under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading

shake on it

Shaker Style: Montreal's Classic Auctions has on its block the golden watch that Montreal HC presented to Dickie Boon in 1902. He helped them win their third Stanley Cup that year and (just maybe) shook some hands when it was done. Bidding starts at C$5,000. The auction closes on June 17. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Shaker Style: Montreal’s Classic Auctions has on its block the golden watch that Montreal HC presented to Dickie Boon in 1902. He helped them win their third Stanley Cup that year and (just maybe) shook some hands when it was done. Bidding starts at C$5,000. The auction closes on June 17.

I don’t mean to pick historical nits, except when I do, which today … yes, nits will be picked. After all, if there’s anything we in the business of hockey retrospecting have learned in the weeks since researchers Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel published Hockey Origins, their blockbuster debunkery of Canadian claims on the game’s birth, it’s maybe this: assume that everything concerning the game’s early days is written on ice until it’s proved conclusively that it can’t be effaced.

Jeff Z. Klein has a nice feature in today’s New York Times wondering about the origin of the beloved handshake with which hockey playoff series traditionally end. That it baffles the logic to witness an embrace between a player (see Prust, Brandon) who might previously have broken another’s jaw (see Stepan, Derek) only seems to make it more, Klein’s word, “special.” Sometimes, sure, a guy will promise to fucking kill several other guys (see Lucic, Milan), but as Klein writes, that’s rare enough.

So far so good. It’s when he follows Liam Maguire’s hazy path back towards the beginnings of the hockey handshake that the discussion strays.

Maguire is an Ottawa radio-host and published author, an NHL historian and prospective city councillor. He sometimes refers to himself as “the worlds [sic] number one NHL historian.” In May, he posted a recollection online about running into an old-timer, name of Lamb, whose cousin Joe had played in the NHL in the 1920s and on through the ’30s.

This was in 1980, at a retirement residence near Manotick, Ontario. Maguire and Mr. Lamb got to talking hockey. There was beer and there were scrapbooks. There, in the latter, something very, very interesting caught the young researcher’s eye:

Among the dozens and dozens of newspaper clippings was a very yellow parched story detailing an all-star game in 1908.

This was the Hod Stuart benefit game; the cover-point for the Montreal Wanderers had died in a diving accident two months after helping his team win the 1907 Stanley Cup. The memorial game was a sell-out at the Montreal Arena, with a crowd of 300 or so raising $2,010 for his family. With Art Ross and Pud Glass in their line-up, Wanderers won, 10-7, defeating an all-star team featuring Percy LeSueur and Frank Patrick.

Maguire:

That day in Mr. Lamb’s room, in 1980 I was looking at a newspaper report of the game and some pictures. Among them was a picture of Art Ross of the Wanderers shaking hands with Frank Patrick from the all-stars. Looked totally normal, something we’d see a million times. But then Mr. Lamb said, ‘Son, do you realize that this is the first handshake recorded in hockey?’

A significant juncture in hockey history, then — very important. Until that moment, Maguire told Klein this past Friday, hockey players never shook hands. Are you kidding? There’s no way. The game was too violent in those olden times. But a man had died, a friend, a fellow, a teammate. This was different, and they shook. “It’s as plausible an explanation as exists,” Maguire said, “and I’ve done quite a lot of research on it.”

According to Maguire’s senior source 34 years ago, the practice spread from there — by hand, if you like: Art Ross and the Patrick brothers kept it up during subsequent Stanley Cup challenges, along with the rest of the players from the 1908 game. Thus the tradition began.

It’s a good story and, yes, plausible, even if you’re willing to believe that the clippings in question featured photographs of the Hod Stuart game. I confess I’m skeptical on that count — you rarely see hockey photos in the papers from that era — though I’d be pleased to be shown I’m wrong.

Did the players shake hands at the end of that game? Why not — probably so. The same contemporary accounts I’ve seen that don’t feature photos fail to mention handshakes, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. I’d bet they did.

They weren’t, however, the first recorded in hockey. Continue reading