game on, again, 2020: fist bumps no, fist fights fine

Wrasslemania: Art Coulter of the New York Rangers fights Joe Cooper of Chicago’s Black Hawks at Madison Square Garden in January of 1941. Looking on at left is Chicago goaltender Sam LoPresti, along with an unidentified press photographer and (at right) his New York counterpart, Dave Kerr. Working on separating New York’s Muzz Patrick and John Mariucci of Chicago is referee Bill Stewart.

Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.

It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.

“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”

In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.

There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.

Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.

The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.

Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.

Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.

The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”

Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:

Though that was never going to happen.

Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.

The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)

As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”

The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.

It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.

Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.

Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.

The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:

Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”

Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”

Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:

No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)

Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”

Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)

Also, says MLB:

Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.

Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:

Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.

So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.

Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.

I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.

What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?

There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.

And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.

The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.

Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.

When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.

There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.

Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.

Game on, I guess.

Contact Tracing: Boston’s Brad Marchand showing how it’s not supposed to done in the Eastern Conference finals of 2018. Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan was the unfortunate recipient of the Boston winger’s attentions. The NHL’s handling of Marchand’s lick? The league told him if he did it again he’d be “subject to supplementary discipline.”

 

 

commando call-up

The RCAF Flyers proved themselves to be Canada’s best senior hockey team in 1942 when they won the Allan Cup. The Flyers benefitted from what might be classed a wartime windfall: among the Ottawa-based airmen at their disposal that season were all three members of one of the NHL’s most effective forward lines, the erstwhile Krauts (and Boston Bruins) Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Bobby Bauer. When another stacked military team succeeded the Flyers as Allan Cup champions the following year, it was thanks, in large, part to goaltender Sugar Jim Henry. After winning the 1941 Allan Cup with the Regina Rangers, Henry had played his rookie year in the NHL with the New York Rangers. Inducted into the Canadian Army in the summer of ’42 (above, to the right), he was posted to Canada’s capital where he suited up (above, left) for the Ottawa Commandos. Replacing the Ottawa Senators in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the Commandos had their wings clipped a little when, to begin the season, the league decreed that teams could only ice four players with NHL experience in any given game. (That limit was later raised to six.) The Commandos had plenty of options: along with Henry, the former NHLers they iced that season included Montreal Canadiens’ veteran Ken Reardon, brothers Mac and Neil Colville (New York Rangers), Jack McGill (Bruins), Alex Shibicky (Rangers), Gordie Bruce (Bruins), Joe Cooper (Rangers and Black Hawks), Bingo Kampman (Maple Leafs), Polly Drouin (Canadiens), Gordie Poirier (Canadiens), and Ken Kilrea (Red Wings). The team the Commandos beat in the Allan Cup finals was a military one, too, Victoria Army, and they boasted a bevy of erstwhile NHLers, too  including Nick Metz (Maple Leafs), Joffre Desilets (Canadiens), and Bill Carse (Rangers and Black Hawks)  but not quite enough.

always delighted to have canadians around

Command and Control: General Sir Bernard Montgomery congratulates one of his charges at the conclusion of the Canadian Army Overseas hockey championship in early 1944. (Image: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / e008128995)

In the months leading up to D-Day, preparing for the battle the would sweep the enemy from northwestern Europe, Canadian troops did what Canadians do: they played hockey.

This was 1944, end of February. The troops of the 3rd Canadian Division and supporting units were, as the security-conscious datelines read on the dispatches that fed the newspapers back home, “Somewhere In England.” On the specific ice of the Sports Stadium at Brighton, the Canadian Army Overseas championships got underway with a set of brassy special guests in the stands: joining Lieutenant-General Kenneth Stuart, the acting commander of the First Canadian Army, was the man in charge of all British and Commonwealth forces for the upcoming invasion, General Sir Bernard Montgomery.

The opening game of the best-of-three finals was played on a Tuesday night, pitting the Cameron Highlanders against B Group, Canadian Reinforcement Unit. They didn’t have a name to romance the imagination, maybe, but the CRU team dominated on the ice, posting an 8-4 victory.

Leading the way was the man a Canadian Press correspondent called “a fast-skating private with a deceptive shift:” H.W. Proulx scored three times and collected two assists. He had some big-name help in a trio of former NHLers. Captain Gordie Poirier, 29, and Corporal Ken Reardon, 22, had both played for the Montreal Canadiens, while 24-year-old Lieutenant Gordie Bruce was a Boston Bruins alumnus.

These three had only been in England for a few weeks, though they were, all three, veterans of military hockey success. They’d helped the mighty Ottawa Commandos to an Allan Cup championship in 1943 on a team that had counted goaltender Sugar Jim Henry along with NHLers Bingo Kampman, Neil and Mac Colville, Polly Drouin, Alex Shibicky, and Joe Cooper.

In England, the Reinforcements won the second game, too, the following night, to take the series. Six thousand Canadian soldiers were in the building to see it. The score this time was either 8-2 or 9-2 — both showed in subsequent press reports, possibly to confuse the enemy. Did General Montgomery attend both games? Maybe so; again, the record isn’t crystally clear. He was certainly at the Wednesday game, at which he was reported to have spent “most of the evening hanging over the boards.” Brighton’s rink was small — 25 feet shorter than most Canadian rinks, by some accounts — and a military reporter noted that this made “both teams look fast enough to burn down the rink.” Proulx was a stand-out again: “the equal of NHL players, and faster.”

Featuring for the disappointed Camerons was Terry Reardon, 24, Ken’s elder brother. He’d played in the NHL, too, before he’d enlisted, for Boston and then Montreal. In the effort to stymie the CRU he’s said to have stayed on the ice for the full 60 minutes — two nights running. This gave him time to fight with his brother — “a real go,” according to one witness, who reported that Ken gave Terry a black eye.

Monty had seen worse. At least, when the time came to award medals to victors and runners-up alike, he said, “This is one of the cleanest game I have ever seen.” He also took the opportunity to remind the men of their greater purpose. “If we can produce the team spirit when the Second Front starts,” he said, “we should not be long about it.”

That’s what he was there for, of course, rallying the troops, boosting morale. Ahead of the invasion, he was in the middle of a four-day visit to Canadian troops under his command. He’d commanded Canadian troops in ’43 in Sicily and before that, too, in England. “I am always delighted to have Canadians around,” he’d say later. He’d even played a bit of hockey, in his time — well, field hockey.

Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went along with him this time and sent word back to Canada of how, “on a dozen village greens,” he “met and talked to thousands of Canadian invasion troops” in a get-acquainted tour.

In a special train with Royal priority, the commander of the British group of armies for the Western European invasion sped from one second-front camp area to another and several times a day he spoke to groups of several thousand Canadians.

In battledress, standing atop a jeep,

he told them he wanted to see them and wanted them to see him — that they were going to fight together and should get to know each other. The talk was simple, clear and sprinkled with humor and joshing.

As impressed as he might have been by the display of Canadian hockey, Montgomery knew that it wouldn’t serve as a metaphor for a wider British audience. Later in March, he stepped up to stir the nation with this solemn statement:

We are preparing to take part in the biggest tug-of-war the world has ever seen, and if anyone should let go of the rope, then we lose the match.

How long will the pull last? No-one can say for certain. It may last a year, it may take longer. But it will be a magnificent party and we shall win. It will be a proper job for proper men.”

He had a battle-cry to suggest, too, “for the nation:”

“Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered.”

 

feeling fine, he said; forgot to duck

stewart and henry son pkstrk

Gaye Stewart was the last Toronto Maple Leaf to lead the NHL in goalscoring: in 1945-46 he finished the season with 37 goals. Maybe that’s how you know the name. He was also the first NHLer to win a Stanley Cup before he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, long before Danny Grant, Tony Esposito, or Ken Dryden got around to doing it. The Cup came in the spring of 1942, when he was 18; the Calder came the following year. He won a second Cup with the Leafs in 1947, then later the same year found himself on his way to Chicago in the big trade that brought Max Bentley to Toronto.

Stewart did fine for himself in Chicago, even as the team struggled. He was named captain of the Black Hawks for the 1948-49 season. It was in January of ’49 that he was photographed, above, with his goaltender’s son: Tom Henry was Sugar Jim’s two-and-a-half-year-old.

Stewart, 25, was only just back in Chicago following a hospital stay in Toronto. Struck by another puck, not the one depicted here, he’d left the Hawks’ January 8 game, a 3-3 tie with the Leafs, a few days earlier. Jim Vipond of The Globe and Mail was on hand to watch. In the second period, as he told it,

The ex-Leaf left winger was struck over the right eye by a puck lifted by Garth Boesch as the Toronto defenseman attempted to clear down the ice.

Stewart returned to action after a brief rest but collapsed in the shower after the game. After being removed to the Gardens hospital, his condition became so serious that a rush call was put in for an ambulance and arrangements made for an emergency operation.

Fortunately the player rallied soon after reaching Toronto General Hospital and surgery was not necessary. His condition was much improved last night [January 9], with the injury diagnosed as a bruise on the brain.

forgot to duck“I forgot to duck,” he was joshing by the time he was back in Chicago, as hockey players did, and do. Brain bruises, The Globe was reporting now. “I’m feeling fine,” Stewart said. “The accident was just one of those things. I expect I’ll start skating next week.” The Associated Press called it a concussion, and had the player’s side of the story to offer:

Stewart said that he when he returned to action in the game he felt tired. He remembered his mates coming into the dressing after the game, but then blacked out until he woke up in hospital.

There wasn’t much news, after that, of Stewart’s head or his recovery — not that made it into the newspapers, anyway. It was three weeks or so before he returned to play, back in Toronto again at the end of January, having missed six games. The two teams tied this time, too, 4-4. They met again in Chicago the following day. The Black Hawks won that one, 4-2, with Stewart scoring the winning goal.

All in all, it was ended up another fruitless year for Chicago. When the playoffs rolled around in March, they were on the outside looking in for the third consecutive season. When Tribune reporter Charles Bartlett buttonholed coach Charlie Conacher before he departed for Toronto, he asked him how he felt about his players.

“I’m not satisfied with any of them,” he answered. “It never pays to be satisfied with any team in sports. Creates a weak attitude. What I am pleased with, however, is the morale of the Hawks. I think their fifth place finish, and the fact that they won only won game less than Toronto will mean a lot when we start training at North Bay in September.”

He thought the team had played pretty well through December. But then Doug Bentley got sick and Stewart concussed, and Bill Mosienko and Metro Prystai had played that stretch of games with their wonky shoulders …

Conacher was headed home to his summer job — his oil business, Bartlett reported. A couple of Hawks were staying in Chicago for the duration, Ralph Nattrass to work in real estate and Jim Conacher at an auto agency. The rundown on their teammates as went their separate ways looked like this:

Goalie Jim Henry will join with his Ranger rival, Chuck Rayner, in operating their summer camp in Kenora, Ont. Red Hamill will go a talent scouting tour of northern Ontario. Doug Bentley and brother Max of the Leafs will play baseball and run their ice locker plant in De Lisle, Sask. Mosienko will return to Winnipeg, where he owns a bowling center with Joe Cooper, former Hawk defenseman.

Roy Conacher, who received a substantial bonus from the Hawks for winning the league’s scoring title, is headed for Midland, Ont., where he plans to open a sporting goods store. Gaye Stewart will run a soft drink agency in Port Arthur, Ont. A fish business will occupy Ernie Dickens in Bowmanville. Doug McCaig is enrolled in a Detroit accounting school. Adam Brown will assist his dad in their Hamilton filling station.