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

twas a close squeeze

1932

Hard to say what’s going on with the puck in this imaginatively enhanced German photo-illustration of Canada’s first meeting with the United States at the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. If the teams did indeed play the game batting about the lid of a teapot, it’s not something the newspapers noticed. What we do know is that this was the opening outing of Canada’s least-dominant Olympics up to that point, even if they did — spoiler alert — end up grabbing gold.

It was the Winnipeg Hockey Club representing Canada that year, the Allan Cup champions, and despite what you see above, they (a) wore regular shinpads and socks and (b) affected plain old red maple leaves on their sweaters, no  exoskeleton needed. Going into these III Winter Olympics, Canadians back home wondered whether the Winnipegs were worthy representatives. Could they get the job done? The team was considered weak, writes Andrew Podnieks in Canada’s Olympic Hockey Teams (1997), not to mention lacking in lustre. I don’t know that it’s fair to say that the country suffered a national sinking feeling as the team rode east out of Manitoba on Canadian National’s Continental Limited flyer, but neither am I ruling it out.

Against the U.S., the Winnipegs may have been thrown off by the fact that the game was played outdoors. Goalie Bill Cockburn had sun glaring in his eyes, and the team in general was (said The Globe) “as nervous as an amateur theatrical troupe on ‘the big night.’” Also, did I mention that the rink was disconcertingly small?

Canada was not only “sluggish” for the first two periods, but “wobbly.” In the second, the Americans scooped up a wild Canadian pass in front of Cockburn and … scored.

That woke up the Winnipeggers. Time to step it up. In the third, as The Globe told the tale,

Franklin Farrell, the United States goaler, was on his knees most of the time batting away shots with his elbows and his hands.

Hack Simpson finally beat him. In overtime, despite taking two penalties, the Canadians prevailed when Vic Lindquist drove at the net, fell, collided with Farrell and, somehow, shoved the the lid of the teapot into the net. “Twas a close squeeze,” Globe sports editor Mike Rodden exhaled next morning.

Now’s not the time, probably, to get down on the Winnipegs for what happened next. With an eye to selling tickets, the Americans had organized a series of exhibition games throughout the Olympics, which is how Canada played and lost to the team from McGill University next day. Canadian management attached no importance to the game but still, a loss is a loss.

Next, back to the fight for gold, came Germany. They insisted on succumbing by a mere 4-1. This was just getting silly. Four years earlier, Canadians had been winning games by scores of 33-0 and 19-2. The Winnipegs did record a restorative 9-0 drubbing of the Poles next, and that must have calmed some nerves. The Germans got the message, sort of, losing 5-0 when the teams met for a second time. Next day, when it was Poland’s turn again, the Winnipegs patiently re-drubbed them 10-0.

Which was better. More Canadian, certainly. In the final, the Winnipegs faced the United States again. Twice the Americans had the audacity to take the lead and twice — “a little shaken by the unexpected turn of events,” as The Globe reported — Canada was forced to tie it up. That’s how the game ended, 2-2, which was just enough to give Canada the gold, on points, even as the country considered the disturbing shift in Olympic hockey that we’ve been struggling with ever since: other teams, from other countries, seemed like they wanted to win gold just as much as we did.

all the president’s embarrassment

It’s not a White House tape that’s going to displace any of Richard Nixon’s recordings on the all-time register of executive audio infamy, but John F. Kennedy’s feelings about the failings of the 1963 U.S. national hockey team deserve a listen.

Thanks go to The Toronto Star’s reporter in Washington, Mitch Potter, who tweeted an alert this afternoon to the tape in question. It’s not new in its availability: recordings from the Kennedy White House have been public for some time. As they’ll tell you there, a Dictaphone taping system was set up in the Oval Office — “and possibly in the President’s bedroom” — in the fall of 1962 to track telephone conversations. Robert Kennedy ordered the system disconnected on the day the President died, November 22, 1963. The telephone recordings — 12 hours’ worth, preserved on “dictabelts,” were later sent to the National Archives in Washington and, in 1976, to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, where the process of declassifying them took place of the course of the following two decades.

It was a Wednesday in March, and the President had been browsing the papers. What he found in the sports pages soured his cereal enough that he put in an emergency call to David Hackett to talk about the fortunes of the U.S. hockey team taking part in the world championships in Sweden.

“Dave,” said the President.

“Yeah, how are you?” Hackett was an old friend, from prep school, of Bobby Kennedy’s, and he was serving now as executive director of the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime. More to the point on this particular morning: after soldiering as a paratrooper during World War II, he’d attended Montreal’s McGill University. He’d played hockey there, and was good enough to be chosen for the 1952 U.S. Olympic team. (He broke his ankle and missed the tournament in Oslo.) Continue reading

fine, then

Montreal defenceman Ken Reardon at home with his gun collection, circa 1950.

His New York Rangers won the game, beating the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2, but coach John Tortorella didn’t like the work of referees Ian Walsh and Dennis LaRue in last week’s NHL Winter Classic. Especially galling, I guess, was the penalty shot awarded to the Flyers with 19.6 seconds remaining. “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game,” Tortorella said after it was all over. “For two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly. I’m not sure what happened there.”

“Maybe they wanted to get into overtime. I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what. But we stood in there. I don’t want to … because they are good guys. I just thought it was, in that third period, it was disgusting.”

By Wednesday, Tortorella was on the phone apologizing to the Flyers and — well, for the refs, he wanted to wait and do it in person. He did say sorry to the league’s Colin Campbell, too, though that didn’t keep the NHL from fining him $30,000.

A quick look back, then, through hockey’s annals of paying the price: Continue reading