the thurso kid

Le Démon Blond: “The class of hockey,” winger Wayne Cashman of the Boston Bruins called Montreal’s Guy Lafleur in the late 1970s, when the two teams weren’t exactly kindred spirits. “Guy Lafleur is Guy Lafleur,” added Bruins’ coach Don Cherry, around that same time: “the greatest hockey player in the world today, bar none.” Anything to add, other Bruins’ winger John Wensink? “Guy Lafleur better have eyes in the back of his head, because I’m going to cut his ears off,” Wensink offered after a particularly spiteful encounter between the two teams in the playoffs for the 1977 Stanley Cup. Lafleur was supposed to have aimed a slapshot at the Bruins’ Mike Milbury and … but no. Whatever he did or didn’t do back then, on Lafleur’s birthday, let’s stick with the superlatives. “Quick, decisive, confident,” is what teammate Ken Dryden wrote of Thurso, Quebec’s own Flower, who turns now 67; “ever threatening, his jersey rippling, his hair streaming back the way no one else’s hair did.” That’s Lafleur’s statue above, photographed one November evening out where it guards the approaches to Montreal’s Bell Centre, on  permanent duty with his fellow tricolore titans, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, and Jean Béliveau.

(Image: Stephen Smith)

road revel

Won Way: As the Washington Capitals gird themselves for today’s Stanley Cup parade, here’s Henri Richard in May of 1971 on his way through an adoring Montreal throng. His team had beaten the Chicago Black Hawks in seven games to win — well, it was their first championship since ’69, their fifth since 1965. The Cup itself led the way in the parade that year, sitting on a pedestal, riding a big green float alongside the entire marching band of the College Secondaire St. Stanislas. Canadiens captain Jean Béliveau came next in an open car. A local paper described his progress along the route: “Coatless and squinting in the bright sunlight he waved, smiled, shook hands and was totally Jean Béliveau.” The rest of the team followed him, two to a car, signing autographs as they went. The loudest cheers went to rookie goaltender Ken Dryden, “bread and butter man in the playoffs,” and Henri Richard (above), who’d scored two goals in the decisive 3-2 victory over the Chicago. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montreal, VM94-Ed041-098)

the mothers of hockey players worry about injuries and, sometimes, freeze the living-room carpet for their sons to skate on

Home Ice: Pierrette Lemieux wields her spatula as goaltender to her sons Richard, Alain, and Mario, as seen by illustrator Nick Craine. (Image: HarperCollins Canada)

The fathers of hockey players write books, sometimes, about sons of theirs who’ve made it to the NHL, while mostly the mothers don’t — other than Colleen Howe, who perhaps deserves a bright asterisk for having published in her time books both as a hockey mother and a wife. I wish they’d write more books, hockey’s mothers, share their stories. As it is, in the hockey books, they’re mostly reduced to a few mentions, mostly in the early chapters. If you read all the hockey books, there’s a certain amount you can glean about hockey’s mothers, and a whole lot more you can’t. Herewith, some of the gleanings. Numbers in the text link to the list identifying the various mothers in the endnotes.   

Hockey mothers are descended from Sir Isaac Brock [1], some of them, while others are born and raised in a village six miles from William Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-on-Avon, England [2]. Several of them are born Kathleen Wharnsby [3] and Grace Nelson [4], Rose Pauli [5] and Agnes Mather Bell [6]. The former two have been described, respectively, as “charming” and “demurely pretty.” The third wanted to be a nurse, but found that she fainted whenever she got near a surgery. The latter married a cheesemaker.

Other mothers are described, sometimes, in biographies written about their sons’ lustrous careers as “the soft-spoken daughter of German immigrants [who] worked as a domestic before her marriage.” [7] Sometimes, as the daughters of cattle farmers from Saskatchewan, they’re waitresses who see their future husbands for the first time at a bowling alley. [8] In other cases, the mothers of hockey players meet their husbands in Pristina, in what’s now Kosovo, before they emigrate to Canada without knowing a word of English. [9] Or else they arrive in Canada from Ukraine at the age of 16 and end up in Fort William, Ontario, in 1912 where they soon meet their future husbands, who don’t necessarily tell the truth about how wealthy they are, such that after the wedding the young bride finds that her husband rents a tiny house with six boarders for whom she’s expected to cook and do laundry and, plus, also, he’s abusive, beating her for any reason at all, or none, including when she talks to other men, including when she fails to walk behind this husband on the way to church on Sunday,  causing the son of such parents to write, years later, “My father was a very cruel person.” [10]

The mothers of hockey players have an old six-string Spanish guitar they like to play. In 1928, they’re outside chopping wood when they feel the labour pains coming on. Having already given birth five times, they know what to do: drew water from the well, put it on the wood stove to boil, make themselves comfortable in bed. They’ll deliver their boy themselves, cut the umbilical cord, then suffer a serious hemorrhage that’s almost the end of them, but then they get help, just in time. “The strongest woman I have ever known,” is what the son of a mother like that will say, in time. [11]

You were a mistake, hockey mothers will sometimes tell their sons when the sons are grown and playing defence for the Detroit Red Wings, but you were a wonderful mistake. [12] Another thing they’ll say, to adult sons of theirs who weighed ten pounds at birth: it felt as though you arrived fully grown. [13]

Some hockey mothers will name their son after a character remembered from a favourite movie, Old Yeller. [14] They’ll pass on to their sons an inner strength by way of, when they’re in the country sometimes, they’ll pick up a snake, or play with spiders, while never betraying any fear. [15]

The mothers of hockey players are kind and hardworking, and they feed their kids lots of home-baked breads and macaroni for dinner. [16] They teach their boys to knit. [17] They always seem to be sitting in the parlor sewing somebody’s pair of pants, and go to church every morning at 6.30. [18] They wash floors and make gallons of soup, and have their own version, some mothers, of fish and chips that consist of big slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-friend, served with French fries on the side. “We thought we were having fish and chips,” their sons will write in their autobiographies, “but actually they were potatoes with potatoes.” [19]

In 1922, when their sons are budding 19-year-old hockey stars but haven’t yet made it to the NHL where they’ll blossom into one of the league’s first genuine superstars, the mothers of hockey players will, sometimes, tragically, drown in a basement cistern — “ill for some time and her mind unbalanced,” as a Toronto newspaper reports it. [20]

King Clancy’s father was the original King, and while he was a very good football player, he may have been the only person in Ottawa who couldn’t skate a stroke. Not so Dolly Clancy: no-one, said King Jr., could match her grace on the ice, and he learned his skating from her.

Esther Dye (Essie, they called her) was the one who flooded the backyard rink when her Cecil was a boy, on Boswell Avenue in Toronto, got out the sticks, tied her son’s skates on, taught him the game. This was when skates were tied onto shoes; Cecil, of course, was better known as Babe, ace goalscorer and one-time captain of the Toronto St. Patricks. “My mother could throw a baseball right out of the park,” he said. “Or a hammer, or anything at all. She could run the other women right off their feet, and some of the men as well.”

Jeanne Maki’s boys, Chico and Wayne, were playing for Chicago and Vancouver respectively in 1971 when she was asked about their boyhoods. “Wayne used to imitate Foster Hewitt and got on everybody’s nerves,” she said. “Oh, he used to give me a headache, and even the neighbours threatened to kick his rear end.”

Here’s Edith Plager, mother of St. Louis Blues legends Barclay, Bob, and Bill:

They were never really indoors much, except to be in the basement and play hockey there — or sometimes they shot BB guns. Once Billy went off and broke about 50 jars of my preserves with his BB gun, and then another time, oh my, I was peeling potatoes and I started finding BBs in them. He’d been shooting into the bag, ha ha ha. Anyway, they had an understanding mother.

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boston for the win

An exercise in “humanitarian concern,” writer Jack Batten called it. “It will do no less than head off the threat of brain fatigue, emotional delirium, heart murmur, incipient alcoholism, and all the other dread symptoms annually associated with following the spectacular ups and downs of a National Hockey League season.”

I don’t know whether Canadian hockey fans truly appreciated the mission of mercy that Batten and his editors undertook on their behalf at Maclean’smagazine nearly 50 years ago, or whether they only indulged it as an entertaining lark. To spare the faithful the time-consuming and oh-so-stressful trouble inherent in following a season’s worth of NHL hockey, Maclean’sdecided they’d get in ahead of the season and ask a computer to figure out how it was all going to play out — a “$500,000 computer,” no less.

If this seems all very Stanley Kubrick, well, it was 1970, a mere two years after 2001: A Space Odysseymade its debut in movie theatres.

Looking back, the magazine’s “bloodless and coolly scientific” effort to determine just how the 1970-71 NHL season would end might be best remembered as the novelty act it was. But it also offers a fascinating glimpse into the state of NHL stats at the time, and just how fancy they were getting.

Leaving the pundits to muddle in their guesswork, Maclean’sarranged early in 1970 to gather up a pile of NHL statistics from the ’69-70 season and drive them out to Scarborough, Ontario, for a visit to the offices of Honeywell Controls Limited, then billing themselves as “The Other Computer Company — or, as Batten puts it, Avis to IBM’s Hertz.

How big a pile? “A staggering load” is Batten’s measurement. For these raw numbers, Maclean’slooked to NHL statistician Ron Andrews, not a household name, to be sure, but an important one in hockey history. A former Canadian Press reporter with (as Batten puts it) a “special numerical curiosity,” Andrews was digging deeply into the numbers the game generates and thinking about how they might be used to analyze how it’s played long before NHL President Clarence Campbell hired him in 1963 to collect and organize the league’s statistics. Calling him Andrews a pioneer of plus-minus may not be the compliment it once was, but no-one did more to build the foundation of hockey analytics than he did. With his 1970 Maclean’scameo, Andrews, who died in 2003 at the age of 67, offers a view into the sophistication of his operation — including a list of 22 offensive categories, “not all but many” of those he and his hunter-gatherers around the league made it their business to track for each NHL player.

While Andrews provided the league’s ’69-70 stats to Maclean’s, he wasn’t in on the computing. He takes his bow early, with a bit of a growl. “The only trouble with all our statistics,” he says, “is that most fans and writers don’t know how to interpret them properly.”

Uh-huh, says Batten. Who doesknow how to read them?

“Coaches do. They understand the best way to judge a player is to watch him perform on the ice. But they use the figures as a backup, as a confirmation of their own ideas. They use them to work out problems, like which players to put together on the same line. That makes sense.”

Anyone else?

“The computer,” Andrews says. “A computer knows what numbers mean.”

Honeywell’s was a Series 200 Model 1250 — “called Foster by its friends,” Batten writes. The company had a crew of three assigned to the Maclean’sjob, including a forecasting expert and a programmer responsible for loading the NHL’s hockey data onto punch-cards to feed to Foster.

This, the project’s lead told Batten, was by no means a blind operation. “We attached different weights to the different factors, so that some pieces of data, goals scored, say, were given more significance than others — minutes in penalties, for instance. We helped the computer along by making judgments from our own intuitive understanding of hockey. After all, the computer’s never seen a game.”

The programming took weeks — “several” of them, Batten says. “We don’t accept the computer’s programming forecasts right off, the Honeywell man tells him. “We look at the trends it’s showing, and we compare them with what we know is actually going on in the real world. Then we adjust our programming accordingly, and feed everything back into the computer again. It’s a continuous process. For example, if the computer started to show a trend favorable to the Buffalo Sabres, we’d know we’d have to make adjustments, right?”

When all was said and done — once Foster had “memorized, digested, juggled, and computed the data” — by then, it was “a bright afternoon early in September,” and the computer “presented on its spinning tape a scientific view” of how the season ahead would unfold.

Foster’s regular-season forecast had Boston finishing first in the East, followed by Montreal, while in the West Chicago would prevail ahead of Minnesota.

Eastern teams had swept past their western rivals three years in a row to win Stanley Cups in the late 1960s. In a bid to make the upcoming ’70-71 finals more competitive, the NHL rejigged the playoff format to bring eastern and western teams together in the semi-finals. With that in mind, Foster saw Boston ousting the Minnesota North Stars at that point, and Chicago bettering Montreal.

This latter scenario, one of the programmers told Maclean’s, was all about Foster’s thinking on the Black Hawks’ youth and vigor. “The computer knows that Montreal, with its older guys, is not going to finish the season as fresh and healthy as Chicago. That’s how the Black Hawks get the winning edge.”

It wouldn’t last against Boston, come the finals. The Bruins, of course, had won the Cup in 1970, with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk leading the way. They’d do it again in 1971, Foster felt.

“It couldn’t be any other way,” one of his Honeywell handlers explained. According to the computer, the outcome wouldn’t even be close. “I’d have to call it a slaughter.”

It’s worth noting that Maclean’s saw fit to bolster Foster’s findings with an accompanying column by Harry Sinden. He wasn’t what you’d call an entirely disinterested party, having taken his (temporary) retirement after coaching the Bruins to the 1969-70 championship. For him, Honeywell’s Series 200 needed no correcting. “The Bruins,” Sinden computed, “will ultimately whip everybody for the Stanley Cup.”

History, of course, gets the final say. It shows that while Boston did in fact finish top of the 1970-71 NHL regular-season standings, the Bruins foundered early in April when they ran up against a young goaltender named Ken Dryden in the first round of the playoffs. Having adjusted Boston’s and Foster’s programming accordingly, Dryden’s Montreal Canadiens went on to defeat Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup they couldn’t convince Honeywell to hand over.

 

congratulations to all — and for aurèle joliat, a big black cat

Rocket-Watcher: Ray Getliffe was a Bruin first, but after four seasons in Boston, he joined Montreal in 1939. He played six seasons for the Canadiens, including 1942-43, when his teammates (see below) deemed him to be one of their most effective penalty-killers. Born in Galt, Ontario, this very week in 1914, he died in 2008, aged 94. Another claim for his fame? He’s the man credited with coining one of hockey’s most enduring nicknames. In 1942, the story goes, he commented that teammate Maurice Richard skated like, yes, a rocket.

No more will Canadiens play in Montreal this season: it’s all over there for another year. The team does have one last road game, in Toronto on Saturday, but at the Bell Centre, it’s all over, now, but the raw, animal moaning.

Amid the disappointment of a inferior year, the team did find some achievement to celebrate this week, and there was silverware to go with. Brendan Gallagher was named winner of this year’s Molson Cup, team’s de facto Player of the Year award, as measured by three-star selections.

Paul Byron got the Jacques Beauchamp-Molson Trophy, by which local media celebrate a player whose exploits have gone otherwise unsung — or, as the team phrases it, the member of the team who played a dominant role during the regular season without earning any particular honour.

The Molson dates back to 1973, when Ken Dryden won it. Since then, it’s been awarded to many likely achievers (Guy Lafleur and Carey Price, seven times each one) along with some others who qualify as lesser lights — Wayne Thomas, Steve Penney, Cristobal Huet.

Named for the venerable newspaperman who worked his words in both Montreal-Matinand Le Journal de Montreal, the Beauchamp was established in the 1981-82 season, when Doug Jarvis was the inaugural winner. Others who followed him have included the quietly contributing likes of Craig Ludwig, Lyle Odelein, Jan Bulis, and Steve Begin.

Further back in Canadiens history? The Montreal branch of Mappin and Webb, jewelers and silversmiths, does seem to have donated trophies on the Molson model in the 1920s with a notion of recognizing local excellence. Details are sketchy, but the lost, lamented Maroons seem have embraced this more than Canadiens. Babe Siebert won the Maroons’ Mappin and Webb Trophy as team  MVP in 1928, while Jimmy Ward was the man for the Maroons in 1931.

The only instance of Canadiens awarding a Mappin and Webb Trophy that I can trace is at the end of the 1927-28 season. Ahead of their last regular-season game at the Forum, before they went out and whupped Ottawa 4-0, Canadiens paraded the year’s haul of hardware — and pets.

NHL President Frank Calder handed over the O’Brien Cup, still the prize in those years for the NHL team finishing first overall. As the league’s top goaltender, George Hainsworth collected his second consecutive Vézina Memorial Trophy. In reporting that Howie Morenz got the Mappin and Webb, the Gazette noted that it specifically recognized his MVPlaying during the team’s homegames.

Also, that the crowd at the Forum was pleased to see Morenz acknowledged, giving him “a stirring ovation.” La Patrie: “une immense acclamation salua ce geste.”

The fans had further tributes to offer. In those earliest NHL decades, the die-hardest of the Canadiens’ faithful occupied the 50-cent seats in the upper gallery of the Forum’s north-end. They were, largely, French-speaking and working-class, and they proudly identified as the Millionaires.

Apart from devotedly hailing their heroes, these fans often rewarded the Montreal players, as they did on this night in 1928. George Hainsworth was the pre-game recipient of four-leaf clover, described in the papers as both “massive” and “metallic.”

Better yet was what the fans had in store for Morenz’s linemate Aurèle Joliat.

He, delightfully, was presented with a black cat, on a string. The Gazettereported that giftand giftee “immediately got into a scratching battle.” La Patrie said nothing of that, describing the cat (in translation) as “big” with“nice, smooth fur,” an altogether “beautiful beast.” Also: “Joliat, a little surprised at the gift at first, accepted it with good humor and offered to take good care of it.”

I’d be glad to know (a) the cat’s name, as well as (b) what became of it and (c) did anyone think that making such a fuss over a black cat boded ill for the team’s playoffs run? Please get in touch if you have leads. I can confirm that while Canadiens did pass on a bye to the semi-finals, they were eliminated there in two games by the Maroons, who in turn failed to beat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.

One last stop on a tour of in-house recognitions of old might take us to October of 1942. Canadiens had gone 11 years without a championship at that point, and would be waiting another two seasons before they found themselves raising the Cup again. Still, Dick Irvin’s players were apparently feeling loose and confident enough as their pre-season wound down to take a poll among themselves to predict at least some of what was to come in the campaign ahead.

This was, I think, an enterprise cooked up by a newspaperman (Dink Carroll, possibly) from the Gazette, where the results were published. The consensus among the players was that they’d finish the season with 56 points. Most of them, 10, thought that this would be good enough for third place in the six-team NHL, while four predicted they’d finish second. Just one was bold enough to say they’d come in first. (As it turned out, Canadiens finished the 50-game schedule with 50 points, good enough for fourth place and the last playoff spot.)

Individually, 11 of 15 players voted that goaltender Paul Bibeault would be the team’s outstanding player. (Winger Joe Benoit, with two, came second.) Bibeault did end up playing in all 50 games, finishing with a record of 19-19-12, which was good enough (I guess), though among his NHL peers, the only statistical categories he led at season’s end were the ones headed Most Losses(he tied with Toronto’s Turk Broda) and Goals Against.

Also in their pre-season poll, the players decided that Gordie Drillon, newly acquired from the Leafs, would lead the team in goals, with 23, followed by Benoit (22) and captain Toe Blake (21). (In fact, Benoit got 30, Drillon 28, and Blake 23.)

The players voted Jack Portland and Elmer Lach as the fastest skaters among them. Benoit was deemed best stickhandler, while Buddy O’Connor was the best puck-carrier. Rating penalty-killers, they couldn’t decide between Charlie Sands and Ray Getliffe, pictured here. They each collected seven votes.

rewriting the game: ken dryden on no hits to the head, no excuses

A version of this post appeared on page B11 of The New York Times on January 4, 2018 under the headline “Hall of Famer Says N.H.L. Must Put End To Head Hits.”

Awareness is important — people need to know and acknowledge and understand — but at a certain point, it’s time to act.

That’s what Ken Dryden decided two years ago when he started writing the book he published earlier this fall, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador, and the Future of Hockey.

A Hall-of Famer and six-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, Dryden, who’s 70, was one of 15 goaltenders to be named earlier this year to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. In the years since he retired from the Canadiens, he has served as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a cabinet minister in Canada’s government. He’s never stopped thinking and writing about hockey. The book he wrote soon after he retired from the NHL, The Game (1983), may be the most insightful reflection on the sport ever published.

As the league continues to celebrate its centennial season this year, Dryden’s focus is now locked on hockey’s response to concussions and their devastating effects on the lives of its players. For too long, he believes, the NHL has failed to act decisively, content to let awareness be its watchword, and to treat brain injuries as issues to be rationalized and managed.

In Game Change, Dryden investigates the career of Steve Montador, a tough and capable, salt-of-the-ice journeyman defenceman who played for six NHL teams. “Hard-trying,” Dryden calls him, with respect; Montador prided himself on the importance of being “a good teammate.” Beloved by those who knew him, he saw his career ended by concussions —seven of them, at least, and probably more. After struggles with addictions, Montador died in 2015 at the age of 35. Post-mortem studies of his brain revealed that at the time of his death Montador was suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The book also skates deep into hockey history: underlying Montador’s story is Dryden’s compelling and comprehensive case on just how, for reasons cultural and otherwise, the game has failed to adapt to its own evolution in pace and equipment and tactics. For Dryden, it all comes down to this: now is the time for hockey to eliminate hits to the head outright, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is the only man who can make that happen. He’s called it a “test” — for himself, for Bettman, for hockey. And so in September, Dryden flew from his home in Toronto to New York to carry that message, along with his book, to Bettman. They met for lunch.

In December, Ken Dryden sat down in Toronto to talk about Game Change and his vision for hockey.

How did it go, that meeting with Gary Bettman?

It was a good lunch. We’ve known each other for a long time, we’ve worked together. I think we each know how the other thinks, and does things. I introduced it as a serious book about a serious subject and the next few months will be a challenge for both of us. But a worthwhile challenge. I just told him about what was in the book. I told him that he was the first person to receive a final copy of the book. He said he would read it.

I came away feeling that he would. And that he would think about it very hard.

Why was Steve Montador’s story the right one to build your book around?

I wanted to write about somebody who was an Everyman player. I didn’t want somebody who was a superstar, who was too unique and unrelatable in that way. And I didn’t want somebody who was a fighter-goon, for the same reason. I wanted somebody who, when people read about Steve, they would see themselves, see their kids. Coaches would see their players. He was somebody a lot like them. And whose experience was a lot like theirs. He was somebody who was not dismissible.

You’ve talked about what you’re trying to say in your title: not just that the game needs to change, but how it has been changing, always, and keeps changing. Is that why you think this all so eminently do-able?

It’s one change that’s needed: no hits to the head, no excuses.

At the core of the problem of brain injuries is hits to the head. So you focus your attention there. The increased speed of the game generates more collisions and more forceful collisions. It’s not hard to see how this happens.

You can think about dealing with it as a revolutionary change, or you can think about it as an incremental and really evolutionary change. Right from the beginning of hockey, we’ve recognized the danger of hits to the head. We created high-sticking penalties, we created the elbowing penalty.

What we’ve come to understand better, with the force and the frequency of the collisions now, is that the dangerous instrument is not the stick or the elbow, it’s the body as a whole. So you don’t call a penalty for a stick or an elbow and not call one for a shoulder or a fist. It’s not the cause, it’s the effect. It’s not whether it’s intentional or accidental. The brain doesn’t distinguish. The brain is affected similarly. So you think of it in those terms, and you approach it in those terms. You connect it to the very set of understandings that is already in place, and to the penalties that are already in place. You just extend them to the changed circumstances of the game.

As you point out, Gary Bettman never played the game. But he is surrounded in the NHL head office by plenty of smart, committed people who did play. Why haven’t they recognized the problems you’re identifying. What’s kept them from urging the changes you’re advocating?

They haven’t played this game. We know what we’ve learned, we’ve know what we’ve heard, and we tend to then apply both, as if everything else were constant. The myth and lore of a game like hockey is very difficult to undo and rewrite. And whether it’s in hockey, sports, or climate change — anything — we all have a certain set of understandings. We’re comfortable with them. We always believed in them, and believed deeply.

But it’s a question of going beyond what you know to what there is to see. We’ve stopped seeing what is there. We notice the speed of the game, we notice the frequency and the severity of the head injuries, but we haven’t quite made the connection that then generates the response that’s needed. There’s this gap that is almost always present in terms of decision-making.

In order to get somewhere and change circumstances, you have to undo a set of understandings that are already in place. All we need to do is just see, see the game that’s there on the ice. And it’s a game that’s played with far greater skill than was the case in the past. Players are faster, they’re using lighter sticks, which become precision instruments in their hands, so they’re developing a dexterity that in turn pushes their creative minds.

And in the game now, the idea is not to go in straight lines, you go to open ice wherever open ice is, and so the pass is more important than the rush. All of a sudden you’ve got this incredible freedom, this possibility. The excitement with which people talk about Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews — that’s how they play. That is the game that has emerged, and it’s the game that’s being developed and understood by 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds everywhere in the world.

You’ve been traveling with the book, talking about it across Canada. Do you get the sense that parents and coaches and the people who run minor hockey have an appetite for change? Is it coming from the bottom up, too?

Yes. But a bottom-up movement is not going to change things as much or as quickly as needs to happen. But I think that what it means to that decision-maker at the top is important: he can feel a kind of confidence that in fact a decision that he would make about hits to the head would be understood and accepted. The conditions are present.

You haven’t heard back from the commissioner yet. Not to doubt or pre-judge him, but what if he doesn’t see what you’re seeing as quickly as you’d hope for? Does the challenge — and your campaign for change — simply continue?

Something that’s been so powerful for me on my book tour has been talking to the hockey guys, the sports guys on the all-sports radio stations: a lot of them are thinking in these directions. This is not a matter of starting at zero and trying to argue or persuade your way to 100, they’re already at 60 or 70. They see the problem. And so do people in the game I’ve been hearing from.

So all of this just kind of builds. That’s not unimportant. It will be moving forward, a little faster or a little slower. Five years from now, the game will be extremely different. How much in advance of that the change happens is really up to Gary Bettman.

 

headfirst: a hundred years (and counting) of nhl concussions

Out-Cold Case: Boston Bruins’ winger Charlie Sands awaits attention at New York’s Madison Square Garden in December of 1938 after a collision with the Rangers’ Bryan Hextall knocked him unconscious. Cut in the head, carried from the ice, he played two nights later, wearing a helmet “to protect the bandage circling his head.” That’s the Rangers’ Phil Watson on the left, Jack Portland (8), Ray Getliffe (6), Babe Pratt (11), Jack Crawford (obscured, with helmet), Cooney Weiland (7), and referee Norman Shay.

(A version of this post appeared on page S4 of The Toronto Star on December 17, 2017 under the headline “Ghosts of NHL’s Past Still Haunt.”)

Hockey has changed in a hundred years, but it’s not that different.

True, as a modern-day hockey fan beamed back to the NHL’s opening night in December of 1917, you’d find Torontos (a.k.a. Blueshirts) opening the schedule rather than Maple Leafs, along with some strange rules, and dimly lit rinks so clouded with cigarette smoke that, at times, you couldn’t see the puck.

Still, the first game Toronto played in Montreal against the Wanderers featured plenty of familiar sights in terms of stickhandling, bodychecks, and goals. Given such eternal hockey constants as hard ice, heavy sticks, speedy skating, and male grievance, you might reasonably have expected to see the NHL’s first fight — though, in fact, that didn’t come until Toronto’s second game, two nights later.

What you would have witnessed on December 19, 1917, was the league’s inaugural concussion. Not that anyone at the time, or since, logged that unfortunate first, including (most likely) the trailblazer himself, Montreal’s Harry Hyland. He would have other things on his mind, no doubt: he did, after all, almost score two hattricks on the night.

Celebrating its centennial this year, the NHL is, as you might expect, spotlighting the best players from its rich history, the greatest goals, the coolest sweaters. But this is an era, too, in which the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is as much a hockey term as coach’s challenge or Scotiabank NHL100 Classic. As today’s NHL continues to struggle with the realities of head injuries and their long-term effects on players’ brains, it might be also be time to note some grimmer landmarks.

In a couple of years, the Toronto would transform into Arenas before turning into St. Patricks and then, in 1927, Maple Leafs. While they would go on to win the first Stanley Cup of the NHL era in 1918, they didn’t start out so smoothly that first December night. In a foreshadowing of years of future woe, they had goaltending issues.

“Torontos Weak In The Nets,” the Star headline lamented next morning, “Wanderers Won By 10 To 9.”

The crowd at the Montreal Arena was sparse — just 700 spectators, by some reports. According to next morning’s Star, it wasn’t a particularly rough game, though the players were “irritable.”

A speedy 28-year-old winger who’d end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hyland notched a first-period hattrick before adding two more goals later in the game.

Harry Hyland, in a pre-NHL incarnation when, c. 1912,  he suited up for New Westminster, champions of the PCHA.

None of the accounts of the game mention a concussion, as such. They say only Hyland came away with a black eye. At some point, he was in Montreal goaltender Bert Lindsay, who deflected a shot Hyland’s way. And there it was: the puck, said the Star’s report, “struck him a terrific smash fair in the eye, knocking him out.”

It’s not much to go on, but looking back to a land beyond YouTube highlights, it’s what we’ve got. No-one at the rink that night was concussion-spotting or enforcing league-mandated protocols in quiet-rooms. Hyland may well have returned to the game, and he was in the Wanderers’ line-up two nights later when the Canadiens overwhelmed them 11-2.

The Wanderers didn’t last the season, but the NHL was up and going. As the goals piled up, the legends grew, great players found their way to the ice to win famous Stanley Cups. But as the goals and the championships were logged and transformed into lore, head injuries remained mostly unseen as an issue for the NHL.

In 1928, a New Jersey pathologist named Dr. Harrison Martland did write about the hidden damages that a career’s worth of punches to the head was inflicting on the brains of boxers. Fans knew all about seeing their heroes “punch drunk,” Martland noted, staggering around the ring in a “cuckoo” or “goofy” state, but medical literature mostly hadn’t paid attention.

“I am of the opinion,” he wrote, “that in punch drunk there is a very definite brain injury due to single or repeated blows on the head or jaw which cause multiple concussion hemorrhages in the deeper portions of the cerebrum.”

If today it reads like an 89-year old primer on CTE, Dr. Martland’s report didn’t change much in the 1920s. Boxing enthusiasts weren’t, for the most part, interested. And if anyone made the connection to the blows being sustained by hockey’s heads, they weren’t writing about it much less trying to adjust the game.

That doesn’t mean that trainers and doctors and teams ignored concussions, but a blow to the head was, in many ways, just another injury in a sport that, by its very nature, featured a whole painful lot of them. In hockey’s prevailing shake-it-off, everybody-gets-their-bell-rung, get-back-out-there culture, that’s what you did. Paging back through old newspapers, you’ll come across accounts of players trying to revive stricken teammates with snow from the ice they’re lying on. When the word “concussion” appears, it’s usually qualified by a “mild” or a “slight.”

December of 1933 marked a watershed in hockey’s concern for its players’ heads, if only temporarily. With Toronto visiting Boston, Bruins’ star Eddie Shore made a mistaken beeline for Leafs’ winger Ace Bailey (he was mad at Red Horner). Bailey had his back turned when Shore hit him, and he went down hard, hitting his head with a thud that was said to frighten spectators throughout the rink.

Two brain surgeries saved Bailey’s life; he never played another hockey game in his life. But if hockey was chastened, its players alarmed, the caution didn’t last long. As the league and its owners discussed whether Shore should be banned for life, players across the league tried out a variety of what they called at the time “headgears.”

They wore them for a while, but helmets were cumbersome and hot, and most of the players who donned them in the months after the Bailey hit would soon return bareheaded to the ice.

And that’s how hockey continued, mostly, right through to 1968, when Minnesota North Stars’ winger Bill Masterton died at age 29 as a result of untreated concussions aggravated by one final on-ice head injury. That’s when the league set about (eventually) to make helmets mandatory.

Meanwhile, back in the winter of 1917-18, those pioneer NHLers went about their business.

Ahead of Toronto’s first game, coach Charlie Querrie had issued a remarkable 15-point manifesto to his players. Directive number four: “Remember that it does not require bravery to hit another man over the head with a stick. If you want to fight, go over to France.”

It was a noble effort, even if it didn’t really take the temper of the game made it hard. At the end of January, when the Canadiens visited Arena Gardens on Mutual Street, Toronto beat them 5-1.

That was the least of the action, though: late in the game, Toronto’s Alf Skinner butt-ended Montreal’s Joe Hall in the mouth, whereupon Hall knocked Skinner to the ice. The ensuing scene ended with Hall cracking (a possibly already unconscious) Skinner over the head with his stick.

Toronto police arrested both players on charges of common assault. Both had been find already by the referee, $15 a man, and at court that was enough for the magistrate: he said they’d been “amply punished.”

A century later, hockey is a faster, better-lit, less-smoky, more thrilling spectacle than ever. that seems toll of hockey head injuries is coming clearer as the hockey struggles to adapt. In Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey, Ken Dryden’s latest book, the Hall-of-Fame former Montreal Canadiens goaltender argues that hockey has no choice but to change its way, directly challenging NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to do whatever it takes to eliminate hits to the head.

Not so widely noticed as Dryden’s, The Pepper Kid is another book new to the hockey shelf this fall. Exploring the life and times of his largely forgotten grandfather, Peterborough, Ontario writer Shayne Randall reveals a hardy, highly talented, and extremely unforgiving defenceman who happens to have been both Toronto’s very first NHL captain and a great-uncle to Doug Gilmour, the 24th player to war Toronto’s C.)

Ken Randall took most of the penalties called that opening night in 1917. He’d win a second Stanley Cup with Toronto in 1922, and continued on in the league through the 1926-27 season.

He died in 1947 at the age of 58. “He was really beaten up,” his grandson was saying this week. “There were lots of fist fights, but there were lots of stick fights. I mean, the stick fighting was brutal. My dad said, at the end of the season, it would take him a month to recover. He’d be in bed for two weeks. He really took a lot of punishment.”

Shayne Randall has no way of knowing how many concussions Ken Randall sustained in his “stormy” 26-year hockey career, but of the sombre conclusion he reaches in his book he has no doubt: the blows he took to his head “left him in a traumatic state near the end of his life and hastened his demise.”