skaters gonna skate

Cautionary Fail: The temperature on the surface of Mars hit a daytime high of -23 C this week, according to weather-watchers at CTV, which is to say it’s been way more clement there than across much of the Canadian map. Ottawa was down to -29 C yesterday, making it the world’s coldest capital (Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia was basking at -26 C). With the wind, in the alpine shadows, Wednesday’s thermometer was down around -29 C, too, under Fairview Mountain in Alberta’s Banff National Park, where a brisk bout of morning shinny quickened the ice of Lake Louise. (Image: Stephen Smith)

classic winter, 1936: spectators saw more snow-shovelling than hockey

As far as hockey went, Canada’s 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Germany, were a fresh-air flop. For the first time in five tournaments, Canada lost a game. Unfairly or not — guess who claimed the former — that was enough to give Great Britain the gold, while Canada had to settle for silvery second.

Most of the hockey at those eventful Nazi Games took to the ice at the main rink in Garmisch, 27 games. A further ten played out on the nearby ice of Lake Riessersee, seen above in pre-Olympic days. Canada made its Bavarian debut there on February 6.

“The puckmen wearing the Maple Leaf emblem were brimful of confidence,” the Canadian Press advised the nation the day before Canada’s opening encounter with Poland. Coach Al Pudas described his team as “strong and smart.”

On the day, the Poles had trouble getting to the lake on time. Their bus was slowed or got stuck on slippery roads, and so the crowd of 300 watched the Canadians take an extended warm-up. Once the game got underway, there were goals (mainly Canadian) and there was weather (non-partisan).

“So heavy was the snowstorm,” CP reported, “the spectators saw more snow shovelling than hockey.” The players had trouble distinguishing “friend from foe.” Still, the Canadians opened with “speedy thrusts,” scoring five first-period goals. The lone Pole goal was self-inflicted, with Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore knocking the puck into his own net.

Going into the third, with the score 7-1, the Poles concentrated almost solely on keeping the Canadians at bay. “While the Polish lacked sting and polish, their defensive play was first rate,” the CP allowed; Canada added only one more goal to its rout.

By the end, the weather had pretty much imposed itself. “Despite an army of men employed to scrape and shovel” the rink, the snow piled up. “Play was halted several times,” the CP correspondent noted, “so that the officials could find the puck.”

 

the cold of old

Breaking news from NBC Sports this afternoon: “It’s supposed to be pretty cold during tomorrow’s NHL 100 Classic in Ottawa.”

Montreal Canadiens are in town to meet the Senators en plein air at Lansdowne Park, and, yes, looks like the freeze will be on. “It’s supposed to be mainly clear,” NBC’s Joey Alfieri reports. “It’s also going to be 7 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’ll feel more like minus-4 because of the wind-chill factor.”

In Canadian, that’s minus-13 gusting to minus-20. In other words, there will be lots more of this weathery talk ahead of and on through its three periods. Here’s Ottawa winger Bobby Ryan talking to Ian Mendes of TSN Radio to get in the mood:

“I can’t even pronounce the thing that goes over your head. It sounds like a dessert — a balaclava or whatever.”

Bandying extreme temperatures is a frigid staple of hockey literature, of course. Was it really minus-50 all through Gordie Howe’s Saskatchewan childhood as he struggled to become the greatest of all the hockey greats? The tales you come across paging though the past aren’t entirely tall — these warming times notwithstanding, Canadian winters are and have been consistently cold — but at the same time, would we agree that strict scientific rigor isn’t always a guiding feature?

I like Roy MacGregor’s way of putting it. This is in Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (2011), with MacGregor recounting Bryan Trottier’s childhood in the wintry west:

Bryan, as the verifiable myth goes, would be out even at forty below in the Saskatchewan winters, playing long into the night with the only two opponents he could recruit, his father and the family’s black-and-white border collie, Rowdy.

I had a good time writing about lowly hockey temperatures in my book Puckstruck, but I really only scratched the surface.

Pierre Turgeon has talked about playing 9-to-5 Saturday pond hockey as a boy in Rouyn. “It could be minus-30 outside, and we didn’t have any school. But we would be playing hockey outside. It didn’t make any sense.”

Before he made his coaching name standing in back of NHL benches, Dick Irvin was a star on the ice. Recalling his Manitoba roots in 1917, he advised anyone who hoped to follow in his skates to bundle up and get outdoors. “Corner lot hockey with the thermometer at 40 below zero is the way the Winnipeg youth learns hockey.”

Art Chapman was another Winnipegger, though he had a slightly different trajectory. Chapman, who played centre for Boston and the New York Americans through the 1930s, didn’t dispute the temperature, but instead of the lot, he’d head to the Red River, a block-a-half from his front door. “It used to freeze over in November,” he recalled in 1950, “and I can remember one year when it didn’t thaw until May 24th.”

Johnny Bower has said how, growing up in Saskatchewan, his father thought that hockey was too dangerous a game for him. “He told me to go to school, that’s all,” Bower told Stan Fischler. “But I’d do my homework and then go out in the 45- and 50-degree below zero weather and play goal. It’s way cold in Prince Albert.”

Have we, as Canadians, enjoyed the game of wow-the-non-Canadian-with-proofs-of-our-rugged-Canadianness a little more than we should have over the years? Maybe so.

Harold Parrott of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle played along in 1938 with a profile of Canadiens winger Toe Blake. “Tireless, he loves to barge through defenses the hard way,” Parrott wrote, “jumping the forest of sticks he finds in his way.”

His ceaseless efforts are a hold-over from early hockey days at Coniston, Ontario, where the temperature continually flirted with 20, 30, 40 below. When he says he lived on skates in those high school days, he means it.

“The principal in our high school was a kind-hearted fellow,” Toe explained. “And he saved us lads time changing to and from our skates at recess by allowing us to keep them on during classes. I guess he had done that for years before, too, because the old floors were pretty well sliced up.”

Eric Whitehead’s books about hockey titans of old are filled with amazing accounts of the turbulence of early times. In The Patricks (1980), he recalled a game from the legendary first season of the National Hockey Association when, in February of 1910, the Renfrew Creamery Kings paid a visit to Haileybury. The visitors had Newsy Lalonde, Frank and Lester Patrick, and Cyclone Taylor in the line-up, with Art Ross leading the home team.

To Frank Patrick’s memory, the temperature was minus-25, with a bitter wind blowing much colder.

We had to wear mittens to keep our hands from dropping off, and Art Ross, the Haileybury captain, wore a pair of fur gloves and a woolen toque rolled down over his face with peep-holes cut out for the eyes. He looked like the very devil himself, and he played as mean as he looked.

A “funny” incident:

Art went after Lester with his stick, clubbed him on the jaw and Lester retaliated. Art — I think he was just looing for a good scrap just to keep from freezing to death — backed off, took off his gloves and tossed them onto the ice. He made a few gestures with his fists and then suddenly turned and scrambled to retrieve his gloves and get them back on again. Lester burst out laughing, and the fight was called off. Called on account of cold.

Whitehead notes that three players were treated for frostbite that night, with Haileybury’s Fred Povey suffering so severely that doctors worried he’s lose an ear. (He kept it.) Frank Patrick:

The thing that always amazed me was how the fans stayed through games like this, or that they came in the first place, even though they were bundled in rugs and blankets. It struck me at times that the fans were a hardier breed than the players they watched. At least we could keep moving.

Which leads us back, finally, to Ottawa.

Frank Boucher spins a fine story from the days of icy yore in the memoir he wrote with Trent Frayne, When The Rangers Were Young (1973). Before he got to New York, Boucher made his NHL debut in 1921 with his hometown team, Ottawa’s original Senators.

As a 20-year-old rookie on a powerhouse team — the defending NHL champions, no less — Boucher wasn’t getting a lot of ice-time. Along with 18-year-old King Clancy and a pair of veteran journeymen, Leth Graham and Billy Bell, Boucher was spending much of his inaugural season as a bench-bound freezing spare in old, unheated arenas.

We grew so disenchanted sitting there, shivering, our teeth chattering, and our feet numb, that we asked Tommy Gorman, the club’s manager, to let us stay in the dressing room. He said no, he never knew when he might need one of us. Clancy then suggested that Gorman install a system of bells in the dressing room whereby he could signal a player if he needed him — one ring Clancy, two for me, and so on. This Gorman did. And we sat inside night after night playing a card game called Five Hundred, and the bell never rang.

Until it did. Ottawa coach Pete Green wanted King Clancy. But Clancy didn’t appear. The coach rang again. No answer. So he called Graham instead.

“Where the hell is Clancy?” the coach demanded when Leth appeared.

“He couldn’t come,” Leth said. “He took his skates off and has his feet in the furnace. That room is damn cold tonight, Pete.”

(Top image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board fonds/ e011176174)

the ice is in at long pond

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The ice is in at Long Pond or at least it’s starting, the freeze is on at the Birthplace of Hockey, which is to say the Cradle. You wouldn’t want to be skating yet, you couldn’t be, not yet, it’s just a scrim so far on the brown water at the end of the long winding road that takes you back from the main road past the old farmhouse and the little museum and on through the gate that’s guarded by (probable) Jacques Plante and (possible) Fern Flaman or (maybe) it’s Leo Labine, I don’t know, I couldn’t decide. This was on Friday when I was passing through Windsor in Nova Scotia and the temperature that had fallen down below zero was rising again and while there was snow still salted over Howard Dill’s pumpkin fields, the puddles had thawed out and the winter that had started in back at the pond looked almost as though it was already over and done, just like that, departing before anyone had time to take a skate to it, a stick, a puck.

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margaret atwood, hockey writer

Happy birthday, today, to Margaret Atwood, who’s 75. Time to consider her place as a hockey novelist, then? Yes, probably so, high time — or at least it would be, if indeed the game had any presence in her work. It doesn’t. None. Oh, she gives it a glance, here and there. How else was she going to begin a poem called “February” (1995) other than the way she begins it:

Winter. Time to eat fat
and watch hockey.

Still, let’s not be fooling ourselves — from there on in, it’s a cat poem.

Should it worry us that our greatest novelist has no room for hockey in her vast dystopian vision? I don’t think so. I counsel calm. And offer this: Survival, Atwood’s brilliant 1972 study of Canadian literature, is a seminal text when it comes to understanding why we play on the ice. “It is in their attitudes towards winter,” Atwood writes, “that Canadians reveal most fully their stance towards Nature — since … winter for us is the ‘real’ season.” Hockey is part of the war we wage on winter, our continual campaign to drive it back, conquer, defeat it; it’s also how we embrace the season, celebrate and honour and love it. Doesn’t matter that the game doesn’t figure at all in the pages of Survival. That’s just how it is, here: if you’re writing about literature and landscape, climate and Canadianness, who we are and how we live in this land, then you’re writing about hockey whether you say so or not.