Hockey's Historic Highlights

The Many Faces of Training Camp

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

The Many Faces of Training Camp

Posted October 13, 2014

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It has been stated in a little different way in each case, but the general consensus is that in NHL circles “training camp” is an obsolete term anymore. “Nobody trains anymore” said one shinny scribe recently. 

  Regarding this current pre-season scenario he continued to opine: “On September 13th, the first official day of workouts, you’d better be in game shape—the season begins in 24 days! Thanks to the CBA and the economy, training camp ain’t what it used to be! Pre-season games are less than a week away. Summer used to be golf. Now there may be time for 10 holes—but not until the daily skate……long gone is the era when veterans eased their way through early camp drills…..players today are not coming to get in shape but the win a job!”

  When Dave Nonis declared that “camp is shorter than it use to be”, it was an understatement of mammoth proportions. It was announced that same day that the “79- day layoff (between the Stanley Cup win and the season’s start) denotes the shortest off-season in league history.”

  Rookie tournaments were already in progress and a “prospects camp” took place in July.

When it was observed that players were on skates 12 months of the year, the all-encompassing hold that the pro game has on its chattels was dynamically confirmed.

  The approach to this unique time, with the distinct ID of “training camp”, goes back at least as far as 1912 and the National Hockey Association. In Cy Denneny’s profile there are two references made to him in this regard: “Signed as a free agent by Montreal (NHA) on November 2, 1912, but released after training camp”.

   “Suspended by Toronto (NHA) for failing to report to training camp.”

   The countenance of this event has changed drastically over the years. According to the memoirs of Frank Selke Sr., up until about 1927, at least, “Someone drew up a schedule in late summer or early fall. NHL players reported to their clubs a day or two before the opening game….the boys had one or two practices, then depended on games to put them in condition.”    

  But Conn Smythe, the canny sports entrepreneur, changed all that. After he purchased the Toronto St. Pats and changed their name to “Maple Leafs”, the first template for modern “training camps” was in place. For two weeks his chattels were involved in dry-land training, calisthenics (in full uniform sans skates), softball, r, golf, long walks, and even soccer.

   “Hap” Day, the team captain, led the pack on those treks, and there were complaints galore. The six-footer often left the shorter players behind, trotting along like puppies, trying to keep up the pace.

   Fellow SIHR member Stephen Smith, in a feature article in the September 17 Globe & Mail, notes that in 1928 their camp was situated in Port Elgin, Ontario. They again made good use of golf links and the softball diamond; but doubles in tennis, quoits—tossing rubber rings like horseshoes—and two-mile runs, were added to the rigourous workouts. Corporal Joe Coyne drilled them in constitutionals “in good old military style”, as they proceeded through their jumps and bends. Complaints about aches and bruises were the order of the day! 

  Peeks into the regimens of various sextets include a report on Lionel Conacher’s New York Americans, who were settled into New Haven, Connecticut, in 1929, for the duration. “….has his New York Americans working out, putting his charges through a systematic training schedule, promising to have his rejuvenated squad working in mid-season form when they engage the Ottawa Senators in Canada’s capital on November 16.”

      Four years later, in Chicago, Major McLaughlin had just sacked another bench boss (Dick Irvin) and put an unknown by the name of Godfrey Matheson in charge. Apparently he was determined to turn the game’s clock back to its fledgling years. He selected six players who were to represent his roster, and the rest of the pack, about 20 in all, were to sit on the bench and watch the planned plays of his half dozen regulars.  This format continued for a week until Manager Bill Tobin got wind of the shenanigans and fired the creator of this weird shinny spin. 

    Bivouacked in Winnipeg in 1935 the “Big Train” (that same Conacher) met with some obstacles in his attempt to imitate the Queen City’s format of pre-season preparation. Having put them through a 45-minute on ice workout, an early season snowfall put the kibosh on bike riding and baseball games as part of the camp schedule. 

   In the October 6, 1948 issue of the Hockey News, publisher Ken McKenzie featured an article entitled “A Day in the Life of a Maple Leaf”—a blow by blow expose at the team’s training camp in St. Catherines. The accompanying photo captured two lines of veterans and prospects in parallel rows passing medicine balls along from front to back. The caption included: “A few of them seemed to be enjoying it.”

  This candid chronicle reported that “Coach ‘Happy’ Day drove his charges in Simon Legree fashion……so hard did he drive the team during their first one-hour workout on September 29, that several of the stars were unable to eat lunch that followed at 12:30.

….the day starts at 6:45 a.m…..’Hap’ Day a marvelous physical specimen leads the players in a 15-minute walk around the streets of St. Kitts. ….at 7:30 there is breakfast….from 9 to 9:30 there is a rundown of the rules for the coming season…..from 9:30 to 10:15 the Stanley Cup champions are put through physical jerks under the supervision of a competent P.T. instructor……it isn’t until 11 o’clock in the morning that the team finally takes the ice….an hour’s strenuous scrimmage between the ‘Blues’ and the ‘Whites’ is usually the order of the morning practice…written on the timetable which every one of the 26 players receives is ‘Leafs report for golf at 3:15’….at 6 dinner time…at 11 o’clock it’s ‘lights out’” 

   During that same era, Max McNab, who made his pay-for-play debut with Detroit in 1947-48, recalled that these sessions lasted a full six weeks. He claimed that skaters were still going to camp to get in shape. “We didn’t even take our skates home with us (in the spring). We suffered stiff legs and sore feet.”, he claimed.

  Two All Stars from the 1960’s candidly commented on this pre-season marathon of conditioning in THEIR era, when the NHL schedule had evolved into a 76-game grind.

Bobby Hull, the “Golden Jet”, griped: “I was sick of hockey BEFORE the season started. They worked us to death….17 exhibition games and two tough practices a day.”

    Andy Bathgate, another Hall of Famer, concurred: “With two practices a day you just can’t recover from the heat!”

   A decade and a half later the aforementioned Max McNab, then piloting the New Jersey Devils, commented on the change of approach for training camp from the 1950’s and 1960’s: “You bring a lot of players in on tryouts, and you have to make a decision (about whom to keep) in a relatively short period of time. Gone are the days when 80 or 90 came to camp and you kept 50 under contract. We divide immediately into four teams and have a round robin tournament. Scrimmages are the best way of making the analysis!”

  Emile Francis added: “It really started to change with the elimination of Junior sponsorship……everything must be done more rapidly, but with greater efficiency.”

  Another distinct feature of the osmosis, which is evidenced over the course of time, may also be credited to the CBA. In the “good old days”, “hold outs” were as common as a winter cold. “Mr. Hockey”, Gordie Howe, following his retirement, commenting on the drastic changes which took place even during the course of his lengthy career, put it succinctly: “You’d go to training camp with the idea that you’d have to fight for money. I was really disappointed only once. I was in my 10th year (with Detroit) and had just gotten married, but wasn’t making enough to buy a decent house. I worked summers.”

(While he never balked while with the Wings, he relented on his “take whatever they give me” stance, and bargained for himself and two sons, Marty and Mark while with the WHA Houston team)    

   The list of established skaters who demonstrated that is lengthy. In fact we may go back all the way to 1913 to find a copious list of established skaters who were digging in their heels when it came to contract signings. TheToronto World reported on December 6: “The holdout problem is becoming acute in the National Hockey Association as the opening of the season draws nearer”

   Players like Art Ross, Harry Hyland (Wanderers), Newsy Lalonde, Jack Laviolette (Canadiens), Skene Ronan, Jack Darragh (Ottawa), Clint Benedict, Fred Lake, and McNamara brothers (Ontarios), headed the list of those refusing to report. The Ottawa and Toronto pucksters were actually already under suspension for their trouble. The Capital City members were given a week to change their mind or face fines. Ronan and Darragh responded by saying they would retire if a trade turned out to be the threat for failing to comply with the club’s wishes.

  The tightfisted stand by most of the premier pro loop’s GM’s continued throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the result that this “acute problem” did anything but improve.   

In 1927 Art Duncan found the league itself barking at his heels, and became to the NHL’s first competitor to be suspended. When he was sent to the Maple Leafs by Detroit, he refused to report because he maintained the contract was not a fair one. Pittsburgh’s Roy Worters took Duncan’s cue the following year. He was paid $4000. the previous season, but wanted twice that. The $5000. Benny Leonard offered was turned down—so he too was put in dry dock by President Calder.

   Even the conservative-minded Frank Boucher got into the no-show act in 1928. He contended that the team owners profits were “enormous”, and that players should get their share. 

   “Ching” Johnson put the brakes on in 1929, when the Rangers didn’t divvy out an agreement suitable to him. Lionel Conacher refused to be bullied into a contract which turned his stomach sour in 1931. And, while Howie Morenz willing swapped jerseys in 1934, when fall1935 came around, he was among the missing at camp.

  It was said that Eddie Shore held out every year—that he “always arrived late”—having the habit of “hiding behind one of his haystacks” and declaring he was through with the game for good!” (Glen hall had more protection from an entire barn)  He contended (because of his farming in the off-season) that he was fit and needed only two or three days to get in shape for game action.

  Earl Seibert was of the same mind that autumn. He breezed in camp two days before the opening faceoff contending as well that he was reached peak condition at home.

   Not surprisingly, the old “Silver Fox”, Lester Patrick, had his own way of keeping his chattels humble when they thought they were of prime value to the club. Non-regulars were designated as “Yannigans” (He was even set to go between the pipes for them during intersquad scrimmages).  First liners like Bill and Bun Cook, “Taffy” Abel and “Ching” Johnson made up the established troop, while guys like Paul Thompson, Art Chapman, and Harry Meeking constituted the lesser light’s squad.  

  As mentioned, this pattern continued on through the prime years of the “Original 6”. In 1967, with expansion in the bag, several key skaters from various sextets held out for higher stakes. Tim Horton, who dragged his feet on more than one occasion, along with Pulford and Walton gave Toronto fits. Ullman, Henderson, and Terry Harper followed suit in Detroit. While Gilbert, Howell, and Hadfield on Broadway, and Westfall and Shack in Beantown joined the balk brigade. Even the mild-manner Jean Ratelle got into the act.

  One may scan the sports pages of every ensuing season and find regulars missing during training camp, and even on into the regular schedule.

  One little spin on this scenario involved Canadien’s greats. It is said that it was not unusual for “Butch” Bouchard, “Rocket” Richard, and Jean Beliveau, to sign on the dotted line as late as 45 minutes previous to the start of the first game of the campaign.

  As usual, Lester Patrick lent his own bent in these impasses. When one hard-to-convince puckster stubbornly refused to listen to contract talks “because he thought he was worth more”, the Ranger’s CEO took matters into his own hands. “Meet me in the lobby of Madison Square Garden before the game. If there’s a fan who recognizes you and calls you by name, I’ll give you what you ask.” Not one did—and he took his boss’s offer!

  Still another facet of training camp’s identity involves the intensity connected to the competition for a permanent place on the team roster. That scramble for recognition has been known to prompt some spirited fisticuffs.

  From the Toronto training camp scene in October 1938, an observer wrote: “In two practice games (normally involving skaters from the big team and the farm hands) at the Galt Arena, hockeyists banged each other around, with many a battle threatening in the fast going, as tempers flared”.

  In September 1961 at the Bruin’s camp in Niagara Falls, there was a fist fight between two rookies, Orland Kurtenbach and Ted Green. Teammates separated them, but though Manager Lynn Patrick shouted them into submission, they threatened to break out anew!

  In 1983 this pugnacious spirit was in full swing, when no less than six Pittsburgh Penguins dropped their gloves during initial scrimmages. Front and centre was Jimmy Mann who was embroiled in three separate bouts, two with Carl Mokasak and the other with Mitch Williams.

  A year later prospect Jim McEwen from the Lethbridge WHL squad broke his hand in a skirmish with Dave Hannan. He was sent home as a result, and missed any opportunity to gain a contract.

  Almost two decades later, another Penguin hopeful, Brian Gaffery, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. Not only did he lose three teeth in a scrimmage, but later he took a “one punch” dinger from Steve Parsons. The two incidents added up to the decision that he really didn’t have any future in the game. 

   A lot of pucks have found their way into the twine since those primitive sessions back in the game’s fledgling years. The faces of training camp have not only changed but have evolved into scenes which are totally different today. Three weeks ago veterans and prospects participated in medicals and physicals. Past injuries, especially concussions were prominent in assessment relating to the 2014-15 campaign. 

  Height, weight, body mass, heart rate, and blood pressure were some basics in the examinations. But reach—standing and jumping; a CO2 test; joint flexibility; strength; and speed, on and off the ice, were given careful scrutiny. All the other aspects chronicled above continue to be added to that mix.

   That’s a far cry from 50 pushups, a half mile run, and three days of stops and starts on the newly-flooded ice surface. 

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