Dropping the Puck
Can hockey mount a comeback?
In case you hadn’t heard, hockey is failing fast, bound for oblivion. But then again, wasn’t it always?
Ask any old pro a couple of years beyond his prime, and he’ll tell you straight up: the game today isn’t what it was when he was young and chasing pucks. The Hall of Fame defenceman Eddie Shore had been retired for almost a decade in 1949 when he bewailed the players who’d succeeded his generation of NHLers. “They have no guts,” he railed, “and they don’t know how to skate.” Gordie Howe lamented, in 1980, that “the animosity is gone.” For Wayne Gretzky in 2016, it was the fun that had fled: kids who weren’t having any were losing their creativity on the ice, and that, in turn, was the reason for the latter-day lack of scoring.
There’s also the memoir Maurice Richard published in 1971, which devoted a whole bleak chapter to hockey’s demise — the one not-so-subtly headed “Hockey Was a Better Game in My Day.”
Maybe so. What we do know, with a certainty that goes beyond the purely subjective, is that in its rules and equipment and tactics, hockey has never not been in flux, reaching back as far as you like. It’s also true that the library of hockey books suggesting a crisis has been growing for some years and that rumours of the game’s lacks, liabilities, faults, and frailties are so loud now as to convince the stoutest, most optimistic loyalist that the game is in serious trouble and possibly even — say it ain’t so — a terminal case.
Latest to the shelf is Sean Fitz-Gerald’s absorbing and worrying Before the Lights Go Out. It plants some familiar flags: general disaffection, shifting demographics, the cost of equipment and ice time, concerns over the physical toll the game can take, the rise of other sports (Go, Raptors!), even climate change. If you follow the game at any level, you’ve seen the flags fluttering.
Is there any comfort to be drawn from the fact that nearly fifty years have passed since Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane published The Death of Hockey, in 1972? (Macfarlane now sits on the board of directors of the Literary Review of Canada.) Even as Canadians revelled in the fall of that year in the glory of Paul Henderson’s Summit Series–winning goal in Moscow, Kidd and Macfarlane were accusing the NHL of not simply selling out our precious national game to corporate America but surrendering Canada’s very soul in the deal.
Other indictments followed. A pair of American writers, Jeff Z. Klein and Karl-Eric Reif, published their own Death of Hockey in 1998, lambasting the NHL for everything from runaway corporate greed to trampling on tradition and cynically fostering fighting. Ed Arnold’s Whose Puck Is It, Anyway?, from 2002, foreshadowed Gretzky’s alarm, framing a plan to refigure the game’s priorities for kids, putting fun to the fore. In 2006, Saving the Game featured Mark Moore’s multi-part plan to revamp the way hockey does its business off and on the ice, including a call for a switch to a four-on-four model. And in 2017, there was Game Change, in which the Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden directly challenged NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to address hockey’s concussion crisis.
A former sportswriter at the Toronto Star, Fitz-Gerald now works his words as a senior scribe for The Athletic, a subscription-based sports website with an extensive Canadian operation. His professional perspective is inflected by a lifetime’s love of the game as well as a father’s experience of guiding his young kids (not to mention tying their skates) as they take to the ice for the first time. That’s where the book starts and finishes, even if the core of Fitz-Gerald’s narrative isn’t particularly personal. Methodical and closely reported, it concentrates, instead, on examining what ails the game by way of a case study of the hockey hub of Peterborough, Ontario.
Just under two hours northeast of Toronto, this city of some 84,000 has always been proud — pugnacious, even — when it comes to asserting its hockey pedigree. I’m as guilty as anyone: Peterborough-born, I learned to skate there, to stickhandle, to look down my nose at all the other, lesser hockey communities that have failed to matter as much as us. It was in Peterborough that my hockey career peaked in the mid-1970s, with the hat trick I somehow scored as a dawdling eleven-year-old left-winger for the All Saints Atom Anglicans.
Is there anything to Peterborough’s claim of hockey exceptionalism beyond natural hometown pride and free-range boosterism? No one I know has ever really gone beyond celebrating the town’s hockeyness to actually explain it. That includes Ed Arnold, a Peterborough journalist with a long and enthusiastic record of hockey coaching and organizing; his 2004 book, Hockey Town, is a charming monument to the city’s dedication to hockey, but no manual.
What Peterborough does have is a long and lore-filled history in major-junior hockey. For Fitz-Gerald’s purposes, that’s more than enough to justify his interest here. The influence of the Petes, established in 1956, expands well beyond the lone Memorial Cup that adorns the team’s trophy case, from 1979. Consider the coaches who launched careers here: Scotty Bowman, Roger Neilson, Mike Keenan. The list of NHL superstars who made an early mark at the Memorial Centre includes Bob Gainey, Wayne Gretzky (briefly), Steve Yzerman, and Chris Pronger. “So numerous are the Petes alumni around the NHL,” Fitz-Gerald writes, “they are sometimes referred to as members of the ‘Peterborough Mafia.’ ”
Embedding himself with the team as it embarked on its 2017–18 OHL season, Fitz-Gerald rode the team bus, haunted the rinks the (mostly teenaged) players played in, got to know the manager, the coaches, the parents, the fans. He watched, he listened, he wrote it all down, and he shaped it, artfully, into a very good (if fairly conventional) diary-of-a-season narrative.
We meet the coach, Jody Hull, and his boss, Mike Oke, the general manager. We get compelling portraits of the captain, Logan DeNoble, a local boy whose grandfather, great-uncle, and uncle all once played for the Petes. We follow the fortunes of a couple of high-test prospects, too: a winger, Nick Robertson (a Leafs draft pick in 2019), and the goaltender Dylan Wells, for whom the Edmonton Oilers have high hopes.
Years of struggles on the ice have tarnished the Petes’ brand. Every year that the team misses the playoffs strains the finances a little more. Community-owned and under the control of an elected board, the operation isn’t as spry, perhaps, as it might be. And for all its history and vernacular charm (a towering portrait of Queen Elizabeth surveys all from one end of the ice), the city-owned, sixty-two-year-old Memorial Centre is cramped and cracking, slippery-staired, leaky-roofed.
So times have been tough in Peterborough. And yet, for all the uncertainty attending the future of the franchise, there’s a short-term answer to all the team’s problems, the one that always applies in sports: just win.
The Petes start the season doing just that. They’re touted, early on, as one of the best teams in the country. It doesn’t last. Bad luck strikes, injuries pile up, a slump sets in. For all the frustration and bad blood that losing provokes and the jobs it costs (Hull is fired before the season is out), the struggles of defeat are inherently more interesting — and instructive — than anything stemming from victory. Fitz-Gerald takes it all in. Here he is on the team’s “post-game penance,” after yet another dispiriting loss:
Conversations were held to a minimum, especially if they were all on the bus after a loss on the road. Laughter was absolutely forbidden. Coaches adopted the look of parents who would say they were not upset but merely disappointed. Players were expected to look like they were always lost in deep thought over the consequences of their actions.
Having fixed his focus on the day-to-day dealings of the Petes and their season, Fitz-Gerald begins to widen the scope of his inquiry. Back in ’72, Kidd and Macfarlane explored hockey’s spell — how it “spans the distances, cultural and topographical, that separate” us — in the chapter headed “The Canadian Specific.” Fitz-Gerald’s version of this includes an interview with Roch Carrier, author of “The Hockey Sweater,” but it is, at best, an amiable aside that feels extraneous.
Fitz-Gerald finds better traction talking to those with an active stake in the game and the Peterborough community that sustains it. He listens to fans and parents and hockey evangelists doing their best to break down the barriers that are keeping kids from the ice. He doesn’t delve into girls’ hockey with any real depth, and that seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. He bores with more intent into the city’s burgeoning population of refugees, exploring how these new Canadians are engaged (or not) with the sport. In this, his reporting achieves something that few hockey-minded books manage: crossing the distance from centre ice to main street — in Peterborough’s case, George Street.
Along the way, he learns just how grim the outlook seems to be: the Peterborough Hockey Association is shedding 100 players a year. An even scarier statistic that reaches him from beyond the city limits shows that, across Canada, nine out of ten kids ages four to nineteen don’t play hockey.
Fitz-Gerald talks to Tom Renney, CEO of Hockey Canada, the national governing body, whose message is upbeat. “Canadians still very much embrace the game,” he says. Yet the campaign to keep hockey relevant and boost the numbers seems to be either undermanned or disorganized.
Remedies? Therapies? Fitz-Gerald isn’t really writing any prescriptions here. At one point, Renney mentions a bold transformative plan to make sure “the hockey experience is of more benefit than any other activity that a child participates in.” That sounds intriguing, though it never seems to resolve itself into much more than a plan to switch younger players to smaller ice surfaces — one that ends up being poorly implemented and, ultimately, bogged down in political wrangling. Otherwise, there’s some vague talk of hockey having to find Canadians rather than vice versa, but there’s no real flesh on those bones either.
There are gaps. In Game Change, Dryden pegged his arraignment of the sport to the tragic story of Steve Montador, an eleven-year veteran of the NHL who died at the age of thirty-five, in 2015. Montador, who grew up in the Kawarthas and played for the Petes in 1999–2000, was found after his death to have been suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In his otherwise thorough study of the state of the game, locally and nationally, Fitz-Gerald doesn’t really address the ways in which the realities of concussions and their devastating long-term implications are shifting how hockey is played and perceived.
For all that, Before the Lights Go Out frames a vital and rewarding portrait of a city and the game it plays. Fitz-Gerald’s title tolls a funereal knell. Listening to it later, closer to the end of the book, it doesn’t necessarily sound so dire. The warnings are clear, and there’s work to be done, but in Canada, winter ever was (and still remains) a time of hockey hope and renewal.