bill fitsell, 1923—2020

Cold Comfort: Bill Fitsell, left,  in the blues of his beloved Maple Leaf, hands on knees à la Charlie Conacher, out on the ice in Lindsay, Ontario, in the early 1930s.

So very saddened, still, by the news that came on Thursday of my friend Bill Fitsell’s death in Kingston, Ontario, at the age of 97. His career was in newspapers, as a reporter, editor, and columnist, and it spanned 55 years. His passion was hockey history: that he pursued in his books and in dozens of other projects that were dear to his heart. One of the latter was the community of fellow travellers that he dreamed up and made real, the Society of International Hockey Research. Last month, writing about the first NHL hockey game that Bill ever attended — that piece is here — I tried to translate his contribution in all that endeavoured into hockey terms. “His calibre,” I ventured, “might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.”

Up today at the SIHR website — here — is a retrospective I wrote of Bill’s life and times.

Working on that, I found a page in my notebook from the fall of 2018 that I’d filled on the train from Kingston back to Toronto after sharing a coffee with Bill.

He’d told me about his dad and the rink he made for his boys in the 1930s in the lot beside the family’s home in Lindsay. As I write in the SIHR piece, there was no minor hockey program there, then, other than what Bill and his friends concocted. “You organized your own teams in those days,” he told. “And of course my team was called the Maple Leafs. I went down and registered us, and we’d play Saturday mornings.”

“We all had different Leaf sweaters,” he remembered. His own version is the one that’s pictured here above, with an authentic Maple Leaf stitched on the front. The stripes, though, at the waist? They weren’t correct, he said, and the collar was a roll-neck, not at all what the genuine Leafs wore — though altogether warmer, Bill told me with a smile, out on the cold January ice.

Incoming: A drawing of Bill’s, Leafs and Rangers, that decorated the cover of one of his childhood scrapbooks.

my first hockey game: bill fitsell

Big Bomber Command: Bill Fitsell still has the notebooks he kept as a boy in the 1930s to celebrate his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Open on his desk at home in Kingston, Ontario, is his record of the first NHL game he ever attended, when he was 12, in 1936.

Bill Fitsell’s importance as a hockey historian isn’t easy to measure, so let’s just say this: it’s immense. He’s far too modest to elaborate on that himself, so I’ll step in, if I may, to mention the trails he’s blazed in researching hockey’s origins and geographies; his books, including Hockey’s Captains, Colonels & Kings (1987) and How Hockey Happened (2006); his leadership at Kingston’s International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum; also that The Society for International Hockey Research got its start as a notion of his, and when it launched in 1991, he stepped up to serve as its inaugural president.

Fitsell, who turned 97 this past July, is also a legendary newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist, a veteran of the Kingston Whig-Standard, which is where I first met him, years ago, and got to know just how good and generous a soul he is. In hockey terms, his calibre might be best expressed in a Lady Byng Trophy context: his proficiency at what he does is only exceeded by his good grace and gentlemanly conduct.

With word this week that Bill is under care at a Kingston hospital, I’m sending best wishes, and doing my best to infuse these paragraphs with hopes for his speedy recovery.

I’ve visited Bill in Kingston several times over the past few years, when I’ve been in from Toronto, back when there was still such a thing as dropping by to say hello. Bill has been working for a while on a new book collecting and commemorating hockey poetry and lyrics and doggerel, and we’d talk about that, and about the Maple Leafs.

Bill has been backing Toronto’s team for all the years going back to his childhood in the 1930s, which is when Toronto’s superstar right winger Charlie Conacher ensconced himself as his all-time favourite player.

Born in Barrie in 1923, Bill had moved east with his family to Lindsay in 1927. In 1942, at the age of 19, he joined the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve and was on active service through 1946. In 1945, he’d met and married the former Barbara Robson — the couple celebrated their 75thanniversary earlier this fall — and when Bill was discharged from the Navy, the couple settled in Lindsay.

That’s where Bill got his first newspaper job, at the Lindsay Post. He joined the Whig-Standard in Kingston in 1962, and he continued there until 1993.

One winter’s afternoon last year, over coffee near Bill’s lakeshore home, with the modern-day edition of the Leafs lurching a little, finding new ways to lose games they’d been winning, upsetting the faithful, we turned again from the future to the past.

That’s when I asked: did he remember the first NHL game he attended?

Yes. Yes, he did. 1936. He was 12 years old. With his dad, he drove a couple of hours to Toronto from Lindsay with … some others: they were a party of five in all. At Maple Leaf Gardens, they were close to the ice, in five seats on the rail, at $2.50 apiece — “where later Harold Ballard would jam in seven paying customers,” Fitsell laughed.

I eventually tracked down the facts of the matter, but that afternoon I was happy for the gleams and textures of Bill’s decades-old memories. The Boston Bruins were in town; the Leafs won. Turk Broda, he recalled, was in the Toronto net; Conacher, he thought, was out with an injury. There was a fight … he paused to picture it. Probably … Toronto’s turbulent Red Horner and Boston’s Eddie Shore? Fans all around the Fitsell faction began to toss their programs towards the melee on the ice; Bill braved the bombardment to run down rinkside to retrieve one. “I guess,” he told me, “that’s when I became a collector.”

Back in his office at home, Bill retrieved the notebook in which he’d memorialized that and other Leaf games in the ’30s. January 18, 1936, a Saturday. When all was said and done, the Leafs had beaten the Bruins 5-2. “One of those wild, free-clouting brawls beloved of the hockey customer,” was how Andy Lytle assessed the evening’s proceedings in the Toronto Daily Star.

Actually, it was George Hainsworth in the Toronto net that night, with Tiny Thompson guarding the Boston goal. The Leafs, who’d been Stanley Cup finalists in 1935, had hit a post-Christmas skid: heading into their meeting with the Bruins they were winless in five games. Charlie Conacher’s injury was to his shoulder, and he was expected to be off skates for as much as two weeks; Joe Primeau, his Lindsay-born centreman, was out with a cold. The Leafs were trying to keep pace with the Montreal Maroons atop the NHL’s Canadian Section of the standings; the Bruins were sunken down at the bottom of the American side of the ledger.

Sew It Is: Leaf physician Dr. J.W. Rush stitches King Clancy on the Saturday night in ’36 that Bill Fitsell saw his first NHL game.

Also on hand from the Star was Sports Editor Lou Marsh (also a sometime NHL referee). “A brawl,” Marsh called it, and “a game of hurley on ice.” Oh, and “a bitter struggle which fostered gales of lusty roaring from the drop of the rubber tart to the final gong.”

The first period ended without a goal. The fight that Bill recalled got going in the early minutes, involving defenceman Hap Day of the Leafs and Boston’s Red Beattie, both of whom incurred major penalties, though Lou Marsh classified it as “blowless.” Red Horner earned himself a 10-minute misconduct in the same sequence for saying something nasty to referee Mike Rodden — none of the contemporary accounts specify, of course, what it might have been.

By the end of the second, the Leafs were up 3-1, getting goals from Art Jackson, Pep Kelly, and Andy Blair, with Boston’s goal going to Cooney Weiland.

Toronto’s King Clancy got an early goal in the third. “By this time the Toronto audience was as excited as a roomful of children with the chimney corner hung with filled stockings,” Andy Lytle gushed.

Boston dimmed the mood a little after Day used his hand to smother the puck near enough the Toronto goal that Boston was awarded a penalty shot. Babe Siebert stepped up to beat Hainsworth. Another Bruin defenceman scored the final goal, Eddie Shore, though he would have wished it away, if he could have. He was trying to bat away a rebound from his own goaltender, Thompson, but instead batted the puck into the net for an own goal; Toronto’s Bill Thoms got the credit.

“Most fans,” Lou Marsh further enthused, “went home chirping cheerily that they had seen the best game of a couple of seasons.”

“The crowd was in a continual surging, screaming uproar as the squadrons charged relentlessly, ceaselessly up and down, floundering, thudding, crashing, skidding, as they chased each other and the flying bootheel. The attacks beat upon the defences like white-fanged waves upon the sullen rocks of a storm-threshed coast.”

“In other words … it was a great game!”

For all the excitement of Bill’s first foray to Maple Leaf Gardens, another slightly earlier encounter with his beloved Maple Leafs is bright in his memory, too. A year before the Fitsells made their way to Toronto, the Leafs had paid a visit to Lindsay.

January of 1935, this was. “The Leafs came in and played a blue-and-white game,” Bill recalled on another visit of mine. “And that was a big thrill.”

Lindsay’s Pioneer Rink had burned down several years before that, in 1931 or so. For a few winters afterwards, Bill told me, all the hockey that he and his friends were playing — as in the photograph here — was on outdoor rinks around town. Under the sponsorship of the local Kiwanis Club, a community fundraising drive eventually raised $17,000 to pay for a new arena, and when it was built and ready to open, the Leafs were invited to aid in the opening gala. Thanks to the Joe Primeau connection, they’d accepted.

The president of the OHA was in town, along with the secretary, W.A. Hewitt, Foster’s father. Three bands were on hand, too. Along with the anthems and speeches the schedules featured displays of fancy skating, including one by a quartet of maiden sisters named Dunsford, the youngest of whom was 66. An all-star Lindsay team was slated to play an exhibition game against a line-up of players drawn from the local county. But it was the Leafs’ abridged scrimmage at 5 o’clock in the afternoon that was the star attraction.

“The admission was $1,” Bill remembered.

Fourteen Leafs had made the bus trip from Toronto along with coach Dick Irvin. Two days earlier, they’d dropped a 1-0 game to the Detroit Red Wings; two days later, they’d return to the Gardens to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. In Lindsay, Benny Grant anchored one side in goal, with Hap Day and Flash Hollett on defence. Skating up front was Baldy Cotton along with the Kid Line: Primeau, Busher Jackson, and Bill’s idol, Charlie Conacher. At the other end of the ice, George Hainsworth took the net along with Red Horner, Buzz Boll, King Clancy, Hec Kilrea, Andy Blair, and Bill Thoms. They scored plenty of goals in they played, with Grant’s team prevailing 7-6.

Earlier in the day, 11-year-old Bill and his buddies had spent the afternoon waiting for the Leafs to arrive. “When they get off the bus from Toronto, I introduced them to all my team — we were called the Maple Leafs.”

Later, he cornered the coach. “I had my sister’s autograph book, and I saw Dick Irvin in the waiting room, all alone. So I got his attention and he signed it, Dick Irvin, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the date. A full page. And on the other side was where my sister had written Roses are red, violets are blue.”

Later, a friendly go-between took the book into the hall where the players were eating their suppers. When Bill got it back again, the whole team had signed their names.

“It really was a great thrill,” he said, 84 years later.

Hockey Captain, Colonel, & King: With the Leafs’ famous Kid Line over his shoulder, Bill Fitsell at home in Kingston in 2019.

Updated, 12/5/2020: An earlier version of this post misstated the date of that first game of Bill’s: it was played on Saturday, January 18, 1936, when Bill was 12. 

scrap heap: nadine arseneault’s portfolio of hockey punching

The fights went on and on. Night after night, Nadine Arseneault kept drawing. Month after month the fists flared; Arsenault kept going in her project to render a portrait of each and every fight that marred the 2018-19 NHL season. For all the talk that bare-knuckle combat is evolving out of hockey’s top tier, it’s not as if peace is exactly prevailing on NHL ice: by the time the regular season had wrapped up in April, Arsenault’s portfolio of punches included more than 200 images.

It’s a grim indictment of hockey’s arcane culture of punishment … unless, no, maybe does the collection amount, instead, to an unflinching celebration of the game’s deep traditions of warrior honour and rightful retribution?

Exactly. Therein lies the rub — and it’s the nub, too, of Arseneault’s interest in hockey violence and the arresting work that it’s generated. A Toronto editorial designer and illustrator with a deep and delightful creative imagination, Arseneault is engaged in an ongoing and wide-ranging project of unpacking the game’s vehement instincts and outcomes. She’s doing it on paper and tablet, in ink and paint and fabric and onscreen, manipulating photographs and textiles. In its many diverse parts, the work is fascinating, challenging, provocative, visually rewarding, and — often — beautiful.

“Hockey occupies a big part of my work and personal time,” Arseneault was saying recently, in an e-mail. Her background in editorial design includes work for magazines like Saturday Night, Maclean’s, and the University of Toronto’s Rotman Management magazine. Some of her past hockey-minded work is featured here and here and over here; you can browse her more recent interests and creations on Instagram, here.

With an eye on turning her talents to teaching, she’s also pursuing a masters degree at Toronto’s York University. That’s where the chronicle of last season’s NHL assault and battery fits in. “Hockey and design,” she says, “came as a natural selection of my interests. My research focusses on the visual representation of violence in the history of the NHL,” she says. “The title of my thesis is Reflective Punch: A graphic design examination of the violence in the 2018-19 season of the National Hockey League.”

As her academic work continues, Arseneault is renewing her fight-by-fight chronicle for the 2019-20 NHL season. She’s also starting to introduce her work to the wider world. This very afternoon, in Quebec City, she’s presenting an overview of her hockey vision at the fall meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research.

In the summer gone by, Arseneault also agreed to submit to an interview by e-mail. The questions I asked follow, along with her answers.

How did you decide to draw a season’s worth of NHL fights?
I wanted to see how the fights started, how violent they were, and how they ended. I’ve always been the type of person who watched hockey fights with my hands covering my face while peeking through my fingers to catch glimpses. I thought that if I forced myself to watch them, I might be able to understand them a bit better.

Did you indeed end up drawing every fight from the 2018-19 season?
Yes, all 226 fights. Forgive me, the Jets versus Predators game on October 11, 2018, had two fights in one frame, so I only did 225 actual drawings.

What was the process? Was it a matter of scouring the NHL schedule every night through the season, then sitting down to draw next morning? How did you decide on composition? Looking at a particular fight, what sources did you draw on? How long would it typically take you to complete a drawing?
I watch a lot of hockey, but not every game, so during the 2018-19 hockey season, I started my day with coffee and hockeyfight.com. I checked to see if I missed any fights from the previous evening. Then I watched the fight a few times and finally in slow motion, where I was looking for something interesting to draw. I sketched them using my digital tablet and pen. They took anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to complete, depending on the number of details. Oddly, it became a very meditative process, bordering on obsessive.

For a while you were posting the images as the season went along on Instagram. You didn’t frame them or series there with much (if any) explanation or commentary. Was that on purpose? 
Yes, I wrote very little on Instagram because I didn’t want to disclose any of my views. I hoped to offer something different from a photo or video and maybe tempt some reflection. The journal format of the project is even simpler. I designed the information almost like a wedding invitation, with date, the name of the players and teams. The journal was my way of representing a sort of formal agreement between the players.

Looking through the series, I was thinking about my own reactions to hockey violence and how, abstracted from the game, accumulated on the screen, how absurd these clutching/grappling/sneering figures can seem. At the same time, you have elevated these otherwise inglorious moments to works of art. My reaction, of course, won’t be everybody’s. Fans of fighting might see them quite differently — which I’m guessing is a point of yours?
They are totally absurd. Some will see that, but I suspect most won’t. Before starting this project, I thought a lot about the movie Slap Shot and the huge cult following it has among players and fans. Slap Shot was written by Nancy Dowd, who took inspiration from her brother, who played minor-league hockey. What many don’t realize is that Dowd’s objective was to point out how gruesome hockey could be. It’s a comedy, but really it’s a very dark drama. I don’t think she intended to glorify hockey fights. The irony is heavy on how the public digested that movie, and it demonstrated to me how firmly rooted hockey violence is inside hockey culture.

The irony was additionally confirmed to me when in September of 2017, Georges Parros was named head of the Department of Player Safety for the NHL. When he playing in the NHL, Parros was, of course, a fighter, and far from being a model of safety. This left me wondering whether the NHL had any worries at all about players safety when it comes to hockey fights. Adding to the paradox is Parros’ involvement with the clothing line Violent Gentlemen. This is a brand that describes itself as “forged from steel and bound by a code: Respect. It runs deep and courses through the veins of a Violent Gentleman …. From the ice to the Octagon, from the ring to the field we honor the fight, the art, the opponent and the sport. Blood paints a path to the heart. Sweat, a river to the soul.” Violent Gentlemen makes no excuses on how their brand romanticizes “The Code” and idealizes enforcers. That seemed to conflict with the mandate of player safety.

Long explanation. I think most will see me as an artist who idolizes hockey fights. What this offers me is a quick way to uncover people’s opinions about hockey violence by listening to their reactions to the illustrations.

Could we talk about one of the drawings in detail? I was looking at the one of Paul Byron of the Montreal Canadiens, from last March. I remember watching that game and the fight, in which Byron was clearly concussed. You’ve depicted him in the staggering aftermath of that. What do you see in the image when you study it?
In general, I found most fights to be very theatrical — almost to the point of looking rehearsed —with spins, hugs, swinging arms, pulling on jerseys, and missed punches. I also realized how difficult it is to land a decent hit on an opponent. Most ludicrous are the punches with a bare fist on a hard helmet. A lot of the fights felt performed, with qualities of a circus or carnival event.

But some were very difficult to watch, like that fight between Paul Byron and Mackenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers on March 26, 2019. It didn’t last very long. Byron received a hit and fell immediately to the ice. When he got back on his feet, you could tell he was hurt and struggling to keep his balance while leaning on one of the linesmen. He was escorted off the ice and went directly to the dressing room with the help of a member of the Canadiens medical team and a fellow teammate. Byron is a small player, 5’8”, and weighs only 158 pounds. He was mismatched with Weegar, who’s 6’0” and 212 pounds. Any fight where there’s a significant difference in the size of the players makes me cringe.

What have reactions been from people who’ve seen the series?
As expected, on Instagram, I get a lot of fist-pump emojis. But the best reactions are from the non-hockey fans. My thesis advisor, a non-hockey fan, immediately saw homoerotic artwork, but I think many in creative fields often see some sensuality in my work. After she said that, I tried to look for poses to encourage that thought. I’m not sure how many will detect it, but I did sneak them in there.

Did your perspective change from beginning to end, either on the project itself and what you wanted to achieve and/or on hockey violence? 
The short answer is yes, my perspective changed a lot, but my feelings about hockey fighting did not. The difference is in my explanation of why I find hockey violence troubling. It also opened up many more questions about the reasons why the fights are so popular amongst fans. Most stunning was the lack of consideration from the fans who like hockey fights: they seem to possess zero concerns for any potential injuries. On January 29, 2019, Trent Frederic played his first game for the Bruins and got into his first NHL fight with Brandon Tanev of the Winnipeg Jets. The camera scanned the reaction of Frederic’s parents standing in the stands and showed them smiling and clapping. I’m still troubled by watching that type of response from parents.

I’m often surprised by things I didn’t include in the illustrations: the reaction of the crowd, especially from small children. I observed a mom and son sitting in the front row looking very upset by the fighting on the ice. Their expressions were what you would expect from people witnessing a fight outside the walls of an ice arena. Watching them at that moment made the violence feel very real to me. Another instance was when I saw a young boy and girl sitting next to each other. The boy was jumping in excitement while the little girl seemed disturbed by the fight. In a split second, her expression changed, and she joined in the smiling and jumping. It made me wonder about peer pressures when attending games and how the roar of a crowd can be confusing. All the fights had countless of people filming with their smartphones while watching through their tiny screens. I wonder if any of them even watched the video afterwards and if so, what they thought about it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

charlie conacher: many happy returns of … tomorrow?

First To The Fight: Charlie Conacher leads his Leaf teammates to the ice at the Boston Garden in 1936. Following behind that’s (possibly) Pep Kelly and (certainly) captain Hap Day. Bringing up the rear (I’ll guess) might be Red Horner. (Image: Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Charlie Conacher was just 28 when he announced his retirement from hockey in January of 1938. Most in the media agreed with The Ottawa Journal’s assessment: the Leaf captain was “the game’s hardest shooter” and had been, for years, “one of its most compelling figures.” Injuries to knees and kidneys, wrists and back had worn him down: it was on the advice of Leafs’ physician Dr. J.W. Rush that he was making his exit. By columnist Walter Gilhooly’s account, the news hit the NHL like a bomb, and would severely impair Toronto’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Leafs’ manager Conn Smythe wasn’t about to argue that: “It’s a terrific blow to us,” he said.

Conacher’s retirement didn’t last: he made his return to the rink the following season as a Detroit Red Wing, where he played for a season before heading to New York, where he was an American for another two years before he (definitively) hung up his skates in 1941.

While Conacher’s initial 1938 retirement didn’t stick, it did allow for an extended period of career memorializing as teammates and coaches and sportswriters summed up and celebrated his years as (quote) a bruiser in action and one of the strongest men in hockey. Before Conacher made his NHL debut in 1929, Bill Cook of the New York Rangers was said to be the best right winger in hockey. Now, retired and coaching, Cook weighed in to name his all-time all-star team. George Hainsworth was the best goaltender he’d ever seen, Eddie Shore and Ching Johnson the best of defencemen. For forwards, he anointed Howie Morenz at centre, Aurèle Joliat and Conacher on the wings.

Alec Connell had stood in Conacher’s way many times in his years tending goal for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Maroons. “He was the best right wing I ever saw,” Connell said of Conacher, who weighed in close to 200 pounds. “He was as fast on his skates as a 150 pounder and there was never anyone with a more wicked shot. He drove them at you like a bullet. On top of his size and his strength and his speed, he was brainy. You never knew how he was coming in on you with the puck. One time he’d play you one way. The next time he’d come down on you in an entirely different way. He was a fellow that it was almost impossible to get set for, and then he had that blazing shot.”

Across nine NHL seasons, Conacher had scored an even 200 regular-season goals by then, another 14 in the playoffs. Five times he was the NHL’s leading goalscorer; twice he led the league in points. He wouldn’t add substantially to those numbers in his three subsequent non-Leaf years, but his totals are still impressive. In 459 NHL games, he collected 225 goals and 398 points. In 53 playoff games, he scored 23 goals and 43 points. He helped the Leafs win the 1932 Stanley Cup, and in 1961 he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Charlie Conacher died of throat cancer on December 30, 1967. He was 58.

For all the facts and figures we can readily summon to delineate his life and times, the date of his date of his birth remains elusive. Is today the day we should be observing his arrival at Toronto’s Salvation Army Maternity Hospital in 1909, or should we be saving the greetings and salutations for tomorrow?

Many of the standard hockey references actually give Conacher’s birthdate as Monday, December 20, 1909. If you’re at the library and you haul down Total Hockey off the shelf (be careful), that’s what you’ll see listed in the NHL’s fat 1998 official encylopedia (and its 2000 second edition, too). Nowadays, the league keeps its records online, and that’s the date you’ll see too if you click over to Conacher’s file at NHL.com. The Hockey Hall of Fame’s Conacher page says the same, as does the researcher’s go-to resource, Hockey Reference. Also: Wikipedia.

But not everyone agrees. Back at in the stacks, reach for The Complete Encylopedia of Ice Hockey, a venerable old tome compiled by Zander Hollander and Hal Bock in 1970, and you’ll find Conacher’s date of bath given as December 10, a Friday. Another voluminous online source, hockeydb.com, concurs.

Another click will find you a third possibility: the Conacher file at the Society for International Hockey Research has it that the man they’d come to call the Big Bomber was in fact a Thursday’s child, made his worldly debut on December 9, 1909. (I’m a member of SIHR, so if you’re not, you’ll have to trust me on this — or else take out a membership.)

December 20, 10, 9: which is it, then?

December 20 is the easiest to dispense with: I haven’t seen any evidence to back it up.

SIHR’s December 9 seems the most promising, at least from a documentary perspective. The Conacher biography there cites as its source Conacher’s birth certificate, and that would seem to close the case, such as it is. But if you go out on your own to search for this, what you’ll find is … not quite that.

Conacher’s parents don’t seem to have certified his birth in 1909. Thought they had, hadn’t? Meant to, but forgot? Don’t know. On January 18, 1922, when Charlie was 12, his mother did see fit to get the paperwork done to confirm his existence. On that day, Elizabeth Conacher filled out and signed a Declaration to let the Province of Ontario and thereby the Dominion of Canada officially know about her son. The form itself explains that it’s “Registering a Birth which has not been registered in accordance with Section 22 of THE VITAL STATISTICS ACT, 1919.” As well as giving some family information and the basic facts of Charles William himself, she signed her name under the boilerplate about this being a “solemn declaration” that she “conscientiously” believed to be true, “knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.”

The boy’s birthday, she said, was “December 9th 1909.”

Could she have erred?

It’s not for me to presume that she did, and I’m sorry if it seems rude to doubt a mother’s word. (It does; I see that.) It’s just that, well, Conacher himself seems to have understood that his birthday fell on December 10.

I don’t have this from him directly, mind you, or anyone in his family — I’m going on, as one does, what old newspapers tell me. They’re not infallible, of course. The Globe and Mail could very well have, it’s true, messed up on December 10, 1936 when they printed this in their sports pages, not far from the latest edition of Conacher’s own column (“Hockey Discussed by One of The Game’s Greatest Players”):

Is it possible, too, that the Globe got it wrong again, 31 years later, in a short, sad note published on Monday, December 11, 1967, just a few weeks before his death? I guess so. “Charlie Conacher, right wing member of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Kid Line of the 1930s, celebrated his 57th birthday in the Toronto General Hospital yesterday,” that item began. The fact that it was his 58th birthday doesn’t exactly proclaim its credibility, I realize, but that on its own doesn’t discredit the birthdate reported.

All in all, I’ll tend towards December 10 as Charlie Conacher’s birthday, I think. For those who prefer to celebrate it today, here’s to you, and him.

UPDATE: Further fodder to bolster the case for December 10: in 1949, when Charlie Conacher was coaching the Chicago Black Hawks, the team went to Montreal for a early winter visit that ended 1-1. Reporting the news of that Saturday, December 10 game on the following Monday, December 12, here’s the Gazette’s Dink Carroll:

It was Charlie Conacher’s birthday on Saturday and early in the day, Bill Tobin, president of the Black Hawks, wired Doug Bentley, team captain, that a win would be a nice birthday present for the club’s coach. Charlie was lucky to get away with a tie.

my first hockey game: eric zweig

Eric Zweig’s expertise in matters concerning hockey history is shared out, along with his enthusiasm, through a score of books. His first was a novel, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (1992), about the Renfrew Millionaires. In recent years he’s published a deep-delving biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (2015), and, this fall, the comprehensive Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History.

 Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, and has been one of the editorial forces helping to shape the NHL’s Official Guide & Record Book. You can find his work in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere, as well as on his lively blog at http://www.ericzweig.com. Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, he weighs in with memories of his earliest first-hand encounters of big-league hockey.  

I grew up in Toronto and attended my first NHL game when I was seven years old. The date was December 30, 1970. It was a Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays. The Maple Leafs always seemed to play at home on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I was a kid. This night, they were playing the California Golden Seals. The Leafs won 3–1.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the players who would become my early favourites did something good for the Leaf that night. Dave Keon scored just 33 seconds after the opening face-off. Garry Monahan (he autographed my cast when I broke my arm in the summer of 1973) got the second. Norm Ullman set up Paul Henderson for the third. But goalie Jacques Plante became my favourite of them all. The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs’ goalie was “excellent” that night. “Plante had his moments…” said the Star, “and the youngsters in attendance because of the school holidays rocked the Gardens with their applause.”

I was one of those youngsters!

Author and historian Eric Zweig shows off a famous wrench. Hurled (the wrench) at Toronto GM Charlie Querrie in the early ’20s, it was later fitted with a clock and given as a gift to Boston’s Art Ross.

Now, I’ve always been a person with a great memory for places and dates (though, sadly, that’s not quite as true as it used to be on the other side of 50). That being said, I have realized over the years that I don’t actually have a great memory for visual details. All I really remember about that first game was the score, the teams, and the fact that Plante played so well. (Also, the troughs for urinals in the men’s washroom. Gross!) I had to look up the rest. Even so, I would have to say that, before that game, I have no memories of hockey whatsoever. Since that game, I have been a lifelong fan.

I wish I could remember more from that night, but really, I was lucky enough to attend many games in Maple Leaf Gardens over the years (Leafs, Marlies, Toros) and most of those from my younger days blur together. I’m pretty sure the next Leafs game I attended was December 26, 1973. Another Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays: Toronto beat Montreal 9-2. I was there with my brother, David, who had turned eight the day before. I was 10. We went together, by ourselves, on the subway. Imagine anyone letting children do something like that today.

It was Norm Ullman’s birthday, and David and I carried a homemade sign that read “Leafs Win For Norm” using a team logo for “Leafs” and the number 4 for “For.” I remember the older kids who sat next to us saying that would have been a lot smarter of us if Ullman wore #4 instead of #9 … but that didn’t stop them from leaning in and trying to get on television every time we held up our sign.

My other memories from that night include just how amazed we were to see the Leafs score nine goals and so thoroughly dominate the Canadiens. I also remember a fantastic save by Doug Favell (I always liked the goalies) and the fact that rookie Bob Neely played a very strong game. I have no idea why that stands out. (Looking up this one, I find that Ullman had an assist on the goal Neely scored. Maybe that has something to do with it?)

Among my most vivid memories over the years was seeing Gordie Howe in the stands at a Marlies game during the 1972-73 season. He was watching his sons, Mark and Marty. Two years later, I saw all three Howes at the Gardens again, this time playing together for the Houston Aeros against the Toronto Toros. But one thing that lingers most strongly in my memories of Maple Leaf Gardens has nothing to do with the action on the ice. It’s of an ancient-looking woman working in the concession stands using her bare hands to place a hot dog I’d ordered into a bun. It was a long time before I ate a hot dog at the Gardens after that.

 

 

(Ullman: hockeyMedia & The Want List on flickr; Zweig: Stephen Smith)

 

shake on it

Shaker Style: Montreal's Classic Auctions has on its block the golden watch that Montreal HC presented to Dickie Boon in 1902. He helped them win their third Stanley Cup that year and (just maybe) shook some hands when it was done. Bidding starts at C$5,000. The auction closes on June 17. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Shaker Style: Montreal’s Classic Auctions has on its block the golden watch that Montreal HC presented to Dickie Boon in 1902. He helped them win their third Stanley Cup that year and (just maybe) shook some hands when it was done. Bidding starts at C$5,000. The auction closes on June 17.

I don’t mean to pick historical nits, except when I do, which today … yes, nits will be picked. After all, if there’s anything we in the business of hockey retrospecting have learned in the weeks since researchers Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel published Hockey Origins, their blockbuster debunkery of Canadian claims on the game’s birth, it’s maybe this: assume that everything concerning the game’s early days is written on ice until it’s proved conclusively that it can’t be effaced.

Jeff Z. Klein has a nice feature in today’s New York Times wondering about the origin of the beloved handshake with which hockey playoff series traditionally end. That it baffles the logic to witness an embrace between a player (see Prust, Brandon) who might previously have broken another’s jaw (see Stepan, Derek) only seems to make it more, Klein’s word, “special.” Sometimes, sure, a guy will promise to fucking kill several other guys (see Lucic, Milan), but as Klein writes, that’s rare enough.

So far so good. It’s when he follows Liam Maguire’s hazy path back towards the beginnings of the hockey handshake that the discussion strays.

Maguire is an Ottawa radio-host and published author, an NHL historian and prospective city councillor. He sometimes refers to himself as “the worlds [sic] number one NHL historian.” In May, he posted a recollection online about running into an old-timer, name of Lamb, whose cousin Joe had played in the NHL in the 1920s and on through the ’30s.

This was in 1980, at a retirement residence near Manotick, Ontario. Maguire and Mr. Lamb got to talking hockey. There was beer and there were scrapbooks. There, in the latter, something very, very interesting caught the young researcher’s eye:

Among the dozens and dozens of newspaper clippings was a very yellow parched story detailing an all-star game in 1908.

This was the Hod Stuart benefit game; the cover-point for the Montreal Wanderers had died in a diving accident two months after helping his team win the 1907 Stanley Cup. The memorial game was a sell-out at the Montreal Arena, with a crowd of 300 or so raising $2,010 for his family. With Art Ross and Pud Glass in their line-up, Wanderers won, 10-7, defeating an all-star team featuring Percy LeSueur and Frank Patrick.

Maguire:

That day in Mr. Lamb’s room, in 1980 I was looking at a newspaper report of the game and some pictures. Among them was a picture of Art Ross of the Wanderers shaking hands with Frank Patrick from the all-stars. Looked totally normal, something we’d see a million times. But then Mr. Lamb said, ‘Son, do you realize that this is the first handshake recorded in hockey?’

A significant juncture in hockey history, then — very important. Until that moment, Maguire told Klein this past Friday, hockey players never shook hands. Are you kidding? There’s no way. The game was too violent in those olden times. But a man had died, a friend, a fellow, a teammate. This was different, and they shook. “It’s as plausible an explanation as exists,” Maguire said, “and I’ve done quite a lot of research on it.”

According to Maguire’s senior source 34 years ago, the practice spread from there — by hand, if you like: Art Ross and the Patrick brothers kept it up during subsequent Stanley Cup challenges, along with the rest of the players from the 1908 game. Thus the tradition began.

It’s a good story and, yes, plausible, even if you’re willing to believe that the clippings in question featured photographs of the Hod Stuart game. I confess I’m skeptical on that count — you rarely see hockey photos in the papers from that era — though I’d be pleased to be shown I’m wrong.

Did the players shake hands at the end of that game? Why not — probably so. The same contemporary accounts I’ve seen that don’t feature photos fail to mention handshakes, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. I’d bet they did.

They weren’t, however, the first recorded in hockey. Continue reading

kolf season

 El puerto de Ámsterdam en invierno, Hendrick Jacobsz. Dubbels, óleo sobre lienzo, 67 x 91 cm, ca. 1656-60, Museo Nacional del Prado

Waiting For Hockey To Happen: “The Port of Amsterdam in Winter” by Hendrick Jacobsz (c. 1656-60) appears in the exhibition of wintry paintings that opened in Lisbon this week. (Museo Nacional del Prado)

If you have any interest in squinting into hockey’s past, I’m going to suggest you get on your way to Lisbon, where an important exhibition opened this week devoted to paintings depicting the early days of the long European struggle to figure out how to play Canada’s national, natural-born winter sport before we could get around to it.

That’s now exactly how the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga is framing it: in fact, “Rubens, Brueghel, Lorrain: Nordic Landscapes from the Prado Museum” somehow gathers a wide variety of hibernal works from Spain’s national gallery without mentioning hockey even once. (The catalogue does usefully explain that in the 16th and 17th centuries, while Italians considered “Nordic” any painters from beyond the Alps, they were mostly talking about the Dutch.)

Those of us who insist that there have to be hockey players in the paintings of old wintry Europe know well enough that it’s never in the foreground. In dim weather, under smoky January skies, it’s there, no question, somewhere through the trees, behind the vendors of vegetables, beyond the gambolling children, off away past the birds of distraction, watch out for the rutting couple in the hayrick. So much the better if you have a superior jeweller’s loupe, or even a medium-good one. That has to be a hockey stick, doesn’t it, way back at the back of Joost Cornelisz Droochsloot’s “Winter Landscape With Skaters” from circa 1632?

In the painted past, we maintain, the hockey is approaching from a great distance, skating hard to make it out of the background, never quite getting there.

What we know with certainty is that mankind has been hitting balls with sticks – well, they always did. For as long as we’ve been able to rummage up something sticklike with which to smack anything resembling a ball, we’ve done that, wherever we’ve been, in all weathers. The big question for the game’s historians — sometimes it seems like the only one – is when did the smacking turn into hockey? The Society for International Hockey Research has thought a lot about this, both as a collectivity and in its individual members.

I’m one of those, I should probably say, without claiming to be anything more than an attentive student of the diligent work that others have down. Members of SIHR’s Origins of Hockey committee, for instance, whose findings, widely considered the last word on how hockey happened, you can browse here. Or the two eminent Swedish researchers, Carl Gidén and Pat Houda, whose exhaustive Timeline traces the ubiquity of stick-and-ball games through history.

On the subject of paintings like the ones now on display in Lisbon, what they’d tell you is not to get your shinpad in a knot. That’s probably not how they’d put it: what they do say in their Timeline is that often, when you’re looking at old paintings in which skaters appear who seem to be wielding hockey sticks, sorry, those are just walking sticks.

Of Dutch paintings like the ones in the Prado’s Lisbon exhibition, they have this to say: kolf. And since that’s exactly what it sounds like — a Low-Country progenitor of golf — it’s not a team-oriented stick-and-ball game and is therefore excused from the hockey/shinty/bandy conversation. Gidén and Houda: “The only kolf player wearing skates appears on [sic] the often used engraving from ca. 1625 by Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708) named ‘Kolver het ijs’ (‘Kolver on ice’).” Also: kolfers whack balls at targets rather than chase them with the idea of scoring goals; there’s never more than a few participants gathered together at a time: don’t be fooled.

Still, though, I don’t know. It’s hard to give up the where’s-Waldo compulsion to search for far-off ancient hockey players. Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Landscape with Iceskaters” (c. 1608) is as busy a canvas as you’ll find, full of what the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam calls “daring details,” including men urinating and a couple copulating in a hayrick. I can’t, myself, spy any hockey, though there are some definite ice-golfers in Avercamp’s “Winter Scene on a Canal,” and also in “Winter Landscape on the River Ijssel near Kampen.” “A Scene on the Ice Near A Town” has a Jacques Lemaire look-alike in the near-middle distance, where he may or may not be working on his face-offs. Continue reading

léo gravelle, 1925—2013

Parade Sportive Paul StuartThe blond Bomber the papers called him, sometimes, and fine and industrious and the fast-skating wing man. A Canadien and a Red Wing who played four-and-a-half NHL seasons, Léo Gravelle died on October 30 at the age of 88. One of his nicknames was The Gazelle.

“Léo Gravelle swished in Glen Harmon’s shot” is a sentence you might have seen after Montreal beat Chicago in 1947. He was born in Aylmer, Quebec. Witnesses who watched him play called him an extraordinary and sprightly skater. And of course there’s the time, in Chicago, that teammate Kenny Reardon hit a steelworker in the stands with his stick and the steelworker’s friends tried to throw a chair at him and Gravelle went to Reardon’s aid, and the two players ended up in jail, charged with assault with a deadly weapon. “I did not strike any of the spectators,” Gravelle said, later. “Everybody was standing up and leaning across the barrier so I hit the top of the barrier with my stick a couple of times to keep them from coming over.” (The charges were dropped.)

In May of 2007, Léo Gravelle was the guest of honour at the annual meeting of the Society for International Hockey Research in Ottawa. Speaking to an audience that included two Howie Morenzes (son and grandson of the original) as well as the hockey artist Mac McDiarmid, and the man who knows more about minor-league hockey than anyone in the whole world, Gravelle talked about his life in hockey. It was like a spell he was speaking, an incantation. “I’ve had a good life,” he began, and

A lot of people, they think it’s easy, the start in life. When I was six years old, it was hard times. We didn’t have electricity until I was 17 years old. When it comes time to play, I’m gonna tell you the truth. In those days the skates are not like today. It’s just a leather thing. When it gets wet it expands. I had to wear my cousin’s skates. At four o’clock in the afternoon it was my turn. I put on six pairs of socks. I don’t know if you still have your mother or not, but after you lose her you miss her a lot. I had a good father. Sometimes he had to walk from Hull to Aylmer after working his day’s work. We didn’t have radios. I was an office boy. I used to run everywhere. We had a hockey team. I will tell you what we used to do. Shinpads, it was a piece of felt. Hockey sticks, we were paying 25 cents. Excuse me, ladies, if I’m swearing sometimes. I was an altar boy for eight years. Have you heard of a hockey game after midnight mass? It was the choir versus the altar boys. In the morning when I got up there was an apple, an orange, and a piece of paper. Thank you, Lord. What do you get for Christmas today? I was working for the government, office boy, 39 dollars a month. My first suit cost me 39 dollars, so my mother had to pay my streetcar for the next month. I was playing Juvenile at 17 years old. Port Colborne. At St. Mike’s the coach was Joe Primeau. When you win the Memorial Cup, a fellow has to be proud. I went to the Montreal Royals. I had a line with Floyd Curry and Howard Riopelle. I could name you some names. When you play for a team like Montreal, they can decide to send you to Buffalo. They sent me to Houston. We win the United States Hockey League championship. The next year they brought me up to Buffalo. Then I graduate back to Montreal. Then this guy, Kenny Reardon. He used to call me Gravel. We did some damage. That was another thing that went by. I got traded for Bert Olmstead. I think I can brag about this. I’m the only one who played with Howe and Richard. Sid Abel was injured. I played with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Then Sid Abel came back. I sat on the bench for 13 games. Then they sent me down to Indianapolis. Jack Adams said, Léo Gravelle will never play another game in the NHL. I never did. I learned one thing in my life, when you go in to get a job, when they tap you on the back, that means they don’t want you. But I’ve had a good life. What I’ve told you today, it’s from the bottom of my heart. The Rocket could score on his knees. Gordie Howe was sort of a brute. They were two good guys for me. I don’t know how I’ve still got my nose, my face. Black Jack Stewart, he picked me up and drove me into the end. I didn’t know where I was.

Taking ray! can be recognized on the photo Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger

Looking Within: Léo Gravelle, left, steps up to have his chest x-rayed ahead of one of his Montreal seasons, circa the 1940s. Teammates Butch Bouchard and Roger Léger stand by. (Photos courtesy Denys Gravelle.)

bung for beadle

Charles Dickens’ birthday this week, so happy 200th to Boz. If he’s not remembered as one of the great hockey novelists, hockey doesn’t mind, too much. Lots of famous novelists have overlooked the game and they continue to do it in such numbers that hockey takes it as a bit of a badge of honour. Or, at least, it’s what hockey’s used to. If all the novelists suddenly started plotting novels on the ice, hockey isn’t sure it would feel comfortable with all the attention.

Dickens had a lot on his plate, too. There’s that. Also, hockey was still just getting it together at the time that Dickens was doing his novel-writing — which is to say for most of the 19th-century. Not to say that it was unknown in Dickensian Britain: as Swedish hockey historians Patrick Houda and Dr. Carl Giden have exhaustively catalogued, hockey-like stick-and-ball games were rampant throughout the British Isles, on and off the ice, pre-, post-, and during Dickens’ lifetime. Continue reading

owns numerous atlases

We don’t know what it’s called, and the publisher remains a mystery. It’s supposed to be on shelves this year, but that’s as much as we know about a publication date. The author has talked to the Ethics Commissioner, we know, and the money’s all going to charity. What it’s actually about? We only have the barest detail on that, so far. And yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long-anticipated hockey book might already be the most reviewed new title of 2012.

We’ve been hearing about the book for years, of course, since 2006, at least. It came up, for example, in his year-end interview with Canadian Press, right after he confirmed that the environment was now one of his tip-top priorities, after years of Liberal governments having ignored the problem, rhubarb, carbon capture, rhubarb. He said he tried to work on his hockey book for 15 minutes every day, though his pace had slackened lately. He was, after all, a busy man. Whatever spare time he had was devoted to hockey reading — though, of course, he did read with his children, too. “What was it called, The Blue Moon? Oh, I’ve forgotten the full title, we just finished that. Artemis Fowl. It’s a book Ben and I are reading. It includes the attempts of the pixie Belinda to take over the world. It’s very interesting.” Continue reading