(Artist: Edgar Franklin Wittmack)
Don Harper’s boss at the grocery store in the northern Ontario mining town of Highgrade isn’t much of a fan. “Hockey!” Double-O Watkins sputters as his clerk heads to the rink again. “Hockey is only a game. Waste of time.” What’s the point? “The sort of jobs you get for playing hockey don’t lead anywhere.”
Don doesn’t care. The hero of Leslie McFarlane’s lively pulp yarn “Trouble On Skates” lives for hockey, but he only plays it for fun. He’s not looking for a hockey job — even if a job is looking for him.
Published as a serial in four installments in Street & Smith’s Sport Story Magazine in January and February of 1939, “Trouble On Skates” is a gem of the genre. That’s no surprise, of course. The father of broadcaster and hockey author Brian, Leslie grew up in and around the rinks of Haileybury, Ontario, and worked as a sports reporter at the Sudbury Star before going on to a career writing for TV, radio, and film, and penning (prolifically) popular fiction (including 21 Hardy Boys mystery novels).
McFarlane Sr. wrote a lot of hockey stories in his time. Some of them have been collected in a pair of handsome hardcover editions published in 2005 and ’06 as Leslie McFarlane’s Hockey Stories, volumes one and two. Many others (with titles like “Dunkel From Dunkelburg” and “But Mr. Referee, You Lug —”) are buried away in back issues of Maclean’s or (like “Trouble On Skates”) in Street & Smith’s. The ones I’ve read are fast-moving and funny, heavy (but not too heavy) on the high jinks, even if they do tend to creak a little in their old age and attitudes. The hockey McFarlane depicts is vivid and mostly plausible, which is saying something when it comes to hockey fiction.
As for Don Harper, honest-to-goodness groceryman and superlative right winger, here’s how Bingo McAllister, veteran radio play-by-play man, rates him:
Does everything he’s told, never squawks at a referee, never picks a fight, stays out of trouble, makes those goals look so blamed easy you think the goalie must have been asleep.
What he lacks, in Bingo’s book, is colour: Don needs to learn some showmanship, maybe develop a capacity for controversy to keep the fans interested. Don might not agree, but then (as mentioned) he has no ambitions in hockey beyond the horizon of the fun he’s having playing for the Highgrade Locals.
I have to confess that I don’t know how it all turns out for Don: I’m only caught up as far as the end of the first Street & Street installment from ’39. I know that there’s a scouting mix-up and that our hero finds himself on a train headed south for the big city and whatever awaits him there. Hockey stardom? Riches? Romance? The art, above, from the cover doesn’t exactly seem to bode well for Don, so I’m guessing that what’s in line for him is some shocking sort of come-uppance to prove his boss at the grocery store right. I wish I could say, I’m still trying to track down the subsequent chapters of “Trouble On Ice.” You’ll know what happens when I do.
Problems? Star Chicago Condors centreman Vic Paulson has two pressing him, one of which you don’t often see in big-time hockey, while the other one is a concussion — a very hockey problem indeed. Vic, see, stands accused of writing an article in a big Canadian newspaper in which he rudely denigrates the game that’s given him so much — bites the puck that feeds — and now all the hockey world (his teammates included) is mad at him.
Jerry Moad of the Rangers has a concussion, too, thanks to a vicious blindside hit by Eskimos’ defenceman Cyclone Couture, but his main problem is love: the devotion he used to have for hockey has strayed to Nona Velmar.
Willie Tittus? A dandy defenceman for the Black Hawks, his only problem is a bad bout of self-doubt. The predicament for Clarence Tillingworth, new wing for the Blue Demons, is that everybody thinks he’s a coward because he … reads a lot.
Swede Hansen, husky left wing for the Detroit Red Arrows — I can’t remember what his problem is. Lost his memory, maybe, or his nerve, or his house key? Possibly, like Falcons’ centreman Blackie Magee, he has a father problem that’s also very much a coach problem, as in he plays for his hard-bitten dad and just can’t seem to please the old man, no matter how hard he tries.
Can Blackie turn it around? Any hope for Jerry’s head and/or heart? What about Clarence: will he repent his literary sins?
Like the trials and tribulations of all these beleaguered hockey players, the answers to these urgent questions can be found in a new self-published anthology of hockey-minded pulp literature originally published in the U.S. in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
Compiled by Cambridge, Ontario, historian Paul Langan, Classic Hockey Stories has as its core seven rollicking short stories by writers you’ve (almost certainly) never heard of, from magazines like Ace Sports Monthly and 12 Sports Aces, bearing titles like “Blue Line Blazers” and “Pardon My Puck!” wherein characters yell “Attaboy!” to encourage the hockey players who feature, and “Take him out of there! Smear him! Knock his ears off!” to intimidate them.
Classic Hockey Stories debuted in December; if you’re interested in acquiring a copy, steer over to Langan’s website, here.
Mining a mostly forgotten vein of hockey fiction, Langan lays bare a fascinating geology. T.W. Ford, Theodore Roemer, and Giles Lutz, et al: the (all American) authors included here aren’t exactly household names in the annals of hockey literature, but they were all prolific pulp writers who knew how to get from the start of a story to the end in prose as raw and furious as the action on their imaginary rinks.
Bumps Cathaway, Montreal Cassidy, Beef Mulligan, Iceberg Callahan. Whether they’re memorably named or not, the characters in these stories tend to be colourful, if only roughly rendered. The plotting isn’t always what you’d call sophisticated, and the values on display are often musty antiques. Dialogue from French-Canadian characters sometimes reads (unfortunately) like this outburst from Big Georges Flandreau in “Charge of the Ice Brigade:”
“Always I say to them fallers, Vic Paulson he belong in beeg hockey league. They play you dirty treek somewan, huh? We feex mebbeso, by gar!”
At least the hockey is … not always entirely clichéd and/or implausible in its details and mechanics. Say this: it can be hard to look away from the page once a story like “Blonde Bullet” or “Charge of the Ice Brigade” gets on its careening track.
In December, when I e-mailed Paul Langan to ask him about the book, he was good enough to answer. Our conversation went like this:
What inspired you to put this collection together?
Like most Canadians, I’ve always loved hockey, and I was researching pulp magazines and dime novels. Early on in my life, I read pulp westerns, and I knew there were many other genres of pulp fiction: sci-fi, detective stories, westerns, mysteries. They’re all available online as pdfs now at very low prices. I only came across a few sports pulps, and the vast majority of them were baseball, basketball, football, and boxing stories. Hockey-themed stories were even harder to come by.
What were the challenges of tracking down the stories? How many did you read and consider for the book?
Extremely challenging for me. There are two sides to this issue of finding them. On one hand, there are the easily accessible ones that people have converted to pdfs and offer online at really great — cheap — prices. Then there are the collectors who collect the original magazines in which the stories appeared. These are expensive. I could only find 25 hockey novelettes and stories, and of those I used nine for the book. Finding Canadian- themed stories, or stories with even a hint of Canadiana, was even more difficult. Eventually I gave up looking for inexpensive avenues of finding hockey-themed stories and novelettes from the pulp days and just went with what I had.
Many of these stories are written by American writers for American publications. Do you think they played a part in promoting the spread hockey in the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century?
To me, the breakdown of number of stories written on particular sport at that time was representative of where hockey was at that time. If I remember correctly, I believe hockey-themed stories were number six or so among the sports pulps. I doubt the hockey stories influenced anyone.
What’s your opinion of the literary quality of these stories?
Honestly, the stories are not that great. I don’t think the vast majority of people reading the pulps back then bought them thinking this was going to be a great literary experience. It was pure escapism and entertainment before the popularity of TV destroyed them. They’re just like YouTube videos today, I think. If you read the book, just sit back and enjoy the fun.
Do you have a favourite story?
“Charge of the Rink Brigade” is a well-written novel by Joe Archibald, who had a long career and wrote more than 50 novels. They were not on hockey topics, but he was a good writer. I love this one because he has Canadian characters and includes cities like Winnipeg. As the old saying goes, a good story is one that paints a picture. This novel paints a clear picture.
Also, “Stooge for a Puck Pirate” by C. Paul Jackson. This is a sentimental favourite for me: I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, across from Detroit, Michigan. I used to go to Red Wings games in the 1970s and ’80s, some at the old Olympia Stadium.
What was the thing that surprised you most, putting together this project?
There’s a short section at the end of the book on the authors who wrote for the pulps. Researching them, I learned a lot about what writers had to do back then to make a living. They wrote and submitted stories for a variety of genres just to make some money to pay the bills. This definitely reflected in the quality of the hockey stories. With some of them, it seems like they didn’t really know the game. There’s one story where the author wrote several times that one player “blockered” another. He meant to say he “checked” him, but evidently was unaware of that term.
Classic Hockey Stories: From the Golden Era of Pulp Magazine, 1930s—1950s
(Self-published, 240 pp., $13.66 in paperback)
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I was all set to get going on my pandemical tour through the thickets of hockey’s fiction with the old Burt L. Standish classic Dick Merriwell’s Stanchness, an American dime novel dating to 1908, that features, as maybe you noticed, the word stanchness in its title, which I’m all for, and look forward to using in everyday exchanges from now on, stanchness, meaning steadfast or (sometimes) watertight, plus the illustration on the cover showing this goal of Dick’s — a backhander, no less — is kind of glorious, isn’t it — unless Dick is the goaltender? Anyway, I was ready to go, really looking forward to reporting back from the far end of this 299-page epic, and yet, and yet, not even a chapter in, things took a turn for the anti-Semitic, so — nah.
Is it really 50 days since the pandemic stopped hockey, and everything else, except for in Belarus? Yes, that’s right, it was, this Thursday past — two score and ten scoreless days since the rinks closed up on March 12. Does it feel like a hundred days? Two hundred? As David Remnick was saying on The New Yorker’s podcast a couple of weeks into this strange spring, the loss of big-league sports is not — by far — the worst we’ve sustained, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bitter.
In the absence of hockey, and everything else (except in Belarus), it’s the questions that multiply to fill the ever-expanding void. They’re bulky and awkward, mostly unanswerable, and all but impossible to shepherd out of mind: How did this happen? Will everything be okay? When does it end?
Some of them are smaller, too, with a mosquito’s whine, no less nagging for being non-essential. Does hockey matter? What, really, are we missing? Were this year’s Leafs any good, does anyone recall? How do I know if my sourdough starter is still alive? Did you see those 1980s Oilers on Sportsnet the other night — how great were they? Not to mention Don Wittman on the play-by-play. Also: should I wash my hands again now? Also: anybody been able to zoom in on Ron MacLean’s good-looking bookshelves to see just what he’s got back there?
Hockey did focus itself on books in the first late-March weeks of isolation, back when we were still getting used to distracting ourselves. Remember? Back when we were focussed on tricks with rolls of toilet paper, before advent of multi-paned Zoom conclaves of housebound NHLers really got going? I suppose that people are still reading books, quietly, thoughtfully, off-screen, but in those days, the hockey world seemed to be as intent on talking books, hockey and otherwise, as much as zone starts or PDO.
San Jose Sharks captain Logan Couture started a book club.
Washington’s goaltender-on-hiatus Braden Holtby made a steeple of the books he’d been reading, or his wife Brandi did — she was the one, anyway, who tweeted out the photo:
In Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise revealed … no, not the team’s much-anticipated name, that’s still to come — when “the mood is right,” as Greg Wyshinski of ESPN reports. The should-be Metropolitans did proffer some literary advice, even if it wasn’t exactly adventurous.
Hockey Canada weighed in:
Others turned their cameras to their shelves to advocate for hockey-minded favourites, historian and L.A. Kings writer Mike Commito had some counsel:
To which some of us answered back:
I added a novel to this massif of mine; I could have elevated more. I’ve written elsewhere about hockey fiction, superior and not-so-much. Ranking the novels I’ve enjoyed most of all, and learned from, the ones that rise above the regular, I tend to back up Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1985) with books like Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), The Divine Ryans (1990) by Wayne Johnston, Fred Stenson’s Teeth (1994), and Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997). Pete McCormack’s sweet and underappreciated novel Understanding Ken(1998) would be on it, and so would The Good Body by Bill Gaston (2000). And, from 2011, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist.
So much for the best. What about the rest? A couple of years ago, when I was working hard to read allthe hockey books, every one of them — well, I didn’t do that, is what happened: I failed. It turns out that there are just too many, and not enough time, plus while a whole lot of them are vivid and insightful and even beautifully rendered, many others are … not.
I did read a lot, though. And for all the hockey narrative I made it through, I acquired a whole lot more, much of which I have shelved here behind me, with the fiction closest to hand, in case of emergency. It’s not all novels; this is a library rich with juvenile and genre editions, mass-market, pulp, serialized, and self-published sagas, too. Colonizing three shelves and part of a fourth behind the desk I’m sitting at, they’re all here, the great and the good and the just-entertaining mixed in with the middling, the muddled, the dumbly offensive, the merely harmless. It’s some of the latter that I’m thinking of paying some attention to here, in this space, over this next little stretch of our Great Hiatus, with a particular focus on the made-it-halfway-through and the couldn’t-get-myself-past-the-second-page. If now’s not the time to take a walk on the pulpier, predictable, prosaic side of hockey’s library, when is?
That’s not to say that some the fiction that comes under consideration in this upcoming series isn’t deftly done, incisive, insightful. We’ll look for that, without necessarily counting on finding it. The cover-art we’ll see along the way will be, I’ll mention, as fantastic as this. How far will we wander, through just how much turgid prose, down how many clichéd plotlines? We’ll see. No judgment … unless, no, I guess it’s too late for that. No harm, then — that’s what I’ll say: no harm intended. I’m not here to blame or berate or bicker. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books discussed here, I forgive you. Same thing if you happen to have written any of them. So: stay tuned.
If nothing else, “The Ice Ace From Nowhere” answers a question that no-one ever asked: where can I get me some concussion-themed fiction with a hockey slant?
I’m just really getting going, but here’s some of what I know of John Marshall’s serial tale of high crimes and head trauma: it was published in instalments through the fall of 1948 and into ’49 in a boisterous, boy’s-own English weekly called “The Champion” that somehow came to add hockey to its regular roster of adventures involving Indigenous footballers (Johnny Fleetfoot, Redskin Winger) and RAF pilots who used to be championship boxers (Rockfist Rogan).
I don’t know who Marshall was, or what else he wrote, but I can tell you that, so far, he’s gone all in on his post-concussion-syndrome storyline. Chapter one: man wakes up lying on the ice “of a frozen river in Canada.” Knowing not a thing about it (or anything), he asks himself the old Talking Heads puzzler: “How did I get here?” No clue. There’s a stick nearby and a puck; he’s wearing skates. “Guess I must have taken a big bump,” he tells himself, just like a hockey player. “I seem to have scrambled my brains a little. It’ll all come back to me in a minute.”
Still, he figures out how to get himself going on skates. Attaboy. Within a couple of paragraphs he’s discovered a bag full of money. In a tree. Also? A helpful newspaper clipping suggesting that he may have killed a man while robbing a bank in Chicago before … skating north? The police must be after him, he decides; best to keep on skating? Before he can ponder much on that, he finds himself recruited to try out for a hockey team, the Gladiators, that just happens to be practicing around a bend of the river because, you know, Canada.
Our hero (villain?) doesn’t remember his name, so he can’t tell it to the Gladiators, who think he’s just shy, and dub him “Silent.” Uh-oh: as the scrimmaging starts, he realizes … he … he … doesn’t know the rules. So that might be a problem, especially if the Gladiators have a concussion spotter on staff. I’ll have to let you know how it goes: that’s as far as I’ve got in this particular brain-injury barn-burner.