Longtime New York Rangers announcer Jack Filman was once asked the origins of the word "hockey." He replied that it was from an aboriginal word, hoghee, that meant, "it hurts!" Hockey history is full of such myths, and the purpose of this blog is to take a closer look at them and discuss the surrounding historical issues. (BTW hockey probably originates with the French word, hoquet, which referred to the hooked shape of the sticks used to play similar stick-and-ball games.)

Review of CBC's "Hockey: A People's History" - Part 3 (Episodes 5 and 6)

Cognizant of the fact I haven't seen episodes 3&4, some of my general judgments may be off, but here goes....

Episode 5 ("A National Obsession") begins with the story of Gabriel Labbé, a young fan of Maurice Richard, and the frozen outdoor lake/river ice motif seems to be in full swing, but we soon move inside to the NHL arenas to witness the birth of Soirée du Hockey/Hockey Night in Canada. (Of course, there is no mention of American TV, which predated the Canadian by 12 years or so.) While mention is made of the effect of NHL television on junior and senior hockey, this is more or less the last we hear of these levels of play for episodes 5&6, except when referring to the experiences of Herb Carnegie. Carnegie was a black player who starred with the Sherbrooke Saints in the Quebec senior league, and finally got a chance to try out with the New York Rangers in 1948. Readers of Carnegie's autobiography A Fly in a Pail of Milk will be familiar with the story here, a tale of implicit racism that denied Carnegie from a place on the Rangers roster, but the story told in Cecil Harris' Breaking the Ice adds some needed nuance, showing that the Rangers upped their offer to Carnegie twice and he still refused to play in their system. (I would argue that Rangers manager Frank Boucher saw real value in having a black player, which would be a public relations boon in New York City.) As Béliveau says in the programme, some said it was racism, some not. Paul Gross' narration (and the website) imply the former, stating that by the time Willie O'Ree played for the Bruins in 1958, hockey was "the last major North American sports league to integrate." This is somewhat misleading, given the fact that there was never a policy against black players in the major-league NHL (as there was in baseball), and as far as I know, hockey's minor and senior amateur leagues were (unlike baseball) never not "integrated," as shown through Carnegie's own example.

The episode also has some good footage of the Richard riot and takes some time to discuss its symbolic status for French-Canadians of the time. It frames much of the 1950s in terms of the "Howe or Richard?" debate, but I would have like to see a lot more on the decline of senior hockey and the shift of professional teams to the United States. This is relevant to the defeat of the "Toronto" Lyndhursts by the Soviets at the 1954 World Championships, which is given due play as a wake-up moment for Canadian hockey, but it should have also been pointed out that the team was only a Senior B team from East York, and that they and subsequent international representatives were hindered by the lack of support and cooperation from the NHL, not to mention the Canadian government.) BTW There is a nice little discussion about the 1954 World championships on HFBoards here.

If not in Episode 5, then Episode 6 ("The Golden Age") should have dealt with changes in minor pro, senior and junior hockey. Senior hockey was on the decline and minor professional play was moving to the US, and junior became a feeder system for the NHL. None of these trends, especially the latter, came without critical comment. The NHL sponsorship system of sending boys far away from home to play hockey is referenced in the stories of Tim Horton and Bobby Orr, but no mention is made of criticism if the practice from educators, religious groups, amateur hockey officials and others. Instead, we get a clip of Tim talking about his doughnut shops. (Perhaps it also would have been edifying to be reminded how Horton had alcohol and barbiturates in his blood when he crashed his car at 100 miles an hour. But I digress.)
Also, the theme of this episode is the competition for the national allegiance between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, but it bears pointing out that by 1967 these were two of only four professional teams (minor or major) that Canadians could root for, the others having given up the ghost or moved to the US.

I found the story of the resuscitation of women's hockey much more enlightening, especially the story of the Satan's Angels and Montreal Cougars rivalry, and the challenges faced by women and girls to find a place to play. The programme is best on these themes, probably because they require more basic research than the NHL stories, which slip easily into the standard master narrative.

Generally speaking, it seems the closer the series gets to the present the more congruent with the standard mythology it becomes. A historian would say this betrays an approach that emphasizes progress, modernization, the perfection of the game. This is always suspect, if for no other reason that it distorts the perception of the past as an always-coherent positive story, and this in turn affects our perception of the present, and our own ability to criticize and change it. It is not a bad thing to show the Canadian people the many ways they got tangled up in this sport, but they should also show that many others often saw the darker side of obsession, and tried to change it.

Website booboos: [also evidence of Toronto-centrism!]

* “Yonge Bobby Orr” captioned at http://www.cbc.ca/hockeyhistory/episodesummary/06/post/

* “Madison Square Gardens” captioned at http://www.cbc.ca/hockeyhistory/episodesummary/03/post/