Q&A with Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman, authors of Hockey: A Global History

Stephen Hardy is a retired professor of kinesiology and affiliate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. His publications include Sport Marketing, Fourth Edition, and How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and CommunityAndrew C. Holman is a professor of history and the director of Canadian studies at Bridgewater State University. His publications include Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity and The Same but Different: Hockey in Quebec. They recently answered some questions about their new book Hockey: A Global History.

Q: One of the eye-opening aspects of Hockey: A Global History is the fact the game escaped early from its Canadian “incubator.” Ice hockey itself spread, of course, but so did a number of hockey-related games. What led the two of you to venture outside the usual parameters of a hockey history to look at the sport in such a broad way? What surprised you during your research?

The perspective you describe is certainly prevalent, especially among people who grew up in Canada. What we try to show is the existence of many hockey-like games, on fields and on ice, around the world centuries ago. Names varied by location, as did rules. We were aware of this, as were other authors, but our research still brought surprises.  Perhaps the biggest was an exotic spectacle called “polo.” It sprang up in the 1880s, in roller skating rinks, that sprouted all around North America and parts of Europe. It was a high-speed, high collision affair with short sticks, a ball, and cages. It had media coverage, league organization, and fan followings far in advance of Montreal hockey at the time. It was also played on ice. We describe how and why it faded in many markets after other promoters introduced Montreal hockey.

Q: The book returns often to the theme of technology as an influence on hockey’s evolution. Everything from railroad expansion to television to carbon fiber had its own particular impact. Is there an innovation that “made” hockey to such an extent the game is unthinkable without it? Along similar lines, what technology produced a similar sea change in recent times?

Without question, the single most important technological innovation to our story is the breakthrough in artificial ice-making in the 1890s. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs had tried various systems for a century until the breakthrough that separated the lines of general coolant (like ether or ammonia, which had volatile and dangerous properties) from the lines—in the 1890s filled with brine—that went under the ice. This prompted an immediate and staggering investment in indoor ice rinks in the USA and parts of Europe. It is no surprise that the Montreal game took off with these new rinks as incubators.

More recently it is innovation in equipment—lighter, higher performance (and more expensive) sticks, skates, pads. This has certainly elevated player skill and speed.

Q: Outsiders may not be aware of how the 1972 Summit Series looms in Canadian history—and not just sports history. The book discusses how this landmark exhibition between Canada and the Soviet Union marked a dramatic turning point from hockey’s prior commitment to “divergence” in favor of a new “convergence” in organization, playing style, and other areas. Where had hockey been before the Summit Series and where did it go after?

The Summit Series came about mainly because of frustration in both Canada and the Soviet Union. IIHF and Olympic rules had long forbidden outright professionals – those who made their principal living from the game, such as NHLers – from playing in international tournaments that counted. For Canada, that meant that several hundred of their best players had been barred from representing their country.  For the Soviet Union, whose national team had come to dominate IIHF tournaments in the 1960s, it meant being prevented from playing against the world’s purportedly best players. The eight-game challenge series provided a long-awaited showdown between talent pools and, metaphorically, about “ways of life.” That the Soviet “amateurs” – largely soldiers whose principal work was playing hockey – did so well against the vaunted pros and lost only late in the series’ final game (when Canada scored with 34 seconds left!) shows how much the Soviets had caught up to Canadians in skill and will. But central to the story is the aftermath. As we show in the book, gradually and grudgingly, North Americans become fascinated with Soviet strategy, which contrasted so starkly with the old Canadian, dump-and-chase, damn-the-torpedoes style. And they begin to adopt elements of it through coaching exchanges, team tours to Europe and the recruitment of elite European players. At the same time, one lesson that the Soviets and other Europeans took away from the series was the undeniable utility of physical play and intimidation. No coincidence, then, that European hockey in the 1970s and 80s becomes rougher, and more North American in style. It was a real crossroads – a convergence moment.

Q: Women’s hockey, particularly in the Olympics, enjoys a higher profile than ever before. Yet forty-some years ago it only existed as a club or intramural sport played by a small number of people. What factors boosted its growth? Where do you see women’s hockey going in the new millennium?

We try to show the heroic struggles of women to get on the ice as soon as there were rinks. Canadian women are certainly more visible in the record, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, but we also offer evidence of women playing in the USA and Europe. The last 40 years have for sure brought greater progress. We argue that a central factor has been pressure from the players themselves, coupled with pragmatism from those controlling the ice time. Some of that pragmatism was legal (e.g. Title IX) some of it was a recognition that the Canadian and American women had better chances of winning Olympic and IIHF World championships. Females who aspire to hockey careers certainly have more options now, with professional leagues in North America and Europe. They still have to battle and pressure for opportunities, but now there are more of them. The USA women’s national team fought for higher pay, and won.

Q: In your epilogue you write, “Convergence and divergence, in tandem. That is what we see ahead.” Looking at the game today, can you pick out a current trend or trends that will have an impact on hockey over, say, the next 10-20 years? Or, if you prefer: what should that know-it-all on the barstool be pontificating about during second intermission?

Historians are notoriously bad at making predictions, so we have tread very carefully when it comes to seeing into the future. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” is a hackneyed phrase but it captures something of what we see ahead of us.  At root, organized hockey has since 1875 been identified for a unique combination of three elements: speed, combination play, and physicality. At the risk of oversimplifying things, its core ingredients have been both its central “calling card” and the source of its main problems. The elements are intertwined, but finding the proper balance among them has been the core challenge of the game’s administrators, managers, coaches and players. Hockey observers in 1907 and 1977 complained loudly, for example, about excessive violence and how physical play was ruining a beautiful sport. Likewise, when the rhythm of hockey (its combination play or “science”) – became stultified by defensive tactics that made it slow, or boring, hockey’s best minds intervened, introducing the forward pass, for example in 1929, and rules against obstruction interference in the 1990s and 2000s. But it is the third of this sport’s elements – speed – and how to deal with its consequences that will dominate hockey talk in the coming years. In hockey, speed kills, both figuratively and literally. It is the source of the current game’s excitement; players now skate faster, collide more violently, and shoot harder than ever before. Exciting, but dangerous.  And the current scare about concussions underlines that point. So, how to ensure that hockey remains thrilling and safe is the question that will motor much of the discussion. Below elite levels, the sport has great work ahead of it to become more inclusive. And so the challenge there is to find ways to invite more girls and women and a more robust representation in the game of kids and adults from ethnically and racially diverse backgrounds.

Q: Finally, the most important question. The book makes it obvious that you are hockey fans. What team or teams do you follow? How’d you learn to love hockey? We have lots of bandwidth. Feel free to mention meeting your idol at age nine or a playoff loss that scarred you forever.

SH: I grew up in Greater Boston and came of age as an athlete and fan in the late 1950s and the 1960s. My neighbor had played hockey at Dartmouth with some great players including Jack Riley, who was coach at West Point and coach of the 1960 USA Olympic Gold Medal team. That team included some Boston guys like Bill Cleary. The last two games were among the first Olympic competitions shown live in the USA. Most Bostonian hockey people of my age would point to that as an important moment. Few American kids had dreams of playing in the NHL, even though we loved the Bruins (despite their dismal records at that time) and idolized certain NHL players (for me Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau). The NHL had little interest in Americans, for reasons we try to explain. Our dreams were to play high school, college, and (for those good enough) on the Olympic team.

AH: I’ve been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for a long time (though I had a brief “fling” with the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s, during the height of the “Broad Street Bullies”). I inherited the Leafs, I guess, from my dad and my grandfather – my dad’s dad. I grew up in southern Ontario, so Saturday nights meant that the Hockey Night in Canada telecast would be on the television. And so Leafs talk was never very far away (in fact, it still is… “did you see the Toronto game last night?” is a question I often have to be ready to answer when my parents call). I don’t want to jinx things – the Leafs are looking pretty strong this year – but they have been really bad for a long time and a deep playoff run or, dare I say, a Stanley Cup appearance would be a welcome event for all of us in Leafs nation, even those of us ex-pats out in the diaspora. Hockey was always in my family (I have three hockey-playing brothers all of whom who were introduced to the game at early ages), and like so many Canadians families that meant learning and playing the game together in shinny games and travelling together to one of my brothers’ teams’ tournaments far and wide. Growing up, we spent a lot of time in rinks. And now, we are all in our 50s, and though we live with our own families in different cities in Canada and the US, we are always looking for ways – tournaments or guest appearances on each other’s beer-league teams – to lace up the skates and play together. It’s fantastic. I can’t say I have ever had a hockey idol, though in the never-ending road hockey games on the street where I grew up or those on the outdoor backyard rinks, I suppose I could have been heard shouting out “Davey Keon” or “Darryl Sittler” when the puck found its way to my stick.

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