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.)

A Short History of “Canada’s Teams”

It seems to surprise some people that a new poll suggests the Montreal Canadiens could be considered Canada’s team, as if the Toronto Maple Leafs have always held that honour. But the reasons cited for this seem a little suspect. No worries, hoghee to the rescue.
    Andrew Cohen, who now runs the Historica-Dominion Institute complex, which commissioned the poll, is paraphrased as saying that “the Habs aren’t just a part of our sports history but have also become entrenched in Canadian culture unlike any other team and have helped bridge the country’s linguistic divide.” A pretty bold claim.
    The CP article’s author suggests Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater has something to do with this, but I doubt it. First off, the kid winds up wearing the hated Leafs sweater anyway, so you could argue it’s the Leafs (or Mr Eaton) that is breaking down barriers, if any. (And the small town setting is all French Canada – I don’t see any Anglos to be unified with.) At any rate by the time The Hockey Sweater came out (1979), Richard was a distant memory to its readers. (Although some may, as do I, have a lingering strange affection for Grecian Formula. I can’t find this classic ad featuring the Rocket online, but here’s a song by punk band Belvedere that uses the tag line (though the lyrics indicate another player is being paid tribute).)
    But forgive the tangent and note the date of publication – 1979 – the last of four straight Habs Stanley Cups led by stars readers would recognize – Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, et al. (making it eight since the Leafs won in 1967). If this doesn’t make you a national favourite, what will? You might also argue that Edmonton later went on a tear, and they barely rate in the poll. So the roots are deeper.
    The Canadiens story has been a long one (since 1909 or 1910, depending on your POV), but has it always been a national one, not to mention a bilingual one? The Béliveau v. Richard debate brings us to the heart of the matter – national media coverage. The Rocket played from 1942-43 to 1959-60 and of those years would have been seen by a national TV audience only in the last few when he was fading (the first national telecasts of Hockey Night in Canada were in 1957-58). Béliveau’s first full season was 1953-54 and he played until 1970-71, winning several Stanley Cups on national TV. If Quebeckers think Richard was the better player, we should probably give some weight to their opinion – they saw (or heard) both in their primes while Ontarians and others saw mostly Le Gros Bill. In his first seasons, including the famous 50 goals in 50 games of 1944-45, the Canadiens were heard only in Quebec unless they were playing in Toronto. Even when Hockey Night in Canada (the TV show) arrived in 1952, it was a central Canadian phenomenon; Le Soirée du Hockey didn’t get much farther than the Quebec border.
    The article doesn’t mention the reason Toronto was even considered Canadian’s national team in the first place. It’s a simple one: they were the only club regularly featured on the weekly Saturday night radio show sponsored by General Motors and heard across the country from January 1931 (in English). (How that happened is an interesting story in itself.) With Foster Hewitt behind the mike, the show became an instant success and took the Leafs along with it.
    The question we might ask is: why not the Habs? And it we believe statements like “The Canadiens have always been a wonderful mix of French and English” we really might wonder. The short answer is that the Habs of yesteryear are not the Habs of today.
    While Cohen rightly notes that the national anthem has been an important part of Montreal hockey ritual, both at the Forum (built in 1924) and in its predecessor arenas, there was more than one – “O Canada”, “God Save the Queen”, or even “The Maple Leaf Forever”. At Mount Royal Arena in Montreal, the French-Canadian authored “O Canada” was preferred for Habs games.
     We shouldn’t forget that the Canadiens were a team for French Montrealers. Since 1909, the Canadiens name has been used on teams to attract French-speaking Quebeckers to games of what was a sport dominated by the Anglo elites of Montreal, and other central Canadian cities. Early on it was owned by sportsmen who took the need to appeal to the French linguistic constituency seriously, even if it meant massaging the identities of its stars. (Howie Morenz of Mitchell, Ontario, was of German heritage. Canadiens part-owner Léo Dandurand told fans he was Swiss.)
    It is often forgotten that Montreal always had strong teams to appeal to the Westmount (English) hockey crowds, and that the Forum was actually built for one of them, the Montreal Maroons. The Canadian Arena Company owned both Forum and the Maroons, and allowed the Canadiens to join in, but the crowds were separate and the games between the two rivals the most contentious in the NHL. That was the way the arena management liked it. When General Motors came along in 1933 and suggested that Forum games broadcast be bilingual, the Forum refused. The solitudes were to remain separate. They only relented in 1938, when the decision was made to drop the Maroons and keep the Canadiens. Only then did attracting Anglos to Canadiens games become a priority. Later Forum owners like the Molsons went to great lengths to emphasize the bi-national character of the club, for personal, cultural, and political reasons, but these were all commercially beneficial as well.
     After the war the Forum also continued to clamour to participate in the national radio and TV broadcasts that had been the Leafs exclusive domain. Consumer demand to see what was by then the best NHL team in Canada helped make this a reality, and the Habs and Leafs came to share the national broadcast outside their home provinces. (In my hometown, Ottawa, we were still tortured with Leafs games in the 1970s.)
     So it was in the late 1950s and 1960s that all Canadians from coast to coast started to get a regular taste of the success of the Canadiens, and it’s probably from there we can date their emergence as a national team to compete with the Leafs. If someone had done a poll, it would probably be an even higher proportion than today.
Andrew Cohen is quoted as saying “The Canadiens are in many ways emblematic of Canada.” Whether or not that makes them Canada’s team in an era of six Canadian NHL franchises - not to mention men’s and women’s national teams – is up for debate, but in the meantime we should be careful not to simplify their history.