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STEPHEN HARPER

A Great Game: The forgotten Leafs and the rise of professional hockey Add to ...

Many of these differences are interrelated. For example, the absence of substitution eliminated the need for the modern coach. Teams had managers, but nobody behind the bench. If anyone served a position akin to today’s coaches, it would be the playing captain of the team. Likewise, the nonexistence of icing, fixed faceoff locations and offside zones are consistent with the lack of markings on the ice surface.

The approach to the game was quite unlike today’s version of the sport. Offensive styles were limited. Emphasis was put on tight teamwork among the forwards, who ideally would exchange the puck back or laterally in a method more akin to rugby than modern-day hockey. The player who could move up quickly and pass in this manner was considered the key man. Indeed, the playmaker (often the rover) was the star of the team. Much less importance was attributed to the goal scorer (often the centre).

Given a hockey culture that valued playmakers over goal scorers, it is ironic that assists were seldom noted. In truth, individual statistical records – even goal-scoring records – were rather paltry in this era. For example, historians have made much note of the fact that Toronto’s Newsy Lalonde led the Ontario Professional Hockey League in scoring in 1907-08. However, these records were compiled decades later. There was never any scoring race mentioned in the newspapers that season.

Nevertheless, those watching the games would have little trouble conversing with twenty first-century fans. Hockey jargon was already moving into recognizable territory. Earlier lingo of “games” and “bulls” was giving way to “goals” and “faces” (faceoffs). Both would quickly understand that “combination play” meant “passing” and that a “hockeyist” was really just a hockey player.

Even then, the principal official was the referee, but he usually carried a bell instead of a whistle. After all, in a frigid rink, a metal whistle might freeze to his lips. The referee would put offenders “on the fence” rather than in the penalty box. In some jurisdictions (but not the OHA or OPHL), the referee would be assisted by a “judge of play.” He would focus on penalties while the referee looked after offsides. (Obviously, there could be no linesmen, since there were no lines.) At the side would be two timekeepers – one from each club – carefully watching each other as well as their timepieces.

Around the rink sat and stood the fans – people made of sterner stuff, watching in tougher conditions. Except for a stove in the dressing room, rinks were not heated. With buildings housing “natural” ice made meticulously from buckets and shovels, it could not be any other way. Huddling under blankets and unsupported by sound systems, fans sang and cheered not just to encourage their team, but to keep warm enough to stay alive. Many would also smoke, defying management and often creating clouds so thick they obscured the action on the ice for those higher up in the stands.

Hockey, beyond any doubt, was already the nation’s passion. A team’s followers did not just come to their own rink draped in the colours of their club. They would often attend practices, especially the preseason tryouts. Mascot in tow (a child or a pet, rather than a team employee in a costume), they would also follow the boys when the squad went on the road. The vehicle to do this was the “special train,” set up by enterprising railways.

Again, the societal changes that followed the explosion in rail transportation cannot be underestimated. Train travel was critical to the rise of professional sports teams and leagues all over the world.

The supporters’ expenses did not end with the train or game tickets – as much as $3 total for a road trip within Ontario. A team’s true follower would invariably feel the need to lay down wagers against opposing rooters. Somehow, whether “toasting their winnings” or “drowning their sorrows,” the fans of a century ago managed, one way or another, to end up at the bar – much like their descendants.

 

Excerpted from A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey, on sale Nov. 5. Copyright 2013 Stephen J. Harper. Published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publishers. All rights reserved.

www. agreatgamebook.comAll author proceeds from the book will go to the Canadian Forces Personnel and Family Support Services (CFPFSS). The specific fund that the proceeds will be donated to is the Military Families Fund.

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