With the NHL preparing for the mid-January launch of a second COVID-era season, I’ve been reporting for The New York Times on how hockey fared in some past times of crisis and contingency. That’s on the page in today’s paper, as well as online over this way.
This part didn’t make it into the Times piece, but as I was charting back through the challenges the NHL faced during World War II, I was reminded of another echo of former times that 2020’s fraught hockey season awakened.
Back in far-off February of last year, the NHL got a first inkling of the disruptions that were to follow when two major suppliers of hockey sticks, Bauer and CCM, shut down manufacturing operations in China as the coronavirus continued its insidious spread. Equipment managers fretted, along with some prominent players. None of them, of course, imagined at the time that the entire league would be summarily shuttered — along with everything else — just a month later.
World War II tested hockey’s supply chains, too. It was a lack of manpower at North American sawmills and lumberyards that raised the spectre of a scarcity of sticks in 1946, not a global pandemic. “We’re still making a few,” a Spalding spokesman warned early that year, “but we have no reserve stocks of lumber on hand. When these are finished, there won’t be any more this year.”
CCM faced a similar predicament. Disaster seems to have been averted — hockey carried on — but several minor leagues did wonder whether they’d be able to play, and those with sticks in hand were advised to wield them with caution, to preserve what they had.
Wartime shook hockey to its core — specifically, the small, black one at the centre of every game. In 1941, with war in the Pacific limiting the supply of raw rubber even as military demand was increasing, news of North American shortages began to spread.
In December of the year, just a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Canada’s minister of Munitions and Supply, C.D. Howe, announced a ban on the sale of all rubber tires save those new vehicles. Two months later, one of Howe’s deputies, Alan Williamson, warned that Canadians didn’t understand just how dire the rubber situation was: it was “the gravest problem confronting” Canada and the Allies, he told the Canadian Hardware Convention and Exposition that February.
In another address, he upped the ante even higher, saying that he did not consider it “an exaggeration to say that anyone who uses rubber for any unnecessary purpose is committing an act of treason.”
For effect, Williamson enumerated some of the things for which rubber was no long being made available: “rubber soles, rubber heels, rubber bands, rubber bathing suits, garters, suspenders, foundation garments, tennis balls, flooring, rubber mats, shower curtains, tires for passenger cars, bathing caps.”
In January, the Canadian Press quoted Williamson as saying that while his department did not propose “to tell manufacturers of hockey pucks, tennis balls, and golf balls to stop making them, it would be ‘nothing short of a miracle’ if they were to get the rubber to do so in 1942.”
“New Composition Expected For Hockey Pucks,” an Ottawa Journal headline announced that winter, without offering any specifics: “the future of this staple article in Canada’s winter sports calendar is still obscure” was as far as the accompanying article was willing to go.
NHL teams were already doing their best to maintain their strategic puck reserves. The Chicago Black Hawks posted signs at the Stadium asking fans to return any puck that found a way into the crowd because, well, the very future of the league depended on it.
“This is a great national emergency,” a team spokesman reasoned. “Everything must be saved. Rubber is in great demand and we must conserve it. Pucks are made of rubber and we must conserve them, too. It would be a great shame to see a great sport and morale-building game like hockey go into the discard because of a shortage of pucks. That’s why we call upon our fans to throw back our pucks in the interest of sport and conservation of valuable defense material.”
Earnest as it was, this appeal didn’t convince everyone. When the Black Hawks hosted the Boston Bruins on Sunday, December 14, 1941, the only puck to leave the rink during the teams’ 3-3 tie was not returned, proving (as Edward Burns wrote in the Tribune) “a souvenir bug will cling to almost anything.”
Efforts were made at other rinks, too. Madison Square Garden was still home in 1941-42 to two NHL teams, the Rangers and the Brooklyn Americans. Games there began with advisories over the public address system emphasizing that that repatriating pucks that strayed was the “patriotic” thing to do.
Those who tossed them back, it was duly noted, were cheered lustily. Louis Schneider, a syndicated financial columnist, reported on the fate of the bold soul who tried to hang on to a puck in New York. “The hockey fan that grabs one and refuses to throw it back is all but mobbed by soldiers and sailors in addition to being booed by the crowd.”
Sad news from Strathroy, Ontario, where Pat Stapleton is reported to have died of a stroke last night at the age of 79. His years working NHL bluelines got going in 1961 with the Boston Bruins, but it was as an offensively minded Chicago Black Hawks defenceman that he made his reputation. He served as Chicago’s captain during the 1969-70 season, succeeding Pierre Pilote. In 1972, he was a member of Team Canada’s epic struggle against the Soviet Union, famously scooping up the puck with which Paul Henderson scored the series-winning goal and (probably) hanging on to it. After a decade in the NHL, Stapleton played five further seasons in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, Indianapolis Racers, and Cincinnati Stingers. As playing coach of the Cougars, he steered the team to the Avco Cup finals in 1974. Stapleton also coached the Racers in 1978-79, just before the WHA dissolved.
(Image: from December 24, 1966, Library and Archives Canada)
They played in the first NHL game at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens in 1931, and they were there at the last, 68 years later. Red Horner had worked the blueline that opening night for the Leafs, while Mush March was a member of the visiting Chicago Black Hawks, scoring on their behalf the first goal in the history of the rink that Conn Smythe built. On Saturday, February 13, 1999, when the same two teams met for the final game at the Gardens, March and Horner, both 90, were on hand to drop a ceremonial puck. Like them, that was an original, too: March had kept the one he’d scored with in ’31, carrying it with him, back to Toronto, from his home in Illinois.
Also on hand for that final Gardens night were a further hundred or so former Maple Leafs, Gaye Stewart and Fleming Mackell, Ed Litzenberger, Frank Mahovlich, Ron Ellis, Red Kelly among them. (Pointed in their staying away: Dave Keon, still vowing then that he’d never have anything more to do with the team, ever, and Bert Olmstead, miffed that his invitation hadn’t been personalized.)
What else? The 48th Highlanders piped their pipes and drummed their drums. Anne Murray sang “The Maple Leaf(s) Forever,” and Stompin’ Tom Connors struck up with “The Hockey Song.” Michael Burgess took care of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “O Canada.”
Then, hockey. In 1931, Chicago beat the Leafs 2-1. They did it again in ’99, this time by a score of 6-2.
Toronto artist James Paterson later rendered his vision of the evening’s events, with some added Lordly commentaries. In the fall of 1999, the painting was on display at Toronto’s Wagner Rosenbaum Gallery as part of a Paterson show also called “Hockey All The Time.”
For the cover for the 1960 Official National Hockey Annual, artist (and former NFL lineman) Tex Coulter painted Montreal’s Bill Hicke scoring on Chicago’s Glenn Hall, and while you can’t really see the expression on either man’s face, the sense of their mutual surprise is strong, as though the last thing either man expected to see was that puck find the back of the net. I wrote in my 2014 book about the journalist and pro tem goaltender George Plimpton and his suspicion that his failure as a netminder was largely a problem of acquaintance: he’d never really gotten to know the puck. “One would appear with the abruptness of a bee over a picnic basket,” he wrote in Open Net (1985), “and then hum away, all so quickly that rather than corporeal it could well have been an apparition of some sort. A swarm of them would collect in the back of the net during the shooting drills without my being sure how they got there.”
From the veterans of the crease Plimpton apprenticed with during his stint with the Boston Bruins he learned that you never bother with a puck that ends up behind you in the net. A bee no more, that puck has become your mess and your shame — “like dogshit on a carpet.”
The world didn’t end that February Friday, a few weeks back, as the Olympics played down and Canada’s men lost their hockey semi-final to upstart Germany, but it shuddered a little. “Eishockey-Sensation” was the early headline from Der Spiegel, and German Twitter tintinnabulated with mentions of a “Wunder auf Eis” — a new Miracle on Ice.
In Canada, it was morning, and the nation mourned, briefly. And moaned: about Gary Bettman, whose fault it all was, really, denying us our golden birthright; that the guy who scored Germany’s first goal is from Winnipeg; that (as Don Cherry raved) the linesman who called that stupid early penalty is Russian, i.e. linchpin of a vast conspiracy to see us humiliated.
By Saturday, when we beat the Czech Republic to win bronze, the national mood was brighter.
That’s it? Have we really mellowed so much in the years since the almost-calamity of 1972 that no-one’s calling for a royal commission to look into how we failed to finish? Don’t we care any more? Could be, I guess, a matter of faith, one that’s so strong and enduring that we don’t have to speak it let alone achieve it: what matters is not who actually won so much as what would have happened if Crosby and Connor and Carey had been on the job in South Korea.
Whatever the case, we’ve calmed down since our first Olympic hockey undoing, in Germany in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to that point, through four Olympic tournaments, Canadians had never lost a game, never come home with a medal that wasn’t golden. Looking back on what happened 82 years ago is like studying the original operating instructions for Canadian hockey humility, and/or the lack thereof.
Winter and summer, the 1936 Olympics were, of course, in Germany, presided over by Adolf Hitler and other odious Nazis. That’s a stain that’s only darkened by what we know, now, about what the next ten years would bring.
In Garmisch, the hockey tournament started with a kerfuffle over the eligibility of several players on the team from Great Britain who’d played previously in Canada. Their hockey paperwork wasn’t in order, Canadian officials maintained. The British disagreed, and almost withdrew, in a snit, but didn’t. When the hockey got going, Canada beat, and breezily, Poland, Latvia, and Austria, before facing off with the British.
They started with a snap, which is to say a speculative slap, from long range, that bamboozled Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore, nesting in the net. The Canadians tied the score, then continued to bombard British goaltender and sort-of Canadian Jimmy Foster. But it was the British who scored again, on a break in the third. The game ended, shockingly, 2-1 not-for-us.
Canada’s coach was penning a column for the papers back home, or at least lending his name to one. He assured Canadians that his team (and theirs) had had “easily 80 percent” of the play. “The English,” he continued,” although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”
“Canadian hockey hats are off to England this morning,” one Toronto columnist wrote next morning, but her gracious voice was a lonely one. Most of the newspaper accounts echoed the Star’s European correspondent, Matthew Halton, who’d watched the disaster unfold. “We are feeling pretty sick here today,” he advised.
As if the news from Germany wasn’t dismal enough that day, a local prophet who ran his own church out of his living room was making front-page news with an unsettling forecast: by Friday, the world would be expiring. This was Bible-based, apparently, nothing to do with hockey.
“The tall buildings of Toronto will be destroyed,” pastor Harold Varney calmly promised reporters, “and the world consumed in cleansing fire.”
In Germany, oblivious to the reckoning that was three days away, the Canadians played on. Whupping Hungary 15-0 was a tonic, and got us our groove back, briefly. But it was at this point that Canadian team officials discovered that they didn’t really understand how the tournament was set up. Yes, they would advance to the medal round with the British, the Americans, and the Czechoslovaks; no, they wouldn’t get a chance to play the British again. They would have to live with their loss — and the precious points that Britain would carry over.
Now it was Canada’s turn to threaten to take its pucks and go home. Instead, we attended an emergency meeting of the Ligue International Hockey sur Glace, arguing that that the final four teams should start afresh, play a whole new round-robin, allowing us to take our revenge and restore order to the universe. This was put to a vote.
We lost that, too.
The host team paid an immediate price when we played a subsequent against the Germans. “The Canadian pucksters were seething as they took the ice,” reported The Globe; “In Angry Mood” was a headline from Ottawa. Intent on giving the Germans — their team, populace, and Nazi officials — “a lesson in the art of bodychecking,” we found that they were poor students. The home fans booed the Canadians so strenuously during our 6-2 win that Hitler’s propaganda minister, the ghastly Joseph Goebbels, stood up to command the crowd to quiet. He was, for some reason, “dressed in the costume of Daniel Boone.”
Canada won its final two games fairly tranquilly, but it didn’t matter, the gold belonged to Britain. For the first time in Olympic hockey history, we were a shameful second.
In the blame and bluster that filled newspapers in the days following our silvery shame, all five stages of Canadian hockey grief revealed themselves, starting with Blissful Denial. “No one is worried, no one is upset,” The Winnipeg Tribune’s editorial page declared. “There is something rather pleasing in the fact that other countries like Canada’s game so well that they are taking it up so vigorously.”
Finger-Pointing ensued. Later, in March, when the hockey players finally returned home to Canada, they were quick to reproach Canadian team management for fumbling their responsibilities. In February, there was some question at home of how it could be that these officials hadn’t known the rules of the very tournament in which they were participating. “It is something hardly creditable to Canadian smartness,” an editorial in The Ottawa Journal sniffed.
Backlash followed: “It wasn’t a great team, measured by any yardstick,” the Journal confessed; never again, said The Star, should we send any but “a real all-star team to carry the red Maple Leafs in future Olympic hockey tournaments.”
Next was Official Uproar: Toronto MP Tommy Church rose in the House of Commons to carp about how poorly the whole affair reflected on us as a people. “I think,” he said, “something should be done.”
Finally, of course, there was Not To Worry, Everything’s Fine, Who Says It Isn’t? This was confirmed by the foreigners whose refreshing views we were only too pleased to publish: that the hockey result (from a Buffalo paper) had “a smell,” and that (from Manchester’s Guardian) “Canada would have won nine times out of ten.” The Globe reported that in a visit to Canada’s dressing room, Hermann Göring, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, had assured our players that “no matter what was to happen, he always would consider the Canucks the real world champions.”
A.E. Gilroy, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had done his share of railing against tournament organizers and the deceitful British while he was still in Germany. Back home again, he apologized, refusing to waste anybody’s time with excuses, other than to mention that the dastardly Europeans had pulled a fast one on us, plus (also) there was something “peculiar” about the pucks, some of which did “weird tricks,” including on Britain’s first goal. Ask the Americans, Gilroy said: they agreed that the pucks were “not true.”
Lessons learned? I don’t know that there’s any real evidence of that. If you count the extent to which the press emphasized just how many of the British players had learned their hockey in Canada, then, yes, I guess we did kind own the loss. Here was a logic we could live with: Canadians hadn’t failed, they’d just succeeded under someone else’s flag.
Doomsday in Toronto was cold and snowy, and altogether free (it turned out) of hellfire. Friday came and went, and then it was Saturday.
Frisky reporters staking out Harold Varney’s doorstep demanded to know: if he was so sure of imminent Armageddon, why had he put out his bottles for the milkman the night before?
Varney wasn’t fazed. The Lord, he said, had granted an extension. “I am glad that there is yet time for the sinful to repent.”
They should make haste, though: “A few days from now, Toronto people should know, all will be judged.”
(I wrote about the 1936 Garmisch Olympics and Harold Varney’s gloomy outlook in Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession, my 2014 book. There’s more on these matters therein, on pages 171—180.)
Twenty-six pucks failed to get by Pekka Rinne last night, though of course — probably — likely — what I really mean is that it was one single puck, possibly a couple, or three, that didn’t succeed, 26 times. Not that Rinne doesn’t deserve credit for his preventative part in Nashville’s big 2-0 home win over the Dallas Stars, just saying the puck(s) need to be bearing some of the responsibility here, too. It was, in any case, the seventh instance this season of complete puck futility involving Rinne, the best goaltender ever to have come out of Kempele, which is near Oulu, in Northern Ostrobothnia, in Finland. His record in the last 19 games he’s played is 17-1-1. When Adam Vingan of The Tennessean talked to Rinne post-game, the goaltender reached into the post-game loot-bag of triumphant clichés and extracted this one: “A lot of good things are happening to us right now, so we’ve just got to enjoy it right now.”
The portrait here, from the 2017 playoffs, is Toronto illustrator Dave Murray’s. For more of his work, visit at www.davemurrayillustration.com.
In December of 1934, Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn American talked to Dr. Henry Clauss, house doctor to the hockey players, boxers, and six-day bicycle racers who plied their trades at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mention of the Art Ross puck is noteworthy, though it may not be entirely accurate. A new Ross puck did see service in the NHL in the early 1930s, only to be subsequently revoked, but I’ve seen no other reference to its being metal-middled. Following here, an excerpt of Parrot’s profile, edited, and poemized.
Sticks carried high, or swung viciously, (as often happens)
can do more deadly execution than
“The goalies are the ones that feel the brunt of the attack,”
said Dr. Clauss, wincing visibly. “I find that
the better the goalie, the more he
gets cut up, because
he goes to meet the play —
takes chances, to save goals.
Shrimp Worters, in the Americans’ net,
“Can the puck break a bone?” I asked.
“It’s more damaging than a baseball
thrown by Mungo or Gomez,” said the Doc,
“and I know! It is heavy enough
to break bones now, although it is not
as bad as a few years ago,
when they used to use that Art Ross puck
with a metal center, and
they used to carry the players off
one after another. But the edge,
the cutting surface on the puck
makes it worse than
Hockey is a quite a game. When I was overseas and the world was in flames, with the destruction of democracy seemingly imminent; the Russians falling back hundreds of miles; the enemy at our doors and threatening any day to engulf us; enemy planes overhead and few of ours to help us; hundreds of thousands of people dying or being killed or starved to death; I would get a letter from home telling me in frenzied tones of the terrible things the Montreal Canadiens were doing to our Leafs.
And I marvelled that anybody could get excited about hockey at a time like that. Then I came home and I saw grown men scooting over a frozen ice surface chasing a little bit of black rubber thing not as big as the palm of your hand, and I wondered even more.
Now I find myself again boiling over inside over that very same little black rubber thing, leaving the game before the finish, as I did Thursday night, because it was too much excitement for me. The fellow that invented that little black rubber thing was quite a guy.
• Conn Smythe, Toronto Daily Star, April 2, 1947
“Happy holidays everybody!!!,” tweeted @AnzeKopitar this week, “#besttimeoftheyear”
In Ottawa, Governor-General David Johnston told CTV’s Powerplay what he thought of his next-door neighbour’s book, which is to say Stephen J. Harper’s A Great Game: “I enjoyed it enormously.”
“God fortsättning!” offered the Rangers’ goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. “Hoppas ni haft en härlig jul och att ni får ett gott nytt år!”
New Jersey’s Jaromir Jagr scored his 13th goal of the season this week in a 5-4 win over Washington’s Capitals. It was the 694th of his career, too, which ties him with Mark Messier in seventh place on the list of all-time NHL goalscorers.
“He amazes me every night I come to the rink,” Devils’ coach Peter DeBoer said of Jagr, who’s 41. “I don’t have a lot more adjectives to describe him, but he’s a pleasure to work with.”
Don’t cry for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their injured, coach Randy Carlyle said this week, via James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail. According to Carlyle, 108 players are out of action at the moment, or fully 15 per cent. “There’s a lot of injuries taking place,” Carlyle said. “We’re not the only ones.”
“There aren’t enough adjectives in the vocabulary to keep describing Jaromir’s goals,” said a teammate, Rick Tocchet. That was in 1992, back when Jagr played for Pittsburgh.
Evgeni Nabokov was the Islanders’ goalie yesterday when they lost to the Devils. “It’s the same music all the time: Why don’t we win?” he said afterwards. Continue reading
Janet Dziurzynski was sitting at home in Lloydminster, Alberta, watching on TV on March 6 as Toronto’s Frazer McLaren punched her son Dave in the head and he fell, smack, to the ice. “Of course, I was crying,” she said this week.
A defenceman, Cody Franson, spoke to TSN.ca of that point in a game the Leafs play where it all falls apart. “You can almost feel it coming sometimes. We get sloppy for a shift. It’s like it’s just kind of contagious. The bench can feel it.”
Jordin Tootoo’s teeth fell out and broke or were swept away in a raging river or … thieves made off with them? We don’t know the whole story, just what Tootoo tweeted: “The joys of having fake teeth……. They eventually fall out. Toothless for a while I’m guessing. First day of our week long roadie. UNCLE.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper liked the old-fashioned maroon-and-white uniforms the Vancouver Canucks wore this week in their game against Detroit. “The Millionaires sweaters are a nice tip of the cap to the 1915 Cup champions and to hockey history,” he twittered. “Well done.”
A former teammate, the Kings’ Mike Richards, said, “Kimmo Timonen is classiest guy in the league.” Which was nice. The Philadelphia defenceman was playing his 1,000th NHL game on his 38th birthday, so there was more, too. Teammate Braydon Coburn said, “He’s not the fastest guy. He’s not the biggest guy. He’s a tough little Finn. He’s been a smart player to be in the league that long.”
That was before the game, which the Flyers lost 4-2 to Tampa Bay. A few hours later, CSNPhilly.com reported, “Players appeared both dazed and disillusioned after the game.”
Said goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, “It’s sad. What else can you say? Nothing else you can do.” Continue reading