NOVEMBER 11, 2012
IN THE WINTER OF 1955, the editors of a newly launched magazine called Sports Illustrated sent William Faulkner to watch an ice hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadiens. The novelist was a puck novice — the article was entitled “An Innocent at Rinkside” — and he knew little about the sport’s strategy or culture. But his brief essay captured hockey’s relentless tempo, its improvisational surges, its attendant carnage:
[The game] seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers — a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve.
Then he learned to find the puck and follow it. Then the individual players would emerge. They would not emerge like the sweating barehanded behemoths from the troglodyte mass of football, but instead as fluid and fast and effortless as rapier thrusts or lightning — [Maurice] Richard with something of the passionate glittering fatal alien quality of snakes, [Bernie] Geoffrion like an agile ruthless precocious boy who maybe couldn’t do anything else but then he didn’t need to; and others — the veteran [Edgar] Laprade, still with the know-how and the grace. But he had time too now, or rather time had him, and what remained was no longer expendable that recklessly, heedlessly, successfully; not enough of it left now to buy fresh passion and fresh triumph with.
Faulkner never again wrote about hockey. As far as we know, he never attended another NHL contest. Still, “Innocent at Rinkside” resonated because, for so long, the literature of hockey was “oddly limited,” as George Plimpton put it, “odd because its world […] is rife with storytellers and legend-keepers, and because hockey has a long and absorbing history.”
This was true in Canada, where the rink is sacred ground, as well as America. Indeed, while the likes of Ring Lardner, Jack London, A.J. Liebling, P.G. Wodehouse, Norman Mailer, Fred Exley, Bernard Malamud, W.C. Heinz, John McPhee, Dan Jenkins, Donald Hall, Philip Roth, David Halberstam, Willie Morris, and Plimpton himself (among many others) were creating a small, vital, sports-lit cannon that revolved about baseball, boxing, football, basketball, horse racing, golf, and the Olympics, there was no must-read hockey novel, no classic memoir, no go-to oral history. Only in the works of Mordecai Richler could readers catch glimpses of the ice. (Hollywood made one contribution: Slap Shot (1977), with an uproarious screenplay written by Nancy Dowd based on her younger brother’s minor-league hockey experiences. The next year, Dowd won the Academy Award for Coming Home.)
Perhaps this silence was caused by hockey’s cult status. At the time of Faulkner’s visit to Madison Square Garden, the National Hockey League had only six (count ’em — six!) franchises, all of them clustered in cold-weather climes: New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, and Toronto. The players were almost exclusively Canadians, the sons of miners from far-flung places like Flin Flon, Manitoba, and Trail, British Columbia, who learned to skate (and brawl) on frozen-over rivers and backyard rinks. They played without helmets or masks; even the goalies stood against 100-mile-an-hour slapshots without any protection. Their faces were grooved with stitches. Salaries rarely topped $10,000.
This, of course, is now considered the NHL’s Golden Age.
Beginning in the late 1960s, as college, professional, and Olympic sports transformed themselves into commercialized products for television, a series of radical changes jolted the NHL from insularity. In 1967, the league doubled in size to 12 teams, an expansion that pushed beyond the north-northeast region into lucrative, warm weather markets like Los Angeles.
Five years later, the NHL faced direct competition for the first time. An upstart rival, the World Hockey Association, outbid the NHL for superstar Bobby Hull and lured the immortal Gordie Howe from retirement. Eventually the WHA snatched up the rights to a teenage phenom named Wayne Gretzky, who would soon be the face of the sport. (The two leagues merged in 1979, bringing Gretzky into the NHL fold.) The search for talent expanded beyond North America, to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.
In 1972, an all-star team of Canadian NHLers faced off against the national squad from the U.S.S.R. Every pundit from Vancouver to Newfoundland predicted that Team Canada would win what would eventually be known as the Summit Series. Instead, with methodical brilliance, the Russians out-played the Canadians and nearly pulled off an historic upset. Team Canada only escaped ignominious failure by scoring the winning goal in the waning seconds of the final game.
Hockey’s tumult — rampant expansion, the influx of money and new talent, the near-surrender to (horrors!) the Russians, and more — roiled traditionalists. It also seemed to provide succor for writers, as if they needed to experience hockey’s profound changes to find sources of inspiration.
The first such work to break through, interestingly enough, was a children’s story entitled The Hockey Sweater (Le Chandail de Hockey in the original French) in 1979. Author Roch Carrier begins by recounting the glorious youth he spent in small-town Quebec during the 1940s, when he and his buddies played hockey outdoors throughout the shortened winter days. They rooted for the Montreal Canadiens, all of them proudly encased in the team’s bleu, blanc et rouge-colored sweaters (“sweater” means “jersey” in hockey lingo), and they worshipped Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, the same Richard referenced by Faulkner, going so far as to comb their hair like their hero.
Having outgrown his holey sweater, Carrier’s mother decides to order him a new one from a mail-order catalog. What they receive, to Carrier’s horror, is a blue-and-white jersey of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the hated rivals of Les Habitants. Carrier’s mother refuses to return the sweater, forcing Carrier to wear Toronto’s colors. He is mortified and summarily shunned. The story ends with Carrier, in church, praying for “a hundred million moths” to eat up the despised jersey.
Hockey Sweater is a deceptively simple parable that manages to encapsulate the country’s French-English cultural divide even as it hearkens to a halcyon era, when hockey equaled innocent fun and Canada reigned as hockey’s unquestioned champion. The popularity of Carrier’s delightful story has not waned. It’s since been turned into a symphony and an animated short film; a line, in English and French, was used on the back of a $5 (Canadian) bill.
Soon afterwards came two season-in-the-life books: radio host and essayist Peter Gzowski’s The Game of Our Lives, which followed the Edmonton Oilers throughout the 1980-81 season as a stick-wielding magician named Wayne Gretzky began his ascent to legend-hood. Then, goaltender Ken Dryden scored with The Game (1983), Dryden, it must be said, was not your usual jock. He starred at Cornell University before playing goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. He led the team to four Stanley Cup victories even as he studied (and took a one-year hiatus from his career) to become a lawyer.
The Game chronicles Dryden’s final year in the NHL (1978-79). It’s a probing examination of a sport, a team and an existence — not excluding the desultory practices, the intimate banter of the locker-room, the pulse-racing anticipation of the playoffs. The majority of his time is spent waiting: for the next game, the next airplane, the next shot.
Here, Dryden recounts a goalie’s chores:
Playing goal is not fun. Behind a mask, there are no smiling faces, no sweaty grins of satisfaction. It is a grim, humorless position, largely uncreative, requiring little physical movement, giving little physical pleasure in return. A goalie is simply there, tied to a net and to a game; the game acts, a goalie reacts. How he reacts, how often, a hundred shots or no shots, is not up to him. Unable to initiate a game’s action, unable to focus its direction, he can only do what he must do. It is his job, a job that cannot be done one minute in every three, one that will not await rare moments of genius, one that ends when the game ends, and only then. For while a goal goes up in lights, a permanent record for the goal-scorer and the game, a save is ephemeral, important at the time, occasionally when a game is over, but able to be wiped away, undone, with the next shot.
Many experts, most prominently Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons, believe that The Game is the best hockey book ever published. George Plimpton agreed, calling it “a classic.” Plimpton himself donned goalie pads for the Boston Bruins in Open Net (1985), another of his Walter Mitty-esque tales, wherein the Ivy League amateur-enthusiast infiltrates the locker-room, bonds with the beer-swilling jocks, and briefly joins the fray.
This wasn’t Plimpton’s finest effort — Paper Lion and Out of My League top that list — but his conversations with roommate Jim “Seaweed” Pettie and Bruins coach Don “Grapes” Cherry (now a famous, bombastic hockey analyst) are insightful gems. Here, Plimpton riffs on creating a design for his goalie mask: “I drew them clumsily on telephone pads. Some were quirky — a chipmunk’s face with small, apple cheeks, perky and with a prominent pair of long teeth showing in the middle of a sunny smile, bright blue eyes sparkling above; some were meant to puzzle, such as one I designed that was decorated with a large question mark; others were graphic — a mask that read simply enough in red letters, NO!; yet another was a psychedelic swirl that was supposed to make anyone who gazed on it slightly dizzy.”
Two years later, the late author-musician Paul Quarrington delivered what many consider to be hockey’s finest novel: King Leary. Based in part on the life and career of King Clancy, a pint-sized defenseman who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s, the aged fictional character lives in a retirement home and spends much of his time reminiscing about former line-mates, lovers, and rivals.
King Leary is a valentine — a maple leaf? — to the pioneering era of professional hockey, and Quarrington evokes some of the arcane wonderment found in the books of fellow Canadian W.P. Kinsella, author of several baseball-themed novels, including Shoeless Joe. In this passage, Leary tries to recall his initial encounter with the sport: “I can’t remember lacing on blades for the first time. Likewise with hockey. I’ve got no idea when I first heard of, saw, or played the game of hockey […] [T]he truth of the matter is, I never knew that hockey originated. I figured it was just always there, like the moon.”
The same year, journalist Roy MacGregor published The Last Season, a dark novel that traces the rise and demise of tough-guy Felix Batterinski. His “position” is enforcer: he intentionally gets into fights to intimidate opponents, protect his teammates, and provide excitement for the fans. He’s a not-too-bright palooka whose fists serve as both weapon and money-maker: “When I touched [my knuckles], they stung with his jaw, just as I knew when he moved this week he would feel me and I would be with him, his better, for weeks to follow. He had my mark on him. I too had swelling and redness but on the knuckles it shone with pride.”
One novel from America was published during this era: Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League (1980), attributed to one Cleo Birdwell. This oddity features the on- and off-the-ice hijinks of the first woman to play for New York Rangers, a leggy temptress who jumps into bed with many of the book’s characters, “my honey blonde hair flying in the breeze, my silver skate blades flashing, my milky blue eyes, my taut ass and firm breasts, the downy white bruises on my milky white thighs.”
This satire-gone-awry is long out of print. It’s a well-known secret that Don DeLillo is the author (or, at least, co-author) of Amazons, although he refuses to acknowledge it.
Since the mid-1980s, as if to make up for years of virtual silence, a torrent of hockey titles has been published, primarily in Canada, including biographies, histories, memoirs, novels and poetry. An (admittedly) cursory recap of the highlights: Journalist Jack Falla contributed Home Ice and Open Ice, which brought together his soulful essays and columns about the game’s indelible pull. Writer-musician Dave Bidini turned himself into a nomad and, in Tropic of Hockey, sought out the game in remote locations, including Dubai, northern China, and Transylvania. Dryden and MacGregor teamed to explicate hockey’s meaning in Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, which introduced themes that were echoed in How Hockey Explains Canada, by former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Paul Henderson and Jim Prime. Memoirs abound, from Theo Fleury’s searing Playing With Fire to Herb Carnegie’s stoic A Fly in a Pail of Milk to Ken Baker’s breezy They Play Hockey in Heaven. Countless writers (including Bidini) re-visited the Canada-U.S.S.R. Summit Series, while journalist Wayne Coffey deftly recounted the 1980 U.S. Olympic team’s gold-medal triumph over the Russians (the so-called “Miracle on Ice”).
Several works probed hockey’s dark side. From the late 1960s through the early 1990s, agent Alan Eagleson was hockey’s most powerful figure. He controlled the players’ union and was a major force within the international game. Unbeknownst to the players he was supposedly representing, he cut backroom deals that benefited the owners and himself. In Game Misconduct: Alan Eagleson and the Corruption of Hockey, reporter Russ Conway masterfully detailed the alleged crimes and misdemeanors. His sobering takedown ruined Eagleson; not long after its publication, his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame was revoked.
Meanwhile, long before charges of rape and sexual abuse were revealed at Penn State, former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy accused his junior coach of sexually assaulting him for years. That’s one of many disturbing incidents related in Laura Robinson’s Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport, which argues persuasively that the pressure to make it to the NHL fosters a machismo that undermines the sport’s moral center. Notes Robinson: “How can the game that defines Canada, that unifies the country in so many ways, that feeds young dreams or merely entertains in the darkest of winter days, also be responsible for the systematic dehumanization of young men and young women?”
In defining hockey as “that combination of ballet and murder,” poet Al Purdy juxtaposed the artistry and brutality of the sport. Another poet, Randall Maggs, crafted Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems (2008), a harrowing epic about the troubled life of goalkeeper Terry Sawchuk. His brilliant career spanned 21 years and four Stanley Cup victories, but he also drank too much and suffered from depression. (If he were playing today, he would be examined for concussions.) He died from internal injuries after a “horseplaying” incident with a teammate.
Who starts the brain’s conspiracies?
Who knows what it is that waits in the trees?
Sawchuk, it should be noted, played for the Los Angeles Kings during the team’s inaugural season (1967-68). Before then, Southern California’s contribution to hockey revolved around the city of Paramount, in south L.A., where Frank Zamboni invented and manufactured the ice-resurfacing machines that still bear his name.
The Kings’ first owner, media magnate Jack Kent Cooke, was originally from Canada. He also owned the Lakers. He built the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood for his two clubs, figuring that, at the very least, the Kings would sell some tickets on nights when the Lakers were out of town.
Far from hockey’s roots, clad in garish purple-and-gold uniforms, the Kings labored in obscurity. Even Felix Batterinski, the fictional enforcer from MacGregor’s Last Season, recognized the Kings’ sorry status:
Hockey meant nothing to L.A. Not only were the Kings nobodies up against the Lakers and the Dodgers and the Rams, but who could possibly compete for notice with The Fonz and Suzanne Sommers and Charlie’s Angels and, more precious yet, the true Hollywood stars. The Los Angeles Kings made as much sense as turning the Queen Mary into a hotel. We were the London bridge in Arizona; the magic mountain in Disneyland was more real than a bunch of half-talented Canadians charging around on ice after a forty-five-cent piece of black rubber in a replica of the Forum in Rome, all for a mere $12.50 a seat. They even sold margaritas and tacos in the tuck shop at the Fabulous Forum. No fat men in runny noses peering knowingly through the steam of their Styrofoam cups; in California there might be foam cups and heat but it began with cleavage and ended with skintight acrylic pants.
L.A.’s image as a hockey Babylon changed in 1988, when then-owner Bruce McNall acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. The “Great One” was the game’s unquestioned best player, in the tradition of Richard, Howe and Bobby Orr. His presence instantaneously legitimized the NHL in Southern California.
Roy Orbison sang the National Anthem at Gretzky’s L.A. debut. Ex-pat celebs like John Candy and Michael J. Fox flocked to the Forum. The team traded in their Mardi Gras- colored jerseys for the street-cred cool of black and silver. Gretzky’s pull was so strong that he helped bring another NHL team, the Ducks, to Anaheim.
In his terrific book Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, America, and the Day That Changed Everything, journalist Stephen Brunt recounts the circumstances surrounding the historic trade. Losing its treasured natural resource, he writes, devastated Canada: “Sell them our water and our oil and our trees, sell them our fish and our wheat, gradually erase the great unguarded border, gradually break down the real and imagined differences. But sell the greatest hockey player in the world, sell Jesus of Brantford, and it cut to the heart, to the core, to the essence of belief.”
Brunt notes that Canada soon got its revenge. Gretzky was unable to win the Stanley Cup with the Kings and eventually left. McNall pleaded guilty to fraud and went to prison. The team was sold, then sold again. Hockey again became irrelevant in L.A., even after the Kings moved into the glitzy downtown Staples Center.
Until last season, that is. After 45 years of futility, the Kings coalesced around an outstanding goalie and went on an improbable playoff run that resulted in their first-ever Stanley Cup. The Kings finally eclipsed the Lakers, the Clippers, the Dodgers and the Angels.
Who knows: perhaps the Kings’ victory will inspire a young writer to create the Great American Hockey Novel. At the very least, it may well encourage local kids to take to the ice. As William Faulkner wrote in 1955, after the Rangers-Canadiens game: “We like the adrenalic discharge of vicarious excitement or triumph or success. But we like to do also: the discharge of the personal excitement of the triumph and the fear to be had from actually setting the horse at the stone wall or pointing the overcanvased sloop or finding by actual test if you can line up two sights and one buffalo in time. There must have been little boys in that throng too, frantic with the slow excruciating passage of time, panting for the hour when they would be Richard or Geoffrion or Laprade — the same little Negro boys whom the innocent has seen shadow-boxing in front of a photograph of Joe Louis in his own Mississippi town, the same little Norwegian boys he watched staring up the snowless slope of the Holmenkollen jump one July day in the hills above Oslo.”