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By the time the next 365 days will have become history, coverage of the Centennial Celebrations of the world’s premier hockey circuit will virtually have known no end. Its birth, history, and ups and downs will have been analyzed, scrutinized, patronized, canonized, and criticized from every possible angle. To put it candidly, if one is going to write anything about the NHL’s 100th birthday, it had better be now, because in short order it will have been said already—in the press, in special publications, on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook—ad nauseam!
Without a doubt some positive highlights will be accentuated. Its immigration into the USA; the solidarity of the “Original 6”; the doubling of the size of the league in 1967; and the exorcism of the WHA by swallowing it up.
But be assured that its short-sightedness and its shortcomings; its bias and it bull-headedness; its narrowmindedness and it naiveté; its politicking and its pretenses—all will have been uncovered and unfolded.
Never-before revelations will undoubtedly be unearthed. Skeletons from previously undiscovered closets will be headlined. Manipulations on behalf of the powers-that-be, intended for their greater good, will be unveiled.
Without a doubt some of it is going to prove interesting—even exciting reading and viewing. However, for the most part the warp and woof of that century of pay-for-play shinny at the highest level will be a case of “seems we’ve heard that before”.
I am not going to attempt a condensation of the events of those 100 seasons. Rather I want to focus on the three major doldrums which prevailed between 1917 and 2017.
That first hurdle came very close on the heels of the loop’s organization. In a 1946 Toronto Star column, Charlie Queerie reminisced about those fledgling years: “In 1919-20 professional hockey was in a bad way. The Arena (Toronto) did not want a team and Quebec was ready to quit. Only two teams, Ottawa and Canadiens were ready to play.”
The birth of the NHL could not be considered as going off without a hitch by any stretch of the imagination. Mr. Queerie could just as well have recalled the two years earlier. The tension undermining the existing National Hockey Association led to the formation of this new fraternity on November 26, 1917. It was mainly caused by the uncooperative attitude of Eddie Livingstone, C.E.O. of the Toronto interests. In a word, the managers of the others clubs were tired of his attitude, and questioned continuing as long as he was involved.
This spilled over from the hockey’s front offices into the business community. E. D. Sheppard, president of the Montreal arena griped that he was “sick of the NHA bickering, and unless Canadiens and Wanderers could produce decent caliber talent, pro hockey would be out and the rink we be used only for skating”.
The situation looked no less uncertain at ice level. Of the six clubs which made up the former league for the 1916-17 schedule, there were issues with three of them. The 228th Battalion, pro hockey’s only military squad in the game’s history, had been shipped overseas. When that happened, Toronto’s Blueshirts dropped out of contention. Even though the Toronto Arena Company had purchased the team from Livingstone, and put Queerie in charge, the pesky executive persisted in interfering with the team. So much so that Queerie resigned for a time. And Quebec was poised to cease operation. It would soon be evident that all the hurdles had not been cleared.
The schedule did get underway on December 19, with Ottawa and Canadiens leading the way into the new season. But trouble was brewing early in that campaign. The Wanderers won their first tilt over Toronto, but it was their only victory in four matches. On the 21st they were trounced 11-2, and that before only 700 spectators. As it turned out, they found a convenient way to bow out quietly, when, on January 2, 1918, the Montreal Arena, in which they played, burned to the ground. Both the Habs and the Redbands had used this as their home base; and both lost sticks, sweaters and other equipment,
But the disaster hit the Wanderers harder. While the Canadiens quickly moved to the Jubilee rink for “home” games, the Wanderers, whose supporters lived in the west end, contended their fans would not travel to the east end for games. Add to that, they were still badly in need of reinforcements, and the other clubs felt they could not spare skaters to fill those gaps. Art Ross, their manager, stated bluntly they could not contend in their present condition. On the 4th, owner Sam Lichtenhein formally submitted the club’s resignation. This left Toronto, Ottawa, and Canadiens as the full complement in what was considered the elite level of the game.
The following season, the schedule got underway on December 21st. Nothing very drastic at ice level undermined the success of the three-club circuit, but E.J. Livingstone was still very much in the picture, seeking to revive the defunct NHA. All sorts of moves and countermoves, too many to mention, ultimately spelled “finis” for the proposal. But one more fly-in-the ointment was waiting in the wings. Toronto, champions the previous year, withdrew from the schedule on February 20th, forcing cancelation of remaining games. With only two franchises remaining, a rather restricted playoff series was all that could be salvaged
Add to that, the year climaxed under a very dark cloud. A flu epidemic, which took the life of the Canadien’s Joe Hall, forced the cancelation of the Stanley Cup championship series between the Habs and Seattle.
Without a doubt, the future looked dim for the three-year old fraternity—a reality reflected in Charlie Queerie’s recollections. But fortunately, by the time the NHL annual meeting took place, the Bulldogs from Quebec were anxious to reactivate. The Queen City franchise, now rid of the pesky Livingstone, was reorganized as the St. Patricks. And larger attendance figures—like the 8500 turnout in Toronto on February 21st., helped the loop turn the corner to respectability.
To be sure, the short-lived Pittsburgh/Philadelphia franchise; the deterioration of the once thriving Capital City club (which tried to survive via a one-year transfer to St. Louis); and the demise of the Maroons team, were hardly highlights in the league’s saga. But the enduring “Original 6” was the end result of those abdications; and during those campaigns the circuit was never stronger.
But a far more staggering hindrance nearly swept the skates out from under the fraternity commencing in 1939—namely World War II. The effect on the NHL’s welfare started slowly, picked up steam, and climaxed in 1942.
Andy Lytle, in his column on Toronto Star column on November 24, 1942, wrote: “Frank Calder’s look back over 25 years in which he has been boss of the large hockey scene in Canada, probably has not seen a year so stormy as this one. He has spent endless hours cooling his heels around government offices before the season began, wondering if he would get the “green or red light” from Mr. Little (Elliot Little was National Director of Selective Services. He was in charge of wartime manpower policies).
Right from the horse’s mouth, as it were, it was that same Little who said without hesitation: “It is imperative for the country’s morale that you carry on with hockey!” Sport’s Editor Lytle, in his editorial, was quick to note, however, that this would not mean every facet of NHL hockey would function as it had before the on-going conflict involving so much of the world’s population.
He criticized the inconsistency of the dictation of who could play where. Apparently, some skaters were allowed to compete with clubs across the border, and others were not. In all fairness the Dominion government was not alone to blame for these mystifying policies.
For instance, four New York Ranger players were not all subject to the same rules. Ott Heller and Bryan Hextall entered the USA as “non-resident aliens”. The Patrick brothers, Muzz and Lynn were listed as “resident aliens”. Until it was too late, all of them had been subject to the American military draft. The former two had voluntarily subjected themselves to the draft, when indeed it was not necessary that they do so.
A number of players were not allowed to play “away” matches if it meant crossing the 49th parallel. For example, Mud Bruneteau, who worked in a Detroit Ford plant could participate in weekend games only. Phil Watson of Montreal and Vic Heyliger of Chicago found themselves in similar “part time” playing circumstances.
In Canada, at least, only competitors who received “rejection slips” from the military were allowed to join pay-for-play sextets. To put it mildly, this created headaches for coaches who could not be sure of consistent rosters for games.
There were other snags as well. One NHL manager revealed that he had sent out 62 pairs of gauntlets for repair because it was impossible to buy new hockey gloves during the war, due to the shortage of leather.
There is an amusing element related to one fly-in-the-ointment facing wartime clubs. U.S. Customs charged duty to be paid on sweaters used by Canadian teams going south of the Border for games. The Leafs were willing to pay for their blues, but not for their whites. When they first visited the Big Apple in the fall of 1943, the Rangers offered to accommodate them by donning orange pullovers to arrange contrasting colours. When the next visit neared, New York insisted it was Toronto’s turn to wear these “pinnies”. But Hap Day refused—saying they looked “cheap”—let Lester Patrick spring for a set of whites for the home team. When the puck was dropped both were sporting blue. The referees almost went blind, since all they had was the Ranger’s red stripes to distinguish the home sextet.
But the real headache was manpower. Estimated numbers of NHL’ers in uniform varied. By 1943 it was claimed there was 176 in the armed services, including minor leaguers under contract to one of the “Original 6” fraternities. It was probably more like 90 who had previously been in the line-up of one of the big clubs. But the bottom line was that the talent was very thinly spread, especially in Beantown, the Windy City, and on Broadway.
The fact of the matter was, with the leeway given to fill the rosters, there was far more quantity than quality. The Maple Leafs, who were, in reality, not hit as hard as some of their peers, were known to use players from “Chewies Aces”, which was a Junior “B’ outfit in the Toronto area. It was noted that Chicago were forced to call upon skaters from local mercantile clubs to ice a full lineup from time to time. Montreal, who were the least of all affected, were allowed to call up CHA players to fill the gaps left by those called into active duty. It was fondly referred to as a “lend-lease” programme. The Canadiens, on one occasion, forgot the “lending” part, and, having engaged Glen Harmon’s service for one game, kept him on.
There were occasions when desperation dictated sending out an SOS for re-enforcements. In 1944, the Blackhawks rattled veteran Art Wiebe’s chain, disturbing his contented lifestyle in his Bakery in the west, and recalling him to the fold. Frank Boucher, who had been making a path pacing behind the Rangers’ bench came out of a five-year retirement to cut grooves in the ice lanes instead. At the other end of the scale, Oshawa General’s Memorial Cup stalwart, Bep Guidolin, was promoted to the Boston Bruins at age 16, becoming the youngest ever to skate in the league. It is questionable if any of the three would have pulled on NHL togs had the war not robbed these clubs of their regular talent.
With the depletion of skill levels, there were complaints about the “entertainment value”. Unusually high scores were common. Within a one month time frame, these were some examples of blowouts: New York 9 Chicago 0; Boston 10 Chicago 0; Montreal 10 Chicago 0. The Rangers had perpetual netminding woes. Jimmy Franks, Bill Beveridge, and Steve Buzinski shared those duties. The little slogan, “Steve Buzinski, the puck goes inski” spelled out the part of the problem. Chicago, with veteran Bert Gardiner between the pipes, simply suffered from talent shortages in front of him.
One respected shinny scribe summarized the overall problem very well: “It is not necessary to rake too deeply in the ashes of hockey’s yesterday to find players who stand head and shoulders over anything the Hawks and Canadiens paraded last night!”
But in 1945 some name players were beginning to filter back into the main stream of the game’s top league. And, even though it was stressful to management, players and fans, the league weathered the storm and revived.
There have been other times when the NHL has hit low tide over its century-long time frame. Anytime a franchise folds, or reaches the stage where it must be shifted to another location represents a roadblock in the way of progress. That has happened nine times since 1967.
Two Stanley Cup championships credited to the ability to intimidate the opposition on the ice, as was the case with Philadelphia in 1974 and 1975 can hardly be considered anything but a smudge on the circuit’s pages.
The rash of untimely deaths of enforcers, starting with Reggie Fleming in 2009, can only leave a collective bad taste in the game’s mouth. The demise of Bob Probert, Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak, and Steve Montador followed in close proximity.
The apparent continuing indifference toward the dangers of head shots by the powers-that-be only affirms the conviction that selling the product regardless of cost to player’s well-being reigned supreme.
In a way, the third major encumbrance needs little elaboration. Merely the mention of six digits summarizes the entire scenario. We speak, of course, of the 2004-05 season—the campaign that wasn’t! One can look in vain for the name of a Stanley Cup champion for 2005. The only other blank of this kind came in 1919 when a flu epidemic forced the cancellation of the games for this exciting drama. This brief numerical reference almost speaks for itself.
One correspondent put is succinctly: “It was the league’s darkest hour”. Other journalists used similar words: “grim”, and “ugly”, for instance.
Government at more than one level discussed the situation, especially after the season was officially cancelled. A B.C. MP, John Reynolds, snapped: “If they came within in seven million (agreement) and couldn’t do a deal, they are both incompetent!” Another candidly minimized with: “It stinks!”
Still another opined: “It is a big loss for kids who look up to players as role models. They have lost confidence in what kind of men they are.”
A number of players, both active and retired spoke out. “Mr. Goalie”, Glenn Hall, said: “I have lost all respect. They need smarter people on both sides!”
Summit Series hero, Paul Henderson, said: “It’s too bad cooler heads could not have prevailed. It could mean the end of the NHL!”
One active player spoke anonymously: “It is an ugly situation. I don’t think anyone ever wants it to happen again.”
Daniel Alfredsson, NHLPA Vice-Pres, who claimed to have lost $14 million in salary, grumbled: “I don’t think missing a whole year was worth it!”
Call it a “lockout”, or call it a “player strike”—the former only happened because the latter essentially was the NHLPA’s stance was NOT to accept management’s terms. Call it what you will, but, in more than one way, the collective assemblage shot themselves in the foot.
In D.C. which was hardly a hockey hotbed, sports writer Tim Harper groaned: “The NHL Caps are gone for the season, and no one notices they’re gone”. This affluence must have prevailed in at least eight other centres, since it was estimated in that number of locales attendance was down the following year—with some teams as much as 23%. Simultaneously millions of dollars in lost revenue followed.
But perhaps the most condemning of all manner of censures was a common sense faux pas. The whole circus-like procedure reminded fandom of boys playing a sandlot ball game, where one spoiled lad announces, “If you won’t let me be captain of one of the teams I’m taking my bat and going home!” For the average Joe and Jane, it was hard to conceive of grown men—millionaires all—squabbling over “salary caps” when ticket prices fattened the wallets of ownership, and skater’s take home pay for a single season was more than average folks could dream of earning in a lifetime. The touchtone word was spelled G-R-E-E-D! Had it not been for spectator’s passionate love of the game, played at its highest level, that fact would have stuck in fan’s craws—badly enough to choke them incurably.
The world’s oldest shinny fraternity has survived these major quicksand-like threats. Growing pains, such as were evident in the loop’s fledgling days were almost impossible to avoid. War, especially one of lasting duration, is beyond the sport’s control. But the third, and most unique kind of blockade, can be avoided by using something called horse sense. How refreshing it would be if the next 100 years could promise success, through cooperation and its resulting peaceful coexistence.
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