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.”

 

on this day in 1893: when baron stanley of preston first sent his cup to montreal

Trustee John: Dr. Sweetland in thoughtful repose in 1870, before the distinguished Ottawa surgeon took up his role as one of the Stanley Cup’s original custodians. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada)

If you’re out and about in Toronto today, lucky for you — so, too, is the original Stanley Cup, which the Hockey Hall of Fame is letting out of its vault for the day. You can take a photograph with the simple silver bowl that Frederick Stanley, Baron Stanley of Preston, commissioned and donated as Canada’s sixth governor-general, grasp it in your hands, raise it to your lips, swig some champagne — actually, I don’t know about the grasping and the champagne. Probably that’s forbidden. Paying a visit is definitely a go, though, on this auspicious anniversary: it was 125 years ago, May 15, 1893, that the Cup was presented for the very first time, in Montreal.

The tale of how that happened is a bit of a tangled one, with accents of confusion and even rancor. I’m not certain that they’ll be highlighting the whole messy truth of the matter down at the Hall today, but do feel free to ask about it, if you’re going.

It was back in 1892 that Lord Stanley originally announced his intention to donate a trophy — you remember all this from hockey catechism back in school, no doubt. It had to be commissioned, smithed, engraved & etc., back in London, in England, and it wasn’t until early May of ’93 that the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup arrived in Ottawa — just as its perpetrator was preparing to head the other way.

That April, Lord Stanley’s elder brother had died in England, making him the 16th Earl of Derby. While his term, which he’d started in 1888, didn’t officially come to its end until September of 1893, he was already preparing to depart. Word of the appointment of his successor, the Earl of Aberdeen, was already circulating, and earlier in May the Globe advised that he’d given the servants at Rideau Hall their notice — along with a bonus of three months’ pay and a faithful promise to recommend them to the new man of the house, in case he might be hiring.

Earl Derby stayed on in Canada until July, as it turned out, and so he could have presented his hockey trophy for the first time, if he’d chosen to. Instead, he delegated the work to locals. The future former Governor-General had appointed two Ottawa-based trustees to look after and administer his new trophy, Philip Ross and Dr. John Sweetland. Ross, owner and publisher of The Ottawa Journal, had played hockey with Lord Stanley’s son Edward as a member of the Rideau Rebels. Sweetland was a prominent doctor who also served as sheriff of Carleton County and, thereby, the Supreme Court. They were the ones who made the decision that the new trophy would be awarded to the hockey club of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association — the MAAA — champions of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHA). This in itself was not without controversy, insofar as the MAAA won the last game of the season by default over the Montreal Crystals after the latter abandoned the game in protest over the referee’s decision not to allow a previously penalized player to play in the overtime. This didn’t specially please the Ottawa Hockey Club, sitting in second place: an MAAA loss to the Crystals would have left the two top teams with identical won-loss records. It wasn’t as though the rules for the new trophy had been set out from the beginning of the season, either: Ottawa thought that playoffs might be in order.

Didn’t happen. For a full and fascinating account of the further confusion that marked the actual awarding of the trophy, I recommend Paul Kitchen’s essay “They Refused The Stanley Cup,” which you’ll find in the second edition of Total Hockey (2000). Kevin Shea and John Jason Wilson’s book Lord Stanley: The Man Behind The Cup (2006) is also required reading.

In short, Sheriff Sweetland was the one who carried the cup to Montreal, where he was due to make a formal presentation at the annual meeting of the MAAA. In preparation for that, the MAAA’s secretary advised the president of the hockey team, James Stewart, who also happened to be a member of the winning team. The reply from the latter astounded the former: the hockey players advised that they did not wish to receive the trophy until they’d had an opportunity to review the conditions “upon which said trophy was to be held,” asking that this decision be passed on to the trustees.

Newspaper reports of the proceedings on this day in 1893 don’t mention the kerfuffle that ensued when the MAAA refused to go along with this. If the hockey players didn’t want to receive their trophy, then the club’s leadership would do so on their behalf. And so it was that Sheriff Sweetland handed over the first Stanley Cup to MAAA president James Taylor rather than the hockey club’s James Stewart.

In his remarks, Sweetland joked that the Governor-General would much sooner have had the cup kept in Ottawa, “but after the Capital he preferred to see Montreal hold it. The only thing he was not certain about was how the Montreal people managed to win all the decisive games.”

There would be more strife to come at the MAAA between the leadership and the hockey club, but on this day, the peaceful façade included the club’s board presenting the nine cup-winning players with engraved gold rings. Off the ice, they were bank clerks and bookkeepers, worked for the Dominion Bridge Company, sold Liebling’s Liquid Extract and Tonic Invigorator. Tom Paton was a manufacturer’s agent who happened to be a founder of the MAAA itself, as well as the original driving force behind its hockey club — for which he also played goaltender. A hundred and twenty-five years ago today, for his long and dedicated services in all those capacities, he got a Heintzman piano.

mighty maracle

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

Great to see Fred Sasakamoose honoured yesterday as one of 124 appointees to the Order of Canada. The pride of Saskatchewan’s Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation started the week with a birthday — he turned 84 on Christmas Day — and yesterday he joined 85 distinguished others in being named a Member of Canada’s highest civilian honour. Best known as a pioneering hockey player, Sasakamoose has also worked tirelessly over the years with youth in his community as well as counselling young people with addictions. It’s high time he was recognized. Hours after the Order of Canada was announced by Governor-General Julie Payette in Ottawa, Sasakamoose was on the ice at Edmonton’s Rogers Place to preside over a ceremonial face-off featuring Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. It was the Blackhawks for whom Sasakamoose played his 11 NHL games, debuting as a 19-year-old in November of 1953.

As we credit Fred Sasakamoose’s entirely deserving work and experience and achievement, today might also be the day to point out a historical oversight that yesterday’s news from Rideau Hall only served to solidify.

Sasakamoose’s Order of Canada citation goes like this:

For his trailblazing contributions as the first Indigenous player in the NHL and for his work in seeking the betterment of his community through sports.

Reports in the press yesterday and today have steered the same way. “First Indigenous NHL player,” reported the CBC, The Edmonton Sun, the NHL.com, et al. “The first Indian player for an NHL team,” Simona Choise wrote in this morning’s Globe and Mail, with a nod from Sasakamoose himself. “Your white man called me Indian 100 or 200 years ago,” he’s quoted as saying; “I don’t mind that, I like it the way it is.”

Here’s the thing: at least one Indigenous player made it to NHL ice ahead of Sasakamoose’s debut in 1953.

Twenty-two years earlier, in early 1931, 26-year-old Henry Maracle suited up for the New York Rangers. But while the Society for International Hockey Research recognizes him as the league’s first Indigenous player, word doesn’t seem to have filtered out into the wider world. It’s time he was recognized, for that and more. Like Sasakamoose, Maracle played 11 NHL games before he was returned to the minor-league career he’d been pursuing at the time of his call-up. For all his efforts, Sasakamoose’s NHL numbers include no goals or assists to go with his six minutes of penalty time. Maracle made a bit more of a statistical mark, serving four minutes in the penalty box while also aiding teammates with three assists. And he scored a goal of his own.

Details of Henry Maracle’s life and career are scanty at best. He was Mohawk, born (very probably) in 1904, in (pretty sure) the town of Ayr in southwestern Ontario. That makes it entirely possible that he skated and maybe even hockeyed on the ice of the Nith River, which is also where, many winters later, Wayne did some of his earliest Gretzkying, in Brantford, just to the south.

At some point he got to North Bay, Ontario, where he played his junior hockey for the local Trappers alongside future Leafs Gerry Lowrey and Shorty Horne. When Maracle got married in 1924 at the age of 19, he put his pen to an affidavit to get a license, giving his profession as “riveter.” (His wife, 20-year-old Irene Marshall, was a stenographer.) If on official paperwork he remained Henry, he was mostly called otherwise throughout his hockey career: Bud or more often Buddy was his nom-de-glace, though sometimes, inevitably, the papers tagged him Chief Maracle.

By 1926 he’d gone professional, graduating to the newborn Can-Am League, where he signed with the team in Springfield, Massachusetts. Maybe Maracle’s background was lost on some who saw him play in those years, but for many it provoked a cascade of cultural stereotyping. For some others, it triggered racist comment that’s no less searing for being so long-ago or casually or smirkingly cast. I’m only going on newspaper clippings; I can only imagine the grotesqueries that Maracle would have faced in person, on the ice and from the stands.

The fact that the Springfield franchise was nicknamed the Indians licensed all kinds of winking nastiness among the headline writers and beat reporters. The Indians won the Can-Am championship in 1927 and repeated in ’28, with Maracle playing a major scoring role, and so he featured as the “Giant Redskin” and “Springfield Injun.”

Here’s a newspaperman named Stan Baumgartner accounting for a dominant performance in early 1928 by “miracle Maracle,” “a mighty, marvellous Indian,” when “the Red poison” scored a pair of goals in a come-from-behind victory Springfield engineered over the Philadelphia Arrows:

Alone this great Indian had snatched the game from the ignominy of defeat to the glories of victory. And when he left the ice, a few seconds later, the entire throng arose and gave one mighty cheer for the original American, first in the forests, first on the trails, and first in the hockey ring tonight.

It was Conn Smythe, apparently, who first rated Maracle as potential NHL material. This was in 1926, when the future Leaf panjandrum was (briefly) in charge of assembling the expansion New York Rangers. When Lester Patrick replaced Smythe, he farmed Maracle to New York’s team in Springfield.

Five years passed before Patrick found a place for Maracle in his big-league line-up. This was February of 1931. He was 27 now, and “veteran” was a regular adjective attending his name in the papers along with the inescapable “Indian.” Bert Perry of Toronto’s Globe noted that Maracle had been playing as effectively “two and three years ago” as he was in ’31, “but it probably required five years for Lester Patrick to see possibilities in him.” Perry’s potted biography vaguely told of Maracle’s background as “an Indian reservation in northern Ontario near North Bay” before cruising, unfortunately, to this finish:

If nothing else, his presence on [sic] the Rangers’ line-up ought to inspire New York sport writers to write some curdling stories about him. He will probably make his first appearance at Madison Square Gardens all decked out in feathers and a tomahawk or two just to provide a little atmosphere.

Maracle joined the Rangers in Detroit, making his NHL debut in a 1-1 tie with the local (pre-Red Wings) Falcons. He made no impression on the scoresheet that night, nor in New York’s next two games, a 2-1 win in Chicago and a 5-4 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators. A headline from a dispatch detailing the former: “Apples Are Thrown At Referee By Fans.”

It was in New York next game, Maracle’s fourth, that he made the biggest impression he’d make in his short NHL career. Hosting the Philadelphia Quakers before a not-very crowded crowd of 8,000 at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers won handily, 6-1. When Cecil Dillon scored New York’s fifth goal in the second period, Maracle was the man who set him up to beat Quaker goaltender Wilf Cude. In the third, Dillon returned the favour, assisting on Maracle’s lone NHL goal. Low or high? Shovelled in from the crease or sizzled from afar? I’m afraid the papers don’t yield much in the way of further description of how it happened. To go with the scoring, Maracle did, on this night, take all the penalties he’d take in his NHL career, which is to say, both of them.

Buddy Maracle skated in all four of the Rangers’ playoff games in the spring of 1931 before they were eliminated by Chicago. He registered no points and took no penalties. the following fall, Lester Patrick did what he’d done back in ’26, cutting Maracle again, consigning him back to Springfield.

There’s not much more to add, at this point, to Maracle’s biography. He played another nine minor-league seasons after his NHL stint, skating on in the Can-Am League for Springfield before moving over the New Haven Eagles. He played for Tulsa’s Oilers in the American Hockey Association before ending up with a series of senior-league teams, including the Detroit Pontiac Chiefs and the San Diego Skyhawks. He died in Dallas in 1958 at the age of 53.

Five years had passed since Fred Sasakamoose had taken his turn with Chicago. By 1953, Buddy Maracle’s trailblazing time in the NHL was already all but forgotten, even as the stereotypes renewed themselves for the debut of another Indigenous player. Informing its readers that Sasakamoose was “the first full-blooded Indian ever to play” in the NHL, The Chicago Tribune added that he was known “to his tribesmen as Chief Running Deer.”

 

my first hockey game: kirstie mclellan day

Hockey She Wrote: Wayne Gretzky and Kirstie McLellan Day.

Hockey squandered its best chance of snaring William Faulkner as a fan in January of 1955. I’m still not entirely sure who’s to blame for failing to catch the Nobel laureate’s imagination. Could have been the fans at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which Faulkner attended on assignment for Sports Illustrated to witness the hometown Rangers take on the all-powerful Montreal Canadiens. They were smoking, I guess, the fans, and maybe altogether too raucous for Faulkner’s placid soul. Or maybe was it the not-very-good Rangers that turned him off? Unless it was hockey itself: “discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical,” he called it when he wrote it all up.

In a book I wrote a few years ago about the spells that hockey casts, and the shadows, I spent some time with Faulkner — Ernest Hemingway, too — trying to suss out just how they could have failed to have been enchanted by hockey. I also wrote about Evelyn, Viscountess Byng of Vimy in Puckstruck, and how the first hockey game she saw hooked her for life.

This was in Ottawa in 1921, in the first fall of her husband’s tenure as governor-general. The visiting Toronto St. Patricks beat the Senators 5-4. “It was one of the cleanest games on record,” a local newspaper reported next morning, “not a player decorating the penalty box. The checking was heavy and the ceaseless pace a menace to temper-control, but all turned in a splendid record.” Babe Dye scored a couple of goals for the winning team, and Ken Randall scored a couple of others. Also on the ice were Clint Benedict, Frank Nighbor, Frank Boucher. Ottawa captain Eddie Gerard presented Lady Byng with a bouquet of American Beauty roses.

It may be that this first exposure to hockey, pacey yet peaceable, set the standard by which Lady Byng judged the sport from there on after. When subsequent games didn’t meet the mark, did she see no other alternative than to save the game from itself by donating her trophy for skilled, gentlemanly conduct?

Hard to say. I don’t, in general, know what these initial exposures to hockey reveal about the first-timer in question, or about hockey. Still, I like the idea of someone venturing for the first time into a rink, happening on hockey. What do they see? How does it hit them?

Beyond the book, I’ve continued to collect first-time accounts as I’ve come across them. I’ve written about the Dionne quintuplets, and about Henry Ford sitting in as Larry Aurie and Ebbie Goodfellow Detroit Falcons lost to Bill Cook’s New York Rangers in 1932. Browsing the file I’ve built up, I find clippings about World War I heroes of the Royal Navy attending their first hockey games, and a photograph from the night in 1995 a future king of Spain watched Doug Gilmour’s Toronto Maple Leafs slip past Theo Fleury’s Calgary Flames. I’ve got a notice here from 1936 that tells me that the entire roster of New Zealand’s vaunted rugby team, the All Blacks, saw their first NHL game at the Forum. (Canadiens and Rangers tied 1-1 that time.)

This fall, I’ve been seeking out more stories of first encounters with NHL hockey. None of them, so far, have come in from Nobel laureates or viscountesses; unlike Faulkner and Lady Byng, my correspondents were all familiar with the game, as fans or players or both, before they got to a big-league rink. They are writers and historians, journalists, poets, former players I’ve been soliciting to ask about the first NHL game they attended, who they saw, what made an impression. They’ve been generous in their responses. You’ll be seeing these recollections in this space in the coming weeks, if you keep a watch.

First up, today: Kirstie McLellan Day.

Earlier this year, BookNet Canada released a list of the 150 bestselling Canadian books since 2007. The list of authors implicated in this is an impressive one. Robert Munsch not only tops the chart with Love You Forever, he recurs throughout, with a remarkable 34 other titles. As noted by BookNet, Margaret Atwood has four books on the list, while Alice Munro and Chris Hadfield are some of those writers with three. Not so noticed: five of the bestsellers (including the top-rated hockey book) have Day’s name on the cover.

fleuryThe Calgary writer, journalist, TV host and producer has been prolific for a while. Her hockey streak started in 2009, when she worked with Theo Fleury on his autobiography, Playing With Fire. (Ranked 17th on the BookNet 150, it has outsold Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff, The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, and Stephen J. Harper’s A Great Game.)

Day went on to score assists on books by Bob Probert (Tough Guy in 2010) and Ron MacLean (Cornered in 2011 and Hockey Towns in 2015), and on Wayne Gretzky’s 99 Stories of the Game (2016). Still to come is Hellbent, a memoir by Marty McSorley. Kelly Hrudey’s Calling The Shots, out this fall, is her latest collaboration.

Kirstie McLellan Day, then, on the first NHL game she saw for herself.

Growing up in Regina, everybody knew somebody who had something to do with the NHL. My mom grew up across the street from “little Dickie Irvin” who became one of our very best hockey broadcasters for decades. He broke his arm climbing her family fence when he was four years old. Amazing guy. A living encyclopedia of hockey stories. Dick is now a good friend and a source for countless anecdotes in the hockey books I write. One of my dad’s best friends was Billy Hicke, who played for the Canadiens and the California Seals. Gordie Howe who was born in a farmhouse in Floral, just up the highway near Saskatoon, came to town regularly to sign autographs for kids at Simpson’s Department Store. My husband, Larry, was one of those kids. He first met Gordie when he was ten. The hockey card that Gordie signed hangs in his office.

With all those connections, hockey should have been in my blood from the start, but I was a late bloomer. Very late. It wasn’t until the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary in the early 80s that I started to take an interest. Don’t judge.

Larry was the anchorman at CFAC TV, the local station that carried the Flames games. He got tickets once in a while and so he dragged me to my first NHL game, April 21, 1988. The Smythe Division Finals against the hated Edmonton Oilers. Standing room only and LOUD.

I remember Wayne skating out and the crowd booing. He seemed to revel in it. And then Messier skated over with that big shit-eating grin of his, and they were laughing. Oooo, that pissed people off. We were on Wayne every time he touched the puck. Anytime he went down or skated near an official, the rink echoed with a chorus of, “Whiner! Whiner! Whiner!” Never fazed him. Just seemed to make him play harder. Wayne scored the OT winner. Damn you, Gretzky. We filed out tired, elated, and dejected.

I never dreamed that someday I’d be sitting around his kitchen table with him writing a book about it. Um, the booing and the whiner part never came up, so I’d appreciate it if you kept that part just between us.

 

(Image: Kirstie McLellan Day)

 

men o’ the north: barrels of speed and classy stickhandling, and weight is their middle name

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As the NHL looks ahead to its centenary in 2017, the last week of 2016’s December marked the 100th anniversary of the opening of the final dysfunctional season of the NHA, its now lesser-known and largely unloved predecessor. As the First World War entered its fourth ruinous year, the National Hockey Association opened its 1916-17 with six teams, five of which might be fairly classified as conventional franchises along with an entirely unlikely sixth. Joining Montreal’s Canadiens and Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, Ottawa’s Senators and the Toronto Blueshirts on the eastern Canadian ice that winter was a team representing the 228th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Raised in Ontario’s near-north and headquartered, originally, at North Bay, the battalion adopted the moniker Northern Fusiliers, a name that served the hockey team, too, along with Men O’ The North and just plain Soldiers. The story of how a team of Canadian infantry was (briefly, while it lasted) one of professional hockey’s powerhouses is a fascinating one that I wrote about recently in The New York Times. It’s one I’ll be reconnoitering in greater detail here, too, starting with (why not) the team’s first foray on ice ahead of the season’s opening. The NHA schedule had been published, with league play due to get underway on Wednesday, December 27. Across the league, rosters were still taking shape and indeed at the end of November, a nasty string of disputes over players had thrown the 228th’s participation into doubt. That was out of the players’ hands: they just wanted to keep skating.

The Soldiers hit the ice for practice at the Arena on Mutual Street in early November, the earliest Toronto pros had ever started their preparations in the city hockey history, some said. Even then they were being touted as favourites to win the championship of the NHA barely a month after their application to join the league was accepted.

Apart from the quality of their roster, it would be the fittest by far. The Ottawa Journal acknowledged the advantage that all the teams were calculating:

with a summer’s military training under their belt and with them doing gym work now as well as getting in an occasional practice on the ice, [the 228th] is bound to be in the best possible condition when the season opens.

From the NHA’s point of view, adding the 228th as a franchise made the straightest kind of sense. These were, after all, some of the best players in the land. They also lent the league patriotic cover during a time in which the debate about whether professional sports should be carrying on as usual was a real and active one.

And yet even after the Soldiers came aboard, their place in the league remained unsettled through November. Not all of the NHA’s civilian teams were willing to cede the hockey rights to players who, before they’d donned khaki, had been on their books. Canadiens seemed resigned to having lost Goldie Prodgers, Howard McNamara, and Amos Arbour to the khaki, but Toronto and its contentious owner Eddie Livingstone wasn’t as serene when it came to Duke Keats, Archie Briden, and Percy LeSueur. Wrangling over Keats in particular would nearly scupper the 228th’s NHA plan altogether, and it wasn’t until the end of November that the Northern Fusiliers finally backed down and ceded Keats and Briden to the Blueshirts.

Even so, the line-up as it was shaping up in the months ahead of the season’s opening was an impressive one. “The 228th Battalion could present as strong a team as ever played in the NHA,” Ottawa’s Journal was telling readers as early as September. Sergeant Percy LeSueur, 34, was pencilled in as the goaltender, a two-time Stanley Cup winner destined to end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame. (Baz O’Meara also called him, in 1944, “the handsomest man who ever stood in front of a corded cabin.”) The brothers (and fellow lieutenants) McNamara (a.k.a. the Dynamite Twins) manned the defence. Slated for the attack were Sergeant Goldie Prodgers, Lieutenant Art Duncan, Amos Arbour, and Gordon Meeking.

In November, the team snapped up Eddie Oatman, who’d starred at centre for the 1915-16 season with the PCHA Portland Rosebuds, the team the Montreal Canadiens had beaten to claim the Stanley Cup. The 228th already counted three members of that Canadiens team in its ranks in Arbour, Howard McNamara, and Prodgers.

As The Toronto News told it, the latter pair travelled to Oatman’s home in Tillsonburg, Ontario, to persuade Oatman to forgo a return to the west coast. Why not join their campaign, instead? There would be controversy, later, regarding the terms of Oatman’s agreement with the battalion, and indeed whether he’d enlisted in the Army at all. He had, signing his attestation papers on November 1, with teammate Jack Brown standing by as his witness. According to the News, upon their arrival back in Toronto, the recruiters and their star catch made only the briefest stop at the 228th quarters before heading for Arena ice, where Toronto Blueshirts owner Eddie Livingstone watched the “Big Five” (the McNamaras, Prodgers, Oatman, and Keats) “take a whirl on skates.” Prodgers for one was reported to be “as enthusiastic as a schoolboy;”

now that Oatman has been added to the ranks, he can see nothing but another championship before they go overseas.

When the Soldiers weren’t skating, they were working out under the direction of Sergeant Frank Carroll’s direction at the West End YMCA at the corner of Davenport and College. Carroll, a former boxer with a Canadian welterweight title to his name, was a trainer of some repute in Toronto sporting circles. He’d tended the Toronto Blueshirts when they won the Stanley Cup in 1914 as well as working a summertime job for the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s AA International League. After the war, he’d take on the same role for Toronto’s inaugural NHL team, the Arenas, where his brother Dick was coach.

Given all the trouble the 228th got into regarding the propriety of icing a professional hockey team and the permission to do so, it’s worth noting that the battalion did seek permission through the chain of command before getting involved in celebrating an Allies’ Carnival at the Arena in early December. Organized by the 204th (Beavers) Battalion, it featured as its centerpiece a hockey game in which the 228th deploying against a select military team drawn from the 204th and other battalions quartered at Toronto’s lakeshore Exhibition grounds. Organized and led by a former OHA star, Lieutenant Herbie Birmingham, the All-Stars counted a ringer, too, in their ranks: Bruce Ridpath, the first captain of Toronto’s original NHA team and a Stanley Cup winner with Ottawa in 1910-11.

A crowd of 5,000 were on hand for the game. The referee was Harvey Sproule, another future coach of the NHL Arenas. In this, the Soldiers’ first test, they passed colourfully, and with pomp. “The 228th can hardly be improved upon,” decided the correspondent from Toronto’s World.

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winterspiele 1936: wet snow and salutes by the trillion

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The Finns said they were out, sorry, apologies, but they wouldn’t be playing in the hockey tournament because (and I quote) ice hockey sport is too young in Finland to venture upon powerful international tryouts. This was a week or two before the Olympics were due to open in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, if not quite the eleventh hour then maybe the tenth.

The Americans were still in London at this point, losing an exhibition game to Streatham by a score of 8-4.

The Canadians, having played their single European exhibition in Paris, headed on for Germany.

The Germans had Rudi Ball back in their team, a dynamic forward, their best player, who happened to be Jewish, and had left the country for Paris and Milan after Adolf Hitler came to power. He’d been persuaded to return by the Reich sports leader, Captain Hans von Tschammer und Osten.

Ball was scoring goals in Germany’s exhibition games in January; Captain von Tschammer und Osten was no doubt busily involved with all the last-minute Olympic preparations being reported daily in North American newspapers. Germans planning to attend events in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were being told they should go in civvies, for example: “Because the games are primarily international athletic competitions, it is the wish that spectators wear sport clothes and not uniforms.” Also: local restaurants, cafés and hotel bars could stay open until 6 a.m. for the duration of the Games.

Oh, and from Munich came word that the city was at last ready to comply with a government order to remove all “Jews Not Wanted” signs from public spaces. They’d been cleared from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and elsewhere for a while, but stubborn Munich had been holding out.

gpThe weather in Bavaria was balmy, and while there was plenty of snow on the mountains above the town, and Lake Riesser was still frozen, the bobsled run was closed, leaving (the Associated Press reported) the world’s “bulky bobbers” with nothing “to do except eat their usual five square meals daily.”

Italy was looking forward to the next Olympics, declaring their bid and the hope that the world would gather in 1940 in beautiful Cortina d’Ampezzo.

The U.S. played in Paris, where a team of French-Canadians beat them 6-2. They did better in Brussels two nights later, dismissing the Etoile du Nord by a score of 9-5.

From Canada, the news was that Pud Kitchen was a dandy, and that Dinty Moore and Hugh Farquharson were decided assets. Albert Pudas was the source of the praise, the Canadian coach, writing about his team in a letter to his hometown newspaper, the Port Arthur News-Chronicle. “Ken Farmer,” he added, “says he is the best hockey player in Canada, except Hooley Smith. That is a great spirit to have.”

As opposed, I guess, to the not-so-great version that, according to Phil Drackett, Canadian captain Herman Murray possessed. No-one was reporting this at the time: it was 1992 before Phil Drackett published Vendetta On Ice, a history of hockey at the German Olympics, in which he gives us a Murray who’s gruff and somewhat dour (Ken Farmer’s view) and a troublemaker (Albert Pudas’).

Vendetta On Ice is a distinctly British view of the tournament, if I can mention that without impugning the author’s honour, or suggesting any outward hostility towards Canadians and their interests. Drackett says that Murray had a notoriously bad temper and a nickname to commemorate it: Needles. Unless it was Dave Neville who was Needles: he was, after all, tall and thin. Drackett does say that Alex Sinclair and Malcolm Cochran agreed with Pudas about Murray, and quotes another source to the effect that he, Murray, liked to fight, and reports that in the Canadians exhibition in Paris he got very irked when the local scoreboard styled the visiting team as “Port Arthur” instead of “Canada” — he was, you’ll recall, one of the Montreal Royals who’d been added to the corps of Bearcats — and that when teammate Bill Thomson told not to worry about it, Murray thought it might be worthwhile to fight him and the team’s trainer (also a Port Arthur man), Scotty Stewart.

If that’s true, it does make you wonder how Pudas and Cochran came to name Murray to the captaincy in the first place. And was it just too late to make a change in Paris, if/when the captain started beating up teammates and support staff?

January was about to turn to February. Other breaking news of the day included reporting that the German government, via their embassy in Tokyo, was demanding that Japanese publications cease from caricaturing Chancellor Adolf Hitler in print, given that he was a national leader rather than a politician and therefore, by rights, owed immunity from lampooning.

The Japanese, for their part, voiced their annoyance at a recent speech of Hitler’s in which he’d mentioned (as The New York Times reported it) the right of Europeans to rule coloured peoples. A spokesman from the Japanese Foreign Office said he wasn’t entirely sure in what capacity Hitler was speaking,

but that his ideas, as reported, were offensive to the Japanese, who did not believe it was their destiny to be ruled by whites. Such utterances, he said, made it difficult to persuade Japanese newspapers to regard Hitler as exempt from the criticism to which politicians exposed themselves.

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The week Hitler’s regime entered its fourth year, an industrious writer for an American wire service did some quick calculations.

January 30 marked the third anniversary of the Nazis having come to power, and there were more speeches in Germany to mark the occasion. Hans Frank, minister without portfolio, said, “We do not care what the world says about our Jewish legislation.” Nazi law, he explained, took account of five cardinal factors: blood, soil, honour, labour, and the will to defend.

At a Berlin festival attended by 26,000 soldiers, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels got things going by declaring how proud he was that the capital was a German city now, free of Jews and Marxists. “You, my storm troop comrades,” Hitler said, “are the guarantors of the future.”

German roller-skate authorities announced, meanwhile, that it looked like plans for adding roller hockey to the schedule at the forthcoming Berlin Summer Olympics were going ahead.

The weather in Garmisch-Partenkirchen turned wet. Snow was falling in town, but it was a slushy stuff, and the bobsledders were still only feeding, and the speedskaters couldn’t practice.

Back home, Ottawa had its claim on in for coldest place in Eastern Canada, at -16. Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir was taking advantage of the weather, heading out into the snowy capital to pursue his newest passion: cross-country skiing. While Lady Tweedsmuir took a sleigh-ride, His Excellency undertook a brief but strenuous expedition with Colonel J.T. Thomson, Dominion franchise commissioner.

It was only a week or two since the Tweedsmuirs had witnessed their first Canadian hockey game, in Ottawa, when the Senators beat the Montreal Victorias. The Governor-General had been impressed, reported The Montreal Gazette, smiling and applauding warmly, sitting throughout the game without a hat.

The Americans arrived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. They were tired. Their lacklustrous showing in the exhibition games they’d played since arriving in Europe had (1) allayed the fears of Canadian observers and (2) caused disquiet among American fans and officials.

Finland’s withdrawal left 15 teams, organized into four preliminary-round groups:

Group A: Canada, Austria, Poland, Latvia
Group B: Germany, USA, Italy, Switzerland
Group C: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, France, Belgium
Group D: Great Britain, Sweden, Japan

The two best teams in each group — eight nations — would qualify for the semi-final round, explained The Ottawa Journal to readers in mid-January. Two teams from each of those groups (for a total of four) would then advance to the final round, wherein a winner and three runners-up would be determined.

Canada’s first game was slated for Thursday, February 6: right after the opening ceremonies, they’d lace up for a meeting with Poland.

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Weeks before the Canadians arrived in Germany, The Globe and other Canadian papers ran this strangely gloomy illustration.

The Americans said they were due to give their northern neighbours a surprise in the hockey tournament. Some Americans did. Boston’s Daily Globe called the Canadians strongly favoured. Olympic previews published back home in the Hope, Arkansas Star, for instance, noted that while the U.S, team was the only one likely to give the Canadians a run for their money, they weren’t exactly lighting up the continent.

Still, Canadians were wary of them. They did have a Canadian-born goaltender, after all, in Tom Moone, and their best forward, Frank Shaughnessy, had been captain of the McGill University team before graduating to star for the Montreal Victorias. “The pre-game dope,” said The Ottawa Citizen, had the U.S. “figured to give the Canadians their stiffest argument.” They would prove, others opined, Canada’s most dangerous foe. No to worry too much, of course: “The feeling exists, however, that they will protect the Dominion’s hockey supremacy at Garmisch-Partenkirchen with plenty to spare.”

The Globe was assuring its readers, too. “There never was need for great concern over Canada’s chances in Olympic hockey.”

The Ottawa Journal was picking Canada and the U.S. to make the final four along with Germany and either Sweden or Switzerland.

J.F. Fitzgerald from The Toronto Telegram was looking at the U.S. to come in third, with the Great Britain or Switzerland in second. The British, of course, had so many Canadian-trained players among them that they were more or less a second Dominion squad, which was why it would be nice to see Canada and Great Britain to run one-two.

Erwin Schwangart was on the ground for The Globe, and on the eve of the Games getting going, he talked to several Canadians about how they thought the hockey tournament might unfold. One of these was Canadian baking mogul W. Garfield Weston, who’d made the journey over from London where he was working; another was Val Hoffinger, who’d grown up in Saskatchewan and played a bit for the Chicago Black Hawks in the late ’20s.

“Hoffinger gave Canada the nod for first place by a wide margin,” Schwangart reported two days before the Olympics opened. A generous opinion, given that Hoffinger was coaching the home team, Germany.

He’d been working hard to prepare his team of fourteen players, most of whom he’d had together for six weeks. Hoffinger had put together a second team, strengthened with four Canadians, to test Rudi Ball and the rest of his charges. Hoffinger didn’t think much of the Americans: he looked to the Swiss and the British to be battling for second.

A funny thing, European hockey. “Very noticeable,” Erwin Schwangart was writing in The Globe, “is the complete absence of bodychecking.”

Hoffinger explained that this came as a consequence of the refusal of the attacking players to penetrate the defence from close range. They favour a big swerve toward the corners. Watching some of the practices I could conceive easily that he is trying to teach the boys how to shift but it seems to be rather hard for the players to accomplish this, as they are not natural players, but just play according to teaching. They, just as the rest of the European players, have a tendency to grab their opponent’s stick.

King Gustav stopped by in Berlin to visit with Hitler. The Swedish monarch was on his way to the French Riviera for a winter break. With the German chancellor preparing for his departure for Bavaria, I suppose it’s possible that the two of them talked some winter sports, maybe even some hockey. Though nobody was expecting too much from the Swedes, even though they, too, had a Canadian coach — Vic Lindquist, from Winnipeg, who’d won a gold medal playing for Canada at the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid.

Nazis said later — some Nazis — that it wasn’t until Hitler’s train pulled into the station at Garmisch-Partenkirchen that the serious snow began to fall, but in fact the winter weather arrived before the Reichskanzler. Monday, February 3, was when temperature dropped and thick snow mantled the town. Even the sulking bobsledders emerged, said The Daily Boston Globe.

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Snow Train Coming: Adolf Hitler arrives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen on February 6, 1936.

 

this week: sale prices and a heart so huge, mumps and whatnot

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed in early December of 1926. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking sternly, left to right, are Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Irish Times: The Toronto St. Patricks weren’t long for the world when four of them posed in early December of 1926. The following February, Conn Smythe and a parcel of investors bought the team and decided that change was order. Just like that, in mid-season, green-and-brown St. Patricks turned to blue-and-white Maple Leafs. Above, looking out sternly in black and white are (left to right) Hap Day, Al Pudas, Bert Corbeau, and Ace Bailey.

Washington Capitals defenceman Mike Green talked, this week, about the distractions of playing out of doors at the NHL’s New Year’s Day Winter Classic. He wasn’t worried about sun or winds or snows. “Once you’re in the game,” he told Stephen Whyno from The Canadian Press, “everything’s instinct and whatnot.”

Washington captain Alex Ovechkin? Also no concerned. “I just don’t think about what I’m gonna do out there. We’re gonna skate on the ice and then we’re gonna go to the locker-room.”

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada (and a distinguished hockey player in his own right, announced today 95 new appointments to the Order of Canada this week, and hockey names were among them, including the former Bruin and Red Wing Sheldon Kennedy and broadcaster Bob Cole.

Kennedy’s citation lauds his, quote, courageous leadership in raising awareness of childhood sexual abuse and his continued efforts to prevent abuse in schools, sports and communities.

Cole’s recognitions comes

For enhancing the hockey experience for generations of Canadians with his analysis and spirited announcing as one of Canada’s most iconic voices in sports broadcasting.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am today,” he told Six Seixeiro and Stephen Brunt at Sportsnet. “All I’ve done is tried my best at my job, and enjoyed what my job is.”

Other appointees included Mark Carney, erstwhile goaltender for the Oxford University Ice Hockey Club, and hockey biographer Charles Foran, author of Extraordinary Canadians: Maurice Richard (2011).

Martin Brodeur shut his net to the Colorado Avalanche this week: 16 shots they took and not a one went past him. St. Louis’ 3-0 win was the 691st victory of Brodeur’s career, and his 125th shutout (an NHL record).

“This is the first one with the Blues, so it definitely means a lot to me,” Brodeur was saying after the game. “It’s our job as goaltenders not to give up anything. It wasn’t the hardest game to play, but you still have to make the saves.”

Signed to fill Brian Elliott’s injured absence, Brodeur isn’t sure what’s next. Elliott is recovered now and returning to the Blues’ net, so there was talk this week that Brodeur might be out of a job and (maybe?) a career. Or would he find another temporary home with another needy team?

“If St. Louis decides to let him go,” wrote Guy Spurrier in The National Post, “he could become the most accomplished rent-a-goalie in NHL history, wandering the league, helping teams with short-term crises like a puck-stopping Littlest Hobo.” Continue reading