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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.

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.

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