The new CBC documentary series on the history of hockey, Hockey: A People's History, is impressive. It boasts the high production values of its predecessor, Mark Starowicz’s Canada: A People's History, using historical recreations, actors reading period documents, modern day talking heads, and all tied together with narration by Paul Gross. Seeing all the old film and photographs nicely spliced together is a real treat to be sure, but there are some themes that I hope will be brought out more in future episodes.
My first impression was that Episode 1 ("A Simple Game") does a very good job downplaying the various parochial takes on the origins of the game, emphasizing evolution over innovation and the dominance of the game by the elites, not ordinary people. The historical context is set up nicely, especially references to urbanization and industrial aspects (e.g. Starr skates), with a nice integration into the mix of individuals like JGA Creighton and Joe Boyle. The various contributory sports – bandy, shinny, hurley, kolven and football – are referenced, but I do think field hockey deserved at least a mention, especially as the early ice rules owe something to the field sport. Appropriately, I think, scenes of hockey on frozen ponds appear more prominently in the second episode than the first, and this complements the emphasis on the "top-down" development of the organized sport which then influenced the pond game. Less appropriate, and inconsistent, is the initial acknowledgement of aboriginal contributions (through lacrosse and Mi'kmaq stick-making) but later speaking of how “civilization” spread the sport westwards.
Episode 2 (“The Money Game”) is also well-constructed, although I have some more serious criticism here, hopefully not applicable to the later episodes. First, amateurism is given somewhat short shrift as an ideological driver, though I did appreciate the emphasis on power and money as motivations of men like Billy Hewitt and John Ross Robertson who ran the amateur Ontario Hockey Association (a name, by the way, which I did not hear mentioned). But while the players’ perception of owners’ hypocrisy is described as a motive for professionalization, there is no mention of “shamateurism,” the practice of paying amateur players, either discreetly or indirectly through off-ice jobs. Without this context explained, the appearance of the International Hockley League (IHL) in 1904 is given too much weight as a factor that “forced” Canadian clubs to pay their players. More accurately, the IHL alternative encouraged the Canadian clubs to overtly professionalize, but pay-for-play had been going on for years (under the table and often above). The IHL is also, for some reason, the first time that American hockey is mentioned, and I fear this Canadian bias of the series is unlikely to be shaken (Hockey: A Canadian People’s History may be a more accurate title).
Hockey was played in the United States in the same period as it was in Canada, even in its pre-Montreal and unorganized form, and American clubs sprang up just like Canadian clubs in late-nineteenth-century elite social and university circles. It takes nothing away from the Canadian game to mention this, for the simple reason that Canadians had a great deal of influence on the Ivy League and north-eastern establishment clubs, well before Doc Gibson and the IHL. Artificial ice is mentioned in 1911 in the context of the Patricks’ Denman arena, but the technology was American, and was used in the 1880s in American rinks. It may be that the book and materials accompanying the series will explain this, but the television show should integrate the American experience well before 1904. As it is, with the IHL as apparent first example of hockey in the US, the money game with its attendant plebeian aspects might be taken as the predominant American model, a notion that feeds into dichotomous constructions of difference between the Canadian and the American games – communal v. commercial, technical v. violent, natural v. artificial, outdoor v. indoor, ours v. theirs. And it is not only the American story that is ignored. The Stanleys took hockey back to the UK, as did many Canadians later on, and the sport attained popularity well before Canadian clubs deigned to travel overseas to compete (the story that seems to be promised for the upcoming episode 3.)
Speaking of extra materials, I have not seen the books yet, but I did travel through the website, which has a few bells and whistles, but only a few. The “First Person” audio files (with Percy LeSueur and Cyclone Taylor so far) are a nice addition, but the feature “Stories” and “Biographies” are rather brief and selective. I’d to read about some of the people who were not featured in the show. I also hope that they follow up the series with some teaching materials as was done with Canada: A People’s History.
There are a few niggling errors on the website (mainly on the timeline) and since these can be corrected or further explained, I will point them out:
1) The Montreal Amateur Athletic Association at first refused to “hold” the Stanley Cup and only consented to do so in 1894, not 1893.
3) The Cup was never known as the “Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup,” as trustee P.D. Ross announced from the outset that it would be known as “the Stanley Cup.”
4) Challenges for the Cup did not end in 1914, and the NHL did not assume control of the cup in 1926, but the trustees controlled it and seriously considered challenges at least into the 1930s, and challenges were received for years after that (although none were accepted).
5) I would argue the Westmount Arena was not the first arena built for hockey spectators in 1898, but that it was the St Nicholas rink in New York City in 1895, and there seems to be some confusion about the “first” artificial ice rinks in Canada both 1895 and 1911 are indicated).
6) The ice was painted white at Madison Square Garden as early as 1926, not just in 1949, as the timeline indicates, and the show seem to suggest the change came with the advent of Hockey Night in Canada (1952).
Also, as an historian, I am obliged to deplore the lack of any academic historians as talking heads. (If nothing else, they need jobs! ;) ) They are not all tweedy and boring, and some of them can be quite compelling. This is not really a criticism of Michael McKinley and Eric Zweig, who take up the historians’ roles on the show, but while I realize that Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry will help the ratings, Wayner describing the nature of nineteenth-century hockey strains credibility for me. Much more satisfying is Jean Béliveau discussing the role of the priests in teaching hockey to French-Canadian youths, something Béliveau personally experienced that has analogies to an earlier era. So far, the primary talking heads are McKinley, Zweig, and Bruce Dowbiggin, who have all written on hockey history, with briefer appearances by Alison Griffiths, Jack Falla, Ken Dryden, Ron MacLean, and Guy Lafleur, in addition to Béliveau, Gretzky and Cherry. Why not have some of the historical advisors (some academic historians and some not BTW) appear onscreen? (To give them some publicity, they are: Elizabeth Etue, Russell Field, Bill Fitsell, Ed Grenda, Gilles Janson, Paul Kitchen, George Larivière, Paul Patskou, and Michel Vigneault.)
Initially I feared that the themes proffered by Gretzky (“hockey is our game”) and Dowbiggin (“hockey is a metaphor for Canada”) might overwhelm the whole series. As much as these notions may contain some elements of truth, I was happy to see a good deal of historical detail to contextualize them. At least so far. I also appreciated a line from Paul Gross’ introduction – “we love it, we hate it, we live it” – and I hope this isn’t the last time they allude to some dissenting views. While Hockey: A People’s History is certainly allowed its own point-of view, the acknowledgment of historical conflicts and challenges to the dominant narrative off the ice will enhance, rather than detract, from popular appreciation of how this sport became so important to Canadians. I look forward to more.
(FYI The schedule for the next episodes is here.)