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

Yesterday, the first part of an interview with Michael McKinley, author of Hockey: A People's History, was posted on the website. In it, we talked about the writing process, the history of the game, and the stories that play such a key role in making it so enjoyable to follow. In this second series, McKinley talks a bit more about the Ottawa Senators, the history of hockey in Ottawa, and get into the story of women's hockey, and why it's taken so long for the women's game--despite its storied legacy--to get recognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame.


Silver Seven: In the early days of professional hockey, Ottawa had a pretty significant role in the development of the game. But it took almost 60 years after the original Senators left Ottawa for the NHL to expand to the city once again. Why do you think it took so long for Ottawa to re-gain an NHL franchise?

Michael McKinley: That's a really good question. I mean, it's the national capital, and as you rightly point out, it's critical in the development of the game; I mean, the Stanley Cup originates there. In so much of the early days of hockey, Ottawa was the star. And with the Silver Seven, it was littered with stars. I think that when they lost the team during the 1930s, we were in the middle of the Depression. Then the NHL loses teams during the Second World War, like the New York Americans, as well. And then we get the so-called ‘Original Six', and we've got Conn Smythe in Toronto, the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago, Boston, the Rangers, and Detroit. So [James] Norris owns Detroit, and Chicago, and has an interest in the Rangers; the one guy. Boston's owned by a powerful owner, and Smythe's got Toronto, and Montreal has had a pot pourri of powerful guys. And they're doing okay.

When they decide to expand, they decide to expand because of television. And in 1967, I don't think Ottawa's perceived of being a big enough market. Their thinking then is, they see what baseball has done, and they see what the NFL has done, in terms of engaging with this thing called television. Conn Smythe won't allow televised Leafs games on TV, thinking it would diminish walk-in customers, and that ended finally in 1958. So where did they expand? To the United States: L.A., St. Louis, Pittsburgh; basically, teams that have history. And lots of television viewers. Philadelphia, another one; California, the Oakland Seals; large American market teams. [...]

So it takes three more years for Buffalo and Vancouver to come into the league, so now you've got the third city in Canada-Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. That remains for quite a while, and, again, it's the perception of market: Television market, and television revenue. And I think it still governs the league. You've got the disaster in Phoenix, you've got shaky franchises in Atlanta, Miami; would those teams not work better in Winnipeg, Quebec City, maybe a second one in Hamilton, in Ontario. I'm sure they'd do better, but the league, under Bettman, is trying to saturate television markets, and cover all of Canada and the United States to get revenue. I think Ottawa is very much a part of that way of thinking.

And now, it's unthinkable that there wouldn't be a team from Ottawa, really. But I think that's why it took so long to get one.

S7: What is the most interesting story about the Ottawa Senators, in your mind?

MM: I think their series against the Dawson City Nuggets, even though the Senators creamed them. I think it's one that best illustrates the power of the game, in the national imagination. I mean, here you had Frank McGee-the Wayne Gretzky of his time, if you'd like-and the most powerful team in the country, playing a group of civil servants, cops, farmers, prospectors, who get together as a team just to get to the train to get to Ottawa. That was almost story enough, they had to walk, ride bikes, go through blizzards...

S7: Dogsleds...

MM: Yeah, dogsleds, take a boat down, get caught in fog and have to land in Victoria, not in Vancouver. They get to Vancouver, and then their schedule-which was tight already-is now insane. They train on the train, jog on the platform, pushups, and they get to Ottawa just two days before the game's supposed to start. And they say "We're not going to delay, we're going to play tomorrow."

And they do. But it was front-page stuff in the newspapers across the country, the progress of this team, the Nuggets, on their way to play the Silver Seven. It was almost as if the outcome didn't matter, it was the journey that was this compelling, unifying thing in the national imagination. And then they get there, lose massively, and McGee sets that record that still stands for goals scored in the playoffs in a game. And then the Dawson City Nuggets go on a barnstorming tour across the country, make some money, and then go home. But the fact that it could happen at all...

And of course, that's when the rules were changed, after what some called a ‘publicity stunt'. Even if it was, it was for the power of good, because it made the game exciting again for those who might not have noticed. And for those who had noticed, it was an adventure that unified the country, and only further enshrined the game in the national imagination. Without the Senators, without the Silver Seven, it just couldn't have happened. I mean, if you had some team in playing some other team, in the middle of the prairies, no. But here was some guys from the hinterland going to the national capital to play the best. How poetic, and how dramatic, if they managed to beat them? But that was almost immaterial, you know? Just the fact that they did it made anything possible in this new and vast country.

S7: You don't just talk about men's pro hockey in your book; you also talk about women's hockey, and women have a longer and more storied history than most people likely give them credit for. But not until this year did we see a female hockey player inducted into the HHOF; why do you think it took so long?

MM: Well, I think that a lot of our memory is generated by television. So, you know, the so-called ‘golden age' or the Original Six of the NHL were the ones that survived the Depression and the Second World War and emerged with six teams until 1967. And the beginning of TV, or televised hockey, happened around then, too. So a lot of their play winds up on the highlight reels, and into popular memory.

The women's game didn't have that luxury until quite recently, when they started playing in the Olympics in '98. That generates attention for the women's game, but in a way that if you're not thinking about [the past]. You think, "Oh, women started playing hockey, and they're on TV," and it doesn't really generate a lot of reflection about how far back women's hockey goes. In the way that most people watch the men's games, people don't really think about the Ottawa Silver Seven, Frank McGee, and the Dawson City Nuggets having this tournament for the Cup. We tend not to do that, how much we owe to the past.

So that's part of the problem with the understanding of the women's game, is that it's not really a rival on the electronic media stage. Which, again, runs with the notion that during the First World War, when men were away at war, women's leagues flourished and fans would still be fans. And during the depression, the Preston Rivulettes, I can't remember the actual number of victories, something like three hundred and seventy five wins, two losses, over a decade. And they drew thousands of fans. But again, it's oral history, not visual. So I think that's the same reason why the women's game is arriving late on the stage, even though it was present from the get-go.

Even now it's having a tough time doing it, because there are really only two really good women's teams in the world, and they're Canada and the United States. They're helping other national teams improve, so that the game is stronger around the world, and therefore better, and they're going to get more powerful.

In terms of the Hockey Hall of Fame only admitting women now, let's put it this way: The Hall is not primarily a historical body. There are great guys who work in the Hall of Fame, but the people who vote on admission to the Hall aren't necessarily historians, and when you present candidates for induction, there are all kinds of reasons why they go in. From the fact that they once ran the league, supported teams in the league, built empires, and made money for everybody, to people who lit up the charts in goal-scoring and assists and so forth, or won several Stanley Cups. I feel those are guiding factors, and people who never win the Stanley Cup might never make it in there. So one of the problems of the women's game is the Hall has to be educated to the story of the game. I think that's happening a lot more than it was ten years ago, but, that said, James Creighton isn't even in the Hall of Fame. To me, that's astonishing; without him, there's nothing. He organizes the first indoor game, and he's around for the creation of the Stanley Cup, but he's not a member. People have tried to get him in, I know that Stephen Harper has been working on getting the guy a headstone; great. He should have one. I think of Americans; if Creighton had been down here, he'd have long ago been on a postage stamp, if not a piece of currency. If you gave the Hall some understanding of the history with him, you can understand why it's taken them so long to get women in.


Thanks again 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. Part three, which gets into the more modern history of the game, will come on Thursday.

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