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

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.

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