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.


  1. Thanks for the review Iain. I'll respond shortly to your points.
    Craig Bowlsby

  2. Thanks very much for your review, Iain. I’m glad you feel the book makes worthwhile reading. You have many thought-provoking points. This is as it should be. I am certainly not infallible and anyone who writes a book is open to constructive criticism. I am sending you my response by email as it will not fit in your box here. For those who would like to read my response you may contact me at and I will send it to you.


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