Friday 15 November 2013

He Writes a Good Game

A Review of Stephen J. Harper's A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs & The Rise of Professional Hockey

In case you haven't heard, our sitting Prime Minister has just released a book, some eight years in the making, on the history of professional hockey in Toronto. In hockey history circles, we have been awaiting this book for some time. I had long decided not to let any political opinions I have about Mr. Harper enter into my interpretation of this book, and I will ask the same of you. Any comments left here that address his politics rather than his book will be promptly deleted. This is a blog about hockey history, full stop. So let's get on with it.

The physical product is quite nice, 286 pages of text on good-quality paper. I have the hardcover edition, with its oddly-textured dust jacket. The book features many black and white images, which are mostly only acceptable in quality, with some good ones. Several are really too low-quality to be published. There are also two inserts of glossy, colour images, and these are much easier on the eye. Especially intriguing are the illustrations of various hockey sweaters from the time period, drawn by researcher Greg Stoicoiu. These are interesting in themselves, but also serve as an homage to the colour plates in Charles Coleman's Trail of the Stanley Cup, which is a very nice touch.

Harper focuses on the growth of hockey in Toronto, from its very earliest beginnings to the rise of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA), and eventually the arrival of the professional game, focusing most of its attention on the Toronto Hockey Club, sometimes called the Toronto Professionals, which played only two seasons in 1907/08 and 1908/09. Harper does a good job of setting the hockey scene in Canada's second city from the 1890s onward, and ultimately the narrative follows the stories of the Canadian "Athletic War" (amateurs versus pros) and of Bruce Ridpath - player, coach, manager and Toronto hockey's favourite son.

Harper does not shy away from calling the "amateur ideals" of the day for what they were - simple attempts to exclude those that powerful men felt were undesirable. The exclusion of professional players from athletic competitions has really always had this goal, however it might be dressed up. For example, Harper quotes an 1873 rule of the Montreal Pedestrian Club, which was one of the country's first definitions of an amateur athlete:
One who has never competed in any open competition or for public money, or for admission money, or with professionals for a prize, public money or admission money, nor has ever, at any period of his life taught or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood, or is a labourer or an Indian.
Translation: the working class and natives need not apply; we don't want you in our club. Most organizations are not this transparent about their goals, of course, using window dressing of sporting idealism to enforce their prejudices.

John Ross Robertson of the OHA, called a "puritanical tyrant", are the most frequent targets for Harper's jabs at this hypocritical idealism. He does acknowledge that in most aspects of his life, Robertson was a great man, a conclusion which I cannot argue with. However, when it came to hockey, he was more often than not on the wrong side of reason. His autocratic decrees may ultimately have had the opposite effect of what he intended; hastening the arrival of pro hockey to Southern Ontario rather than preventing it, as Harper points out. However, if his goal was merely a complete separation of amateur and pro, then perhaps he accomplished this.

The first third of the book or so is largely dedicated to the events leading up to the Toronto professionals and the founding of the professional league. Harper delineates how the OHA's iron- and ham-fisted attempts to stamp out professionalism in the area's hockey ultimately provided the impetus for professional teams to finally be viable in Southern Ontario. Without the masses of excellent players permanently barred from the OHA by Robertson and his chums, building a local professional team would have been much more difficult - you can't have a professional team without professional players. As such, Robertson's short-sighted, totalitarian policies may have been self-defeating. They greatly encouraged the growth of something they were intended to destroy. Casting out players like Doc Gibson and Fred Taylor only served to strengthen professional hockey, at the expense of the amateur game. And the eventual withdrawal of the OHA from Stanley Cup competition seems to be a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Much of the OHA material has been covered before, for example in Scott Young's 100 Years of Dropping the Puck, and late in the book we get into the NHA and the beginning of the NHL, covered by Morey Holzman and Joseph Neiforth's Deceptions & Doublecross. However all of the material presented is relevant to the story of the rise of professional hockey in Toronto, so it is not mere regurgitation.

Indeed, Harper does not simply repeat claims from other sources. For instance, in discussing the Fred Taylor incident that resulted in his expulsion from the OHA, Harper addresses arguments made by Eric Zweig that question the veracity of Taylor's version of the events (which was that he was ordered to play for the Toronto Marlboros, or he would not be allowed to play at all). Zweig is hockey's Mythbuster, and I consider him a friend and a colleague, and share his attitude of healthy skepticism. But in this case, I think Harper does a good job of building an argument that, while not necessarily confirming Taylor's tale, at least renders it plausible. I believe he successfully addresses Zweig's points. In so doing, Harper demonstrates that he does not mindlessly reprint claims; he considers their doubters and provides reasons to believe they are true.

He also seeks to set some often-misrepresented facts straight. For example, the Maple Leafs nickname that is sometimes applies to the first Toronto pro team is a recent invention; the team was never called that contemporarily. He also points out that what is generally called the Ontario Professional Hockey League, even by the most serious historians, was actually christened the Canadian Hockey League.

But with this focus on getting the details right, a few things niggle. Harper consistently refers to the Montreal AAA hockey team as the Montreal Wheelers. This club was frequently called the Winged Wheelers in their day, but I cannot recall any example of them being referred to simply as the Wheelers. He also mentions two players, Edgar Winchester and Angus Dusome, whose given names are incorrect. According to the Society for International Hockey Research player database (and confirmed by the Canadian Census data of 1901 and 1911), these men are Elgin and Andrew respectively. Harper refers to the "Manitoba Hockey Association", which was properly the Manitoba and Northwest Hockey Association at the time. Also he notes that in the 1903/04 season, the Canadian Amateur Hockey League, the highest hockey league in the world, had only five member clubs. This is not stricetly true; the CAHL had five clubs that played at the senior level, but also Westmount, Montcalm and Trois-Rivieres at the intermediate level and six others at the junior level. The book strives for accuracy, and generally achieves it. These small, inconsequential errors are the only blips I noticed in my reading.

A Great Game strikes a good balance in its style, never straying into mere opinion on one side, or a simple chronicle of events on the other. Even in the middle third of the book, which deals with the brief life of the first pro Toronto team in chronological order, it does so as a narrative, describing first the team's meteoric rise from a twinkle in manager Alex Miln's eye to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in a single season, and their equally quick fall from grace and ultimate demise. And this club's tale is framed as a reflection of the Canadian pro hockey boom of the time - too much, too fast. Harper provides us with the information to reach these conclusions ourselves, without him having to hand them to us on a platter, a style which I appreciate.

Overall, I am very impressed by this book, both for its research and its writing. It doesn't cover a great deal of new ground, but it does a very good job of sythesizing a variety of information into a cogent tale of hockey in Hogtown. I absolutely recommend it for anyone interested in this period of hockey history.

Friday 8 November 2013

Lost to the Great War

The effect that World War II had on high-level hockey is well-known. The NHL lost so many great players to the war effort that it became something of a shadow of its formal self, in particular the New York Rangers who lost most of their lineup and were a joke of a team for a few years. But the Great War of 1914-1918 also had its effects, and more than just the story of the Toronto 228th Battalion team in the NHA.

A number of high-profile hockey players got involved in the war effort, with a variety of consequences to their careers.

Hobey Baker and Scotty Davidson are well-known casualties of World War I. Both lost their lives only a few years into promising hockey careers, and both wound up in the Hall of Fame. I've discussed both these players before; the war certainly robbed hockey of a very promising player in Davidson, and had Baker turned pro I suspect he would have proven to be a solid player. But we'll never know.

Minnie McGiffen, another player I've written about before, lost his in a plane crash while serving as an aerobatic instructor with the US armed forces in Texas, in 1918. He had already retired from hockey, in order to concentrate and work and business, but he might well have returned to the game had it not been for the war.

The Cleghorn brothers, Hall-of-Famer Sprague and Should-Be-Hall-of-Famer Odie, both sat out the 1917/18 season. Odie did so for military reasons, though they did not undertake any military service. Which is to say, he was allowed to avoid military service, but only if he did not play hockey. Unsurprisingly he was able to resume play quite easily the following season. Sprague missed the season due to a broken ankle, and was back in the game in 1918/19.

Punch Broadbent lost three full seasons to military service, but seemed none the worse for wear when he returned, winning the NHL scoring title in 1921/22. Goldie Prodger was another player who picked up his hockey career where it left off after the war. Phil Stevens was never a star player, but continued to be a decent one after his military service, and this describes Eddie Carpenter pretty well also.

Skene Ronan played only 11 games after his military service, scoring no goals and no points. From 1911/12 to 1914/15, he had scored 81 goals in 75 NHA games, so this was a significant dropoff in performance. However, in his final pre-war season he managed only six goals in 17 matches, so perhaps his career was on the downside already.

Alfred "Brownie" Baker is a similar case to Ronan. Having scored 20 goals in 23 games in 1914/15 and 1915/16, he did not return to hockey after the war. However he was already a part-time player in his final pre-war season, recording one goal in six matches, so we can't be sure he would have been back in any regard. Hall-of-Famer George McNamara also did not return to the game, and was a part-time player in 1916/17, and nearing his mid-30s he likely wouldn't have been playing anyway.

George's brother Howard, on the other hand, likely did lose out to the war. Younger than his brother, he was still producing at the NHA level before leaving for military service, and after missing two seasons returned to play only 12 games, scoring a single goal. He then retired to coach senior hockey in Sudbury, Ontario.

Don Smith probably also lost effectiveness due to his three seasons missed for military service. He had scored 29 points in 43 games in the two seasons prior to the conflict, then returned in 1919/20 for 12 games, scoring only one goal. He was 32 years old at that time, so a decline is to be expected, but for a man who once finished third in goals in the NHA, that's quite a decline.

Harry Scott left the Canadiens for the military in 1915. He was never really a full-time major-league player, and actually played senior hockey in Winnipeg in 1915/16 and 1917/18. He didn't miss much of the game due to his service time. Nick Bawlf was another part-timer with the Wanderers, joining the war effort in 1916. He coached when he returned from overseas, but did not play again; but there's a good chance he wouldn't have been playing at a high level anyway.

Peerless Percy LeSueur was likely at the end of his career when he signed up in 1916. He could have managed a couple more seasons to be sure, but his best days were already far behind him. Walter Smaill is similar; he was never a star as LeSueur was, but he was already nearing the end of the line.

Albert "Dubbie" Kerr missed two seasons to the war, and announced his retirement during that time. He changed his mind and did return, scoring but nine points in 20 games, after having scored 59 in 41 games in the two seasons before. It's questionable how much of this is due to the war, and how much is simply due to a player coming back from retirement.

Mike Mitchell was a decent netminder who missed four full seasons to the war effort. He certainly missed time, but apparently not effectiveness.

Patsy Seguin and Lyman "Hick" Abbott are two lesser-known players who perished in the war. Seguin had played a few games for the Montreal Nationals and Canadiens several years before, and was still playing senior hockey in the US when he joined up. Abbott was a Saskatchewan senior hockey scoring star, who may well have played professionally had the war not intervened.

Charlie McCarthy is an interesting case. A goaltender with the Montreal Wanderers who played only one major-league season (with good results) before joining the war effort, he missed four seasons to the military, and he never played high-level hockey again. However, we can't know if this had anything to do with his military service, since he seems to have concentrated on his professional boxing career instead. McCarthy was Canadian flyweight champion, and according to his record at, he had two bouts in 1914, three in 1915, one in 1916, five in 1917 and four in 1919, then 10 in 1920, seven in 1921 and finally two in 1922. So in this case, it seems choice of pursuits had as much to do with it as anything.

Angus Duford was a quality substitute player for Ottawa from 1913/14 to 1915/16, and then joined the Canadian military effort. According to the Ottawa Citizen, in September 1917 he was injured by an exploding shell. He survived, but was paralyzed on his right side. He never played hockey again.

Leth Graham, a teammate of Duford, could be a similar case. Three years younger than Duford, he left hockey for the military one season sooner. In the 1914/15 season he was seen as a very promising player indeed. He missed four seasons to military service, and then missed another before returning to the game as a subsitute player, barely playing at all. In 27 NHL games after the war, he scored three goals and took no penalties. Since he was known as a "peppery" player in his prime, his lack of penalties suggests how little he was playing.

Graham was known as a good shot when he played. In November 1916, The Toronto World reported that he was badly wounded in the leg, and was in danger of losing it (which he ultimately did not). In December 1921, as Graham was trying to make it back in hockey, The Morning Leader leader noted that he had been gassed while serving in France, and this kept him from playing at his top form. And his leg probably didn't help matters. It seems he never truly recovered from his injuries, and that ruined a very promising hockey career.

Thanks to James Milks and Bob Duff, both of SIHR, for their assistance in digging up some information for this article.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Review of "1913" by Craig Bowlsby

Craig Bowlsby has recently published a brief book entitled 1913: The Year They Invented the Future of Hockey, through Knights of Winter Publishing. It's been 100 years since the Patrick brothers introduced real forward passing to hockey, and this book discusses the introduction of this radical rule. Mr. Bowlsby sent me an unsolicited review copy of this book, and as it is a worthwhile topic and certainly related to the subject matter of this blog, I decided to write a review.

You may know Bowlsby's name from his two previous works on hockey history The Knights of Winter: The History of British Columbia Hockey from 1895 to 1911, and the very well-received Empire of Ice: The Rise and Fall of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, 1911-1926. I really should review both of these books here, they're both important contributions to the study of the game's history and are both well worth having, if you're into hockey history the way I am. (I'll leave it up to you to decide whether that description fits you. If it does, you have my condolences).

This new book is a departure from these previous works, which are chronicles covering many years of hockey action. 1913 instead only discusses the Patrick brothers' decision to introduce a form of forward passing to their Pacific Coast Hockey Association, and how this rule change affected the play of Stanley Cup championships in 1914 and 1915, and ultimately changed the face of the game.

It's a small volume as I said, in octavo format (8" by 6") and only 56 pages, including eight pages of relevant photos. Given the very tight focus of the subject matter, the limited size is not a problem by itself. That being said, I would have liked to have seen more words devoted to supporting some of the claims that Bowlsby makes. He often makes reference to the motivations and reactions of specific individuals involved in these events, and provides nothing solid to demonstrate this.

For example, on page 17 Bowlsby suggests that Lester Patrick, after having seen it in play for the first time, now "hated" and "was afraid of" the new offside rule. I would prefer to have something other than Bowlsby's assertion that this characterization is accurate. There are several other examples of this, where the author purports to understand how a person was thinking, without providing justification for this. If he had some supporting materials for this, he should have included references to them.

Bowlsby sometimes goes in for grand overstatements as well. For example, when discussing how the rule change was seen by men of Victorian and Edwardian sensibilities, he claims that:
In a very real sense, the new forward pass in hockey threatened people's world view. It threatened a Canadian's view of morality, religion, and science... (Bowlsby p. 11)
If he had said a metaphorical sense, I might accept that statement. But if it's meant in a real sense, I'm forced to dismiss it.

I also have to take issue with the depiction of the Eastern league as being resistant to change, and the Patricks as the great visionaries who see where the game must go. Frank and Lester Patrick were undeniably important men in the game, and introduced many changes that were seen as positive to its development. However, as mentioned in the book, when Eastern and Western teams met on the ice, the rules used alternated between the two. Specifically, when the Eastern rules were used, one less man per team was on the ice. The NHA dropped the rover position before 1913, and the Patricks stood firm against this change into the 1920s. They did not have a stranglehold on innovation.


Bowlsby is undeniably correct in his thesis that the introduction of forward passing into the game ultimately sped up hockey. Certainly the game we know and love today would look quit different had this rule been implemented. Despite its shortcomings, this book is definitely worth reading, and reasonably priced at $7.95 (Canada or US). The book does present both sides of the Patricks, their creativity and innovation on one side, and their stubbornness and arrogance on the other. Bowlsby's discussion of how the rule change was seen at the time, what it was predicted to do to the game, and what it finally did do to the game, is quite fascinating. Many thought it would ruin the game, that it would reduce it to a farce, that it would in fact slow down the game. Fortunately for us, these dire predictions proved to be untrue. If you're looking for a quick read, a concise work on a hockey history subject, this book is for you. Don't focus just on the issues I have outlined here, the positives still far outweigh the negatives.

A Backward Game?

In the end notes, Bowlsby relates a portion of an email discussion he had with Bill Fitsell, founding member and past president of SIHR, subsequent to the publication of proof copies of the book, which I received as well. The discussion was with regard to Bowlsby's characterization of early hockey as a "backward" game, in the sense that the puck was generally moving backward, because of the offside rules. Fitsell's argument was that a more fair term would be "lateral and back-passing", since lateral passes were common, not simply back-passes. Bowslby disagrees, stating that lateral passes would have been quite rare (he guesses less than 10% of all passes), since in practice players could not really advance in a line abreast; the puck-carrier would generally be at least a half-step ahead to avoid the other players inadvertently going offside.

So who's right? Is Bowlsby's assertion that nearly all passes were backward correct, or is Fitsell's claim that lateral passes were as common as back-passes accurate? Well, in my opinion, they're both wrong.

Early hockey rules are often described as not allowing forward passes, which would seem to suggest that the puck cannot move forward on a pass. However, in reality the rules only referred to players remaining on their own side of their puck. For example, the offside rule in the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), which is reproduced here, read as follows:
When a player hits a puck, anyone of the same side who at such moment of hitting is nearer the opponent's goal line is out of play and may not touch the puck himself, or in any way prevent any other player from doing so until the puck has been played. A player must always be on his own side of the puck.
Note that this rule refers to the positioning of players at the time the puck is struck. So when a player passes the puck, his teammates are onside so long as they were behind the puck when the pass was made. The position of the pass recipient, when he receives the puck, is irrelevant. The implications of this should be obvious. But let us refer to an authority on the subject: Hall-of-Famer Art Farrell, one of the great Montreal Shamrocks forwards from the turn of the century. In his book Hockey: Canada's Royal Winter Game (published 1899), Farrell describes the principles of sound combination (ie, passing) play. To wit:
A scientific player rushing down the ice with a partner will give the puck to the latter, not in a direct line with him, unless they are very close together, but to a point somewhat in advance, so that he will have to skate up to get it. The advantage in this style of passing is that the man who is to receive the rubber will not have to wait for it, but may skate on at the same rate of speed at which he was going before the puck was crossed, and proceed in his course without loss of time. (Farrell p. 67, emphasis added)
When two "wing" men play combination together, in an attack, the puck should scarcely ever be passed directly to each other, but should be aimed at the cushioned side of the rink, some distance in advance of the man, so that he may secure it on the rebound. (Farrell p. 68, emphasis added)

These passages make it clear that ideally, the puck has a forward trajectory when passed. The "forward" in "no forward passing" refers to the starting position of the player to be receiving the puck, not to the movement of the puck itself. According to Art Farrell, star hockey player c.1900, nearly all passes have the puck moving forward, not laterally (much less backward). Both Bowlsby and Fitsell appear to be mistaken in their impressions of hockey before 1913. It was not a backward game, it was a game focused on keeping the action moving forward at the greatest speed possible.
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