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Silver Seven interviews Michael McKinley, author of Hockey: A People's History (part one)

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A few months ago, I was contacted with an offer to receive a copy of Hockey: A People's History for review on my website, and an opportunity to speak with the book's author, Michael McKinley, about the book and the process of writing it. Never one to decline such an opportunity, I accepted, and a few days later received the book in the mail---initially intimidatingly huge at 370-plus oversized pages, but once I opened it, a genuine pleasure to read. The book charts the sport's history from its first days (as far back as 600 BC) to the modern day, telling select stories alongside full-colour illustrations and made for hours of very interesting reading.

Needless to say, the massive tome brought plenty of questions to mind, and I wanted to put them all to Mr. McKinley when we were to talk over the phone a few days ago. But I restrained myself to some degree, trying not to keep the author busy for too long. As it was, we spent an hour talking about the book, the game, the sport, and the business. This is the first part of that interview.


Silver Seven: What inspired you to write Hockey: A People's History? You did, originally, start with another book, right?

Michael McKinley: I did, I wrote a book called Putting a Roof on Winter. My aim with Putting a Roof on Winter was to tell the story of hockey in Canada; one that was, you know, dramatic and nail-biting and triumphant, and then it changes everything, and that's a different story for later.

And then later came along, with CBC's Hockey: A People's History. The CBC were going to do one hour on the Richard Riots, in 1965. They realized they had too much material to fit in one hour, and felt that it deserved a longer segment. So they picked up Putting a Roof on Winter, read it, and thought, "Ah-ha! We'll ask this guy to write the program material." So that's how I got involved in the project.

It was very nice, for me, because they were doing ten one-hour episodes for Hockey: A People's History, which meant each hour had its own research team. So they'd send me their research, and I'd send them mine, and stuff I found out went into the show, and stuff they found out went into the book, but it was like working with 50 researchers. Which was great, because I couldn't be in three places at once, to do interviews in the very compressed time frame that we had. It's probably the only time in my career it will work out like that, but it was nice while it was happening.

S7: So you had a fair bit of help, then?

MM: In terms of doing on-the-ground interviews, yes. They had researchers who would go to places like Houghton, Michigan-where the first international or pro league was-or they could find people that played in Europe just before the Second World War, all during the same week, while I was trying to fill the chapters with some semblance of organization and coherence. And then I would get an e-mail with transcription of the interview, cherry-pick the quotes and put them in where I thought they would serve the story. It was a different way than I normally work, but it worked out fine.

S7: Well, all the work that went into it for you and all the researchers, it definitely shows. It's a heck of a read.

MM: Well, thank you. It was awfully fun to do. I thought, after doing Putting a Roof on Winter, I thought I more or less had the story straight, and then learned a ton of stuff with this book as well. We very much wanted to make it a social history, and a cultural history, by following the fortunes of the game. So really, telling the story of a people; I mean, A People's History. A lot of people think that sports, somehow, isn't a part of history, or a part of culture, which I find astonishing, really. When you consider how much of our waking lives we devote to the pursuit of either playing or following a sport. And how much of our identity we take from our sports teams, how much personal and civic identity; how passionate we get about the fortunes our favourite teams or players, and how much they matter to us during the course of our lives. Much more so than, you might argue, than the theatre or ballet or opera do-not to diminish those, but I would put sport in the same league, culturally.

S7: Your book is called 'A People's History' for good reason; although you certainly discuss the contributions of other countries to the development of the game, your focus seems to be on Canada and the Canadian experience. What do you think it is about hockey that has united so many Canadians, arguably more than anything else in history?

MM: Well, when Lord Stanley invented the Stanley Cup in Ottawa in 1892-but even earlier than that because his sons were playing for the Rideau Hall Rebels, along with James Creighton, who's the guy who gave birth to our game-Stanley's idea was that the game could be played in winter in a country where winter was no stranger, and was a hot, passionate game in the dead of winter. So, you know, there's that great possibly Stephen Leacock quote-although I've never been able to find it in Leacock's work, but let's say he said it-that, to paraphrase, "In a country that is inhospitably cold, hockey is proof of life in the dead of winter, proof that we're alive."

But it's fun. It's passionate, it gave people who were strained by cold and darkness something to do, play, or watch, to be entertained by, and to rally around as a community in the season where nothing really could happen-although that's not necessarily true, because, you know, you've got Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, have all got parks where people can play outside. But I think that hockey was the thing that, it was democratic: You needed a stick, something to be a puck, and something the puck could go in. Everyone could play; by the turn of the 20th century, everyone did: There were bank tellers' teams, telephone operators' teams, police teams, aboriginal teams, kids' teams; it really swept the national imagination. It was an outdoor game, really, pretty much until our schedules took over. Cities grew, and so forth, and now you need to get your kid to the rink at four in the morning to get ice time, unless you happen to be fortunate enough to live near an outdoor pond.

But I think that Stanley's idea, to get back to the original idea of uniting the provinces, presenting a trophy for the game, and making it a challenge trophy that any team can compete for, really, with the railway-teams could now travel around. So it was a stroke of genius, really, and the country was one, in a way that I don't think it has responded to anything else. It was a game that was so suited to the Canadian climate and geography. As it has been to other northern people, as well; the Russians, now, is an interesting story, but Canada is just there.

S7: With that in mind, about the Stanley Cup originally intended as a challenge trophy in the unique Canadian time, do you think the NHL appropriating the Stanley Cup as their own award is okay? Or do you think it's against the original intention of Lord Stanley, when he started that trophy?

MM: That's a good question. I mean, it still, really, doesn't belong to the NHL, and you're right, they have appropriated it. But during the lockout, you might recall, a couple years ago there was that movement to have other leagues compete for it, in the spirit of the original challenge cup. You could have the trustees administer it, and allow that competition. And they were pretty hamstrung by the fact that their NHL masters wouldn't have been very happy about that.

I think Stanley's notion, at the time, was to unite Canadians around the game, via a trophy. Perhaps he hadn't imagined how global the game would become, but I think if he could have imagined how global the game would have become, I think he would have been open to it. It has become the world's trophy, in the sense that all of the world competes for it; albeit they're wearing NHL jerseys.

I think it would be hard to wrench the Stanley Cup away from the NHL now. I think it's too historically attached, no matter what Stanley might have thought about it.

S7: There are plenty of amazing stories in here. One of my favourites would have to be that of the Alkali Lake Braves, and especially Alec Antoine--the Squamish hockey player who declined the opportunity to join the NHL so he could return to his farm. Do you have a favourite story?

MM: I love the Alkali Lake guys, and Alec Antoine, who does go home. There were a couple of players like that, in passing, who were-there was a guy names Mike Campbell, apparently the best player in the IHL, and he just disappeared. He was thought of playing as better than any of the other guys, who have become charter members of the Hall of Fame. But he disappeared. Lorne Campbell, was his name-Lorne Campbell.

The story I really liked, which I didn't know, and is one of the great things I learned while doing this book, was about Mike Buckna. Was a guy from Trail, B.C.; his parents were Czech immigrants, and he grows up in Trail in the 1920s and 30s-you know, a mining town in the mountains of British Columbia. He plays hockey, and he goes back to the old country, to see where his parents were from. He looks in the newspaper, and there's an ad that says the Czech national team wants hockey players. So he's waiting for a train, it was scheduled for later that day, so he shows up [to the tryout]; the guy running the practice can scarcely believe his eyes. He's got this guy who's miles better than anyone on the else;--I mean, the Czech national team at that point had one guy who had a wooden leg, one guy who went to train in a pub-they weren't exactly an elite crew. So Mike Buckna was first, and he signed up for the Czech team, which he then takes over as a player-coach-and they start to win. He trains them the way he learned, in Trail: Fast, skilled, creative hockey.

And then World War II comes around, and Buckna goes home to Canada. The war happens, it ends, and he goes back, and takes over the team again and they win the international championship playing the hockey he taught them. And, of course, at this point in history the Russians are playing bandy-another version of a game on ice, not quite hockey-see this, and they want to get good at ice hockey, because the capitalist countries are too good at it, and it's a way of competing and playing out the Cold War. So who do they learn their game from? They learn their game from their satellite state, Czechoslovakia, who learned it from a guy from Trail, Mike Buckna.

So the grand irony of this story is when the Soviets come to play Canada in the Summit Series, in 1972, and initially they were a motley crew, we were going to smoke them; it was arrogance, which that series very quickly erased by the Russian speed and skill and creativity-because, of course, the Russians were playing the game we used to play, in Trail, in the 1930s. That's the game they learned from the Czechs, who learned from Mike Buckna. Of course, we didn't know that. We were thinking, "Oh, Russian hockey, the beauty, the speed of it..." of course, we had moved away from it. We were entering that period of the Broad Street Bullies, where it was very thuggish and dump-and-chase, and slow; the Russian game was fast, and skilled, and conditioned.

It's shocking to be reminded of, but guys would finish the NHL season, they'd go off to the cottage, and they'd drink beer all summer. And then they'd show up, and they'd get back into shape in training camp by sweating off the pounds-which is harder to do as you get older. If you've got to play in September, which they did against the Russians, they weren't in shape at all. There was no working with your trainer all summer long, no job of being a ‘professional athlete' as being a 12-month job, not a 10-month job if you make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, or eight-month job if you play for Vancouver-that's my old team, even though I live in New York now I still follow the Canucks.

The Mike Buckna one was one that I was just fascinated with. It travelled over 40 years, and it brought us back to this: That was our game.


This interview continues for a good while longer; part two will hopefully be posted Wednesday morning. Obviously, thanks are due to Mr. McKinley for offering his time to talk to me, as well as Stephen Crane of CraneCreek Communications for initially getting in touch with me about the opportunity.