under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading

on this day in 1893: when baron stanley of preston first sent his cup to montreal

Trustee John: Dr. Sweetland in thoughtful repose in 1870, before the distinguished Ottawa surgeon took up his role as one of the Stanley Cup’s original custodians. (Image: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada)

If you’re out and about in Toronto today, lucky for you — so, too, is the original Stanley Cup, which the Hockey Hall of Fame is letting out of its vault for the day. You can take a photograph with the simple silver bowl that Frederick Stanley, Baron Stanley of Preston, commissioned and donated as Canada’s sixth governor-general, grasp it in your hands, raise it to your lips, swig some champagne — actually, I don’t know about the grasping and the champagne. Probably that’s forbidden. Paying a visit is definitely a go, though, on this auspicious anniversary: it was 125 years ago, May 15, 1893, that the Cup was presented for the very first time, in Montreal.

The tale of how that happened is a bit of a tangled one, with accents of confusion and even rancor. I’m not certain that they’ll be highlighting the whole messy truth of the matter down at the Hall today, but do feel free to ask about it, if you’re going.

It was back in 1892 that Lord Stanley originally announced his intention to donate a trophy — you remember all this from hockey catechism back in school, no doubt. It had to be commissioned, smithed, engraved & etc., back in London, in England, and it wasn’t until early May of ’93 that the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup arrived in Ottawa — just as its perpetrator was preparing to head the other way.

That April, Lord Stanley’s elder brother had died in England, making him the 16th Earl of Derby. While his term, which he’d started in 1888, didn’t officially come to its end until September of 1893, he was already preparing to depart. Word of the appointment of his successor, the Earl of Aberdeen, was already circulating, and earlier in May the Globe advised that he’d given the servants at Rideau Hall their notice — along with a bonus of three months’ pay and a faithful promise to recommend them to the new man of the house, in case he might be hiring.

Earl Derby stayed on in Canada until July, as it turned out, and so he could have presented his hockey trophy for the first time, if he’d chosen to. Instead, he delegated the work to locals. The future former Governor-General had appointed two Ottawa-based trustees to look after and administer his new trophy, Philip Ross and Dr. John Sweetland. Ross, owner and publisher of The Ottawa Journal, had played hockey with Lord Stanley’s son Edward as a member of the Rideau Rebels. Sweetland was a prominent doctor who also served as sheriff of Carleton County and, thereby, the Supreme Court. They were the ones who made the decision that the new trophy would be awarded to the hockey club of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association — the MAAA — champions of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHA). This in itself was not without controversy, insofar as the MAAA won the last game of the season by default over the Montreal Crystals after the latter abandoned the game in protest over the referee’s decision not to allow a previously penalized player to play in the overtime. This didn’t specially please the Ottawa Hockey Club, sitting in second place: an MAAA loss to the Crystals would have left the two top teams with identical won-loss records. It wasn’t as though the rules for the new trophy had been set out from the beginning of the season, either: Ottawa thought that playoffs might be in order.

Didn’t happen. For a full and fascinating account of the further confusion that marked the actual awarding of the trophy, I recommend Paul Kitchen’s essay “They Refused The Stanley Cup,” which you’ll find in the second edition of Total Hockey (2000). Kevin Shea and John Jason Wilson’s book Lord Stanley: The Man Behind The Cup (2006) is also required reading.

In short, Sheriff Sweetland was the one who carried the cup to Montreal, where he was due to make a formal presentation at the annual meeting of the MAAA. In preparation for that, the MAAA’s secretary advised the president of the hockey team, James Stewart, who also happened to be a member of the winning team. The reply from the latter astounded the former: the hockey players advised that they did not wish to receive the trophy until they’d had an opportunity to review the conditions “upon which said trophy was to be held,” asking that this decision be passed on to the trustees.

Newspaper reports of the proceedings on this day in 1893 don’t mention the kerfuffle that ensued when the MAAA refused to go along with this. If the hockey players didn’t want to receive their trophy, then the club’s leadership would do so on their behalf. And so it was that Sheriff Sweetland handed over the first Stanley Cup to MAAA president James Taylor rather than the hockey club’s James Stewart.

In his remarks, Sweetland joked that the Governor-General would much sooner have had the cup kept in Ottawa, “but after the Capital he preferred to see Montreal hold it. The only thing he was not certain about was how the Montreal people managed to win all the decisive games.”

There would be more strife to come at the MAAA between the leadership and the hockey club, but on this day, the peaceful façade included the club’s board presenting the nine cup-winning players with engraved gold rings. Off the ice, they were bank clerks and bookkeepers, worked for the Dominion Bridge Company, sold Liebling’s Liquid Extract and Tonic Invigorator. Tom Paton was a manufacturer’s agent who happened to be a founder of the MAAA itself, as well as the original driving force behind its hockey club — for which he also played goaltender. A hundred and twenty-five years ago today, for his long and dedicated services in all those capacities, he got a Heintzman piano.