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

why be a mere spectator?

“More men are being recruited or authorized here at the present time than at any period since the war started, and far more, of course, than ever before in the city’s history.” That was the word in the Montreal Gazette in January of 1916, just as the 148th Overseas Battalion, one of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s newest infantry battalions, was getting ready to start recruiting. Here, from the archives, are a couple of the posters that went up to aid in that effort. Above, somewhere in France, out beyond the artillery, a lone soldier wonders why he isn’t being reinforced. The answer is right there in front of him, wafting out of the barrel of his Ross rifle: hockey.

If, as a Canadiens fan seeing this on a wall outside the Montreal Arena, the guilt didn’t get you, maybe would the promise of a real game and/or a challenge to your manhood do the trick? The poster below tweaks the taunting a little, revealing the laggardly fan at home, slippers on, browsing the sports pages in his recliner as the spectre of that other poster rises accusingly from the pipe he’s fortunate enough to be smoking.

Whatever the battalion’s marketing department’s view of hockey fans might have been, the 148th didn’t see a contradiction in welcoming as many of them as possible to the Arena on the night of January 27, 1916, for a “patriotic benefit” pitting veterans of the famous Ottawa Silver Seven against a team of former Montreal greats. The teams had previously played in Ottawa, drawing 3-3 a few nights earlier. Montreal older-timers included defenceman Dickie Boon, who’d captained the Montreal HC to successive Stanley Cups in 1902 and ’03, along with a parcel of other future Hall-of-Famers in Russell Bowie, Ernie Russell, and goaltender Riley Hern. Ottawa’s line-up of retired greats featured House Hutton, Harvey Pulford, Alf Smith, and Rat Westwick.

“Those who journeyed to the Arena to see a burlesque on hockey,” the Gazette reported, “were surprised as the players of both teams played as they did in their palmy days.” Powered by Bowie’s four goals, Montreal prevailed by a score of 6-2. The seven-a-side exhibition raised $1,500 on the night, which was divided between the 148thand another incipient battalion, the 150th.

“At the conclusion of the game,” the Gazette noted, “the officers of the regiments for whose benefit it was played journeyed to the dressing rooms to thank the players for their kindness in staging the game.” Players and officers alike later repaired to the St. Regis Hotel for an informal dinner. Guests, including Stanley Cup trustee William Foran, listened while they supped, to a musical program, “while speeches were made by nearly all present.”

 

gimme shelter

Maskmaster: Today’s the day that Jacques Plante decided that he’d had enough. It was in 1959, of course, that Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers vengefully shot a puck that cut the Montreal goaltender’s face. Blood stanched, wounds stictched, Plante said he’d only return to the ice under the protection of the mask he’d been wearing in practice. Canadiens’ coach Toe Blake didn’t like it, but he agreed; the New York fans sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” as Plante regained the net. Showing here, on the anniversary, is Nadine Arsenault’s vivid hand-embroidered thread-and-textile portrait of Montreal’s iconic trailblazer. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator, Arsenault exhibits her hockey portfolio at www.nadine.design.

 

 

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)