hello, canada, and hockey fans in the united states and newfoundland

He Shoots, He … You Know: Franklin Arbuckle painted Foster Hewitt at work high up above the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for the cover of Maclean’s that found its way to newsstands on March 3, 1956.

A big anniversary today for radio in Canada: it was 100 years ago, on a Thursday of this same date in 1920, that the first scheduled broadcast took place, when XWA in Montreal relayed a musical program from the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. That was a North American first, too: the inaugural American broadcast, emanating from Pittsburgh, didn’t hit the air until November of 1920.

Hockey’s radio debut came in the winter of 1923, via the Toronto Star’s radio station, CFCA. No, it wasn’t Foster Hewitt narrating the play, though he still often gets the credit. Historian Eric Zweig has cast the most light on this in recent years, and you can step into it here, if you have a subscription to the Star.

Hewitt was at the the paper in 1923, and did just a few days later get on the air to talk hockey. But it was in fact a part-time Star sports reporter Norman Albert who first gave a voice to hockey, on February 8, when he called the third period of an OHA intermediate game at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena.

Albert also seems to have been on the job for the first broadcast of an NHL game. That came on February 14, 1923, when the hometown St. Patricks overturned the Ottawa Senators, the eventual Stanley Cup champions that year, by a score of 6-4.

Again, listeners heard just the third period that night, which means that Jack Adams’ goal for the St. Pats was the first in NHL history to be broadcast. Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor was next, with a pair. His teammate Punch Broadbent scored the final goal of that auspicious evening.

Albert died in 1974. I’m hoping someone asked him if he remembered how he called those landmark goals, and/or whether the words “He shoots, he scores” formed in his mouth that evening. And if someone did ask? I hope they wrote down the answer somewhere where I can snuffle it out, at some point.

Even if he wasn’t first off the mark, Foster Hewitt quickly — and lastingly — became a hockey broadcasting institution, of course. In his 1975 book, A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada, Sandy Stewart notes that while radio soon featured prominently in Canadian living rooms in the 1920s, most of the listening the citizenry was doing was to American stations.

There were two reasons for this, he posits: “the Canadian government’s indifference towards financing radio broadcasting prohibited big Canadian stations and the Canadian radio programming was not significantly different from American programming, which did it better.”

It was hockey that made the difference, Stewart says.

In the U.S., “going to the movies” had become the Saturday night pastime, but in Canada there were not as many movie houses available to a widely scattered population, and so Canadians stayed home to listen to the radio. Since almost everybody in the U.S. was at the movies on Saturday nights, the American broadcasters often didn’t bother to list the evening’s programs, but in Canada General Motors sponsored the Saturday night broadcasts. Canadians tuned in and hockey became as Canadian as maple syrup and still is.

General Motors eventually gave way to Imperial Oil as sponsor of hockey on Canadian radio, but Hewitt remained constant all the way through to 1968. (From 1952 through 1963, his broadcasts were simulcast on television, too.)

Sandy Stewart expounds on how Hewitt’s on-air talents ensured that his hockey broadcasts dominated the radio scene through the 1930s and on through the Second World War. And yet when hockey went national in 1932, General Motors was worried that the broadcast wouldn’t be able to hold its audience between periods. Their answer? They switched to dance music from Toronto’s Silver Slipper Dance Hall.

Stewart:

Later they produced drama sketches during intermissions, and eventually they hit on the “The Hot Stove League” with Elmer Ferguson, Wes McKnight, and Court Benson discussing the game. Another institution that survived from the 1930s to this day is the 3-Star Selection inspired by 3-Star Gasoline, [which] advertised on the broadcast.

For years Foster started the broadcast after his introduction from Charles Jennings with, “Hello, Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”

During the war, he also greeted “our men overseas,” and on one occasion when it was known that the Germans were transmitting the hockey game to our troops in Belgium and Holland along with the pitch from a Nazi female broadcaster, “Why not call off the war and go home to see the hockey games,” Foster added on the Christmas broadcast, “and an extra big hello to Calamity Jane of Arnhem.”

Gondola Gazing: Hewitt at the mic in the late 1940s.

 

the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

stories that get told and stories that don’t: tracing hockey’s indigenous histories

(A version of this post appeared on page SP4 of The New York Times on July 1, 2018, under the headline “Writing the Twisting History of Indigenous Players.”)

At some point during Fred Sasakamoose’s first visit to New York in the fall of 1953, he found himself in a radio station studio. At 19, Sasakamoose was a junior hockey star from Saskatchewan. Speedy and ambidextrous, he was about to make his NHL debut at center for the Chicago Black Hawks. He was also a novelty: one of the first Indigenous players in the league.

He remembers the gifts he was given at the studio, cigars and a transistor radio. And he remembers being asked, for broadcast, to say something in Cree.

“They wanted me to talk Indian,” he said.

He obliged, thanking the interviewer and saying he had never been to New York before.

It was just a few simple sentences, but Sasakamoose struggled, on air, to summon his own language. Home, then and now, was Ahtahkakoop First Nation, in Saskatchewan, but in 1953 it had been years since he had lived there.

Hockey had planted him in Moose Jaw, and before that he’d spent a decade 60 miles from home at St. Michael’s in Duck Lake. one of Canada’s notorious residential schools where the mandate was to erase Indigenous language and culture.

“They don’t allow you to talk your language,” Sasakamoose, now 84, recalled earlier this year from Ahtahkakoop. “Either you talk French or English — and then you go to church, and you’ve got to talk Latin.”

In May, Governor-General Julie Payette inducted Sasakamoose as a Member of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Revered as a hockey trailblazer, he has worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community and across the country. Sasakamoose said he was humbled by the honor.

“There’s so much pride,” he added. “It’s just marvelous.”

Proud as the moment is, it is impossible to consider Sasakamoose’s life and career without reflecting on the historical scarcity of Indigenous players at the top levels of the game that Canadians so fervently claim as their own. First Nations peoples, Métis and Inuit make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population. But of the more than 7,600 players, some 5,100 from Canada, to have skated in the NHL in the 100 years of its history, only about 80 have been of Indigenous heritage.

Canada’s reckoning with its history with Indigenous peoples has been underway for years, reaching not just into the justice system and the resource sector, but across society.

Within hockey, this has been both a season for celebrating the achievements of Indigenous players and one filled with reminders of the ongoing struggles they face — against racism, and for opportunity and recognition.

Recent NHL success stories include Ethan Bear, 20, from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace Cree Nation, who made his debut with the Edmonton Oilers in March. At the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Canada’s women’s hockey team featured two Indigenous players, Jocelyne Larocque, who’s Métis from Manitoba, and Brigette Lacquette, a member of the Cote Saulteaux First Nation in Saskatchewan.

The game is thriving in Indigenous communities across the country, at the pond and pick-up level and through organized events like the annual National Aboriginal Hockey Championships for elite teenage players. In March, about 3,000 Indigenous youth players took part in the Little Native Hockey League in Mississauga, Ontario.

“I think we as First Nations people are probably some of the biggest supporters of hockey across Canada,” said Reggie Leach, the NHL’s first Indigenous superstar who continues to work with young players on hockey and life skills. Leach, who is Ojibwe, spent 13 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Philadelphia Flyers, winning a Stanley Cup in 1975.

Still, the story of Indigenous hockey in Canada is one that has been shaped by familiar themes of geographical isolation and social marginalization. It also continues to be poisoned by racism. In May, a team of 13- and 14-year-old First Nations boys faced racial slurs at a tournament in Quebec City.

“Reading this story made me sad,” Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s Minister of Justice and a member of the We Wai Kai Nation in British Columbia, wrote on Twitter. “Be proud of who you are and always remember where you come from!”

Residential schools are knotted into the history, too. For more than a century through to 1996, the Canadian government made a policy of separating some 150,000 children from their families with the express purpose of indoctrinating them into a culture not their own — taking “the Indian out of the child,” in one early insidious formulation of what the schools were all about.

The government has apologized and compensated survivors. Between 2008 and 2015, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission crossed Canada to hear their stories and investigate abuses. Among the findings in the commission’s final 2015 report is ample evidence of how sports, including hockey, could be a refuge for many children. But the report also explains how, especially in early years, some in authority looked to sports as an instrument of forced assimilation, just another means of “civilizing” students.

The comfort and freedom that hockey offered only went so far. That’s a story told in Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese’s powerful 2012 novel of hockey and residential-school abuse that director Stephen Campanelli and executive producer Clint Eastwood brought to movie screens in the spring of 2018. The pain and the rage deriving from what the central character, Saul, calls the “scorched earth” of his residential-school boyhood — “it corroded everything, even the game.”

•••

Tracing the history of hockey’s Indigenous players, you can’t help but reflect on the ways in which narratives form, shift and settle, and on the stories that get told or don’t. While Indigenous players are scarcely seen in the annals of early hockey history, it’s also true that those in the business of recording the sport’s history have simply neglected or overlooked some of those who did make it to hockey’s highest levels.

Henry Maracle is one of those whose story has been erased, one way and another. While Fred Sasakamoose is still often described as having been the NHL’s first Indigenous player — including by the league itself and in his Order-of-Canada citation — the evidence seems to increasingly contradict that distinction.

Hockey teams in Canada started vying for the Stanley Cup in 1893, well before the NHL came into being in 1917. In 1901 and again in 1902, the Winnipeg Victorias won the Cup with a roster featuring three Métis stars, Tony Gingras and the brothers Rod and Magnus Flett.

Toronto’s NHL lineup in 1918-19 may have included a Mohawk defenseman, Paul Jacobs. While league records show him playing a game in the league’s second season, it’s unclear whether he actually made it onto the ice. Taffy Abel, who had Chippewa background, was a member of the 1924 United States Olympic team and one of the earliest Americans to flourish in the N.H.L. Could he be counted as the league’s first Indigenous player?

New York got its first N.H.L. team in 1925, the Americans, a year before the Rangers hit the ice. With an idea of adding an exotic accent to the Americans’ lineup, manager Tommy Gorman briefly pretended that a non-Indigenous Montreal-born center, Rene Boileau, was a Mohawk star by the name of Rainy Drinkwater.

Tidings of Maracle’s 1931 call-up to the NHL caught the eye of newspaper editors across North America.

While the N.H.L. seems strangely loath to acknowledge him, Maracle is slowly gaining wider recognition as the first Indigenous player in the league. Maracle, who died in 1958, was honoured this past June at a community ceremony in Ayr, Ontario, the small town where he was born.

Midway through the 1930-31 season, the Rangers summoned Maracle, a 27-year-old Mohawk left winger, from their affiliate in Springfield, Mass. That the Springfield team was nicknamed the Indians was not lost on headline writers and reporters narrating the scoring exploits of the “Springfield Injun” and “Redskin Icer.”

Maracle, who went by Buddy, was often, inevitably, called “Chief.” His NHL career lasted 15 games, yielding a goal and three assists. While he would thrive as a minor leaguer for years to come, that was all for Maracle in the NHL.

In 1944, the Rangers called up an Indigenous defenseman, Jim Jamieson, whose background was Cayuga, from Six Nations First Nation in southwestern Ontario. He played a single game.

Maracle and Jamieson were already forgotten when Sasakamoose made his NHL debut in 1953. “Chief Running Deer,” the papers dubbed him; when he first skated out at Chicago Stadium, organist Al Melgard broke into “Indian Love Call.” Sasakamoose played 11 games that season and looked like he was in the league to stay. Until he decided he wasn’t.

Years later, Sasakamoose recalls, Hall-of-Fame goaltender and fellow Chicago alumnus Glenn Hall told him he should write a book. “He said, ‘You know what you call it?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said: ‘I Want To Go Home.’”

He laughs now, but the memory of homesickness remains raw. “For me,” Sasakamoose said, “I wanted to come home all the time.

“Because, 10 years of residential school. Ten years when you’re small. And you live in that place, in that big huge building, and you don’t see mom and dad. You don’t know them anymore.”

Sasakamoose has spoken over the years about the physical abuse he suffered at Duck Lake, and he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Of his school years, the commission report noted, “He left as soon as he could.”

At the same time, Sasakamoose’s memory of those distant school years in the 1940s can still brighten as he describes learning to stickhandle, or recalls the team with which he won a provincial championship.

Also: Saturday nights in wintertime. One of the presiding priests at Duck Lake would rig up a speaker in time for the weekly broadcast ofHockey Night in Canada from Toronto, 1,300 miles away. “We’d sit there, about 30 or 40 of us, and we’d listen to the Foster Hewitt. Everybody wanted to be a Charlie Conacher.”

For many Canadians, Hewitt, the broadcaster whose signature phrase was a strident “He shoots, he scores!,” remains the original and eternal voice of hockey.

In 1953, when Sasakamoose played his first game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens, Hewitt descended from his broadcast booth: he wanted to meet the Chicago rookie — and to find out how to pronounce his name.

“I said, ‘Foster, my name is Sa-SA-ka-moose.’”

He laughs now. When the time came to call the action, Hewitt never quite got it right.

“That was okay,” Sasakamoose said. “I was there. I wanted to get there and I did get there.”

 

this week in 1957, when hockey debuted on american television: show ’em everything, clarence campbell said

Clarence Campbell was in the house: he declared the game a “pretty good show.” If that sounds a little lukewarm, well, maybe we’ll presume that the NHL president was doing his best to spare the feelings of the Chicago Black Hawks, losers on the day to the hometown New York Rangers by a score of 4-1.

January 5, 1957, was the day, a Saturday. The game was a matinee, with a 2 p.m. face-off at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Five years after René Lecavalier narrated the NHL’s first televised game from the Montreal Forum on Radio-Canada, this marked the coast-to-coast broadcast debut for NHL hockey across the United States. Launching a 10-Saturday series of games that CBS cameras would beam across the nation in coming weeks, the Rangers and Black Hawks may not have been the thoroughbreds of the league at the time — New York was skulking only eight points up on basement-bound Chicago. Marshall Dann of The Detroit Free Press wondered in a preview whether these “chronic tailenders” were the best teams with which to try to lure the attention of those potential fans who’d never seen hockey before. “But who will know the difference,” he wrote, “in such way points as Atlanta, New Orleans, Amarillo, Las Vegas, or San Diego?”

CBS estimated that the broadcast could reach as many as 10-million viewers. Sixty-five U.S. stations carried it that day, with another 35 scheduled to join in for future feeds. All of the ’57 TV games, the NHL decided, would be played in the afternoon. League-leading Detroit was scheduled for five appearances in the succeeding weeks, as were Boston and New York, with Chicago showing up four times. (This first broadcast didn’t, notably, play on Chicago TVs.)

Montreal’s Canadiens were traditionally at home on Saturdays, but they would take one network turn south of the border in Boston. “Some one will have to tell the TV watchers that it is a six-team league,” Marshall Dann quipped — the Toronto Maple Leafs figured not at all in that season’s broadcast schedule.

Campbell, for his part, didn’t want anyone mistaking this venture into TV as a cash grab by the clubs. “The amount of money each club will receive,” he said, “is intended to compensate it for changing from night to afternoon. The real value from a hockey standpoint is that we can create an interest in hockey in areas where the game is practically unknown.”

A crowd of 9,853 watched the game live at the Garden. The New York Times’ Joseph Nichols wasn’t as generous as Campbell in his review: he remarked on its lack of speed, action, and heavy bodychecking.

Al Rollins was in goal for Chicago, Gump Worsley for the Rangers. Andy Bathgate opened the scoring for New York with a shorthanded goal. If the second period was dull, Nichols thought he knew the reason: maybe “the skaters were self-conscious because of the television cameras.” (Did they not know about them for the game’s first 20 minutes?) Larry Popein did increase the Rangers’ tally* before the final period came around and the teams relaxed: they were “a little more sprightly,” at least, in the third. The period opened with a goal by Chicago’s Glen Skov before Bruce Cline and Danny Lewicki added to New York’s count.

For the play-by-play, the NHL had angled for Foster Hewitt or (as Milt Dunnell said) a reasonable facsimile thereof. CBS went instead with Bud Palmer, the former New York Knicks’ star who’d moved over to microphones once his basketball career ended. Between periods, Campbell stopped by to chat. The entertainment also included introduction of hockey’s rules and a chalk talk from Rangers’ GM Muzz Patrick.

The following week, the Rangers starred again, beating Detroit 5-4 at the Olympia. That week’s intermission distractions for those watching at home featured a pre-recorded segment with Gordie Howe showing viewers how he shot the puck, and a visit to the Red Wings’ dressing room. George Puscas from the Free Press reported that at the end of the first period, the players, having trooped off the ice, were paused in the corridor for fully two minutes while CBS aired a commercial.

They had to wait, for the script called for the camera to catch them as they entered the locker room chanting how nice they were going out there.

Then, too, things had to be tidied up a bit. Some of the players had hung their underwear on hooks. So their dress slacks were hung on top of the underwear.

It was pretty tame — frankly, it was pretty dull — but that’s the way locker rooms are when you breeze away to a 2-0 lead.

While “the players sipped tea and munched oranges,” Detroit GM Jack Adams defended their docility. “Our locker room is always quiet,” he said. “This is a place for rest and relaxation and that’s what we do here.”

Showman: NHL President Clarence Campbell and friend, in 1957.

Another production note of interest from that first foray onto American airwaves: Campbell apparently instructed the production crew that if a fight broke out on the ice, the cameras shouldn’t shy away. This was “a healthy switch,” one commentator felt, from the pro football playbook. A few weeks earlier, NFL commissioner Bert Bell had explained why he mandated that broadcasters of games from his league should turn their cameras away from the unpleasantness of fights and on-field injuries.

“We are selling our game just as the sponsor is selling his product,” Bell argued, “and that’s the way I instruct the TV people. We are selling football, not fights.”

“Anyway, if there were only one wife or mother of a player viewing the game, I would not want her to suffer while her boy is on the ground. We don’t stress fights because we want to sell good sportsmanship, and not brawls.”

Back in New York in January, Milt Dunnell was on hand to see the spectacle. The reasoning behind Campbell’s laissez-faire approach to televising whatever mayhem might evolve, he said, was “that if the people in the Garden can see it, then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be shown on television screens.”

As it turned, referee Frank Udvari called only minor penalties that day. Dunnell:

There was no blood-letting to shock the millions of new shinny lookers who doubtless had been told that hockey is a tong war which takes place on the ice. The closest thing to head-whacking was a minor flare-up involving Harry Howell and Gerry Foley of the home side, and Glen Skov of the harried Hawks.

As often happened in games involving the Rangers’ goaltender Gump Worsley, the future Hall-of-Famer did go down hard, suffering a — possible? probable? — concussion. As is so much the case in what’s turned into an ongoing accounting of Worsley’s historical head injuries, I don’t have any clinical evidence to go on here, only the anecdotal. Could have been negligible, I guess, but one account had Worsley going down “head first on the pond.” In another he was “felled during the second period when struck on the right side of the head by a stick.”

I don’t know if Bud Palmer was thinking back to Bert Bell’s comments or not. “I’m sure,” he did say, as Worsley was down, “if his wife is watching, it’s nothing serious.”

Worsley did finish the game. To some of those uninitiated seeing the action across the wide open expanses of the continental U.S., he was the star of the show. “He reminded me,” Tom Fox wrote, “of Yogi Berra guarding home plate in Yankee Stadium. Nobody gets by unless he hits a home run.”

Fox was working as he watched, actually. A sports reporter for The New Orleans Item-Tribune, he was one of several correspondents across the nation whose assignment for the afternoon was to watch both TV hockey and those who were watching TV hockey and report on it for Sunday’s paper.

“Ice hockey is more exciting than any other sport I’ve ever witnessed,” was Fox’s verdict.

In Miami, Herald reporter Luther Evans stopped by at several local bars where the game was showing to poll the clientele.

“They talk about jai-alai being fast,” offered June Overpeck, a secretary, “why this hockey is much faster and very interesting.”

“My opinion,” a Miami Beach prosecutor named Wilson McGee testified, “is that TV doesn’t give you the true picture of the game. The camera is following the puck and you miss the most exciting action of the checking.”

LeRoy Henderson, porter: “I’d rather watch Sugar Ray Robinson fighting on TV, even as bad as he’s going.”

* Contemporary newspaper summaries of the game all put Larry Popein’s goal at 14.54 of the second period. In his New York Times account, Joseph Nichols’ note about how dull that middle frame continues: “The highlight of the session was the goal scored by Popein at 14.54, with the help of Bathgate and Harry Howell.” That’s not what the NHL says, though: at NHL.com, the summary has the goal in the first period. After several years of collating, checking, and inputting, official summaries of the league’s 100 years of regular-season games went online back in October. No game-sheets survive from the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18, but otherwise the league has the originals on file. A tiny discrepancy, of the minorest possible clerical importance if any at all? Sounds like it needs pursuing. Stay tuned.

(Top image: 1961-62 O-Pee-Chee #65, courtesy of HockeyMedia/The Want List; Clarence Campbell: Chris Lund, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/e011176459)

 

own no: orr has some explaining to do

Hockey history is full of own goals, James Duthie noted last on TSN in the moments after Edmonton’s Kris Russell sizzled a puck past his teammate Laurent Brossoit to notch Toronto’s winning goal — what’s rare, as Duthie said, is to see such a full-on snipe. The accidental goal Russell scored into his own net in the third period — Toronto’s Patrick Marleau got the score-sheet credit — looked like he really meant it. Won’t matter that Russell scored another goal, one that counted for Edmonton, in the second period. He may, as TSN’s Bob Mackenzie predicted late in the night, laugh about the whole thing one day, but today’s not that day.

Russell won’t be interested, but there’s a story Stephen Cole tells the tale in the boisterous history he published in 2015, Hockey Night Fever: one night in Boston, Bobby Orr shot a puck into his own Bruin net. The shock in the rink was silent, but the silence didn’t last. In a moment a voice rose from up among the Bruin faithful: “That’s OK, Bobby, goalie should have had it.”

It’s a great anecdote. Could even be true. Orr did put a pair of pucks past his own surprised teammate, Gerry Cheevers, one night in Toronto in January of 1970, abetting the Leafs’ 4-3 win: that, we know, did happen. “Orr Has Some Explaining To Do” was the headline in The Toronto Star next day. To the 21-year-old defenceman’s credit, he’d already dutifully tried some elucidating: reporter Red Burnett opened his account of the game with Orr “patiently” telling the press how Bob Pulford’s shot had banked off his skate into the Boston net, and that Rick Ley’s goal — well, that one was a rebound he was trying to clear and ended up backhanding past Cheevers.

Can we at least credit the man with, ah, hmm — can we call it, maybe, a Bobby Orr Hat Trick? Number 4 did, after all, score a third goal that night, going the right way, in his own team’s favour, bamboozling Toronto’s Bruce Gamble. And Orr added two assists that night, which got him to 61 points for the season, most in the NHL. Foster Hewitt approved: he picked him as the game’s third star. The Boston Globe didn’t make too much of Orr’s own-goals — he was “exceedingly embarrassed” — while taking proud note that as the league’s scoring leader midway through the season, he’d just picked up a $500 bonus — the first defenceman in history to do so.

backbencher

Say It Ain’t Joe (It Is): Joe Klukay won four Stanley Cups as a left winger for the Toronto Maple Leaf through the late 1940s and into the ’50s. (He played a couple of seasons for Boston, too.) Renowned as a penalty-killer, the Sault Ste. Marie native was lauded for his stickhandling — broadcaster Foster Hewitt said it was some of the best he ever saw in his years of watching the NHL. Klukay explained that he’d had no choice, as a kid, but to learn how to hold on to the puck. “Twenty or 30 of us would jam together on the Bayview rink and play from eight o’clock in the morning until it got dark,” he once told a hometown paper. “I can remember falling asleep with my skates on at the supper table. With 12 or 15 kids on each side, you had to learn how to stickhandle or be happy watching the others.”

a good game of growl

September’s calendar in 1972 made a Friday of September 22, just like ours today. Back then, Canadians and Soviets were playing hockey again after a two-week hiatus. Maybe you remember: the upstart Communists had dominated the Canadian leg of the eight-game series, winning two, losing one, tying another. Home in Moscow, they scored five third-period goals in a 5-4 win at the Luzhniki Palace of Sports.

As many as 3,000 Canadians had travelled with the team to cheer them in Moscow. If you were back home watching in the rec room, you might have had in hand Hockey Canada’s Official Home TV Program. The 16-page brochure included handy summaries, line-ups, and stats from the series to date, along with uplifting messages from the likes of NHLPA executive director Alan Eagleson and Team Canada coach Harry Sinden. “I’ll say this,” the latter assured fans on their couches: “I have complete confidence in the ability and determination of our players. I firmly believe they are the finest team ever assembled in the world. As we open the series in Moscow, I sincerely hope all Canadians share this confidence with me.”

Broadcasters also weighed in (above) on what they saw for the final four games. Johnny Esaw would, of course, be disappointed along all the rest of Canada: Bobby Orr wasn’t ready for any action, let alone lots of. Brian McFarlane got it just about right: Canada’s final edge could hardly have been sliced slighter. Most interesting, though, is Howie Meeker having his tetchy say. Nothing in here about winning. Ever the teacher, he just hoped for a Team Canada that would be returning home smarter about how to play the game we so desperately like to claim for our own. Hard to say, still, 45 years later, whether he got his wish.

peter gzowski’s arbitrary list of hockey’s all-time greats

 Archives de la Ville de Montréal 1920s

Stratford’s Own Streak: Howie Morenz in Hab finery in the 1920s. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Cyclone Taylor was the best hockey player ever to have played the game, according to the one-time NHL referee and newspaperman Mike Rodden — well, Taylor and Scotty Davidson, too. Lester Patrick agreed on Taylor, citing his speed (marvelous, skating forward and backward), his goal-scoring (great), his temperament (superb), and so did Tommy Gorman. Though Bill Cook, a star in his own right, insisted that Ching Johnson was the finest player he’d ever seen. Although for Art Ross, no mean judge of hockey talent, it was Eddie Shore.

These are old opinions, originally expressed in the 1930s and ’40s. The players named skated on even more distant horizons. Cyclone Taylor’s playing days ended in the early 1920s; Scotty Davidson was killed in First-World-War action a year after he’d captained the Toronto Blueshirts to a Stanley Cup championship.

There’s an argument to be made that evaluations so antique must be out of date, if only because the men behind them couldn’t help but be men of their times. Bill Cook lived the longest of them, until 1986, which means that while he was surely aware of the glories of Bobby Orr Wayne Gretzky, his experience would never include views of Sidney Crosby’s guile, or Connor McDavid’s high-speed genius.

It’s likewise true that there are limits on what Orr and Gretzky have seen first-hand. I’m not really disputing their joint assertion, from this past Friday, that Gordie Howe is the greatest hockey player ever, ever, and/or (Mario Lemieux was there and he said so, too) ever.

Could be. Who am I to say? I am interested by the notion that when Rodden and Patrick and Ross spoke up, their opinions were based on personal, eyewitness experience. They’d seen — and in many cases played with or against — all the hockey players who might possibly have been in any conversation concerning the best of all players.

This is a good reason to pay attention to a project of the late Peter Gzowski’s I came across not long ago. The venerable writer, editor, and CBC host was a lifelong hockey fan of who studied and celebrated it in his writing throughout his career. He wrote one of the sport’s most penetrating books, The Game of Our Lives (1980).

In 1985 he confessed that with that book he’d expunged some of his passion for hockey from his system, and it is true that at least one other book idea he had subsequently fell by the way. But the archives reveal that even as his account of the Oilers in bloom was finding its way into readers’ hands, he had other hockey projects in mind.

To wit: in the summer of 1980, Gzowski launched an inquiry into the best of the NHL best that involved polling a panel of some the game’s longest serving observers.

Was it for another book he was planning? I think so, though I can’t say for sure. It wasn’t what you’d classify as a stringently scientific survey. But then the surveyor himself acknowledged that himself, not least by framing his project as Peter Gzowski’s Arbitrary List of the All-Time Greats.

The nine men he chose to consult constituted an all-star line-up of hockey observers, so far as it went. That they were all in their senior years reflects, I think (probably?), Gzowski’s desire to be relying on first-hand knowledge of the players in question.

And so he sought out Foster Hewitt, then 78, the first man to broadcast an NHL game. Columnist Milt Dunnell of The Toronto Star was 75, and had been writing about hockey since the 1930s. The Boston Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, 68, had started covering the Bruins in 1940. They were joined by Jim Coleman, 68, from The Globe and Mail, and Andy O’Brien, 70, the prolific Montreal Star writer and sports editor of Weekend Magazine who’d covered 45 Stanley Cups.

Gzowski sent a ballot to 77-year-old King Clancy, who’d started his NHL career as a stand-out defenceman with the original Ottawa Senators in 1921. He sought the counsel, too, of Frank J. Selke, 87, architect of all those firewagon Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1950s. Selke’s one-time boss was on the list, too, Toronto Maple Leafs titan Conn Smythe, 85. Finally, there was 75-year-old Clarence Campbell, the former NHL referee whose 31-year reign as president of the league had come to an end in 1977.

The ballot Gzowski (who, since we’re sharing, was 46) typed up and sent out was arbitrary, which is to say narrowly directed: it featured a list of just seven players from NHL history, six of them forwards, one from the defence. He was asking for scores on Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Béliveau, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky in five categories:

Goal Scoring Ability
Strength (Roughness)
Speed
Hockey Intelligence (Dominating the Game)
Flair (Color).

“Please rate,” Gzowski directed, “from 1 (bad) to 10 (best ever).”

At the bottom of the page, he added a question: “Any notes while I have your attention?”

All of the nine wrote back.

“Nice 7 you picked,” Andy O’Brien enthused in his note.

“Give Gretzky 2 or 3 more years!!” was Coleman’s plea. “Then he’ll rate right up there with the others.”

King Clancy completed his ballot and returned it without comment.

Frank Selke’s was all comment, with no ratings. “I am returning your hypothetical chart of hockey greats,” his stern letter read.

I do not think it is possible to do justice to any former great by comparing him with players of another era.

I do not deny you the right to do this if you wish and will not quarrel with your findings. But I do not want to take any part in these ratings.

Conn Smythe’s reply was prompt, though he didn’t want to rate anyone, either. He was more than happy, however, to weigh in with a general and/or cantankerous opinion or two:

Maurice Richard and Howie Morenz rated tops in everything you have asked. Gordie Howe I have to take was a great player, but if he was as good as they say he was he should have been on more championship teams. I don’t rate Bobby Hull as a team man. He won one world championship and was a totally individual player. Jean Béliveau I have to say he was one of the all time greats, as was Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky I did not see play, so I cannot say.

Knowing what he knew 53 years after he took control of the Leafs, he said that any notional all-time team he might build would start with Ted Kennedy. Syl Apps would be on it, too, and Babe Pratt. “As these players helped me win world championships many times, perhaps I am prejudiced.”

Who else?

If I had the above players of my own plus the choice of those on your list, plus some of the following names, then I would fear nobody in the world:

Red Kelly
Max Bentley
Bill Cook
Milt Schmidt
Eddie Shore
Dit Clapper
Harry Watson
George Armstrong
Bill Barilko.

Milt Dunnell had a quibble that he took up in the p.s. he added to Gzowski’s ballot. “Can’t help thinking you have been unfair to goalies. Without good goaling, none of these greats would have been so great.” He also wondered whether Gretzky really deserved his place on the list, given that he’d only played two NHL seasons to date.

Not everybody was quick to reply. Foster Hewitt delayed. Clarence Campbell sent back his ballot with Gretzky unrated, and added a handwritten aside:

My evaluation of Gretsky [sic] may not do justice to his real capabilities. I have not seen him play enough to make a valid assessment in contrast to the other 6 career greats.

Months passed and, with them, the 1980-81 season. By the end of it, Gretzky had broken Bobby Orr’s record for most assists in a single season and blown by the old Phil Esposito mark for most points. Gzowski seems to have prodded the former president not long after the season ended. Was he ready now to pass judgment on the 20-year-old Oiler centre?

Campbell replied that he had indeed followed accounts of Gretzky’s successes throughout season. But:

I am still in no better position to do a thorough and conscientious assessment simply because I have not seen him in action once during the season, so I have no better appreciation of his talents than I had a year ago when I declined to make an evaluation of him. The reason I did not see him is that until a month ago I could not see well enough to make it worthwhile to attend the games or to follow the games on TV. A month ago I had a cataract operation which has restored my sight in the operated eye to 20-20.

Seeing clearly, he would be pleased to evaluate Gretzky — if he could just have another year. Gzowski, surely, wanted his own assessment, “not the product of a media consensus.”

I believe that young Gretzky is a truly phenominal [sic] performer and will look forward to watching him next season.

I can’t say whether Campbell’s Gretzky numbers ever came in. Foster Hewitt’s had arrived, with a bonus Guy Lafleur score written in at the bottom. Hard to say whether Gzowski considered his effort a success or disappointment, or at which point he stowed away the vision he’d had for a book. He did take the time to tot up his totals in the summer of 1981 with the numbers he had at hand.

Without Smythe and Selke, he had six completed ballots along with Campbell’s all-but-Gretzky version. The only player to score 10s in every category was Howie Morenz, courtesy of the man who’d faced him on the ice, King Clancy. It was Clancy who doled out the lowest mark of all, too: Gretzky, for him, was a mere 5 when it came to Size and Strength (Roughness).

When it came to the final reckoning, Gretzky’s incomplete numbers dropped him off the final tally. Adding up the rest, Gzowski came to this ranking:

  1. Howie Morenz
  2. Maurice Richard
  3. Bobby Orr
  4. Gordie Howe
  5. Bobby Hull
  6. Jean Béliveau.

fh

 

a lot can happen in thirty-four seconds

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It’s been coming around every year on this day, since 1972, and every year we duly give bow our heads and give our thanks while observing the anniversary with small gestures of national relief (whew, we almost lost) and self-congratulation (wow, are we great). Yes, that’s right, on this day, September 28, 44 years ago, 34 seconds remained in the final ill-tempered game of the long grim Summit Series pitting many of Canada’s best hockey players against a squad of the Soviet Union’s. The clock at the Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium stopped at 19:26 of the third period, you’ll recall: that’s when Paul Henderson scored his timely goal to give the Canadians a 6-5 lead in the game. Accounts of the series describe the euphoria of that moment; they also tell of how the remainder of the game unfolded. A sampling of the latter, including a touch of the former:

Roy MacSkimming
Cold War: The Amazing Canada-Soviet Hockey Series of 1972 (1996) by Roy MacSkimming

The Canadian bench empties. Even Dryden goes lumbering all the way down the rink to join the ecstatic mob of white sweaters hugging, patting, squeezing and slapping Henderson.

The Soviets skate sluggishly about, stunned, their faces drained of hope, their cause apparently lost. Yet thirty-four seconds remain to play, and the Soviets are gifted with the power to score a sudden goal. It’s easy to imagine them tying this one up in thirty-four seconds, thus tying the series, and going on to claim victory on goal-differential.

Sinden stays with Stapleton, who was on the ice for the goal along with Savard. He sends out White and his two steadiest defensive forwards, Ellis and Peter Mahovlich, to join the indefatigable Esposito. The five don’t let the Soviets anywhere near Dryden. Even the Soviets themselves go halfheartedly through the motions, as if they don’t really expect to score. As if it were somehow ordained the Canadians would win.

With Gusev the last Soviet player to touch the puck, with the Canadian fans absolutely roaring out the countdown of the final seconds, Dryden hands off to Stapleton. Carefully, Stapleton carries the puck behind his net and passes up the boards to Mahovlich as the final horn sounds. Mahovlich lets the puck go by, Stapleton races after it, and the fans, as Foster Hewitt says, go wild.

Brad Park
Straight Shooter: The Brad Park Story (2012) by Brad Park and Thom Sears

When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal, I was on the bench. I had just got off the ice, maybe 20 seconds before. When he scored the winner, I was jumping out of my jockstrap!

Dennis Hull
The Third Best Hull (2013) by Dennis Hull and Robert Thompson

After Henderson scored, the whole team jumped out on the ice, but the game wasn’t over and Harry knew it. There were still 34 seconds remaining, but the Russians never really tried after Paul scored. They were finished. They didn’t pull the goalie, they didn’t rush, they didn’t give it all their effort.

Paul Henderson
Shooting For Glory (1997) by Paul Henderson with Mike Leonetti

I skated back to the bench and told Sinden, “Harry, I’m done.” I knew I couldn’t play those last 34 seconds. I was physically and emotionally drained. In any event, we held them off to win 6-5 and take the series four wins to three wit one game tied.

Ron Ellis
How Hockey Explains Canada: The Sport That Defines a Country (2012), by Jim Prime and Paul Henderson

When Paul scored that goal, I was one of the first guys over the boards. We were all huddled together. We started chanting, ‘We did it, we did it …’ but we still had 34 seconds to kill off. I was actually very honoured. Harry Sinden sent Pete Mahovlich and myself and Phil Esposito on to kill off that final 34 seconds. I remember Paul saying to me when the game was over, ‘That guy wasn’t going to go anywhere.’ I had him so wrapped up! For me, for myself I was pleased that Harry had enough confidence in me because a lot can happen in 34 seconds.

Jack Ludwig
Moscow Diary (1972) by Jack Ludwig

In time the game began again, but it was all count-down, the longest loudest triumphant cry-out numbers may have ever received. “O Canada” roared out suddenly: Canadians for this moment softened, and gave up trying to sound like a lynch mob.

In the final seconds it was the tour’s end, wedding, anniversary, christening, bar mitzvah, birth, birthday, New Year’s Eve, carnival, Day of Misrule — yes, and the Dieppe that ended with V-E Day!

Paul Henderson
The Goal of My Life (2012) by Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

I went back to the bench exhausted. I said, “Harry, I’m done, the tank is empty!” There was no way I was going back out there for the final thirty-four seconds. We killed those seconds off, the clock wound down, and we had the greatest victory of our lives. We were desperate to win and it showed, and that was the difference really. We didn’t want to go don in history as the team that couldn’t lose to the Russians but did … and thanks to that third-period rally, we didn’t!

Phil Esposito
Thunder and Lightning: A No B.S. Memoir (2003) by Phil Esposito and Peter Golenbock

After Pauly scored, we were ahead for the first time with only thirty-four seconds left in the game. I figured Harry Sinden wanted me to come out, but I looked at him like, Don’t you dare take me out. I was determined not to let them score.

I never left the ice. I was not going off until the whistle blew. I was bad that way, but I could not help myself. I felt I had to stay out there.

The puck came around the back of our net, and I got it, and I looked up to see that the time was running out, and when the horn blew, I looked up and cheered, and all the Team Canada players on the ice went crazy. The trumpeter from the Montreal Forum was sitting in the stands blowing loudly, and the Canadian fans in the stands — three thousand of them — were going crazy.

When the game ended I found myself right beside Ken Dryden, and I grabbed him. All the guys came over. The emotion we all felt more than anything else was relief.

I skated past the Russian coach, Kulagin, a big fat guy with a fat face who we nicknamed “Chuckles.” I said, “Too fucking bad, you fucking Commie prick.”

Harry Sinden
Hockey Showdown: The Canada-Russia Hockey Series (1972) by Harry Sinden

As I remember it now, we didn’t believe it for a split second. Our bench seemed to freeze. Maybe it was too good to be true. Suddenly, all the players were over the boards smothering Henderson. I looked at the clock — 34 seconds. I thought we had more time left than that, but I wished it were only four. I got the players who were going to be on the ice for the final half minute — Ellis, Espo, Peter — and told them not to take any chances. Just dump the puck out of the zone and keep them at center ice. The Russians never came close. When the game ended, Fergie, Eagleson, and I threw our arms around one another and ran across the ice like little kids. It’s a wonder we didn’t break our necks. I kept telling them, “Never in doubt, was it, fellas?”

Ken Dryden
Face-Off At The Summit (1973) by Ken Dryden with Mark Mulvoy

Then I realized there were still thirty-four seconds to play. The Russians had scored twice in nine seconds the other night. It was, without doubt, the longest thirty-four seconds I have ever played. It seemed like thirty-four days, but after everything we had been through, we weren’t going to let anything crush us now. We checked furiously and they never got off a decent shot. It was over. 6-5. The Canadians were singing “O Canada” in the stands and waving their miniature Canadian flags. And then they started that incessant cheer: “We’re No. 1, We’re No. 1.”

We are.

34

(Top photo: Frank Lennon, Library and Archives Canada, e010933343; Headline: The Globe and Mail, September 29, 1972)

bashin’ bill for the win

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. "We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Pro and Conn: Leaf boss Smythe congratulates Bill Barilko after his overtime goal won Toronto a Stanley Cup. “We just out-Irished them,” Smythe said at the time, alluding to Leaf luck in a tight series.

Bill Barilko still hadn’t disappeared on April 21, 1951, and there was no mourning for his memory, yet, just as there were no songs about him and (for a few more hours at least) no famous photographs of him falling to ice as he scored the goal that won the Toronto Maple Leafs their seventh Stanley Cup.

They were close-fought, those Finals, that year: “five consecutive sudden-death overtime heart buster” is how The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond wrote it. This last one, the Leafs’ Tod Sloan tied the score at twos with 32 seconds remaining in the third period, goaltender Al Rollins on the bench.

Barilko’s goal came at 2.53 of overtime. You can hear Foster Hewitt’s frantic call at CBC’s Digital Archives, here. James Marsh, founding editor of The Canadian Encyclopedia, attended the game as a seven-year-old, deciding early on, before the goal, that Barilko was going to be his favourite player — I’d read about that, if I were you, here.

barilko parkhurst

Referee Bill Chadwick supervises in the 1951-52 Parkhurst card based Turofsky’s famous photo.

As for the songs, I’ll leave you to spin, repeatedly, The Tragically Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” at your leisure — but have a listen, too, to “The Bill Barilko Song” by (NDP MP) Charlie Angus and The Grievous Angels. You’ll find it here.

As for the photographs, the best-known is the Turofsky, snapped (most likely by Nat rather than Lou) from behind, with the puck already in the net though Barilko is still falling. “It’s a flawless image, of course,” Andrew Podnieks writes in Portraits of the Game (1997), his fond celebration of the Turofskys’ rich hockey archive, though I have to say I prefer the view from the front, as caught by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns from the opposite side. (At first glance, I thought that must be one or other of the Turofskys in the corner, but of course it can’t be, the sightline isn’t right.) I like the handsome hopeful look on Barilko’s face that I’m glad to see in the Burns. In the Turofsky, as Podnieks notes, none of the spectators has realized yet that it’s a goal. They’re still in a time before the Leafs have won.

Montreal goaltender Gerry McNeil knows, though, I think, even though he’s got his eyes closed.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he's scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

Won The Leafs The Cup? Barilko looks to see if he’s scored in this view by Globe and Mail photographer Michael Burns.

This is another Burns, below, I’m assuming. It shows the moment of Barilko’s arising from the ice, just before he’s mobbed by teammates.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs' defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko's heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Game Over: A few fans have begun to celebrate. On the ice we see, from the right, referee Bill Chadwick. Behind the net, Habs’ defenceman Tom Johnson (10) tussles at Howie Meeker. Gerry McNeil sits while Bill Barilko arises. Butch Bouchard stands in front, looking lost, while Leaf Harry Watson (4) makes for the goalscorer. In the far corner, Cal Gardner (17) lifts his stick while Maurice Richard mimics Barilko’s heroic moment. Hard to say who the fifth Hab is, far left.

Danny Lewicki was a 19-year-old rookie for the Leafs that year. He recalls the aftermath in his 2006 autobiography, From The Coal Docks to the NHL: A Hockey Life:

The roar of the crowd was deafening. I have never heard, nor probably will ever hear such pandemonium. What an unbelievable series! …

The next hour was a blur. We skated around the ice in glee. We posed for pictures. I hugged so many people and shook so many hands that I was sore. But I felt no pain. We went into the dressing room to change into civies [sic] and the Stanley Cup was carried by Ted Kennedy into the Maple Leafs’ dressing room. They brought the Cup in and then they just whisked it out. I didn’t even get the chance to touch it.

Kevin Shea later collected Gerry McNeil’s unhappy view of things for Barilko: Without A Trace (2004). “It’s been my claim to fame,” the old goalie said before his death in 2004. “I still get a lot of mail from that goal — people asking me to autograph their picture of the Barilko goal.”

It wasn’t a hard shot, he said.

“I just simply missed it. You have a sense on most goals of the puck coming and you get ready, but on this one, I don’t know what happened. I had to look at pictures after. It surprised me — I don’t know how the puck got in. At the time, I didn’t even know who shot it — I never knew who scored most of the goals that were scored against me. But there was Barilko. He was right at the face-off circle.”

“It was just a shocker. It was an awful disappointment.”

how to win the olympics: give ’em the works!

stamp

Ever since hockey found its way into the Olympics in Antwerp in 1920, Canadians have enjoyed the glory of winning gold medals. Easy enough at first — Canadian teams went 16-0-1 at the first four Games, scoring 209 goals while conceding just 7 — it got harder and harder as other countries got better and better. After winning six of first seven tournaments, Canada lost the plot in 1956, when the Soviet Union took over as the dominant force in Olympic hockey.

We did our best in those years, with only minimal grumbling that they weren’t as amateur as they said they were, before skipping the 1972 and 1976 Olympics altogether. It took us a while, once we came back in 1980, to win the thing again: it was 2002, in Salt Lake City, before Canadians wore gold again on Olympic ice. 

The home-ice victory of 2010 remains fresh in Canadian memories. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy in Sochi for Mike Babcock’s 2014 team. The coaches and players will have their own ideas about how best to win the tournament that gets underway on February 8. We’ll leave the on-ice plan to them. Chances are their preparations won’t include more than a cursory review of hockey’s literature, and maybe that’s where we can help. As our Crosbys and Tavareses, our Toewses and Luongos get ready for Russia, we’ll do the bibliographic heavy lifting with a look at literary answers to the old question of how best to bring home Olympic hockey gold. Off the shelf today: broadcaster Foster Hewitt’s third book, the 1950 novel Hello Canada! and Hockey Fans in the United States.  

Your dad reads in the paper that Canada is probably never again going to win another Olympic hockey title. That’s how it starts. What you do is you say, what, are you kidding me, why, dad, why?

This is before the professionals started going to the Olympics, and that’s really the whole problem — as your dad sees it, anyway. Hockey, he explains to his son, it belongs to us, we invented it, and we’re the ones who taught the world to play. Not that we don’t love that the rest of the other countries like it, too, and have improved, it’s just that our best players all turn pro and we don’t have any outstanding amateur teams, so things are getting a little close for comfort, especially when you consider how good those Czecholsovaks are getting.

You: But why is it so nationally important for us to win the Olympics?
Your dad: We don’t have a big population in Canada. How do we make ourselves look big powerful in the eyes of other people? How? In wartime, our soldiers did it for us; when all we’ve got is peace, hockey has to do the job.
You: Oh.
Your dad: Maybe some countries can afford to let the world think they’re losing their vigor and courage but we’re not one of them.
You: Hey, dad, why don’t you get a team together.
Your dad: No, son, sorry, that’s just not how the world works.

Except that it does. He does get a team together. Like Foster Hewitt’s own dad, W.A., who had a hand in organizing three Canadian Olympic hockey teams, 1920 through ’28, as well as (just for the record) refereeing the very first Olympic game in Antwerp in 1920 — your dad, in the story, is a well-connected hockey man who comes up with a four-year plan to build a team of stout young men to defend our national pride.

So he does that: talks his town, the mythical Gloster, into sponsoring the team that’s going to restore local pride even as it saves the nation’s honour. You and your dad will eventually fade out of Hewitt’s narrative, but not before your dad recruits Bill Bailey to coach, good guy, patient, great teacher, and then you go looking for players, remembering that size doesn’t matter so much as, quote, the stuff inside: fight, gameness, will-to-win. Continue reading