For better or for worse,” Bill Daly said, “we live in an uncertain world, and it has to be of paramount importance to us, the health and safety of our fans. An extra precaution that might take an extra 30 seconds for each fan I think is more than worth it if it means you’re creating a safer environment for your fanbase.”

A right winger, meanwhile, sat down to read a statement to a gathering of reporters on the opening day of the Chicago Blackhawks’ training camp in South Bend, Indiana.

“I am confident,” Patrick Kane said, “once all the facts are brought to light, I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong.”

Anything, he may have meant. Accused of sexually assaulting a woman in August, he’d arrived to play hockey while a New York state grand jury considered whether or not he’ll be indicted.

Chicago management said they saw no problem with having Kane attend camp as though nothing had happened. Fans cheered when he stepped on the ice for the first time.

Up north and over the border, a former centreman — the greatest ever to have played the game? — was surprised, this week, by just how excellent this collection of “better casual clothing” is that Sears Canada is selling in his name.

The new No 99 Wayne Gretzky Collection will (and I quote) keep men looking neat, handsome and fashionable this Fall.

20150909_C7711_PHOTO_EN_493076These are polos we’re talking about, t-shirts, knit jackets, hoodies. Mercerized cottons, cashmeres and merino wool give this collection a luxurious feel, offering men a complete look: I have this on good authority. “The long-sleeved 100% cotton shirts come in a variety of patterns, including plaid, printed and checked.”

“Sears got my style down when they created this collection,” Gretzky confided in a press release. “I had the opportunity to wear all the pieces, from the t-shirts and sweaters to the jeans and dress pants, and the style, quality and value is excellent. I thoroughly expected it was going to be good, but I didn’t know it would be this good.”

At that Blackhawks press conference, Kane took questions from reporters.

Q: Patrick, how tough is it to focus on hockey with so many things going on right now?

Kane: I’m focussed. I’m happy to be here at camp. It’s an unbelievable venue here at Notre Dame. There’s a lot of history in this venue. I know we’ve had some success coming back here the last couple of years. It’s good to be back here again. I’m happy to see all my teammates and get done with our fitness testing today. It seems like we have a fun weekend ahead of us, so I’m looking forward to enjoying that. I’d like to keep to hockey questions only.

Q: Are you going to stop drinking?

Kane: Hey, Mark, I appreciate the question. I wish I could answer those questions right now, but there is a legal matter going on that I can’t answer that.

Q: Patrick, to all the people who believed this stuff was behind you, do you feel like you let them down, do you feel like you let the organization down this summer?

Kane: I appreciate the question, David. I’d like to answer that, but at this time with the legal process ongoing it’s just not a question I can answer. I appreciate it. I’m sorry I can’t answer it and thank you for the question, though.

PR Man: Thank you very much. We’ll excuse Patrick here.

Kane may be more important than ever to the Blackhawks, said someone, a pundit, referring to the vital cogs the defending Stanley Cup-champions lost over the summer.

“It doesn’t look like any of it has affected him,” said another Chicago winger, Bryan Bickell, asked about Kane and possible distractions. Also, sic: “He feels comfortable and when he left he was a happy Patrick Kane from when he left is what he is now.”

A Montreal defenceman pledged C$10-million over seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation who, for its part, unveiled The P.K. Subban Atrium last week. The man himself was on hand to say a few words, including several to Elise Béliveau about how he hoped that this was something that would have made her late husband Jean feel proud. Also:

“Sometimes I try to think, ‘P.K., are you a hockey player, or are you just someone who plays hockey?’

“I just play hockey. Because one day I won’t be a hockey player anymore, I’ll just be someone who played hockey. So what do I want people to remember me for other than being a hockey player? Well, every time you walk into this hospital, you’ll know what I stand for.

“In life, I believe you are not defined by what you accomplish, but by what you do for others. That’s how I live my life.

“This is not about hockey or about how many goals I score next year or even how the team does.” Continue reading

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.

national hospital league

Goalie Gurney: Terry Sawchuk on his way to elbow surgery at Detroit’s Osteopathic Hospital in April of 1952. (Image: Ray Glonka)

We’re getting to know their names now, all the doctors of hockey, they’re in the news as much as their patients. Dr. Micky Collins was the concussion specialist who spoke first at Sidney Crosby’s famous state-of-the-skull address back in September. He talked about fog and Ferraris, boogeymen, herding cows back into the barn. He cited deficits and impacts, and introduced us to the word vestibular.

Dr. Ted Carrick was there, too: he was the one who talked about small perturbations and great perturbations. He’s the one who’s stayed in the news, too, having loaded Crosby into a whole-body gyroscope and turned him all around. At the news conference he’s the one who announced that when all was said and done, Sid’s brain would be even better than it was before.

Dr. Joseph Maroon also treated Crosby, and with Dr. Collins he was advising Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger this week to rest his shaken brain for the rest of the season. Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Cusimano is the guy who told The Toronto Star this week that the NHL isn’t doing enough to protect its players. Earlier in the fall, he and Dr. Paul Echlin from London, Ont., unveiled a study of two junior teams that found that 25 per cent of the players suffered concussions. Dr. Charles Tator is the news every other day, it seems: recently he was questioning the spin-cycle Dr. Carrick put Crosby through. “Totally unproven,” he told The Star. “It could even do harm.” Continue reading