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book review

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  • Title: Klondikers: Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge and How a Nation Fell in Love with Hockey
  • Author: Tim Falconer
  • Genre: Sports
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Pages: 376

If it is not the destination but the journey that matters, then consider the voyage a rag-tag assemblage undertook 116 years ago to Ottawa from Dawson City: on foot, on bicycles, on a narrow-gauge railway, on a steamer ship and on a dream and a prayer, across 5,630 kilometres by land and 1,600 by sea, all to lose two Stanley Cup matches of a primitive sport that nonetheless transformed the notion of hockey night in Canada into a national rite.

This is the story told in Klondikers by Tim Falconer, heretofore best known as the author of Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music but soon to be regarded as one of the principal balladeers of what you might regard as the early 20th-century Miracle on Ice.

This was not the hockey played in rhythm-thumping arenas where bulked-up gladiators wearing vinyl nitrile helmets and bearing sticks composed of 15 sheets of fused carbon fiber bound onto the ice to the accompaniment of deafening son et lumière shows. This was the 1905 hockey of a bunch of guys who slapped the puck around rutted ice, who harboured hopes too romantic to be realized and whose journey across a frozen continent was so treacherous that for days the newspapers chronicling their passage lost track of them. The goalie was an apprentice printer on the local broadsheet newspaper; the star player’s departure was delayed because he hadn’t yet completed his moonlighting job preparing voter rolls for the Yukon Council elections.

They all headed to Ottawa from Dawson City, where dog teams were more a part of the local culture than hockey teams. There, netting in the goal was regarded as an imaginative innovation if not a needless extravagance, and crossbars did not yet exist. And yet Falconer shows us how Dawson City swiftly emerged as a hockey haven, with four rinks on the Yukon River by 1901 and, by 1903, with its storied gold rush receding into the past, a downtown that was three streets deep, acquiring what Falconer characterizes as “a certain urban maturity.”

His glittering pages are full of such evocative phrases as “frozen flapjack for lunch,” “claim-staking” and “perilous journey on ice” – once standard lexicon of classic Canadian tales that became passé after the passing of Pierre Berton, perhaps the last librettist of this sort of literature. The journey and epic failure of the Klondikers is both prologue and coda to a lively history of early hockey, beginning with the first formal match, played in 1889 in the Rideau Skating and Curling Club, and with ample references to the team from a Lake of the Woods outpost once known as Rat Portage (or, more lyrically, Portage-aux-Rats) but now more prosaically rendered as Kenora, Ont. Of course Falconer could not resist references to Rat Portage; nor could this reviewer.

The Klondike Hockey Team (also known as the Dawson City Nuggets) at Dey's Rink in Ottawa, on Jan. 14, 1905. They are about to play the Ottawa Invincibles for the Stanley Cup. In the best of three games series they lost the first two. Back row, left to right: Hector Smith, George Kennedy, Lorne Hannay, Jim Johnston, Norm Watt. Front row: Albert Forrest, Col. Joe Boyle, Dr. Randy McLennan. Missing from photo: playing coach Weldy Young and substitutes Dave Fairbairn and A. Martin.

Left unanswered in this book: Why do the early years of this winter sport seem so much more colourful than the corporate product on offer at Canadian Tire Centre, Canada Life Centre and Scotiabank Saddledome? Also unanswered: Why does a time when the hockey season ended in March (because after that the ice would melt) seem more in sync with the natural world than today’s game, and why does an era when the matches lasted but an hour (with a single 10-minute break) seem so refreshing to those of us who still think games in June and media time outs are an affront to human decency?

And yet this book – more than a romantic reverie of an epoch when the Montreal Victorians faced off against the Winnipeg Victorians at Victoria Rink – itself is a subtle attempt to answer. This is because it is, at least in part, more than the chronicle of hockey’s early days. It also is the story of how a sometimes rough, occasionally elegant and always engrossing sport completely in sync with the climate and landscape – and here the sophisticates will snicker, the historians will hurruph, the revisionists will rebel – ”brought Canadians together through a shared love.”

The Klondikers’ trek became a national preoccupation, packed with engrossing elements of drama in Falconer’s rendering: “a small, remote community against a powerful eastern city; and the charming – though quite possibly quixotic – quest of some unlikely underdogs who were in the midst of the longest-ever pilgrimage to rescue the now-revered Stanley Cup from the arrogant champions.”

One more thing. It hardly matters now, but the Ottawa Hockey Club defeated the Dawson City Nuggets by the nearly respectable score of 9-2 in the first game but by the mortifying tally of 23-2 in the second. The final game of the best-of-three series wasn’t necessary. But this whole glorious spectacle – the journey if not the destination – was necessary, for in this episode, as Falconer argues, “a niche regional sport with a small fan base had captivated the country.”

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