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Hockey History and Gossiping About Stanley

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An Interview with Michael McKinley,
Filmmaker and author of
Hockey: A People’s History
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With the NHL playoffs well underway, excitement for hockey in North America is at its highest point of the season. Especially true for the fans of the eight teams fighting their way to next round, but also for the many new fans that are seduced by our favorite sport during this time of year, when passions are at their highest. 

One of the pleasures of playoff hockey is all the extra analysis we can indulge in.  We entertain ourselves with fool predictions, screaming arguments about the officiating, even crazy dreams of seeing the Stanley Cup in our own arena.  At a time like this, it’s also natural to reflect on historical greatness as we watch new history being made before our eyes. 

On that topic, I spoke with hockey historian Michael McKinley recently, to learn more about hockey’s past, and some of the great stories the make this game what it is today.

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Michael McKinley is a writer, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter and hockey fan.  He is also the author of “Hockey: A People’s History”, the companion book to a remarkable television series by the same name. That epic series, first broadcast last year,  dedicated 10 hours of coverage to the evolution of hockey, celebrating its small and grandiose moments.  The book documents even more history of the game, including 220 photographs and illustrations.

Here is some of my conversation with Michael—about his book and television series, about the history of hockey in Canada and America… and telling a few tales about the Stanley Cup.

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Alanah: The book is quite substantial. It’s the kind of book that I typically assume is going to be more of a photo-essay study with some historical highlights.  But it’s actually quite detailed in terms of the political and social history. It’s unusual to find books like this on the history of hockey.

Michael: That what we wanted to do, Alanah.  There’s been a tendency, in Canada especially, to divorce hockey history from history. In other words, it’s somehow been out of the scope of whatever history is. Is history just the great events of great men? Or is it what happens in the ebb and flow of time that changes or influences how we live?

And I think that hockey has been such a part of the Canadian identity – and the American too, but especially ours – that what we wanted to do was interweave the stories of the characters – the heroes and villains that we’ve loved and hated for more than a century now – into general life.  Because of course they relate to general life, they didn’t play in a vacuum, they played in arenas filled with thousands of people and traveled the country, and generated media attention, and caused great ice palaces to be built, and influenced economies, and diverted attention during times of war. And so on and so forth.

Alanah: True, and those subjects are usually divorced from our hockey history. The only comparison I can think of is some baseball study. The deeper aspects of the sport –  beyond just the game itself, that looks at the whole impact of the game on the community and the country.

Michael: You’re right. It’s one of the things that Americans have a genius for doing: mythologizing themselves.  I don’t mean making up stories about themselves, but telling stories about themselves, recognizing that the stories come from everywhere.  Baseball is brilliant that way, even though baseball is no longer, I understand, the premiere sport in the United States – it’s been replaced by football – but baseball is still a defining experience. In the ‘American experience,’ it’s certainly paramount.

Alanah: Tell me about the evolution of the book and television series, and how you came to be involved.

Michael: What I had done before this was a book called “Putting a Roof on Winter” in which I attempted to write the history of pro-hockey from 1875 to the 1972 Canada-Russia series. What happened was that when the CBC were planning and putting together “A People’s history of Hockey”, a lot of the producers had read that book and liked it. They said they wanted to use a lot of the stuff, and would I like to write the book that goes with the series?

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was going to do because I thought I’d pretty much gotten it right [in the last book].  But then I got involved in this and realized how much more room there was to expand this story.


Alanah: Have ever been involved in anything like this before, the television aspect in your work?

Michael: I’m not primarily a hockey writer, oddly enough.  I work as a writer, but I work a lot as a television and film producer and lately I’ve done three documentaries for CNN.  So I’m often on the other side of the camera.  And I’m working on a couple of feature films right now.

Alanah: So you just write hockey books in your ‘spare time’?  Lucky you!

Michael: It’s a labour of love, actually.  I’m also writing a hockey novel, a murder mystery.  All the sex and drugs and rock and roll stuff that couldn’t go in the book!

Alanah: Well that’s intriguing. Did you have to keep anything out of the book, a ‘sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll’ gossip?

Michael: There’s not a dark past for hockey, other than the usual dark pasts for any history. In other words, the family squabbles, the dark deeds done in the name of money, etcetera.  Players who were a little too fond of the drink, or domestic problems which really didn’t advance the story much.

Alanah: Any interesting ones you want to share with me?

Michael:  Well, a player like Harvey “Busher” Jackson, who was part of the Glorious Kid Line for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He had a problem with drink and it destroyed him.  It’s a very sad story…  the guy who once lit up Maple Leaf Gardens was now begging, a pan handler in front of Maple Leaf Gardens, because he was ravaged by alcoholism.

Conn Smythe, the brilliant, contrarian builder of the Toronto Maple Leafs, never forgave [Busher] for that because he came from a culture and temperament that believed any kind of substance abuse was a moral failing, and not a genetic disposition. Or that there might be other factors involved in it.  He just thought that ‘If you’re a real man, you wouldn’t have this problem.’ 

So he blackballed Busher Jackson from the Hall of Fame for the longest time.

Alanah: Conn Smythe could be a bit of a bastard from what I read…

Michael: He was, but he was a ‘genius-bastard’. He was very much a man of his time and place, and yet he was also self-invented.  Even his name is invented. He was christened Constantine.  His own mom died of alcoholism, and I think that’s part of the reason that he never forgave Busher Jackson.

He survived the first World War by getting the hell out of the trenches and becoming a pilot.  And there, the planes are so dangerous – they self-combusted.  So it’s very dangerous, and he was shot down, but didn’t die.  The German that captures them, in the seconds after the capture, Conn Smythe manages to so offend the guy that the German shoots him point-blank, twice.  Conn Smythe’s leather flying coat stopped the bullets.

So off he goes to a prison for the remainder of the war. The Toronto papers said he was missing in action, even his father thinks he’s dead.  But of course he resurrects, comes back to life. He’s not dead, he’s been at a prison camp. 

So [at that point] he says, ‘I’ve lost four years of my life and I’m damn well going to do something’. And off he goes into the world of the NHL and never looks back.

He’s one of the great characters. In Conn Smythe’s story, it’s not just about hockey, it’s about defining ourselves as a country and as a people. That’s what’s so interesting to me. You find the story of the person, and everything else falls into place.

Alanah: What makes NHL players special, do you think, that they’re generally not featured in much scandal or gossip?

Michael: I think that hockey players come from a very regimented system. I mean, in the old days, especially in the age of the Original Six, jobs were pretty scarce in the NHL, and if you wanted to keep your job, you stayed in line.

If they had a high school education, that was pretty good, and if they’d gone to college, that was almost unheard of.  So they had a mindset to obey authority, and for the longest time, the league kept them in place by letting them think that their elders and betters knew more than they did.  So there wasn’t a tendency to rebel.

Also, there’s just the punishment of the NHL schedule.

Alanah: And that tendency to ‘stay in line’ still exists in the NHL today, you think?

Michael: [An example:] I was talking to Trevor Linden the other day and I asked him, when did he first realized that the NHL could be his.  He said it was after winning the Memorial Cup with the Medicine Hat Tigers, and he was called into his GM’s office.  He’d had a good year, but he didn’t know what the guy was going to say, and the guy said to him ‘Next year you’re going into the NHL draft, and I think you’re going to go pretty high.’

Linden said to me, ‘The was the first time I ever realized that it was real.’  For him, his highest aspiration was to play for the Medicine Hat Tigers. That’s what he wanted to do.

There were no run-ins with the law, no trips to Thailand to ‘find himself’ on some beach… I mean, he just wanted to be a hockey player. That was it.  Then when he gets drafted by the Canucks and comes to Vancouver, he gets blown away by the fact that you have to pay for parking!  He’s this charming, honest, direct guy who comes from there to here, but hasn’t changed.

Alanah: Turning to this year’s playoff, are you excited by the rivalries and atmosphere?  I’m a very big fan of ‘hockey hate’, myself. I don’t feel a need to be all rational about it all the time, frankly.

Michael: True. It’s part of the great rivalries, for sure, and the great battles on ice.  It’s good to have a healthy hate on for other teams.  There are so few points separating their positions in the standings that it is so exciting.

Alanah: What do you think is the biggest rivalry this year, going into the playoffs? What series did you want to see the most?  [note: interview was prior to the standings being determined for the first round of the playoffs]

Michael: Well let’s see… that’s a good question. If I knew that they were going to win, I’d like to see the Canucks versus the Wild, but that’s not going to happen in all likelihood.  First of all, any series the Canucks play in I’m interested in because it becomes an immediate rivalry for me as a Canucks fan. 

Teams are so close this year, it creates a kind of rivalry.  In other words, if you have two evenly matched teams duking it out for the maximum number of games in a series, you’ll have a rivalry.  It will happen and it will be great. And we’ll just see it intensify as two teams duke it out. 

Alanah: Do you think rivalries are something that happen with one playoff series, or do they take repeated years, over time and with fan hate, to develop?

Michael: I think what happens with the playoffs… for example Minnesota. They believe they’re rivals to our Vancouver.  I’m not sure Vancouver or Vancouver fans feel that, but in Minnesota they do.  I’ve got a friend there who phoned me the other day to say some fighting words about the Canucks.  They think that rivalry exists, of course, because of the last time when the two played in the playoffs, the Canucks were up and Minnesota came back and won. And there’d been a little bit of an insult from Todd Bertuzzi, and they remember that. So they see the Canucks as the superior kind of being that they want to humble constantly.

Alanah: I think it’s actually easier for the ‘lower’ or ‘newer’ team in the potential rivalry to form that rivalry ‘upwards’. The same way Canucks fans would consider Detroit a rival,  even though to Detroit we’ve been, until recent years, pretty much a ‘garbage team’ in their estimation.  But to some of us, hating Detroit is like breathing.

Michael: Yes, absolutely.  Some rivalries are created by that kind of history. Some are done by proximity. Like for example, the Battle of Alberta [Edmonton and Calgary] or when the Nordiques played in Quebec and there was Montreal near. All of a sudden Canadiens fans had an alternative, people who didn’t like the Canadiens had an alternative. So there’s the proximity rivalries. 

And there’s the ones that just have history between the two.

Alanah:  Does the emphasis on parity in the NHL affect the possibility of dynasties in the future? And at this moment, Detroit is kind of proving the answer may be ‘no’  – they seem to be doing pretty darn good – but at the same time you have the Colorado Avalanche in the situation they’re in, for example. Do you think parity affects that?

Michael: I think it probably does.  Teams have, historically speaking, short shelf lives.  I mean, the five-year runs that everyone considers ‘dynastic’ are pretty much it.  Nowadays, as people have said time and time again, any team can bump off any other team. And you get these high-and-mighty first place teams who should be concerned.  Just because the team finished lower in the standings doesn’t necessarily mean, with the shoot-out losses and win system these days, that they’re that much worse a team. 

So I think that in the ‘gimmee days’ of dynasty where you could have a team run the table for a lot of years, we’re not going to see that anymore.  The most dynastic thing we could probably hope for would be back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.

Right now we’re in the unusual position of having both the finalists from last year not even in the playoffs. […]  With Carolina eliminated, that’s the first time in NHL history that both Stanley Cup finalists have missed the playoffs.

Alanah: At the same time, it is only two years after the newest Collective Bargaining Agreement, so it might take time to know the impact. Perhaps last year – Carolina and Edmonton making it the finals – was the anomaly. 

Michael: You’re absolutely right. It’ll take a couple of years to shake out and see what happens. But again, it can still work in the future, for teams that have good front offices, good managerial sensibilities and good scouting systems, and a deep farm system – same as in ever was, really.  With the salary cap in place, those kinds of teams will be advantageously positioned above teams that don’t have that, or who are in a so-called ‘rebuilding’ phase.  So everyone wants that, but it’s easier said than done.

Alanah: For sure. Scouting and draft choice would be incredibly important from here on in. Which is probably why a team like Detroit is showing its true colors right now. They’ve done such a good job at that for a long time.

Michael: They have. And players want to go there, they want to be there.  One of the things they were saying after Todd Bertuzzi was traded there from Florida, was that even though he’s had a bad season because of being injured, and perhaps still carries the baggage of the Steve Moore incident, that in Detroit he’s not going to be ‘The Man’. He’s going to be ‘a’ man among many men, in terms of stars on a team.  The pressure is not going to be on him every night to perform.  And the theory was that it should free him up to excel.  We’ll see how he does during the course of the playoffs, see if that is in fact the case.  It doesn’t all land on his shoulders now.. 

Alanah: What about the importance of captains in the playoffs?  For instance, in Vancouver Markus Naslund has taken a lot of heat as people have questioned his ability to take this team into and through the playoffs.

Michael: There’s still the stigma of non-North American captains in the NHL and that whole attitude that they can never win a Stanley Cup or whatever.

Alanah: And what is the background of that, do you think?

Michael: I think the background is just xenophobia about Europeans coming into the NHL, bringing a different type of game with them.  Learning how to be physical but not playing a game based on punching the other guy’s lights out to demonstrate talent.  Rather, doing it by turning the goal light on or setting up a smart play, or something like that. And that culture was seen by some, who maybe missed the point, as being soft.  And I don’t think it is. I’m not in the dressing room, but I think words only go so far in the dressing room. It’s what your captain does on the ice. 

Alanah: Do you think there should be fighting in hockey generally, or in the playoffs specifically?

Michael: Let me tell you a story. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, addressed the Canadian Club in Toronto a few years ago – the Canadian Club being filled with all kinds of high-flying business executives.  So the media were there and business people were there and Bettman was there, and the question came up in a Q and A afterwards, about whether or not there should be fighting in the NHL. 

So [Bettman] said ‘A show of hands… how many of you think there should be?’ and half the room puts their hands up.  ‘And how many of you think there shouldn’t be?’ and the other half of the room puts their hands up.  Some in the media and some in the business community thought there should be, same with some media and business people who thought there shouldn’t be.

And in that dramatic moment he kind of presented the problem. 

I’m one of the ones who think there shouldn’t be fighting in the NHL, but it has been there absolutely from the beginning.  In fact, in the first indoor game in March of 1875 in Montreal, it ended with a fight.  But it was not the hockey players who were fighting each other, it was the guys’ skating club who wanted their ice back who got into it with the hockey players.

Accountability that’s needed and that’s the so-called accountability that fighting is there to ensure, as I understand it. It used to be a strategy in the days of the Broad Street Bullies, fighting was an actual game strategy.  You would go out there and beat your opponent to a pulp… and other teams hated to play them.  Do you remember those [bench clearing brawls] in the 70s and 80s?  The NHL banned them in, I believe, 1987. They just said, there’ll be a big suspension, like ten games if you come off the bench to start a brawl.  On the whole it has worked.

Alanah: Do you have any stories you’d like to share about the Stanley Cup Trophy?  I know there are a few famous ones…

Michael: There are. It’s been lost, for instance, left on a roadside by the Montreal Canadians in the 1920s when they were going to go to a champagne reception at the home of their coach afterwards, and they had to change a flat tire and left it in a snowbank.

And once, Frank and Lester Patrick’s sons found the trophy in a cardboard box in the basement on the family home and tried to engrave their names in it with a nail. 

It was also used as, well… Gordon Pettinger, captain of the Red Wings, once defecated in it.

Alanah:  No way!?

Michael: Yeah, in the 1930s. He was traded. That act was considered so outrageous, he was traded.

Alanah: Wow. Well, that’s not mentioned on the nhl.com website about the great journeys of the Stanley Cup!

Michael: Or there’s the story of the year Chicago won it, ’61 I think,  and it was on display at the Chicago stadium and a Montreal fan grabbed it and ran. They caught him, but as he told the judge after, he was taking it back to Montreal, it’s ‘rightful home’.  That was his logic.

My favorite Stanley Cup story is actually from the very beginning when it was first awarded as a trophy.  Lord Stanley announced that he’s going to donate this trophy and in 1893, the very first year that it’s going to be won,  he had two trustees appointed to govern it, look after it so it didn’t get hijacked by any one team. In other words, the competition is a ‘challenge cup’ and it’s there to encourage regional competition and these two trustees are going to guard it. 

So they’re the ones that say that Ottawa has to play Toronto’s Osgoode Hall for the championship of the Cup, in Toronto.  And Ottawa, who is at the top of the league, is furious about this. Insulted and all the rest of it, and they refused to even play. 

So the first actual competition for the Stanley Cup, the Dominion Challenge Trophy, is actually an asterix in the history of the sport.  It just didn’t take place. The team that should have played for it refused to play for it because they thought it should just be ‘given’ to them.

And then the story gets even better. The following spring, the Montreal Gazette ran this piece saying the Cup shall remain a ‘challenge cup’ and will not become the property of any team, even if it’s won more than once, and it’s now rechristened as the Stanley Cup Hockey Championship Cup.  So in the fall of that year, Ottawa thinks again and decides ‘okay, okay, we’ll play’.  And they did defeat Quebec in four games and they think the Cup is going to be theirs, but then they lose it to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. 

So now there’s yet another problem – Montreal’s [team] refuses to accept the Stanley Cup!  This is because the ‘Montreal Amateur Athletic Association’ is not really who they are… they’re the Montreal Hockey Club.  They have a ‘connected’ status to this Amateur Athletic Association, but they’ve always practiced at other rinks.

So now the team that has actually won the Cup is resenting that a bunch of well-fed executives are accepting the thing that their blood and sweat had won, dammit!  So when the trustees come to present the Cup to the Montreal team, the team doesn’t show up but the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association happily accept it ‘on their behalf’.  This further enrages the Montreal Hockey Club, which claims that they weren’t contacted [about receiving the Cup].  So now they feel they’ve been doubly injured, and so on.

So now it’s becoming a real problem, because of course, this is the Governor General of Canada’s trophy. This is a big deal.  This is the Queen’s representative in the country, and we’re squabbling over it. So they convene a special meeting and they say [according to the official history] in order not to offend the Governor General of Canada, and not to seem ungrateful in the public eye, the directors have decided to retain possession of the Stanley Cup. 

The public was never informed of the dispute.  So essentially, the first Stanley Cup was awarded by a committee in secret.

What I think that it illustrates is that a cup that has become so large in the sporting imagination – it’s the most recognizable sport trophy, I think, in the world and it’s so international now. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s the greatest. What started out as a national thing is now an international thing.  Players from all over the world can come and play in the NHL, and compete for [the Cup]. 

But at the very beginning, the first team wouldn’t compete for it and the second team refused to accept it!  A squabble about club politics rather than their achievement as Cup champions.  That’s my favorite Stanley Cup story because it just reveals to us it’s early origins and how far it’s come since then.

Alanah: You mention that it is revered around the world. I’ve also heard you speak before about the equal role of Canada and the US in developing hockey. An interesting comment that a lot of Canadians especially don’t think about very much

Michael: I think one of the things [Canadians] do overlook is the role of Americans in the game we frequently claim as our own.  It is as much theirs as it is ours, and that’s a wonderful thing, I think. I am particularly referring to the fact that in 1904 we have the advent of the world’s first professional hockey league in northern Michigan, and a Canadian guy named ‘Doc’ Gibson […] goes to dental college in Michigan and then he hangs out his shingle in a town called Houghton and gets involved with the local business community and plays hockey.  There’s a lot of money in this town, mining, and there’s a hundred thousand people in the county itself, and it’s sophisticated. They see hockey as being a business enterprise that can compete with all the other local entertainment choices that all these people who have money, have got.

They weren’t constrained by the ‘amateur ideal’ which constrained hockey in Canada. In fact, Doc Gibson had been banished from playing hockey in Ontario for accepting a piece of silver when his team had won a championship. To take money, or anything of value for playing this game, was seen as a form of prostitution by those who ran the game – although they had no problem charging people to come and watch you play it…. But if the players dared to take money for playing, they were banished.

Maybe the owners believed in this ‘amateur idea’… or maybe they just saw that their profits would be seriously compromised if they had to start paying the talent.

But in northern Michigan back in 1904 there was no such problem and they paid the players. And so the continent tilted south – all the Canadian hockey stars went down there and got paid to play the game that they were good at.

That was the world’s first professional league and it lasted until 1907. The Stanley Cup trustees would never let the teams of that league play for the Stanley Cup, but the Canadian rink owners saw the writing very clearly on the wall, and by 1908 Canada’s got professional hockey. 

And so the players all come home.  But it was the United States that opened that door into making the game into a profession, where talent and the hierarchy of excellence came to a point where, if you were that good, you got money for playing.  It changed everything.  It created a star system, it created excitement, it created a business [model] for all these other leagues that followed.

All through the history of the NHL the game expands, to where? To the United States. Why? First, because they see this big roaring 20s market. Then they expand there again in 1967. There’s been hockey [all over America]  for a long time. I think it’s simply been overshadowed by sports like baseball, football and basketball. And also the fact that there hasn’t been a large American talent pool till recently.

But that’s changing. America likes winners and certainly they’ve been climbing internationally in that regard as well.

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I’ve cut the interview off here, since I proceeded to ask Michael a small pile of predictive questions about this year’s playoffs. However, this interview was done before the first round and it’s not entirely fair to print those responses at this point.  But I will say this: he did anticipate that the Anaheim Ducks would be super dangerous this year, and that the Atlanta Thrashers were likely to have first-time playoff “jitters”. 

And he also added one more thing: “I’ll follow my heart and say it’s the Canucks’ year this year. As a Canucks fan, you know how hard it is to say that!”

Indeed I do. And I’m delighted to know that even a hockey expert still feels compelled by the emotion that drives us all to follow and cheer for our favorite teams.

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*Thanks very much to Michael McKinley for this very enjoyable conversation. And also to his publisher McClelland & Stewart for tolerating my inquiries and his representative Stephen Crane for arranging this interview.

Filed in: NHL Playoff Talk, | KK Hockey | Permalink
 

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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