as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

how I spent my summer vacation: ching johnson

Oil Change: In the summer of 1930, Ching Johnson (right) repaired to California to work in the oilfields he owned in Inglewood, near Los Angeles. That’s his father looking on; Johnson is busy (and I quote) “hoisting out a stop block on a drilling table.”

Ching Johnson began the 1929-30 NHL season, his fourth as a defenceman with the New York Rangers, refusing to man the blueline. It was the old story, and the newer one, too: the man who was gaining more and more reputation as one of the game’s best and hardest-hitting defencemen wanted more money. High praise for hockey players was often expressed in the United States in ballpark terms: along with Boston’s Eddie Shore, Johnson was in those years often touted as a hockey Babe Ruth.

When the Rangers’ president, Colonel John Hammond, mailed Johnson a contract to sign in the summer of 1929, it took a while to find him. With the season set to open early in November, late October came on without any word back from Johnson, and that launched a rumour that he was giving up hockey at the age of 31. Rangers’ manager Lester Patrick had the rest of his team training in Springfield, Massachusetts, and he said he’d make do without Johnson on defence — he was thinking about dropping Bill Cook back to help on defence.

Johnson’s mail finally found him in Minneapolis. He wrote Colonel Hammond to say that he wasn’t ignoring him, but he was negotiating. I don’t know how much Johnson was making before, but word that fall was that he wanted $8,500 a season. Hammond was offering $7,500. Either way, he’d be getting less that half what Shore, the NHL’s best-paid player, was taking in. When Johnson got to New York early in November, he and Hammond met and dickered and parted ways on the understanding they’d meet again.

A rumour had the Rangers trading him, possibly to the Montreal Maroons. Then, next, the retirement story was back, substantiated this time by the principals themselves.

“Ching demands a salary beyond anything we can pay,” Colonel Hammond lamented. “We have removed him from our plans for this season.”

For his part, Johnson said he was just as happy devoting himself to the oilfields he’d recently bought out in California.

Within a few days, though, the two men had hammered out a deal. Johnson’s new contract was three years. One “authentic” report said he’d settled for $10,000 a year; big, if true.

Johnson didn’t skate in New York’s opening game in Montreal against the Maroons. For his debut a few days later, he did play 68 of 70 minutes in a 5-5 overtime tie with the Detroit Cougars, resting only to serve a minor penalty.

The following February, a crash involving Boston’s Dit Clapper broke Johnson’s jaw in three places. He was out of action for a month; when he returned it was with a custom-rigged leather jaw protector that one wag said gave him a certain Abraham Lincoln air.

After Montreal’s Canadiens ousted New York from the playoffs in 1930, Johnson headed for his California oil patch, in Inglewood, where he also seems to have owned fruit farm. It was October again when he motored north for another season of hockey with New York. Lester Patrick convened his training camp in Toronto this time, centred on the west-end rink at Ravina Gardens. By the time it broke in early November, Patrick was thinking Johnson and Leo Bourgeault would serve as the Rangers’ frontline defensive tandem.

A little while later, Harold Burr of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught up with Johnson as the Rangers arrived at New York’s Penn Station en route to Philadelphia to open the season against the newly minted Quakers. Johnson looked “very fit and cool in a blue suit, gray soft hat and no overcoat.”

Johnson took off some 37 pounds during the summer and is down to 200 pounds, just a nifty weight for a defense man.

“I didn’t eat,” said Johnson, explaining the phenomenon.

Ching, once a cook in a lumber camp as a vacation lark, is said to like his chow reasonably well. He didn’t go on a diet because his broken jaw hurt when he started the mastication of a beefsteak, but to get into hockey trim. The jaw, broken in the service of Colonel Hammond last winter, hasn’t given him any trouble. Perhaps the California sunshine did it.

on the road to new york: the rangers’ first training camp, 1926

In the spring of 1928, the team that Conn Smythe built went to the Stanley Cup finals and won. Smythe, of course, wasn’t around to join in the triumphing as the New York Rangers, in just their second season in the NHL, defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the championship. Hired in the spring of 1926 to sign players and coach them for Rangers owner Tex Rickard and president Colonel John Hammond, Smythe could hardly have made a solider start before finding himself fired by fall — before the Rangers had played even a single game.

Stan Fischler tells the tale in the newish, season-preview edition of The Hockey News. To sum up: in the spring of ’26, Smythe had coached the University of Toronto’s varsity team to the Allan Cup final. “I knew every hockey player in the world right then,” Smythe wrote in his 1981 Scott Young-aided memoir. On the Ranger job he went out and signed some of the best of them who weren’t already in the NHL. By mid-October the squad he’d assembled in Toronto for pre-season readying included goaltender Lorne Chabot, defencemen Taffy Abel and Ching Johnson, and forwards Frank Boucher, Billy Boyd, Murray Murdoch, Paul Thompson, and brothers Bill and Bun Cook.

“An hour’s road work in the morning and two hours on the ice at Ravina Rink this afternoon constituted the first day’s programme of conditioning,” The Ottawa Journal reported. This was Smythe’s first go at organizing the formal training camp he’d impose later on his Toronto Maple Leafs. At his side he had Frank Carroll, who’d had a winning record in the single season he coached the Toronto St. Patricks in 1920-21. That’s him above, on the far right, leading a Ranger group through Toronto streets at the end of October. Ching Johnson is on the other extreme, with (sixth from left) Bill Cook in behind; Frank Boucher, just visible, third from the right; and Bun Cook upfront, fifth from the right.

Smythe was out of a job before the Rangers played their first exhibition games, a 6-0 win over London of the Canadian Professional League at Ravina Gardens followed by a 3-1 follow-up in London. The variety of factors that seem to have contributed to Smythe’s precipitous demise included his bluster and insistence that he knew best. Where hockey was concerned, that was probably true, but his refusal to take Colonel Hammond’s pointed direction to sign the veteran Babe Day was the last straw. There are several versions of just how the firing went down; what’s not in dispute is that the Rangers had already signed Lester Patrick and brought him to Toronto before they sent Smythe packing.

The story that the press heard was that the parting was amicable. Smythe went along with the fiction that it was all a big shame that he couldn’t continue with the Rangers, but the business of the sand and gravel company he owned would (so sadly) prevent him from fully committing to the team.

Frank Carroll lasted a little longer. At Smythe’s departure, Lou Marsh reported in The Toronto Daily Star that Colonel Hammond was “delighted with the spirit and morale of the new team.”

“In fact, he expressed astonishment that Smythe and Carroll had, in such a short time, produced such harmony among athletes drawn from so many different sources.”

But by the time the Rangers travelled to New York to play their opening game with the Maroons, Carroll had been reassigned to coach the Springfield Indians in the brand-new Canadian-American Hockey League, forerunner to the AHL.

“As time went on,” Smythe wrote in If You Can’t Beat ’Em In The Alley, “I came to see that losing the Ranger job was a blessing.” Lester Patrick, he said, did a better job than he ever could have. Also? “I’ve seen what happens to other men who go to New York and can’t handle all the wine, women, and song.” Colonel Hammond, Smythe said, had done him a favour in 1926.