home of the blues, if not the stanley cup

Eagle’s Nest: The last time a hockey team from St. Louis played for the Stanley Cup, 1970, they were doing it at the old St. Louis Arena on Oakland Avenue. Opened in 1929, it was home long before that to the AHA Flyers and (for the single season of their existence) the NHL Eagles. This illustration dates to the latter’s brief tenure there, 1934-35 — during which time the rink also hosted the U.S. National Dairy Show. Renovated for the arrival of the Blues in 1967, the Arena was renamed the Checkerdome in 1977, though that only lasted until 1983. If the Blues do raise the Stanley Cup tonight, they’ll do it eight kilometres to the east of the long-gone Arena, over the ice of the Enterprise Center, to which they moved in 1994.

chicago stadium, 1929: maple leafs forever

The Chicago Black Hawks played their second game at the new-built Chicago Stadium on the night of Sunday, December 29, 1929. The team had just returned from a middling (2-3) five-game road trip. Up against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Hawks ended up on the losing end of a 4-3 decision, with the Leafs’ Charlie Conacher scoring the winning goal. The Chicago Tribune’s man on the scene opened his dispatch by noting a “prophetic” pre-game anthem “faux pas” by the Stadium organist, who played “The Maple Leaf Forever” before “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Harold Rohm doesn’t name him, but I think the man at the keys must have been Al Melgard who, so far as I can tell, was on the job at the Stadium’s enormous instrument right from the start. He continued at it for 45 years, retiring in 1974.

chicago stadium, 1929: keen ice, no boos

On the Thursday night that mid-December, the Chicago Black Hawks beat the Montreal Maroons 4-3 at the Coliseum on Wabash Avenue, their fourth victory in a row. They ran their streak to five games that Sunday — December 15, 89 years ago tomorrow — when they inaugurated the brand-new Chicago Stadium, on West Madison, with a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd of 14, 212 that watched the proceedings was the largest — by 6,000 — ever to have seen a hockey game in Chicago. The baseball player and sometime boxer Art Shires was on hand to drop a ceremonial puck, though for some reason he did so at the start of the third period.  The new rink was an improvement on the old one, the local Tribune was pleased to report, including in its temperature: “It was cold enough to see your breath,” which meant that the ice was hard, and “far keener” that at the Coliseum. Ty Arbour and Cy Wentworth stood out for the Hawks, who got all their goals in the second period. Vic Ripley scored the first goal in Stadium history, then added a second for good measure. Frank Ingram added Chicago’s third goal, with Tex White eventually replying for Pittsburgh. The Tribune’s Harland Rohm lauded the referees, Cooper Smeaton and Bert Corbeau, for not making any terrible calls. The fans appreciated this, too, he said: “They even got the equivalent of a cheer from the crowd,” he wrote, “which was an absence of booing.”

old world order

The snow, if you hadn’t heard, is piling up in Davos in Switzerland this week atop the World Economic Forum, where, as The New York Times has it this morning, “financial titans mingle with heads of state in an annual saturnalia of capitalism.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was a keynote speaker yesterday; the President of the United States blows in on Thursday. Amid the heavy weather and the ongoing crisis of the liberal order, can we cast back to this same week in 1932 for a look in on Hockey Club Davos? We can. That’s them here, then, against unknown opposition. The World Economic Forum got going in 1971; HC Davos dates back to 1918. Today, the team has 31 Swiss National League championships to its name, along with 15 Spengler Cups. The annual invitational Spengler is, of course, a Davos institution, going back to 1923. These days it’s played next door to the old Eisstadion Davos pictured here, under magnificent cover at the Vaillant Arena. HC Davos has been at home therein since 1979. This season, they’re standing in fifth place in the 12-team Swiss table, 19 points back of the defending champions from SC Bern. Davos plays next on Saturday, when they’re away to Lausanne HC. The outdoor rink is still there where it was in downtown Davos, with all the snow and the global elites, though minus (too bad) the wooden stand shown above.

 

the house that conn built

Gardens Party: Seen here, above, in the 1980s, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens hosted its first hockey game on this night in 1931. If the occasion was one to remember, the hockey the building hosted that night wasn’t, particularly. The rink that Conn Smythe built all in a hurry to house his Leafs welcomed a crowd that night of 13,542, the largest ever to have seen a hockey game in the Ontario capital. Bert Perry was among them, on hand to report for The Globe. “The immensity of this hippodrome of hockey, claimed to be the last word in buildings of its kind, was impressed upon the spectator, and those present fully agreed that Toronto had at last blossomed forth into major league ranks to the fullest extent.” The Chicago Black Hawks beat the Leafs 2-1 on a goal from Vic Ripley. “It was not,” Perry opined, “a brilliant game of hockey.”

(Image: City of Toronto Archives,  Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 426, Item 16)

under review: housing hockey

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance. “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”

Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game — especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.

But since Fleury isn’t the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts — or for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.

Shubert6Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold, and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.

That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.

You’d think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture (1994), for example, all but passes them by.

On the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas — Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof On Winter (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.

Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards the end.

 •••

What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter pastimes to beguile us. We’re back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.

Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.

There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,

ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.

Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.

Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned 20. War didn’t help — with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.

Canada’ first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill-halls.

Early hockey remained mostly outdoors — the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight? Continue reading

oil parting

rexall

Once, when it was still Northlands Coliseum, the Edmonton Oilers that called the rink home won five Stanley Cups in  seven years. The rink has another name now, Rexall Place, and the Oilers that have skated there recently haven’t reached the playoffs let alone gone all the way, but the old rink still has its history if not much future. Tonight, as the team plays its last game in the old barn, which opened in November of 1974, 150 erstwhile Oilers, players and staff, will be on hand to see their underachieving successors host the Vancouver Canucks. The guest list features Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Ryan Smyth, and Dave Semenko, along with several members of the WHA old guard, including Al Hamilton and Eddie Mio and Ron Chipperfield. The Oilers will open next season at their new $480-million home, Rogers Place.

 (Photo, from 2012, courtesy of Kurt Bauschardt, whose work you’ll find on flickr)