david ayres for the win: whereas north carolina’s motto is esse quam videri, which means to be rather than to seem

David Ayres will never forget it. The Toronto Maple Leafs will never escape it.

It a year ago today that the Carolina Hurricanes overwhelmed the Leafs by a score of 6-3 at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena with Ayres, a 42-year-old emergency goaltender (and sometime Zamboni-driver), stepping in to make eight saves and earn the win and secure the win after the Hurricanes lost regular netminders James Reimer and Petr Mrazek to injury.

Born in Whitby, Ontario, Ayres, who underwent a kidney transplant in 2004, was a great story at the time, and still is: Luke Fox has a worthwhile catch-up q-and-a with him here at Sportsnet.

Last year, in the heady days following his one-and-only NHL win (to date), Ayres took a well-deserved victory lap, back when those were still possible, stopping in to visit Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in New York before continuing on to Raleigh, where he was fêted on David Ayres Day and declared an honorary North Carolinian by Governor Roy Cooper.

as soon as you get on the ice

Not The George Bell (And Nowhere Near): “Shinny Rink, 2004,” by prize-winning Edmonton-born (and B.C.- and Swiss-based)  photographer Scott Conarroe is, in fact, a Halifax scene. For more of his work, visit http://scottconarroe.com. (Image: © Scott Conarroe / courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery)

I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.

Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.

I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.

The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.

It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)

Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell.  She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.

When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.

“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”

I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.

“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”

Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?

If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.

And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.

Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.

He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”

 

zamboniversary: on this night in 1955, a new era in ice-cleaning began at montreal’s forum

The hockey highlights were, if you’re wondering, few and far between: when the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Thursday of this very date in 1955, the two old rivals ended up in what the Gazette’s Dink Carroll was only too irked to declare “that bane of hockey, the scoreless tie.”

The Leafs, to their credit, laid down a stifling defensive blanket over the powerful first-place Canadiens, gaining a point in the process and helping their own third-place cause. Toronto also, incidentally, set a new league record: their 22 ties were the most any team had accumulated in an NHL season. Not that any of this impressed the 14,332 fans on hand in Montreal on the night: their verdict was recorded in the volume of peanuts, programs, and newspapers flung on the ice at the end of the game. “One disgusted spectator tossed in a couple of pig’s feet,” Carroll noted.

Which brings us, however loopingly, to the point: no, not the fact that in another week’s time, the Forum would be filled with the ire, tear gas, and Clarence Campbell-antipathy that fed and fired up March 17’s Richard Riot.

That was a whole other Thursday. This one, March 10, we mark for the altogether less-ruinous reason that it saw the Canadian NHL debut of everybody’s favourite ice-resurfacer, the Zamboni.

It was in California that rink-owner Frank Zamboni spent most of the 1940s getting a prototype invented and built on the chassis of a U.S. Army jeep before he was ready to launch in 1949. The first one to arrive in Canada went to Quebec’s Laval College in 1954, and that same fall Boston Garden became the first NHL rink to put one into service. The Monster, the staff called that one. The Boston Globe reported that “Helo Grasso, the pilot, is being urged to wear a crash helmet.”

A little ice-upkeep history seems in order here, duly dedicated (why not) to David Ayres. In the first few decades of the NHL, the ice was most often scraped and swept rather flooded during games. From the time the Forum opened in 1924, maintenance staff deployed their own distinctive 15-foot birch brooms, as highlighted here by NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs:

These were still in use, apparently, in the late 1930s, bemusing visiting reporters like the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s George Currie:

Even the ice-scrapers are different up here. They sweep the snow off the ice with long, broomlike bunches of tree branches. Between the periods, the ice has more snow sweepers on it than hockey players during the actual play.

An important if undercelebrated moment in ice-cleaning history came in 1940, in September, when the NHL’s Board of Governors gathered in New York ahead of the new season. Among other new rules and procedures decreed there was one that insisted (as CP reported) “that the ice surface be sprayed between periods, instead of scraped or brushed, except when two teams have a mutual understanding that spraying is not necessary.”

Tommy Gorman was running the Canadiens that year, and when the games got going in November, the Gazette took note of the “new ice-making machines” he’d enlisted for duty between periods: “They’re sort of hot-water wagons dragging sacks behind, and they do a great job on the ice.”

More or less the same apparatus, that is, that was in operation at Toronto Maple Leafs Gardens well into the ’60s:

The Zamboni that made its debut 65 years ago tonight was a Model E, the 29th to roll off the company’s production line following the introduction of the one-and-only Model A in ’49.

“This gadget does everything but talk on an ice surface,” the inventor himself was saying a few days before that Montreal launch.

The man at the wheel of the $10,000-machine — about $97,000 in today’s money — was Forum superintendent Jim Hunter. In the days of the old brooms, he said, cleaning the ice was a job for eight to ten men. Now, he could do the work in six or seven minutes, he said. “The real beauty of the machine is that it takes only one man to operate. It also gives the ice a much smoother finish than a crew of men working with the present hot-water barrels.”

Wheelman: Jim Hunter at the wheel of the original Forum Zamboni in 1961.

zamboni’s out there doing its ignored choreography

The great Canadian poet Don Coles died this past Wednesday in Toronto at the age of 90. “Such a thoughtful, lovely guy & a breathtakingly sensitive (& slyly witty) poet,” the writer Gary Barwin wrote on Twitter. “He had such grace & gentility, such decency and menchlichkeit. Such precision saturated with deep feeling.” Coles’ 1993 collection Forests of the Medieval World won a Governor-General’s Award. He won’t be remembered principally, perhaps, as a hockey poet, but he did, as a writer born and breathing in the Canadian landscape, sometimes hit the ice, as he did his very beautiful 1998 poem, above, “Kingdom.”

Could we salute him, too, for his supporting role in seeing hockey’s most thoughtful and incisive memoir to the shelf? I think so: yes.

It was 1980, as Ken Dryden recalled it in a short remembrance he wrote for ARC, Canada’s national poetry magazine, on the occasion of Coles’ 75th birthday. “I had retired from hockey the year before and finished my bar admission course in Ottawa, and I wanted to write a book,” Dryden wrote. “It would be about experiences I’d had in hockey, and impressions and feelings that those experiences had left behind. It seemed as if it was a book that was in me, or it wasn’t. Outside research wouldn’t help much. It seemed as if it was a book that could be written anywhere.”

So Dryden and his wife, Lynda, took their young family to Cambridge in England. Friends in Toronto put him in touch with Don Coles, who was living there at the time. Dryden called. He was looking for help, advice, confidence, and that’s what he found with Coles.

They met for lunches. Talked. Coles might have suggestions for Dryden. “But more importantly,” Dryden recalled,  “he was respectful and encouraging. He made me feel that what I was trying to do was worthwhile, and that what I was trying to say was worthy of the attempt. He made me believe that no matter how ragged my work, there was something there. That I was getting there, would get there.”

“I didn’t have much else to go on then. I had no critical eye. I had no idea what was good and what wasn’t. Whatever anyone else said I was, I was. I was lucky that that someone else in Cambridge was Don.”

Ken Dryden’s The Game, published in 1983, was nominated for a Governor-General’s Award. “The best book on sport ever written by an athlete,” Roy MacGregor thinks, and he’s not the only one. Dryden has six other books to his name, including this fall’s important Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and The Future of Hockey.

under review: housing hockey

A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance. “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”

Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game — especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.

But since Fleury isn’t the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts — or for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.

Shubert6Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold, and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.

That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.

You’d think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture (1994), for example, all but passes them by.

On the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas — Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof On Winter (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.

Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards the end.

 •••

What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter pastimes to beguile us. We’re back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.

Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.

There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,

ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.

Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.

Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned 20. War didn’t help — with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.

Canada’ first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill-halls.

Early hockey remained mostly outdoors — the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight? Continue reading

snow job

Snow Job: The men who skate and scrape, at Chicago's Stadium, circa 1941. A year later, in California, Frank Zamboni began to fiddle with tractors and sleds in his quest for a better way of resurfacing skating ice. It was 1949 before he got it right and 1954 by the time the first Zamboni flooded NHL ice, in Boston's Garden.

Snow Job: The men who skate and scrape, at Chicago’s Stadium, circa 1941. A year later, in California, Frank Zamboni began to fiddle with tractors and sleds in his quest for a better way of resurfacing skating ice. It was 1949 before he got it right and 1954 by the time the first Zamboni flooded NHL ice, in Boston’s Garden.