007: Canada's Royal Winter Game
March 14, 2013
Few things define what it is to be Canadian more than our love of hockey—“Canada’s Royal Winter Game”. In this episode, author and hockey expert Paul Kitchen joins us to discuss the origins of hockey, the evolution of the game, and what our love of hockey says about the Canadian character. Mr. Kitchen also speaks to us about the wealth of hockey-related resources held by Library and Archives Canada.
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Canada's Royal Winter Game
Angele Alain: Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I’m your host, Angèle Alain. Join us as we showcase treasures from our digital collections; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Few things define what it is to be Canadian more than our love of hockey—“Canada’s Royal Winter Game.” And while the public eye is often focused on the NHL, there remains a strong commitment to the roots of hockey, as backyard rinks and pick-up games continue to thrive across the country. In this episode, we sit down with author and hockey expert Paul Kitchen, to discuss the origins of hockey, the evolution of the game, and what our love of hockey says about the Canadian character. Paul speaks to us about the wealth of hockey-related resources held by Library and Archives Canada, and how indispensable they have been to his writing and to his work with the Society for International Hockey Research.
Hi Paul, thanks for joining us today.
Paul Kitchen: My pleasure to be here.
AA: Can you tell us how you became interested in hockey?
PK: I don’t really know how I became interested; it just seemed to be a very natural thing. Growing up in Ottawa we have cold winters. To me winter is an adventure, and I always liked to be outside when I was a kid. And if you were outside there is ice and snow, you put the two together and you get out on your blades. There was a school about a block from where I grew up and I used to go to that rink and eventually played on the school team, but then the winters were much harsher than they are now. The river was covered over with ice early on, so you could get out there and go all day long and that’s what I did, so I guess that is how come I like hockey.
AA: And then you became interested in the history of hockey and the origins and stuff like that?
PK: Yeah… yeah. I was always interested in the players and the arenas, the teams. You’d listened to the games on the radio and you’d visualize what the players looked like. There was no television then, only occasionally would you see a picture in the paper of a player, so I would take an interest in all that, but my interest really blossomed in terms of serious historical research when the Ottawa Senators returned in 1992. There had been pieces in the paper about where the old rinks were and some of those articles were mistaken, so I looked into it. My first piece of published work was an identification of the rinks where the old Ottawa Silver Sevens played, so that’s how I got going.
AA: So I understand that you have written a lot about hockey and, especially recently, you have written a book and a lot of the research was done at Library and Archives Canada. Can you tell us about the records you consulted? What did you look at? What do we have?
PK: Yeah, well I’ve done quite a bit of work for periodicals and for the official encyclopedia of the National Hockey League and I’ve written a book on the history of the Ottawa Senators. The book that I wrote was published by Penumbra Press under its Canadian Archives of Culture and Heritage, which pleased me because my interest in the book was not just the facts and figures about who scored the goals and what teams won, but how you place the game itself in a historical context—give something of the texture of the time. So that is what I wanted to do and as far Library and Archives Canada is concerned, I would say that about 90 percent of the material that I gathered was from right here in this institution.
AA: Really? Ninety percent?
PK: Don’t forget newspapers are a primary source of information for hockey because their accounts, eyewitness accounts at the time by the observers of the games that are played, so you can take that as primary information, but then there are all kinds of other archival documents, government records. One source that was very useful to me was the P.D. Ross Collection. Philip Dansken Ross was a very prominent publisher of the Ottawa Journal in the 1890s and right through to the midway mark of the 20th century, but he was also the original trustee of the Stanley Cup and he had played for the Ottawa Hockey Club before that. Here we find all of his material at the Archives, something like six or seven boxes with a diary, a very meticulously kept diary year after year. In there you have very valuable documents pertaining to the original Stanley Cup and all of the other activities that he engaged in that related to hockey. So that’s another one.
AA: You get a really good picture of what it was like back then.
PK: Did you know that there was another one too. Thomas D. Green was a Six Nations Aboriginal from Brantford, Ontario who in the early 1880s enrolled at McGill College, which is now McGill University, and he graduated as a Bachelor of Applied Science, which today would be Engineering. He was only one of seven graduates that year. He sought work in Ottawa, but he was rebuffed because of racial discrimination that existed at that time. If you go to government employment records and you look up Thomas D. Green, you will find a very rich file there. Well, the reason that I mention that is because Thomas D. Green was a member of the original Ottawa Hockey Club, which was formed in 1883 and played its first game in Montreal at the Winter Carnival in 1884. So he was discriminated against in view of his profession, but he wasn’t in terms of being a hockey player. He was made the captain of the team. When, two years later, the world’s first hockey league was formed, he was the representative to that meeting in Montreal and he was elected as the first president of the world’s first hockey league. So here we have this kind of information coming from government records right here at Library and Archives Canada.
AA: Library and Archives Canada has a hockey website entitled Backcheck: a Hockey Retrospective and I know that you were the curator for this website. Can you tell us what Canadians can learn on that website about hockey?
PK: Well first of all, it was a wonderful opportunity because what the institution did was to recognize hockey as a legitimate subject matter for historical research and how hockey can be related to the conditions of the times and how people were able to use their spare time, because the work days are very long, that sort of thing. It gave us the opportunity to blend hockey history into overall social history. We used newspaper accounts, [the] photographic collection here at the Archives, manuscript collections and I think that anybody going through that site would get a pretty good appreciation for what the game meant to people through the years. There is one terrific little story in connection with that, if I could just mention it.
AA: Sure, yeah.
PK: The famous Canada-Russia Summit Hockey Series was held in Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972 and now when we were doing the site, gosh it must have been about 10 years ago now, I went through the Hockey Canada archival files here and found quite a bit of information about how the Canadian hockey team was formed and there was a big controversy at the time because Bobby Hull, a famous hockey player, wasn’t allowed to play. Going through the material here, we find a simple letter written in 1972 by an eight-year-old boy by the name of Alan Johnston and he signed his name at the bottom. It came into Hockey Canada saying that he wanted to recommend that Bobby Hull be allowed to play for the Canadian team against the Russians, thank you very much, signed Alan Johnston, Powell River, British Columbia, 1972. We wanted to put that on the website, it was a terrific little letter, so the archival geniuses here were able to track down his mother out in British Columbia who then put us in touch with the fellow who is now what, 48 years old, and he agreed to let his letter be put on the website. So there it is and now he would be 58 years old and he is immortalized.
AA: That’s awesome.
PK: That’s the sort of small anecdotal little thing that I think gives a little bit of verve to the site.
AA: Can you tell us a bit about the origins of hockey?
PK: Well, the origins of hockey…
AA: When did people start playing hockey?
PK: Well, they either started in time immemorial, or they started in March of 1875, depending on how you want to view hockey. Forms of the game have been played in all northern countries for hundreds and hundreds of years. Not regular hockey with rules and all of that sort of thing, but just boys, men, women getting out on the ice with blades and a stick to direct around a ball or a block of wood. From that point of view there is no way of saying where the game started. If you want to think of hockey as a structured sport with rules and teams, then the evidence shows March 3, 1875 at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal. That’s when two teams played what is thought to be the first game. The teams were identified, there was a recorded score and there were elementary rules that were followed. From that game emerged follow-up games and codified rules. You can say that that game really did start the formal game as we know it today.
AA: Do we know what that game would have looked like? If we had been there to see it?
PK: What it looked like? Well, yeah. There were nine players on one team and eight players on the other team. They played in an indoor arena, the Victoria Skating Rink, with natural ice, it was cold. There were no boards, there was no fence around the rink, there was just a raised platform. There were no goal nets as we know them today, just two posts, stuck in the ice. The puck was a flat piece of wood, people had been batting around a ball before that, but it would fly up into the audience and hit people. Somebody figured if we have a flat piece of wood it won’t go up, so that’s what it looked like. The players had no uniforms, no padding or anything like that. Their skates were pretty rudimentary; I mean you didn’t have a skate permanently attached to a boot. The skate was separate and would be strapped or somehow affixed to whatever winter boot that you happened to have. That is basically what that first game looked like.
AA: What is the difference between shinny and hockey?
PK: Well shinny would be the real fun part of hockey. This is what really takes you back. It’s just unorganized fun, come one, come all. The game might start at eight o’clock in the morning on a river or in a little rink somewhere. Players would come and just join one side or the other. The idea was the same; you got skates on, a stick and a puck. You try to put the puck in the other team’s goal. It’s just unorganized, maybe even disorganized fun.
AA: It’s our typical Canadian backyard hockey.
PK: Typical Canadian backyard hockey. But then you get to the more formal version, where you’ve got, as I said before, teams and rules. The game is quite a bit different now from what it was many years ago.
AA: How has it evolved over the years?
PK: Well, it’s evolved in many ways. The rules became codified and expanded as the techniques of the players improved. The skates improved. John Forbes was a machinist in Halifax and he invented what he called the Acme spring skate and patented that in 1866 with the Nova Scotia Patent Office. That was a skate that attached to your boot and there was a locking lever. In the early days, that was the kind of skate that people used. Now of course today, look at what we have, I mean high-tech skates. From the point of view of equipment, there have been tremendous advances. The ice surfaces are better now than they ever were. Artificial ice is usually harder than natural ice and with the Zambonis the surface can be kept really good. The equipment has developed. In the old days the players wore fairly heavy woolen jerseys and as the game progressed, particularly indoors, the players would perspire.
AA: I was going to say, they must have sweat.
PK: Sweaters would get heavy and wet. Buck Boucher who played for the Ottawa Senators was playing one game down in Madison Square Garden. He complained after the game to the owner of Madison Square Garden, the greatest arena in the world, that it was too hot in here. The owner had kept the temperature at about 60 degrees because he had high-class fans…
AA: I was going to say guests.
PK: This was quite an elite sport at the time and they wanted the rink to be warm. Buck Boucher complained after the game to the owner, I weighed my equipment before we started the game and I weighed it again after the game and it was three pounds heavier.
AA: I am surprised he didn’t just take off the jersey right there. Can you tell us about the original National Hockey League?
PK: The National Hockey League was formed at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal on November 26, 1917. It was the successor league to the old National Hockey Association, which was also a professional league. But there had been trouble among the owners, so much so, that the owner disbanded the league and kicked out the owner that they had trouble with and promptly started this new league, the National Hockey League. The first game… the first two games that were played in the National Hockey League were in Montreal and Ottawa. December 19th, 2012 marks the 95th anniversary of the first game of the National Hockey League. It was the Montreal Canadiens playing the Ottawa Senators at the old Dey’s rink in downtown Ottawa. The other game played that night was in Montreal between another Montreal team and the Toronto Arenas. The Ottawa game had a bit of a controversy about it because several of the Ottawa players refused to come out on the ice to start the game. Here was the first game of a new league and it was because they had signed contracts for a 22-game schedule, whereas the actual schedule called [for] 24 and they wanted that added in to their contract before they would come out onto the ice. Eventually they showed up halfway through the game, but the Montreal team won 7–4. So, it wasn’t a good start for Ottawa. That was the start of the National Hockey League, there were four teams, but then over the years as we know, over the years, it expanded. Eventually into the United States in 1924–25 and now we are up to the 30 teams.
AA: So what is the difference between the original National Hockey League and the one that we know today?
PK: I think that there is no comparison really. The players back then… were… there is no doubt about it they were marvelous athletes, they were very very skilled, but in terms of today’s game they were handicapped by the equipment again. The skates tended to have a long blade, they got heavy and that meant that the maneuverability of the players wasn’t nearly as flexible as with today’s players. You have a rockered blade, a light skate. Most players in the National Hockey League today would go through maybe five or six pairs in a season, whereas back then, a player would have the same skates for two, three, four years maybe. So there was the big difference between the equipment then and the equipment now.
AA: The advances in hockey made that difference.
PK: Another thing is, professional hockey has become such a huge business that the players demand huge salaries, that means that there are more demands made of them in terms of their contract and preparedness for the games. In the old days, training camp would be where the players got in shape. Today [in] training camp, it is assumed that you are already in shape and now you are competing for your job against all the other guys who are also in incredible shape. So you have training regiments that were just unknown back then. That would be another big difference between today and the old days.
AA: Library and Archives Canada holds a very rare hockey book entitled Canada’s Royal Winter Game that has been digitized and made available online. What’s the story there?
PK: Arthur Farrell played hockey for the Montreal Shamrocks. They won the Stanley Cup, in I think, 1899. He was a tremendous enthusiast of the game and at age 22 he wrote a book, this book Hockey Canada’s Royal Winter Game. It’s a marvelous book. It details all of the positions, how they should be played, talks about the leagues, the rules, all of that sort of thing. It was published in 1899. Arthur Farrell died from tuberculosis 10 years later at the age of 32. The book didn’t have a wide circulation and there are practically no extant copies anywhere in Canada. Someone in Montreal had a copy, turned it over to a newspaper reporter. The newspaper reporter got in touch with the Prime Minister seeking a home for this book. The organization that I belong to, Society for International Hockey Research, took an interest in this and we recommended to the Archives that they get hold of this book and maybe here would be a good place for it to be stored. The Archives did get in touch with the owner of the book as well as with the Prime Minister because the book had been loaned to him by the owner. The Archives then restored the thing because it was in pretty bad shape and made a couple of facsimile copies and also digitized it. The digitized version is out there for everyone to see, the facsimile copies were nicely boxed, beautifully done. One was presented to the Prime Minister, the other was kept here. The original went back to Montreal and is now in the Irish Studies Collection of the Concordia University Library. When the Prime Minister got his facsimile edition, he being a member of our Society for International Hockey Research, turned it over to our organization and now we have that in our archives. Everyone was a winner in that regard.
AA: No kidding. What kind of work does that society do?
PK: Well, the Society for International Hockey Research was started in Kingston 20 years ago. The members are hockey historians, researchers, some journalists and others who just happen to take an interest in the game. We have about 500 members now, the majority are in Canada, but there are a large number in the United States and in several other countries; Sweden, Finland, Germany, France, Great Britain, we have a member in Australia, a couple in Japan. The society tries to do original hockey research and to the extent that the organization is known publicly, it would be through our investigations into the origins of the game. If you want to create trouble, all you have to do is say that your town is where the game started…
PK: …because everybody has a claim.
AA: I was going to say, what do you mean Montreal? When you said it started in Montreal. I am like no!
PK: Well exactly, you’ve got Windsor, Nova Scotia in the running, you’ve got Deline, Northwest Territories in the running, Halifax used to be in the running, but it’s conceded defeat. So every once in a while a new claim pops up.
PK: Those claims seem normally to be based on the chamber of commerce type history. They want to be able to put up a sign in their towns. So what we do is look into the claims and come to our decision as to whether the claim is well founded. So far none of them have been well founded. That is basically what we do, we are best known for the origins of hockey. We also talk about equipment, for example, the world’s oldest hockey stick. Somebody came up with the world’s hockey stick and had it carbon dated. That piece of wood was 600 years old, therefore now you’ve got the world’s oldest hockey stick. It may not have even been a hockey stick, it just looked like one. These claims come up and we look at them and I guess we aren’t very popular when we come back with our recommendations.
AA: But you know hockey has been adopted as the unofficial game of choice in Canada. What does it say about our character?
PK: Well I guess, Angèle, it says we are hardy people who like robust activities. I mean surely we would be that way in a northern climate. I mean you have to be tough to live in Canada in the winter and the winters tend to be, maybe not as long now as they were, but they do go on. You’ve got to deal with it and you want to have fun.
AA: Make the most of it.
PK: Make the most of it. Right.
AA: It seems like Canadians can’t get enough of hockey in the winter, especially now that they are milder, so they tend to play hockey in the streets the rest of the year. What do you think about that? Is that part of hockey? Is it different?
PK: Yes, it is. It is a year round sport, in two regards. One as you mentioned with road hockey in the summer, but also with the number of artificial ice rinks that we have, hockey is played by kids even in the summertime. Wayne Gretzky thinks that kids play too much hockey, that they should be playing other sports in the summer to help develop their athletic abilities, agility and coordination. Use what they’ve learned, there on the hockey rink, when they get in the fall. I think that there is a proprietary interest in hockey. Canadians seem to believe that they own the game, well I guess in a sense we pretty much invented it and developed it, but hockey is our gift to the world. When you give something away you don’t own it anymore, so I like to think of Canadian hockey as a gift, but I don’t like to think of it as being a proprietary thing. I don’t like it when we object to other countries having good players or claiming a strong interest in the game. We’ve given it to them.
AA: What do you think it is about hockey that Canadians love so much?
PK: Well, first of all we take great pride in being the country that developed the game. Secondly it’s a very robust sport, it’s a tough sport and perhaps a lot of Canadians like to think of themselves as tough. There is the actual speed of the game; it’s an exciting game to watch. I can’t think of a game that can come anywhere near hockey in terms of visual appeal. It is a great sport. There is the skill and the grace, just the skating itself.
AA: Yeah, it seems so easy when you look at them skate.
PK: When I go to a hockey game I make sure that I get there well before the start of the game because to me, when the players first skate out on the ice for a pre-game warm-up, just the grace of their skating and their smooth flow, turning to the left, turning to the right, making bursts, I mean that sort of thing, it just sends a thrill up my spine. Surely anybody watching the game would see the grace, almost the aspect of ballet in it. When you combine the grace with the aggressiveness, the two seem to be opposites, but they blend together and you just end up with a spectacular sport.
AA: There is no way of not getting excited when you look at a hockey game. It goes so fast, I mean you just get into it so much.
PK: The other thing is, if they would only turn the music off before the game starts, you’d be able to hear the skates. The sound the skates make on the ice, just a crisp sound that just, oh, it’s like music.
AA: I think we all know what that sound is, we can hear it in our heads. Well, thank you very much Paul for coming in and speaking to us about hockey.
PK: Thank you, it is my pleasure.
AA: To learn more about the history of hockey in Canada please visit our website Backcheck: a Hockey Retrospective at www.collectionscanada.ca/hockey.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Angèle Alain, and you’ve been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Paul Kitchen.
For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.