Tuesday, 29 July 2014

In-Depth Review: L'histoire du hockey au Québec, Part 4

This is the fourth part of my in-depth review of Donald Guay's 1990 book L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"). Please note that since the book is written in French, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.

Here I begin to address chapter three, which discusses the organization of hockey in Quebec. I'm not sure yet how many posts it will take to cover this chapter, but it will be a few since this is by far the longest chapter in the book, taking up over one-third of the total page count. But let's get started.

Guay begins by noting that one charactestic of the organization of sports is the tendecy for teams to join together to form leagues, made up of teams of approximately equal strength. This was and is generally done along the lines of age groups - juvenile, junior, intermediate and senior - though this is not always the case (for example, commercial leagues that are organized by employer or by profession.) The explosion in the number of hockey leagues in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is an illustration of the enormous growth in popularity of hockey in Canada. The first hockey league was formed in 1886, and Guay notes that by 1917, 81 different hockey leagues had been mentioned in the Montreal press. This isn't to say that there were 81 hockey leagues in 1917, since many had come and gone by that point, but the fact is clear. The growth in the game in Canada was indeed remarkable.

Before the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) came into being in 1886, there was the Montreal Winter Carnival hockey tournament, the first of which was held in 1883. McGill won the Carnival Cup that winter over the Montreal Victorias and Quebec HC. This tournament was also played in 1884 and 1885, but the carnival was cancelled in 1886. Two things happened as a result of this cancellation, one which Guay makes note of and one which he omits. Guay does not mention that there was a winter carnival hockey tournament played in 1886, but it was in Burlington, Vermont as two Montreal teams travelled there to take on a local side. This was the first international hockey tournament, though admittedly it doesn't have much relevance to the development of hockey in Montreal.

Guay does discuss the 1886 Montreal city championships. With the carnival tournament cancelled, the clubs of the city decided to play a season-long series to determine the champion for the year. Each of the four clubs (AAA, Victorias, McGill, and the eventual champion Crystals) would play each other club twice over the winter. This illustrates that the clubs were not simply playing in the carnival tournaments for fun or sport; they specifically wanted to crown a champion. As such, even though in chapter one Guay suggests that sport is played with the goal of honourable victory, and that the stake can be something as simple as the satisfaction of winning, the hockey clubs of Montreal had already moved beyond that. Winning wasn't enough; they wanted recognition for their victories.

Indeed, it seems the creation of the AHAC was in part due to the desire for recognition. Guay quotes a Montreal Gazette sports writer, who in December 1886 suggested that the AHAC would provide "a higher standard of excellence, both as a game and in the eyes of the public." (p.75). As such it seems clear that the views of the public were relevant to sport, or at the very least to the organization of sport. This is not something that Guay addressed when addressing his proposed dichotomy of games versus sports with his six criteria in chapter one of the book, and indeed it illustrates the issue of making such a binary distinction.

Now, Guay's distinction was between game and sport, not between organized sport and non-organized sport or whatever you might call it, but the principle is the same. These are best viewed as continuums, where particular versions of an activity can lay at any point along the scale. The creation of a hockey league increased the organization in hockey, certainly, but one cannot say that it created organization in hockey, since there was some level of organization in hockey already. Drawing a line in the middle of the scale and declaring that everything to one side of the line is "organized hockey" (while the other side is not) is far too simplistic and limits understanding. This also applies to making such a distinction between game and sport.

Guay notes that the AHAC modelled their constitution on that of the Dominion Lacrosse Association, and points out the tendency for amateur athletic organizations to centralize authority rather than allow for democratic decision-making. This results in sweeping powers being given to a small group of executives. Sometimes even a single powerful individual could serve as judge, jury and executioner in amateur sport. Guay is absolutely correct to point out that this put the AHAC «en situation de conflit d'intérêt permanent...» ("in a permanent situation of conflict of interest.") (p. 76)

Ultimately it would be this tendency for centralized authority in amateur hockey which would spped along the later development of the professional version of the game, as the draconian rulings handed down by the Ontario Hockey Association in the late 1890s forced former amateur hockeyists to seek money for their efforts as they were forced out of the "pure" sport. Guay does not really address the fact that this centralized authority, and the issues that he rightly states it creates, would seem to disqualify amateur hockey from this time from his previous definition of "sport", since fair play would so often be left aside for petty politics and tyrannical decrees by executives.

It also seems professional hockey would thus be excluded from his definition of sport, since monetary concerns would seems overtake sportsmanship. Indeed the moral panic of anti-professionalism started early in hockey. Guay notes that a Gazette sports writer in 1888 suggested that the Montreal AAA and other clubs might be paying their players. Readers rebuffed him, but he said the future would bear him out. It's odd that the AAA would be the only team specifically mentioned by the writer; years later when eastern hockey became openly professional, the Winged Wheelers were one of two teams to withdraw from the league rather than become a pro side.

Guay begins to delve into the history of AHAC seasons. Strangely enough, when the AHAC began play in the winter of 1886/87, they did not use the series system that the Montreal teams had adopted for 1886. They played a challenge system in 1887, wherein the team currently holding the championship title could be challenged by another team, and the winner of that game would become the current title-holder, and on and on until the season came to a close, when the team holding the title at that time was declared the season's champion. A series system was played in 1888, but the league returned to a challenge format from 1889 to 1892, at least in part to make it easier for teams outside Montreal to participate. The Ottawa and Quebec clubs would have difficulty playing a series system due to the financial constraints of amateur hockey.

The results of the 1892 season illustrate the significant issue with the challenge system. Ottawa won nine straight matches during the season, but lost their final challenge match to the Montreal AAA, who had failed in three previous challenges that season. But there was no more time for hockey that winter, and as such, the AAA (with their record of one win and three losses) was declared champion over Ottawa (who had nine wins and one loss). The system had previously been called "supremely ridiculous" in 1890 (p.81), when the AAA had gone undefeated in nine matches, and it was recognized that if they had lost their last match, they would not have been champions. The absurdity of the system should be apparent to any modern hockey fan, and was realized by at least some fans at the time, but it was the system they used.

The thing is, and this is not from Guay but my own observation, that hockey today still effectively uses a challenge system to decide the season's champion. The concept of annual playoffs appended to the regular season is exactly the same as using a challenge system to decide a champion. The regular season, played as a series, is merely used to seed the playoffs, which is a challenge system. The league (for example, the NHL) decides which teams are allowed to challenge which other teams based on the results on the regular season, until it comes down to a winner-take all final series, after all other teams have been eliminated by losing four out of seven games, regardless of how many they had won before that time.

In theory, an NHL team could go 82-0 in the regular season and sweep the first three rounds of the playoffs to reach the championship final with a record of 94-0. Their opponent could be a team that was 41-41 during the season and won the first three rounds in seven games each, for a record of 53-50. And yet, if the latter team beats the former four games out of seven (raising their season record to 57-53), they will be declared champion over the team that won 97 out of 101 games that year. The possibility of this sort of result was recognized to be "supremely ridiculous" in 1890, and yet now it is so deeply ingrained in North American hockey that most fans would not understand any other way of doing it. Annual playoffs are taken for granted in North American sports, and I don't think many fans really stop to consider this potential absurdity.

When a series system was finally adopted on a permanent basis by the AHAC for the 1892/93 season, the move was hailed, as the fixed schedule of game would be much better for the fans, which again illustrates the importance the views of the public had in the development of organized hockey. Once again Guay mentions this but does not really give it due consideration, and how it affects his ideas about the criteria that are representative of sports.

Next time, we'll get into some of the trials and tribulations faced by amateur hockey in the late 20th century, many of which it ultimately brought on itself.

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