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.)

Language and Hockey, the Canadian specifics

Today, a Globe & Mail editorial took on the Parti Québecois criticism over the Montreal Canadiens and their lack of French-Canadian (read Quebecois) players. When I was scanning the papers yesterday it seemed to be an English paper thing – I didn’t see it in any of the French language newspapers at all, although today I see Le Devoir used it to frame their article on the Habs' Quebecois prospects. The Journal de Montréal also contributed, noting that there has been some criticism from other (unnamed) sources in the last few months. The issue has also pushed Geoff Molson, lead owner of the Habitants, to say he wouldn’t stand in the way of the return of the Nordiques.

I've written about (mis)historicizing the Habs before, and the Globe & Mail editorial repeats a few of the annoyances that I like to take issue with. The first is minor: not including Howie Morenz on their list of non-French Canadiens stars. Morenz was the greatest star of the 1920s and early 1930s, and shows that the Habs always had prominent non-French players. (Tangent: I recently taught my 21-month-old son to chant “’Oww-ee, ’Oww-ee” on the way through Mitchell, Ontario.) The second and more important myth is the 1955 Richard Riot is good example of how “linguistic tensions have played a role in the Habs’ history.” Benoît Melancon’s excellent book The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard shows how the linguistic/political aspects of the event were at best uncertain at the time, and that its relevance to the Quiet Revolution was revised over time to create a usable past (check out this interview with the author).

If you want real relevance to linguistic tensions, then focus on the 1976 election of the PQ and the subsequent Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry, which split fans along federalist and nationalist/separatist lines (and more importantly for some, divided them according to the beer they drank, Molson’s (the Canadiens owners) or Carling O’Keefe (the Nordiques owner)). Ken Dryden’s The Game discussed this from a player’s point of view, and Rick Salutin’s play, Les Canadiens, puts this period in a larger context of Quebec history.

The issue that the PQ might want to address is probably the real reason that the Habs are no longer a team of French character – the decreasing participation of Quebeckers in the NHL in general. As mentioned in one of the articles, no Quebec-developed player was chosen in the first two rounds of the 2010 NHL draft. That’s an ominous sign, I think, of a failure in the player development system (if, as the PQ implicitly suggests, success is defined as playing in the NHL). I admit there is a whole other kettle of fish to consider here, namely the possibility of discrimination against Quebeckers in the NHL (see Marc Lavoie’s work, among others), but my point is that while the Habs could maybe be doing a better job scouting Quebec Junior B, they don’t control the whole system anymore like they did in the 1950s and 60s, the heyday of Richard, Béliveau, and Plante (and Harvey, Moore, and Lach…).

The Ted Lindsay and Lester B. Pearson Trophy

A while ago at the Hockey on the Border conference, I had the opportunity to hear Paul Kelly, former executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, talk about his all-too-brief time at the Association, his new job (pdf) with College Hockey Inc., and his views on hockey in general.

Afterwards, I spoke to him about the recent renaming of the Ted Lindsay Award, which was known from 1971 to 2009 as the Lester B. Pearson Award, which goes to the most outstanding player in the NHL as voted by the players themselves. The decision to change the name came under Kelly’s watch, and he is quite proud (justifiably) of the honour going to Ted Lindsay for his role in the formation of the first (failed) NHLPA. (I wrote a brief paper on this (pdf)). In our conversation the question of why the award was named after Pearson in the first place came up. I didn’t know, and neither did Kelly, who suggested it was because Pearson was a friend of Alan Eagleson, then executive director of the NHLPA. I was somewhat sceptical. For one thing, Eagleson was a prominent Tory who was a former Ontario MPP and ran for the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976, and Pearson was the Liberal leader in 1963 when Eagleson was a charming guy who could be friends with anyone, I imagine. in 1957-8 ( failed to win a federal seat. That said,

A brief survey of the Globe and Mail of the era doesn’t shed much light on the naming. On March 11, 1971, the National Hockey League Players’ Association announced that it would present a new award named after the former prime minister to the most outstanding player of the NHL as voted by his peers. (G&M, March 12, 1971, pg 26)  In June, Pearson himself presented the award to its first recipient, Phil Esposito, commenting to the Boston Bruins forward that “it must be a great honor to be chosen by your peers.” (G&M, June 25, 1971, pg 29) By then, Pearson knew he had cancer, to which he succumbed in 1972, and what followed was a period of what John English called ‘rapid “hallowing”’ of Pearson.

In terms of sports awards, the hallowing began before Pearson’s death. Certainly, being PM and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for his work in helping resolving the Suez Canal crisis gave Pearson stature, but it was his personal participation in sport that seemed to attract these particular honours. Pearson played semi-professional baseball in Guelph and hockey for University of Toronto and Oxford University, winning the inaugural Spengler Cup tournament in 1923. Despite retiring in 1968 in favour of the seemingly youthful and vigorous Pierre Trudeau, it was the athletic reputation of the septuagenarian Pearson that was being burnished. The first was the NHLPA award, and in the fall of 1972 he was himself the first recipient of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union’s Mike Pearson Trophy for outstanding citizens who have exemplified the ideals and purposes of intercollegiate athletics and amateur sports. (G&M Nov 17, 1972, pg 45)

So in a general way, I suppose Pearson was not undeserving, but I would not go so far as Andrew Cohen, a Pearson biographer and now head of the Historica–Dominion Institute (with whom I have disagreed before), who wrote in The Gazette that the name change “cheated Lester B. Pearson of a rightful legacy”, and that “If anyone deserves this honour, it’s Lester Pearson.” I suppose we’d have to compare Pearson’s rightful legacy to represent elite NHL hockey players to Lindsay’s. I’m not sure how much there is, but it we use Pearson’s support for the NHL as a proxy (a dubious assumption, perhaps), then it is not a story of unqualified support. In my own research on the history of the NHL, Pearson does not come off as an unwavering supporter. He was in favour of halting the league during the Second World War, which in my interpretation was an unnecessary kowtowing to American public opinion. He also criticized the league in the mid-1960s over its recruiting practices. These may be small things, but they tells us that Pearson’s main interest was not hockey’s best interests, or the NHL’s, but Canada’s, and there are many awards, schools, airports and places named in his honour in the last four decades to recognize this fact.

Ted Lindsay has his name on very few things, and his contribution to hockey as an all-star player and leading activist for player rights (which cost him his spot with the Detroit Red Wings) makes him clearly more worthy of this award. (I’d hazard a guess that Mike might even agree.)

The Arena as Political Puck

I don't think this team will be winning any Stanley Cups

I am reading with interest the discussion over federal financing of a proposed new Quebec City hockey arena. At the announcement, several Conservative Party MPs showed up in old Quebec Nordiques sweaters, which connected the subsidy to NHL and thus raised controversy in a way that money to rinks in Sainte-Rita QC, St Georges QC, Normandin QC, Bedford NS, Burlington ON, and 440 other projects of Canada’s Economic Action Plan did not.

Though the main issue is being framed as one of fairness to all Canadian regions with sports facilities that serve professional sport franchises (mainly National Hockey League and Canadian Football League, cities (see here for an editorial overview), I would argue there is a more deep-seated historical antipathy at work as well. In 2000, John Manley, then Minister of Industry, learned that, despite Canadians’ love for the national game, they do not want to use their tax money to support NHL hockey. Gary Bettman learned it too, when he came to Parliament to promote government subsidy of highway interchange for the Ottawa Senators and pointed out that American states and municipal governments would fall over themselves to do that, and much more. (I see that his comments now are suitably circumspect.) The lesson was that Canada is not the United States, and that the Canadian relationship to sports, especially the professional-commercial brand, is different, and a little bit complicated.

Since after the Second World War, Canadian governments have supported rink building at the “community” level without much controversy. But “community” is a category that apparently excludes big cities, unless the community is a national one, such as hosting an Olympic Games (see the Big Owe). Even then, the support tends to be municipal and provincial. Where governments are reluctant to contribute is when the facility is mainly for the benefit of a professional sports team. And here I mean “professional” – a characteristic of the players – and not “commercial” – a characteristic of the clubs. Support for facilities associated with junior hockey clubs in Canada do not seem to be subject to the same criticism (that I can think of), nor are the Olympics, even though they are both commercial entities (even not always in name), who employ nominal “amateurs”. It also helps that junior hockey is almost entirely Canadian in nature, and an Olympic team is. In contrast, an NHL team is a different species, with players (mostly Canadian but not all) who are paid enormous salaries to play a game for a league that has an identity divided between Canada and its economic and cultural nemesis, the United States.

The lack of Canadian support for this aspect of the hockey business seems paradoxical given the general sense that Canadian government is more interventionist than American, and more willing to directly support business. (This is a big generalization, but no time to discuss here.) In sports, this is not the case. In my work, I have argued that the Canadian support for sport is mitigated by an ambivalent relationship with business in general, and this is reproduced in attitudes to the hockey business. The NHL is at once respected and reviled, a symbol of Canadian national athletic superiority but also an institution under domination by Americans, so I think we should consider the existence of an underlying association between anti-commercial sentiment and anti-Americanism that manifests itself in a reluctance to fund NHL teams in particular.

Whenever state funding for arenas comes up, I think of my favourite character from the NHL’s history, Conn Smythe, who was the guiding force behind the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961 and the builder of Canada’s most famous arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe was a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative (Stephen Harper, take note) who could have been said to have been in favour of “small government” (in our current parlance) and was immensely proud that the Gardens had been built without any kind of state support whatsoever. (However, Smythe’s son and successor, Stafford, and his partner Harold Ballard followed the new American trend and tried to get municipal support for an Arena in Vancouver, but failed.)

It says something about political change when the current Conservative prime minister, who is noted for his neo-conservative small government ideology, seems to be considering such support. Of course, times have changed. Beginning during the Second World War (as I illustrated in a chapter of this book), and accelerating in the 1950s and 1960s as Canada started losing in the international arena to state-supported soviet republic teams, the welfare state increasingly understood it to be its responsibility to address what was essentially a private sector failure. There were other issues as well, including sport and youth development, but we can’t underestimate the role of criticism of the NHL’s influence over Canadian amateur hockey development (and national team performance) in the 1960s as drivers for government initiatives such as the Report on Amateur Hockey in Canada by the Hockey Study Committee of the National Advisory Council on Fitness and Amateur Sport (1967), which led to the creation of Hockey Canada. With this, and the 1967 NHL expansion that had excluded Vancouver, the Canadian state became more consistently interested in NHL activities, if indirectly. The relationship between the Canadian state and the NHL has also been an ambivalent one, and this is most evident in the behaviour of state agencies like the CBC, which is at once proud of its flagship Hockey Night in Canada program (the NHL’s main advertising vehicle in Canada), but also keen to make it clear that no public funds go to subsidize it (see Richard Stursberg’s comments here).

On a personal level, since Lester Pearson’s criticism of the NHL’s practices in the 1960s (House of Commons Debates, 15 March 1965, page 12336), prime ministers have usually been more content to appear at games than comment on the league’s business (see my post). The present prime minister has been more willing to both promote his fandom (here, and here), his historical interests in the sport, and his support for NHL expansion. The Quebec rink debate has shown there is a threshold to be aware of. He can give money to a team in return for a ticket, but giving money that will be used to attract a team may be a threshold he doesn’t want to cross. Even the main argument, that a new arena might be an engine of economic growth, is highly contested by economists (see the debate over Darryl Katz’ Edmonton proposal), but the main barrier is a historical Canadian reluctance to give money to an arena that will house an NHL team.
In other news: More evidence of the circularity of history. With talk of the resurrection of the Nordiques comes criticism of les Habitants as the federalist team.