(Artist: Ed McNally)
Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”
Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”
In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:
“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”
Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?
I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:
Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.
I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.
Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”
Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”
Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”
Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”
Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.
Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”
His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.
“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”
Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.
To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.
We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.
A “funny” incident:
Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.
Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:
The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.
Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.
Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.
As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.
We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.
Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.
“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.
“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”
(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)