Is Hockey Losing Color?
H. H. ROXBOROUGH
Champions of the old days will say "Yes." Modern fans will say "No." There is plenty of ground for argument
UP AND DOWN the ice at the training-camp rink Sped the hockey players. Professionals, bigtimers, major league stars, getting in shape for a long winter season ahead. They swooped and darted; the puck clicked from stick to stick, zipped through the air and thudded against the boards. A neat passing play brought three men storming in on the crease. A fake shot, a lunge on the part of the goalie—and the puck skimmed into the net Some of the railbirds cheered.
The elderly gentleman in the derby hat scowled. “Pretty slick, huh?” said a very young railbird at his side.
The elderly gentleman grunted that it was all very well if you liked that sort of thing. “But it isn’t what it used to be,” he mourned. “Give me the gixxl old days. Give me the gtxxl old days of ‘Minnie’ MeGilfen and ‘Duke’ Keats and ‘Newsy’ Lalonde. The days of ‘Bad Joe’ Hall. Hockey was a gtxxi game then.”
"Listen.” said the young railbird. "I've heard all that stuff before. And 1 don't fall for it. Hockey is a better game now than it ever was. It's faster, smarter, more scientific—”
“I've heard that UKJ.” said the old-timer. “And 1 agree with some of it. But they've made the game so blamed scientific they’ve squeezed the color out of it. And as for the players—say. the minute a player shows any color nowadays they tell him: ‘Hey, you! Forget that you're Joe Whoozis, the Pride of Penetang. On this team you’re just another hired man. see. You play our style of hockey, not your own.’ Where are the players with color nowadays? Where are they?”
“You're all wet,” retorted the railbird. “Now listen here—”
And another hockey argument burst into full bloom.
'"THERE was something in what the old-timer said. And A something in what the young railbird said too.
No doubt about it—in recent years the face of professional hockey has changed. To some, that face is as attractive as ever; toothers, every’ new wrinkle mars the beauty of the game.
The good old days of "Bad Joe” Hall and his ilk arc gone, no doubt of that. The good old days of knock-’em-
down-and-drag-’em-out hockey, when gore flowed freely' and feuds ran wild. With their passing passed a lot of color. Most of it red. A lot of the red showed up in the books at the end of the season. That wasn’t the sort of color the fans wanted, but maybe the old-timer had something when he insisted that modern hockey is losing some of the color that the fans do want. The color of personality.
Hockey isn’t in the table-tennis class yet by any means. But it isn’t as tough as it used to be. True, it is still rough, for after all it’s a game in which steel blades, hardwood shillelaghs and a chunk of vulcanized rubber are the principal tools. It's a game in which supjwsedly irresistible forces attack presumably immovable bodies. It’s a game that will always go a long way toward providing groceries for the children of doctors and dentists.
But the wild-eyed, club-swinging, body-thumping gladiators of a former age are being superseded by lawabiding, penalty-conscious puckchasers who realize that it’s a short life at best.
Where “Red” Ilorner once sat in the penalty box for 167 minutes during a season, last winter he still managed to lead the league in this department with a mere eighty-five minutes. Ten years ago no less than twenty N.II.L. players hit that figure in a season. “Eddie” Shore drew a total of !65 minutes one season in the violent past; “Red” Dutton’s highest mark for disorderly conduct was 139 minutes and Lionel Conaeher’s longest annual exile was 132 minutes.
A Career, Not a Pastime
THERE is also a difference in the type of player. The migratory, happy-go-lucky, what-of-it breed who once tore up and down Canada’s iceways has matured into a class of reserved, decorous young men. And not without justification, for the rise in the status of a professional hockey player has certainly tended to c<x>l off all but the hottest individualist. In the early years of moneyed puckchasing, some teams g<xxl enough to win the Stanley Cup didn’t have a salary total equal to that of a modem star. For instance, in 1918, Toronto Arenas were national champions, yet no player received over $900, and the entire annual payroll for Arenas’ ten players was $6.150.
In that era, the $600 exix-rt had another job, didn’t take his profession t<xj seriously, and interjected a lot of fun into his play. Today’s player appreciates that in his normal hockey life he may receive $50,(KK). Naturally, he is quite conscious of his dependence uixxi the sjxxt, takes care of himself and lives much more conservatively than did his predecessors.
Even the schooling of the pupils has undergone considerable change. Until comparatively recently, youngsters came into the National Hockey League “in the raw.” They were not far removed from the town pond and the open-air rink. They grew up in that small, outdoor wooden box, erroneously termed a cushion, where body thumps were unavoidable, smart stickhandling was imperative and only the hardiest survived to reach the big league.
In 1939, the better juniors are developed indoors, on ice that never varies, with expensive equipment, under the close supervision of experienced coaches and trainers.
Once, the gap between amateurs and major professionals was bridged in a single leap. In nxxlern times, the wellscouted rookies come up through a chain system of junior and senior amateur, topped by a year or two in the finishing schools of Providence, New Haven, Springfield, Kansas City, Hershey, or a score of others.
In these junior academies, “farm clubs” for the big league, the student majoring in hockey is painstakingly taught the style of play preferred by the parent club. When he graduates into the big league, he is polished, even if he has lost considerable of his native color in the polishing.
However, the most important trend in modern hockey is the decline of the individual and the ascension of the team. This tendency is emphasized in the point-scoring where the assists are given equal value to goals.
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There were years when a team with only ten players was sufficiently manned. Now the permissive quantity is fifteen. Because there are more players, there are fewer minutes per player, and even these shorter periods are divided into threeminute stretches. When the players whose names stand out in hockey history were in their prime, they sometimes played the entire sixty minutes, and because of their constant appearance, they became easily recognized by the fans and consequently better known. That familiarity bred an interest that easily aroused the spectators.
HOW’ are all these modern tendencies, particularly the subduing of the individual, affecting our winter game? Some observers believe they are completely spoiling hockey’s complexion. Certainly the retirement in recent yearsof such outstanding individualists as Aurel Joliat, “King” Clancy, “Ching” Johnson, Lionel Conacher, and now “Eddie” Shore, took a lot of color from hockey’s face.
Joliat was one of the first in that group to join the National Hockey League. In 1922, Montreal Canadiens traded the battle-scarred “Newsy” Lalonde for a twenty-one-year-old, comparatively unknown puckster. Joliat was small, light and inexperienced. Montreal fans were sure the French-Canadian traders had been outfoxed. But the 135-pound left winger shuttled across hockey’s loom and wove a brilliant pattern through sixteen years.
Joliat was colorful for many reasons. He was so irritable that he carried chips on both shoulders, but he could stickhandle around or between opposing defenses as though they were scarecrows on skates.
Apart from his ability to retain posses-’ sion of the puck, the doughty Canadien attracted fan interest because he never appeared before his admiring public unless his head was covered with a black, longpeaked baseball cap. That cap became famous, and underneath it was one of the most crowd-pleasing players in hockey’s history. Joliat was a showman.
Less than a decade ago Toronto Maple Leafs had a team that was almost as colorless as a jar of distilled water. Atout the same time the management had built a new arena, with accommodation for 15,000 fans. Moreover, Depression Number One was then doing its dirtiest work and a million-dollar investment began to “lien” 'the wrong way.
At once, Managing Director Conny Smythe looked for color. With a mixture of shrewdness and chance-taking, “Conny” gave Ottawa Senators two players plus a $35,000 cheque, and received in return one twenty-seven-year-old puckchaser, weighing 147 pounds, with fiery Irish temperament, answering to the name of Clancy.
Defensively, the “King” was as hard as a bride’s first cake, and attackers with fifty pounds advantage in weight were so readily upset by the lusty little socker that they respected him far beyond his ounces.
Offensively, Clancy, with his determined jaw projecting like a sharp figurehead on the prow of an old racing schooner, actually ran on his skates in his eagerness to storm the opposing citadel. And he had punch as well as speed, for even though a defense-
man he scored 138 goals before he said farewell to hockey.
But Clancy's value was not solely dependent upon his sportskill. The “King” was as colorful as a red shirt. On the road or in the dressing room he was a sparkling pepper-upper, renowned for his wit and geniality.
In practice, when most players were solemnly concentrating on the art of steering pucks in the proper direction, Clancy would grab the rubber near his own goal, let out a piping declaration that “nobody on this ice can stop me,” and go whirling and shouting to the other end—or to an early upset. At once the whole team relaxed and practiced as though they really liked hockey.
In a game. Clancy was all action. No better “spark plug” ever inspired a team to victory. Often his tongue and hands travelled as fast as his stick and skates, for he knew crowds and could whip them up to a point where they might at any moment leave their seats and jump the boards to defend the rights of their Galahad.
Charlie Conacher, in his kid days, worshipped Clancy. But the big rightwinger received an awful shock in his first professional game.
In that contest, the fighting Irisher thought he had not received justice. Instantly he roared protest, dashed up to the official, threateningly swung his arms, rocked his head, made faces, and hollered as though he was telling the referee that he was about to be carved “limb by limb.”
Charlie, eager to hear the searing tirade, edged nearer to the crisis. His disillusionment was great when he heard Clancy merely informing the official that the other fellow had tripped over his own stick.
Out of the West, in 1926, came a lone Ranger—not the radio hero so dear to kiddies’ hearts, but a big, swashbuckling, hard-skating puck hand. Huge, amiable, bald-headed, broad-grinning, with elbows extended wide to sweep a path for a human leviathan, “Ching” Johnson was a moving figure that hockey fans will long remember.
Not only was the Ranger so effective that he was twice chosen for the annual all-star team, but he was also hockey’s gift to the medical profession. “Ching” liad been sewn up so often that the 100 stitches placed end to end would certainly have reached from here to there. Ivan Johnson, for more than twelve years, was a colorful participant in the National Hockey League parade.
So was Lionel Conacher. The “Big Train” was an eight-star athlete. He could run 100 yards in ten seconds, play golf in the seventies, win a Dominion boxing championship and become the ace of Canadian rugby halfbacks. Professionally, he earned money in hockey, wrestling, lacrosse and baseball. “Conny” was so athletically gifted, that, given an opportunity, he would have been equally famous in croquet, tennis or horseshoe pitching.
Conacher brought his glamorous record and rugged personality into National Hockey League arenas. After a lengthy career, he had apparently reached the end of hockey trail and was about to be waived out of the major circuit. Just as the gangplank was lowered for his departure, injuries hit the Montreal Maroons so severely that “Conny” was given one more chance. He came back so strongly that he afterward starred on two successive Stanley Cup teams and established a high-water mark for successful comebackers.
Not a great;goal-getter, lacking Clancy’s fire, Joliat’s skill and Johnson’s enthusiasm, Conacher imparted confidence and courage to his mates. If a light player was “kicked around” by a big opponent, Lionel took time out to smack the “bully.”
He was always fighting someone else’s Continued on page 49
Continued from page 47 battles. In his amateur baseball days, on foreign soil, I saw him dare anyone in the entire bleacher section to repeat a nasty remark about a fellow player. Big, strong, full of fight, Lionel Conacher supplied vivid colors to hockey’s picture.
The Great Shore
"DUT the greatest showman of them all was “Eddie” Shore. In 1926, the rush for hockey players was so keen that National Hockey League teams bought out an entire western Canadian league. Among these rough diamonds. Boston Bruins picked up a twenty-two-year-old Kohinoor and ever since he has dazzled hockey fans by his undiminished brilliance.
Did we say undiminished?
One morning last April, Conny Smythe and Dick Irvin sat in Maple Leaf Gardens watching the Leafs at a light practice, and recalling the high lights of the previous evening when Boston had defeated Toronto in a Stanley Cup final game by three goals to one.
“That Shore is certainly an all-time great,” said Manager Smythe. “Last night ‘Bucko’ McDonald hit him so hard that his helmet rocked, his mouth gaped and his knees were ready to fold. I thought Shore had played his last game. But,.boy, could he take it!”
“You’re right,” agreed Coach Irvin.
“I remember that smack. It was a peach. But did you notice that instead of backing up, Shore went out looking for trouble on the very next play? He’s still got everything.”
For thirteen years Shore has been a mixture of worst and best in professional hockey. So “bad” that in one year he spent 165 minutes on the sinner’s wellpolished bench; so good that he was chosen eight times on hockey’s all-star team in nine seasons of selecting.
But Shore’s central place in the puckchasers’ gallery has been more dependent upon his dramatic ability than even his skill and penalty record. Eddie’s masterpiece in attack would be to intercept a pass about his own blue line, slowly retreat, circle his own goal, take a look down the ice; rush, swerve, resourcefully hang onto the puck until a mate was in the clear, then smartly whip the rubber to the awaiting blade. It always brought crowds to their feet, yelling.
While Shore was always eager to give all he had to his employers, he also knew his own value. Last season he refused to play or even practice until his salary demands were satisfied. The club resisted. One night the fans chanted in unison, “We want Shore! We want Shore!” The management attempted to subdue the acclaim with energetic band music. But the determined public soon got their man.
The Bruin star, at home or abroad, has always aroused extreme fan reaction. A hero in Boston and a villain on the road, Eddie Shore has been the most talked about hockey player in the past ten years.
Unfortunately hockey has lost, or is losing, all those colorful performers. Joliat, Johnson, Clancy, Conacher have hung up their skates, and Shore’s current program is to restrict his playing activities to Boston’s home games only.
Within recent years, or even months, Howie Morenz, “Babe” Siebert, Roy Worters, Harold Cotton, the Cooks, Neis Stewart, Burke, Doraty, Keeling, Shields and several others who had “umph” as well as ability, have all passed from the National Hockey League scene. Many more are going down but are not yet out.
What up-and-coming players are likely to brighten hockey by their own personal glamour? Not the rookie stars. Since 1932, an annual poll has chosen the most talented, first-season puckchaser. Let us recall the choices — Carl Voss, “Russ” Blinco.
“Sweeny” Schriner, “Mike" Karakas, “Syl” Apps. Cully Dahlstrom and Roy Conacher. Every one of the seven is a smart per former, but only Apps has aroused unusual fan acclaim, and even his undoubted ability does not inspire the frenzied enthusiasm or the extreme swings of fan response, that greeted the appearance of many vivid personalities who have recently retired.
Speed and Science
W/HILE the deplorers regret the passv Y ing ()f so many colorful individualists, there are probably just as many fans who believe the 1939-40 type is cleaner, faster and much more pleasing in appearance than the old model that cluttered up the goalways. These admirers don't mind a game with some pushing around or even an inoffensive little fight, but they disdain stick-swinging, butt-ends and hooking. They don’t want to see the spilling of blood, injuries that will handicap a young athlete for the rest of his life, or the roughhouse of a type that once stopped lacrosse from increasing its popularity.
These current stylists vigorously contend that today’s speed would have had the stars of the former generation panting for breath. They remind us that in the old days a defenseman was just that; whereas today every man but the goalkeeper must be able to go both ways—almost at the same time.
These same fans say that hockey was never so scenically attractive as under the present rules. They revel in the technique of a New York Rangers’ attack, with each player properly spotted, and the puck shuttling from stick to stick until the opponents are manoeuvred out of position and a clear shot assured. They much prefer the sudden three-man rush of Dumart-Bauer-Schmidt line to any solo thrust.
Hockey’s governors are probably prejudiced because they sponsored the changes in present hockey; nevertheless they admire the present trend. When we remind them that Eastern Canada once had six professional teams and now has only two and that the National Hockey League membership has declined from ten clubs to seven, they reply that there never was a period when so many people paid so many dollars to see hockey as today.
Look at Maple Leaf Gardens, they say. In eight years nearly 2,4(X),(XX) fans bought admissions to professional hockey games, Last year alone, more than 335,000 fans clicked through the turnstiles of the Toronto ice palace.
But hockey magnates should not be too dazzled by such startling figures. Apart from the game itself, the attractiveness and luxury of modem rinks, the increased newspaper publicity and the lure of hockey broadcasts have been big factors in jacking up attendance figures.
In any event, regardless of what keeps crowds coming, hockey still needs the picturesque individual.
National Hockey League fans are not likely to see a prairie-bred, hockey-cowboy, wearing a sombrero and a sheriff’s badge, singing “Home on the Range” as he skates hard and shoots fast. Neither will they cheer the league’s penalty leader come out during intermissions to give exhibitions of wood chopping, knife throwing and club swinging.
Still it is worth recalling that the golden era in all sports has been in those years when a galloping, socking, rollicking individualist was in his prime.
Professional hockey could profitably use many more Joliats, Clancys, Johnsons. Conachers and Shores. Perhaps “Billy” Taylor, Walter Stanowsky, “Hank” Goldup or some of the 1939-40 rookies will bring back color to the face of hockey. Let’s see.