howling for blood and more blood, with shouts of “get him! get that man!”
St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, is proud of its puck-pushing heritage, styling itself as a bit of a hockey cradle: the first organized game in the United States is supposed to have been played on the ice of the prestigious prep school’s Lower School Pond in 1883. American hockey’s late, great, long-lamented legend Hobey Baker learned to ply the puck there, before making his name at Princeton and with New York’s St. Nicholas Club. Other prominent hockey-playing graduates include a couple of teammates from St. Paul’s 1961-62 varsity team: former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Robert Mueller, the erstwhile director of the F.B.I. who toiled in recent troubled times as Special Counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice.
During the 1920s, the hockey coach at St. Paul’s was Thomas K. Fisher, a veteran of World War I who’d played previously for Harvard’s varsity team. When he wasn’t out on the ice, he did his best to spread the hockey gospel across the U.S. by way of pen on printed page. In 1926, Fisher published Ice Hockey, an instructional guide for players and coaches. It’s dedicated to the memory of Baker, America’s original hockey superstar, who died in France at the age of 26 in an aircraft crash while serving with the American Expeditionary Force in December of 1918. Baker, who played rover in the old seven-man configuration, was a sublime talent, by all contemporary accounts, and a football star, too, on Princeton grass. (F. Scott Fitzgerald was one of Baker’s admirers, and he forged him into a character in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise.) George Kennedy tried to sign Baker to play for the Montreal Canadiens in 1916 — but Baker wasn’t interested in a pro career. He was one of the initial inductees into both the Hockey Hall of Fame (in 1945) and the United States Hockey Hall of Fame (1973). The award that annually recognizes the best men’s NCAA hockey player bears Baker’s name, of course; it was established in 1980.
Thomas Fisher’s 1926 book laid a heavy emphasis on sportsmanship and, well, purity of play. Sample sentence, from the opening chapter: “The individual player in nine cases out of ten desires with his whole heart that the rules be followed and the game be clean, for otherwise it is not hockey and degenerates into food for the lower appetites of the purely bloodthirsty.”
Fisher would elaborate on his theme in the cover story he contributed to St. Nicholas magazine in early 1929. The piece is a lengthy one, and ranges widely, back through the history of the sport and on through Baker’s glorious career, which (to Fisher) still burned brightly as an example to all who might venture onto hockey ice.
“Here was a man,” he writes, “whose interest was wholly centred in the fun and skill of the game, in extraordinarily fast skating, clever dodging, lightning stick handling, accurate shooting; who never dreamed of touching an opponent with stick or body; who, when body-checked himself, sprang up with a grin and plunged back into the fun of the thing with never a thought of the man who had thrown him.
For all that, Fisher remains, in the St. Nicholas piece, pre-occupied, still, by the game’s seamier side. His optimism shows signs of having waned. In this exasperated excerpt he almost seems ready to give up on hockey’s corrupters, not to mention those guilty of egging them on:
It seems almost incredible that in a country noted for its fair-mindedness and sportsmanship, players should deliberately reach out and trip a more skillful opponent to prevent a score, or hurl an opponent to the ice, hit him with a stick, crash him against the side-boards, or even strike him with the fist. That a player so mistreated should resent such dirty play is very proper; that he should even lose his temper to the extent of seeking revenge in fisticuffs is not incredible, though deplorable, but it is then a sad fact that a sportsmanlike game has degenerated into a gladiatorial contest. Here is where many members of the general public are to blame, for they seem to forget that they have come to see a game of skillful skating, clever dodging, well-timed passing, and exhilarating team play, and howl for blood and more blood with shouts of “Get him! Get that man! Kill him!” They should have gone to a boxing contest if they lusted for a fight, but even then I suppose such people would have been disappointed, for boxers where padded gloves and would hardly discard them to grasp a neighborly cane with which to brain an opponent.
Fisher doesn’t despair, though. “I do not mean to imply,” he goes on to say, “that all hockey has degenerated into the spilling of blood. By no means!” All he asks for is a reckoning, by players, coaches, spectators, rule-makers … anyone with any kind of idealism to spare. By the end of the piece, he’s appealing directly to them all:
You, the player in this most superb of outdoor sports, you, the spectator, in or present at you next game, think deeply how this great game of ice-hockey can best be improved for future generations. The rules could be further improved by elimination of all bodily contact, making the game what it should be: one absolutely lacking in brute force, one of beautiful, rhythmic, elusive, thrilling skill — a game of which Hobey Baker would be proud.