Everyone remembers what George Orwell had to say about sports: "War minus the shooting."
Admittedly, the language of, say, Canada's national game has much in common with that of war: battles, offence, defence, support, wins, losses, sudden death, shootout …
"Serious sport," Orwell argued, "has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence."
There was a time, however, when sports held a stunningly romantic view of war, almost if it were "sport plus the shooting." This, of course, was 100 years before all-news channels, YouTube video and the stark reality of Canada losing 59 soldiers and veterans to suicide following service in the Afghanistan war.
Times have changed profoundly. And, yet, it would be entirely wrong to say today's professional hockey players, rich and pampered as they are, feel no kinship with today's soldiers.
The romance of 1915 has simply become the respect of 2015.
The remarkable naiveté of a century long past is currently on display at Library and Archives Canada, just down the street from Parliament Hill. The special exhibition, called "Hockey Marching as to War," is a rather jaw-dropping reminder of how much our perception has changed concerning real battles, with real consequences, and battling for pucks.
"War was seen by many as a romantic adventure," says the wall display, "where soldier athletes would use the strength and skill developed at sport to vanquish the enemy."
The War to End All Wars was supposed to be "over" by Christmas of 1914. When it wasn't, Captain James Sutherland, then president of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, issued a call to arms urging Canadian hockey heroes to "join the greater game that is now being played in France and on the other fighting fronts."
Before The Great War was over, 600,000 Canadians would go to war, 66,655 of whom would die and another 172,950 would be wounded. Hockey players enlisted in such patriotic numbers that entire leagues disappeared.
The pressure to do so was enormous, as hockey players seemed the ideal soldier: strong, tough, resilient, resourceful. Late in 1915, the Montreal Gazette even ran a recruiting poster showing a single soldier imagining a game back home, the arena packed with cheering fans, while he quietly wonders: "Why don't they come?"
Below, in capital letters: "WHY BE A MERE SPECTATOR HERE WHEN YOU SHOULD PLAY A MAN'S PART IN THE REAL GAME OVERSEAS."
And off they went, trading in their skates for combat boots. Future Hockey Hall-of-Famers joined up, including an underaged "Ching" Johnson and superstar Frank McGee, who held – and will forever hold – the Stanley Cup record of 14 goals in a single game.
His nickname was "One-Eyed" Frank McGee, so it was well known that the four-time Stanley Cup champion had been blinded in one eye. The presiding enlistment doctor, however, chose to leave blank the space for his assessment of McGee's left eye.
McGee's service record ends rather abruptly on Sept. 23, 1916: "Killed in action."
Conn Smythe's University of Toronto hockey team won the Varsity Championship in March of 1915, and then the team signed up with the 25th Battery Canadian Field Artillery. At the Somme, every senior officer was killed or wounded and Smythe was awarded the Military Cross. When he bought the Toronto professional team in 1927, he changed its name in honour of the maple leaf badge he and his teammates had worn into battle.
Patriotism was everywhere in hockey. Winnipeg had teams called the Ypres, Sommes and Vimys. The Northern Fusiliers played in all khaki uniforms. Women's teams sprang up with their own superstars, including Albertine "Miracle Maid" Lapensee of the Cornwall Victorias, the Montreal Gazette gushing over how the women played "real hockey."
The most inspirational story had to be the Winnipeg Falcons, a team of Icelandic-heritage players who headed off to war and returned to find out that, as "Scandinavian Boys," they weren't welcome in the Manitoba Senior League. So they started their own league and, led by future Hall-of-Famer Frankie Fredrickson, won the provincial championship, then the Allan Cup and, in 1920, went to the Olympics in Antwerp, where they delivered the championship to Canada.
Soldiers and hockey players were not so different a century ago. Frank McGee, at 5-foot-6, hardly stood out from any crowd. Those players who were not amateurs were low-paid.
Nothing shows how times have changed better than money. When 23-year-old Mark Stone of the Ottawa Senators was suspended two games this week, he lost $37,634.40 in pay for the 35-40 minutes of work he would have put in had he played those games. A first-year soldier in the Canadian army makes $29,052 a year.
And, yet, despite such unfathomable differences in lifestyle, there remains a connection. All teams pay special tribute to the military, especially during Remembrance Day week. In Vancouver, Canucks season-ticket holders donate their tickets once a season to service men and women who meet with the players after the game.
Matt Hendricks, a forward with the Edmonton Oilers, runs a program with his wife, Kim, they call "Hendricks Heroes" where two military members and their guests are brought to the game, presented with jerseys and photos and taken to dinner by Kim before the game begins.
In Calgary, 25-year-old forward Joe Colborne provides tickets to soldiers for every home game and, later, brings them on a dressing-room tour to meet his teammates.
"The summer before I got traded to Calgary," Mr. Colborne says, "I was at the airport and saw a few guys in uniform and went over to talk to them. A couple of kids came up and recognized me and asked for my autograph and a picture. They didn't say a word to the two [soldiers] – and it didn't make sense to me, that someone who plays a game for a living should be getting all this attention and the two real heroes were kind of ignored. That made me think: I've got to figure out a way to let them know how much we really appreciate what they do for us.
"There are so many good causes that you can support, but the military … they're making so many sacrifices, they are willingly putting their lives on the line for us."
As for job similarities – "war minus the shooting" – Mr. Colborne says such a comparison is odious.
"Everybody talks about blocking a shot," he says, "or if you're playing through a broken finger – and how tough you are. Really, we're not – compared to what they do.
"We're playing a game we love to play. When you have a bad game, you get to go home to your family. They don't have that opportunity. They're deployed in some difficult places and they don't complain. They go over there and make us proud."