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STEPHEN HARPER

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

What would it be like to travel back to the Mutual Street Rink of 1906 and witness the Toronto Professionals taking on the Sault Ste. Marie Algonquins?

Anyone under the impression that the very first professional hockey game played in Toronto might bear much resemblance to a National Hockey League match played by Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre would be, at various times, disappointed, intrigued and amazed. The matches of the early pro era bear only a vague likeness to their modern offspring.

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The first conspicuous difference would be on the ice surface itself. The familiar red and blue markings would be entirely absent. The only lines would be in black, connecting each set of goalposts. These existed primarily for the benefit of the goal judges, called “umpires,” who stood on the ice directly behind the nets. With arena lighting very dim compared to today’s requirements for television, fans in the rink could hardly be expected to see these inky smudges.

It is difficult to convey the vast difference between the shadowy atmosphere in the typical arena of a century ago and the brightly lit modern amphitheatres of today. To illustrate the difference, the Berlin Auditorium was lauded for its new lighting during the 1909-10 season. Two new “sun-lights” of 3,000 candlepower each had been installed, in addition to the ten existing “arc lamps” of 700 candlepower. Today, a flashlight alone can project as much as 75,000 candlepower.

The next major discrepancy would be the seven men, lining up in a “T” formation for the opening faceoff. The centre, flanked by the left and right wings, would be familiar.

They would be expected to stick to their positions. Behind the centre, however, would stand the rover, the position played by Bruce Ridpath on the new professional club. Usually the strongest skater on the team, the rover was the key transition man. He would often lead the attack as well as augment the defence.

The defensive alignment was particularly distinctive. Behind the rover would stand the cover point (or just cover), the more offensive-minded defenceman. Behind him was the stay-at-home point. While the two defencemen generally played both up and back, it was not unheard of for them to be on either side of the ice. Indeed, it was considered bad form for them to be in an exactly straight line to the goal.

Of course, behind the point stood the perennial goalkeeper, guarding a target of six feet by four feet, filled out with the now-standard netting promoted just a few years earlier by Frank Nelson and Billy Hewitt. The goal dimensions are one of the very few constants of the game, virtually unaltered since its founding. Nor has the size of the puck – which by this time was made of rubber – changed. Likewise, the stick, while then wooden, has always had the familiar shape essential to the sport.

It would be some time before the dimensions of Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink – 200 feet by 85 – would become standard. In the 1890s, proportions as small as 112 feet by 58 were tolerated. By the 1900s, the minimums had been raised to 160 feet by 60. Few facilities had yet been built specifically for hockey; all but the newest buildings were converted curling clubs. The corners of their ice surfaces were, literally, ninety degrees.

At the big-league level, early hockey was always played indoors – notwithstanding the modern myth of the “heritage game,” as the NHL has called its outdoor matches of recent years in Canada. Indeed, it was the decision of James Creighton to take shinny indoors, giving it a fixed number of players on a surface with fixed boundaries, that launched the modern sport.

The players themselves – like the population generally – were much smaller than nowadays. The best pros would typically be in the 145- to 165-pound range. Undersized players would tip the scales at much less. Claude Borland of the 1904 Stanley Cup challenger Winnipeg Rowing Club was reported to weigh only 97 pounds. A man of 180 or more (like 200-pound Doc Gibson) would be a veritable giant. Still, the essential skills – skating, stickhandling, passing, shooting, checking – have not changed, although using one’s feet to control the puck was not permitted in hockey’s first decades.

The early participants also wore very modest equipment, making them look much lighter than today’s gladiators. Goalies relied on mere cricket pads to cover their shins. The protective gear of the others would be little more than thick padding to cover the more vulnerable parts of the body. Yet neither the players’ heads nor the goalkeepers’ faces were apparently considered vulnerable.

Nevertheless, such men were expected to play the whole game, even when hurt. Should an injury be serious enough, each side would generally drop a player (leading, occasionally, to “strategic” injuries). Substitution by agreement did sometimes occur, but it was comparatively rare. As a consequence, one would not see a bevy of alternate players staffing a large bench. There would be one, maybe two extras in uniform, plus a trainer and a small handful of club officials off to the side. The team’s captain was usually the de facto coach of the squad.

It also follows that the pace of the game would not be nearly as fast as with the twenty-man NHL lineups of our era. As in a marathon streethockey game, players would rotate positions to preserve their energy, forwards dropping back when exhausted. However, it should be noted that the top-level pros were much younger. It would be very rare indeed to find a man over thirty playing against twenty-somethings for a full sixty minutes. This hour was played in just two thirty-minute halves (stoptime at the elite level), with a brief ten-minute rest in between.

The more variable tempo – much like soccer matches to this day – also gave penalties less importance. The lack of analysis of power-play or shorthanded situations in game reports of the period is quite striking. An individual penalty was not seen as a significant disadvantage, although an accumulation definitely was – and there was no limit to the number who could be sent off. Penalties, though defined similarly to today, were also variable in length. A player was assigned one to four minutes (but usually two or three) for a routine offence, while serious fouls would receive five or ten minutes, or more.

As the game unfolded, the biggest difference a modern spectator would immediately grasp was the lack of forward passing. Hockey in that era was an “onside” game, meaning a player had to be on his own side of the puck to join the play. If not, the resultant “offside” would lead to an immediate faceoff wherever the infraction occurred. Then again, the Ontario Hockey Association – which, despite its extreme conservatism when it came to amateurism, was otherwise a remarkably innovative organization – had developed two important exceptions to the offside rule.

First, taking the puck off a save by one’s goalie within three feet of the goal line did not constitute offside in Ontario hockey. In other provinces, such a situation would lead to dangerous faceoffs in front of the goal, or worse, an inability to clear rebounds. This 1905 innovation – first proposed by W. A. Hewitt – was rapidly adopted by other leagues, including the new professional circuits. Soon, an actual three-foot line was put across the ice surface (again in black) – the earliest forerunner of today’s blue line.

Second, in the OHA a puck carrier could move the disc to a receiving teammate, provided he had drawn even with the teammate before the exchange. This was deemed to bring the pass receiver onside. This deviation was not widely accepted, leading to considerable confusion when Ontario clubs played against those from outside the jurisdiction. Among the early Ontario pros, a hybrid version was frequently employed, although no one seems to be able to describe precisely how it was supposed to work.

Although deliberately “loafing” offside in order to rest could earn a player a penalty, there is no doubt that offside rulings still led to more stoppages than we experience now. Conversely, there was also no such thing as icing a century ago. “Lifting” the puck down the ice to relieve the pressure was considered a legitimate, if somewhat archaic and boring, tactic. In the semi-darkness of many rinks, a high lift could disappear from sight, becoming stuck in the rafters or, quite plausibly, dropping unexpectedly into the net behind the opposing goalkeeper.

The goalie had a particularly tough job. He could not hold the puck with his hands and had to remain standing at all times. Falling or kneeling to block a shot constituted a penalty – which had to be served by the goalie himself. Unsurprisingly, then, games were generally high-scoring by today’s standards. The goalkeepers’ inability to bounce up and down also explains why many of the time were large, even fat, men. As in lacrosse, where the goal nets were narrower, they were often sought more for their size than their athleticism.

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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