the winter crop of the snow-covered fields

Come for the views from bygone days deep inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, stay for the priceless glimpse of Frank Nighbor out on the pond, schooling the youngsters in the lost art of stealing pucks from charging forwards.

Hot Ice is a short Canadian-government confection from 1940, a meandering piece of propaganda that American director and writer Irving Jacoby devised to congratulate Canadians on the “national folk dance” they practice on skates, with sticks. Morley Callaghan contributed “extra commentary,” the credits say; I guess we can forgive him that. “Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing,” our narrator innocently blathers, “whenever Canadians get together, hockey is news. Good news — good enough to bring us from the fireside, crowds of us — gay, hopeful, good-natured crowd, with faith in their own spirit.” Yay for us, I guess — though the us depicted, it’s worth noting, is so very white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, male. Still, the hockey footage is fascinating. Guided into the Leafs’ dressing room, we find the self-conscious players getting into gear, Red Horner and Sweeney Schriner, Gordie Drillon with some stagey rough-housing, Turk Broda padding up. Here’s trainer Tim Daly showing off his cabinet of salves, and Tommy Nayler at the skate-sharpener  — and coach Dick Irvin taping up Syl Apps’ sore shoulder. Conn Smythe prepping the troops before battle! Or pretending to. The final minutes of Hot Ice take us out onto Maple Leaf Gardens’ ice for Foster Hewitt narrating the Leafs and the New York Rangers having at it. Alf Pike! Bingo Kampman! Muzz Patrick! Ott Heller! Referee Bill Stewart! All of them, and (for some reason) a series of cutaways to fake fans for their insights on the action — and incitements to attack the Ranger goaltender. “Why don’t they hit [Dave] Kerr in the head with a brick?” you’ll hear amid the chatter, should you choose to endure it.

The best part, for me? Back before we get to Leafs and Rangers, at the nine-minute mark or so, there’s a 40-second cameo by a 47-year-old Frank Nighbor. Yes, the Hall-of-Famer just happens to be passing by the old frozen slough where the kids are out playing, and yes, the Peach has his skates on, and his stick — and he just happens to be wearing his old striped sweater from when he helped the 1927 Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup (this very one). It would be great to hear Nighbor’s voice here, instead of the narrator’s, droning on, but never mind: Nighbor is about to show the boys his sweep-check. Pay attention — the demonstration lasts just a few seconds. The sweep may only have been the second-best of Nighbor’s legendary defensive weapons (after the hook-check), not to mention mostly obsolete by 1940 as an effective hockey utensil — still, though, make no mistake, this is like a visit with Monet at Giverny, meeting the artist as he quietly deigns to show you a masterpiece.

[p. 87] how to hook-check

Exemplar: Buster Pennock, captain of the Vancouver Amateur Hockey Club, demonstrates the hook-check circa the 1929-30 season. (Photo: Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Archives, AM1535-: CVA 99-3805)

Exemplar: Buster Pennock, captain of the Vancouver Amateur Hockey Club, demonstrates the hook-check circa the 1929-30 season. (Image: Stuart Thomson, Vancouver Archives, AM1535-: CVA 99-3805)

A reader writes: what, exactly, is a hook check?

It’s a fair point. If you’ve roamed as far as page 87 in the hardcovered Puckstruck, you’ll have learned things about Frank Nighbor and Jack Walker and their hook-checking exploits that you never knew before without having been provided on the page with an actual definition of the lost, lamented art.

“The passage about the hook check drove me crazy!” read the e-mail that came in from Kingston this week. Steven Heighton was perplexed. “I mean, what IS a hook check? You never say. I wanted to try it out in my game today . . .

“I suspect the omission was deliberate; you’re playing on the poignancy of an aspect of the game being utterly lost. The omission is in fact Borgesian, or Nabokovian (two other writers who never wrote about hockey.) Aesthetically, your strategy is sound, but on the level of pure athletic curiosity, I still want to know.”

Much as I like Borgesian — okay, I like Nabokovian, too — the truth is that the lack of a definition is one more oversight of mine. The hook-check file in my office is filled with hook-check facts and info; some of it just never got into the book.

In Let’s Play Hockey: How You Can Be A Hockey Star (1957), Lynn Patrick and Leo Monahan suggest that players be versed in five important checks. In order, they’re the hook, the poke, the sweep, the stick lift, and the body.

The hook:

It consists of a defender going down on one knee, extending his stick flat on the ice and hooking the puck away from the carrier. When properly executed the hook check is a pretty play to watch and a hook-check artist will come up with the puck nearly every time.

That’s the point of the hook: to secure the puck. That’s where it’s distinct from the poke and the sweep, which are disruptive rather than possessive: doesn’t matter where the puck goes so long as it’s not on your opponent’s stick.

The sweep and the hook are often confused, with the terms used interchangeably, as if they were one in the same check. This was the case even in earlier hockey eras when they were regularly deployed. But while the motions of sweep and hook (as illustrated below) are similar, they are wholly different checks.

The hook requires surgical skill and, if executed properly, yields the puck.

The sweep is a blunt instrument, a  tool of disarray. “It is,” as Patrick and Monahan write, “a sweeping slap at the puck to jar it loose.”

The sweep, like the poke, takes technique; the hook is an art. Go ahead, try it. Also in the file I find the following cautionary tale from 1923. Harry Hellman was a substitute right winger for the Ottawa Senators. The team was preparing for a Stanley Cup semi-final in Vancouver when:

… Hellman suffered a serious flesh wound in the face during practice. In hook-checking [teammate and master hook-checker Frank] Nighbor, he lost his balance and fell on Nighbor’s skate, cutting open his cheek and injuring his nose. Hellman is in St. Paul’s Hospital here, and it will be impossible for him to play again this season.