greening the game

This week on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman sit down with Ron Francis, GM of the NHL’s new and yet-unnamed Seattle franchise for a wide-ranging discussion of what’s coming on the west coast. They discuss Francis’ decision to join the project and how he’s staffing the new team, and about the state-of-the-art new rink they’re fashioning out of the old KeyArena. They touch on whether Kraken might be in the cards as a name (could be, Francis divulged, but maybe not) and Marek’s notion of raising a banner to the rafters to honour the Stanley Cup the Seattle Metropolitans won in 1917.

There’s talk, too, of movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a co-founder and co-majority owner of the Seattle team, and what he might bring to the hockey table. “I think he’s excited to be a part of this,” Francis says, “I think he’s excited to help shape the organization as it moves forward, whether it’s colours, how it’s presented on TV, names, you name it.”

Which leads Marek to wonder about how radical some of the changes he might float could be. Could we see NHL games played on colourful ice instead of the wintry white we’re used to? Francis suggests that might be something that a Bruckheimer-inspired Seattle might indeed be aiming to introduce.

We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, let’s recall, why not, that NHL ice hasn’t always been so pallid as appears is now. In the earliest decades of the league, the ice tended to be murky. Here’s a description from The New Yorker in 1925, when the New York Americans debuted at Madison Square Garden (the Rangers would join them there as tenants the following year):

The ice, by the way, is coffee-coloured, and as the evening progresses, grows to look more and more like a big cake of maple sugar the mice have scratched up.

And one from Boston’s Herald in 1929, the year the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup:

The Garden ice, as usual, was dark brown. Boston and New York Garden have something to learn from Montreal Forum. There the floor is painted white under the ice and visibility is increased greatly.

On the New York end of things, that seems to contradict another New Yorker dispatch from early in 1926, reporting that “whereas a month ago the ice was a dirty and disturbing brown, it has lately become nice and white.”

“The procedure, until recently,” the item continued, “was to run a couple of inches of water over the concrete and freeze it, with the result that the concrete showed through a shabby chocolate colour.”

The rumour was that Garden owner Tex Rickard had arranged for milk to be mixed in with the water wasn’t to be credited: the deal was that rink staff were now freezing an inch of ice, painting it white, then freezing a further inch or so atop the paint.

Just when other NHL rinks got into the blanching of the ice isn’t clear — by one report I’ve seen, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden didn’t start whitening the ice until 1949.

Jerry Bruckheimer take note: 66 years ago, the Detroit Red Wings did play two regular-season games at the Olympia on green ice.

To be more specific: pastel green.

Edmonton Journal headline from January of 1953.

This was in early 1953. The first reference to this that caught my eye was in a French-language account, and the word that stood out was combattre. The thought I had, naturally enough, was bien sûr, c’est logique, bonne idée. I assumed that hockey had reached one of its breaking points, where the game on the ice had grown so tetchy and tempestuous that the league would try anythingto calm the tempers of its players, including dyeing the ice as green and soothing as grass.

The Red Wings were the defending Stanley Cup champions that season. Almost 50 games into the 1952-53 season, they were battling the equally mighty Montreal Canadiens for first place in the league standings. The last Saturday in January was when they first skated out on green ice, beating the Chicago Black Hawks by a score of 4-0. The next night they did it again, walloping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on the tinted ice. Already topping league scoring, Gordie Howe helped himself to two more goals and three assists against the Leafs.

If the cool of the green of the ice was supposed to bring down the thermometer of the players, well, let’s just note referee Jack Mehlenbacher did call seven roughing penalties before the night was out, sanctioning several noted hotheads in so doing, including Detroit’s Ted Lindsay and Marcel Bonin and Toronto’s Fernie Flaman.

The Globe and Mail weighs in.

In fact, the experiment of greening the ice wasn’t about mood-altering, at all. The combattre that caught my eye had to do with reduction that combat. As Red Burnett of the Toronto Star explained, “it was designed to cut the white glare that bounced off the eyeballs of customers in the upper balcony seats.” Locally, TV viewers of WXYZ broadcasts of Red Wings’ games had also complained that the white ice was hard to watch. The idea to tint it green was said to come from a Detroit newspaper photographer.

So with the NHL’s blessing, the Olympia’s ice-man, Red Tonkin, gave it a go, mixing in 15 gallons of green paint instead of the usual white with the 400 gallons of water he froze to make the playing surface.

According to Burnett, the colouring was “hardly visible to the naked eye.” The players were said to approve, and NHL president Clarence Campbell deemed the experiment a success, though that’s as far as it went. Four days after beating the Leafs, the Olympia ice was its regular chalky colour as the Red Wings tied the New York Rangers 3-3.

Toronto Star headline, quoting “one office wag.”

a code of his own: colliding head-on with phiery phil

Phil Watson’s hair was wavy brown, and parted in the middle; his eyes were alert and green. This was in 1947, when Watson was 32 and a prominent right winger and sometime centreman for the New York Rangers, a talented, tireless, and conspicuously belligerent veteran of a dozen NHL seasons. According to Robert Lewis Taylor, Watson was one of the best-looking players in the game in those years — and it is true that he was, a decade earlier, recruited to double for Clark Gable in a hockey movie that was never released. Watson’s smile, Taylor wrote, was “uncommonly pleasant,” if “largely synthetic” — to replace the four top front teeth he’d had knocked out in the line of duty, the Rangers bought him the dental bridge he wore when he wasn’t doing battle on the ice.

Watson was born in Montreal on a Friday of this date in 1914; he died in 1991 at the age of 76. The man they called Phiery Phil got his name of the Stanley Cup twice — with the Rangers in 1940 and, in 1944, when wartime restrictions kept him home in Canada, as a member of the  Montreal Canadiens. In 13 NHL seasons, he proved himself to be a skilled defensive player as well as a first-class annoyance to his opponents. He also contributed offensively, and led the league in assists in 1941-42.

As a coach, he got two cracks at steering the Rangers during the 1950s and another, in the ’60s, behind the Boston Bruins’ bench. He coached two seasons in the WHA in the ’70s, guiding the Blazers in Philadelphia and subsequently in Vancouver.

For views of Watson’s background, unruly prowess on ice (think Brad Marchand before he reined himself in), and surpassing eccentricity, I recommend the long, droll, eventful profile Robert Lewis Taylor published in The New Yorker in 1947 under the title “Disorder On The Rink.” I count it as a bit of a lost classic of hockey non-fiction, well worth your while, particularly if you’re looking to round out your understanding of just how outlandishly unrestrained the excesses of NHL hockey once were.

It doesn’t extend to Watson’s coaching years, and it bypasses several key episodes in the Watson story. It doesn’t delve into the circumstances under which Watson annoyed his own Ranger goaltender so thoroughly that Chuck Rayner attacked him in the team’s dressing room. Also missing: his brief 1938 brush with Hollywood stardom wherein he served as Clark Gable’s skating and puckhandling stand-in opposite Myrna Loy in an ill-fated feature called The Great Canadian.

A taste of what Taylor does offer up in his portrayal of Watson’s tempestuous tenure in the NHL, in three excerpts:

The two most effective methods of taking a puck away from an advancing opponent are probing for it with a stick, which is known as “poke checking,” and slamming into the man bodily, which is called “body checking.” At these two arts, Watson has no master. A head-on collision with any moving object smaller than a pick-up truck provides him with the sort of comfort that some bankers get from foreclosing on a valuable farm.

Most hockey players consider it bad form to strike a referee with a stick, and the rules are explicit on the subject — the striker is subject to a fine or to suspension from the league. Watson, displaying a kind of instinctive legal ingenuity, has detected loopholes in the code: there is no mention of spitting in a referee’s face. In moments of extreme urgency, he performs this act and generally draws a severe penalty, under whatever rule the referee feels may be stretched to cover the case.

On one occasion, when he was relating an anecdote to Lew Burton, the Journal-American sportswriter, in the Rangers’ dressing room after a game which had featured a really spectacular brawl between him and the Detroit Red Wings, Burton interrupted to ask, “How’d it get started, Phil?” Watson jumped up, cried, “I tell you, Lew, they started it like this!,” and brought a hockey stick crashing down on Burton’s head, benching him for about twenty minutes. “It was the wrong way to tell that story,” Watson frequently says, with a gloomy inflection.

the full thesaurus

Born on a Saturday of this date in 1948 in Parry Sound, Ontario, Bobby Orr turns 71 today. The photo here dates to 1969-70, a year in which he turned 22, scored 33 goals and 120 points, and won Art Ross, Hart, Norris, and Lou Marsh trophies — oh, and a Stanley Cup. Here’s Herbert Warren Wind, why not, on Orr’s virtuosity from a 1971 New Yorker profile:

While he is an aggressive, physical young man who never backs off from a scrap, he is essentially a cool, self-possessed player in whom instinct and ratiocination are in perfect balance. If he frequently appears to control the puck — and the game — three-quarters of the time he is on the ice, this is to be credited principally to his outrageous sense of anticipation: he gives the impression of knowing not only what every player is doing at that precise moment but also what every player is thinking of doing in the next moment. There is no better skater in the game, but what makes Orr especially difficult to contain is that his speed, like [Gordie] Howe’s, is extremely deceptive. He has about five different forward gears and a couple of reverse ones, and he can shift from one to another without appearing to change his languid stride. He also has the full thesaurus of slippery moves.