department of hockey substitutes: slippery tennis, anyone?

When an English king, Edward III, banned a whole raft of English sports in 1363, including football, cricket, and the hoquet, he did it for what must have seemed at the time like a very sound reason: they were subordinate, trifling games that “interfered” with the manly and necessary pursuit of archery. That law was on the books until 1784, as I note in hardcover Puckstruck as part of a cautionary review of sports that have been threatened by extinction. A couple of weeks ahead of the NFL’s Super Bowl, it’s hard to believe that football almost went under in the early years of the twentieth century because it was deemed too dangerous. More recently, the regional parliament in Spain’s Cataluña voted to ban bullfighting (cruel). In Venezuela, the late president Hugo Chávez felt that the time had come to wipe golf from the grassy earth (unacceptably bourgeois).

I’m not saying that hockey is going anywhere. I think it’s here to stay, for a while. That’s not to say that the icy game doesn’t face its share challenges and even threats. Climate change, of course, is doing its worst even as we speak to melt out our national ice and wintry way of life from under us. That what end hockey, of course — that’s what rinks for. But what declining enrolments, increasing costs, plus, also, all that mounting medical evidence that the physical tolls of the game are much more serious than we thought? Is it just possible that we might decide, one day, way far away in the future , we must just decide that hockey isn’t worth it — any of it — any more?

Better — no? — to prepare for that unlikely day than just to let it arrive. Always good to have a contingency plan. Which is why, as the Australian Open gets going, it might be worth looking at ice-tennis as a possible replacement. We’d need to refine it, of course — as these two British Pathé newsreels from the 1930s illustrate, the game might take some mastering.

The 1931 New York footage (top) clears up the commentator’s confusion in the London version (above) from 1938. “We believe this is the first time tennis has been played on the ice,” he chirps. But slippery tennis is even older yet. From Puckstruck:

The father of the lawn game, Major Walter Wingfield, first lobbed the idea as early as 1874, but it was in New York in 1916 that the game caught on. With black lines painted on the ice, using “old” tennis balls (they tried squash balls first), Watson Washburn and Dean Mathey took on F.B. Alexander and Theodore Roosevelt Pell at the Ice Skating Palace, 181st Street and Broadway. They wore full hockey gear, apparently, and once the match got going, sharp volleying was the order of the day. Mathey and Washburn were intent on playing a forecourt game, which was a mistake, since they kept having to scurry back to the baseline and lost, three sets to zip. The game required “more prompt and decisive action even than hockey.” Altogether it was, observers concurred, “far from being an experiment,” not only “feasible” but “exciting” and “worthy of being classed a real game.”

court case

Leafs in Port Elgin

Historian Bill Fitsell sent a note from his home in Kingston, Ontario, pointing to this photo of the Leafs dropped down for push-ups in Port Elgin in 1928 under Corporal Joe Coyne’s command. Fitsell noted that when he’d included it in Hockey’s Hub, the 2003 history of Kingston hockey heritage he wrote with Mark Potter, a mislabelled archival print gave him the mistaken impression that it showed the Leafs four years later, when coach Dick Irvin brought them to Queen’s University for pre-season drilling. “Another photo depicting four Leafs playing doubles on a leaf-strewn tennis court puzzled me for years because I could never match the background with anything near the Queen’s tennis courts in 1932,” Fitsell wrote. Case corrected, then: the volleying Leafs below also probably date to Port Elgin in 1928. Over the net, below, that’s Jack Arbour on the left with Lorne Chabot. I’m not so sure of who it is they’re facing in the closer court. It may be Gerry Lowrey on the left, with Art Duncan, who did wear number 3 in his years on the Leaf defence.

tennis 1928