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.

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