November 11, 2010

War And Hockey History

War has made a significant impact on hockey history.

The NHL has continued play through many conflicts, with the two World Wars having the most profound effect on the league. Many players interrupted their careers, either voluntarily or through conscription, for military service. With so many players serving during World War II, the NHL debated shutting the league down. But at the urging of both the Canadian and US governments, the NHL announced prior to 1942-43 season that the league would continue to operate "in the interest of public morale."

NHL team owners often successfully ensured that star players received non-combat assignments, serving with training bases or supply firms back in Canada. The armed forces and Canadian government also found value in such an arrangement. The special "home defense draft" ensured most hockey players stayed away from the battlefields and thats highly competitive hockey leagues were formed on these bases, creating a nice diversion from war life for all troops and the communities.

Very Few Casualties

In fact only two NHL players died in either of the World Wars. Hockey researcher Patrick Houda suggests that "more than 100 NHL players fought in World War I and World War II," but there were very few causalities.

"There are actually very few NHL'ers who died in the war. The only known casualties are Dudley "Red" Garrett and Joe Turner, pictured to the right, both killed in 1944, just three weeks apart."

Pre-NHLers Allan "Scotty" Davidson and George Richardson, both Hall of Famers, died in World War I. Hobey Baker, the famed American star on the ice and in the air, died in a post-World War I accident before he had a chance to play in the NHL.

"It's quite amazing given the fact how many fought in both World War I and World War II," adds Houda.

The Society for International Hockey Research has a complete listing of players who served one way or another in the war.

Conn Smythe - P.O.W. Turned Major

In fact the NHL's most famous connection with war lies with not a player but owner and manager Conn Smythe.

The take-no-prisoners builder of the Toronto Maple Leafs was himself a prisoner of war in World War I. Serving in the battle fields with the artillery and then later in the air with the air force, he was shot down by German forces in October, 1917 and would serve 14 months imprisoned. That, nor his immense business and hockey success or his age (nearly 50), did not make Smythe hesitate to return to the battlefields in World War II. He was badly injured by shrapnel in France in 1944.

Howie Meeker, one of Smythe's Maple Leaf prospects, was so badly injured by a grenade blast he was told he may never walk again let alone play hockey. Needless to say he did return to the ice, edging out Gordie Howe for rookie of the year honors in 1946-47.

The NHL Adjusts

The depletion of NHL rosters created opportunities for athletes who might otherwise have never played an NHL game. By 1942-43 approximately 80 NHL players were in the armed forces, gutting rosters around the six team league.

As mentioned, this opened opportunities for many players. Players like Bep Guidolin, who at only 16 was too young for conscription. Needless to say he was the youngest player ever in NHL history.

An oft injured forward with the Canadiens also got his chance, and responded by scoring 50 goals in 50 games. Rocket Richard's immortal status in Montreal was born.

In response to the dilution of talent during World War II, the league changed its rules to encourage a faster paced game. Until 1943, a player was not allowed to make a forward pass across his own blue line. That changed in the 1943-44 season, when the NHL ruled that players could pass from their defensive zone up to the middle of the rink, which would be marked by a new red line at center ice. This changed the game drastically, as many returning war veterans discovered upon their return. Also, regular season overtime had to be discontinued due to wartime curfew restrictions. OT would not return for 41 years.

The NHL talent effluence was said to have clearly have deteriorated play in the mid-1940s, regardless of NHL rule changes. Yet all of the Original Six franchises continued to do well at the gate. Interestingly though, errant pucks into the audience had to be returned because of the wartime rubber shortage.

The war also shifted the power balance in the league, with Montreal placing building blocks that would make them the dominant team of the next few decades. The Habs were often successful finding jobs for players and prospects in essential industries like munitions and shipbuilding, the Montreal Canadiens kept their talent home, building the foundation for several Stanley Cup championships.

The Bruins and the Rangers, two league powers as the 1940s started, were especially hit hard by players leaving for war. It is no coincidence that these two teams plummeted immediately in the standings, and struggled for years beyond that.

No conflicts since World War II have directly effected the NHL, though hockey continues to be a great morale booster for troops serving both in Canada or the United States and overseas. Memorable moments in recent history include the American national anthem being played at the NHL All Star Game in old Chicago Stadium in 1991, just as the Gulf War broke out. Also, the Stanley Cup's arrival in enemy territory to visit Canadian troops serving inside Afghanistan in the 2000s.

The International Game

International hockey has often played out against a backdrop of tension and conflict. From the 1960s through the 1980s, games between North American and Soviet Bloc teams reflected Cold War tensions.

Players of international note also served in actual battle. In the book World of Hockey, European hockey experts Birger Nordmark and Patrick Houda compiled a list of 34 international players whose lives were ended in either World War I or II, including 3 Canadians, 4 Germans, 4 Romanians, 5 Finns, and 6 Poles.

Houda also writes a chapter where he highlights some war heroes with hockey ties, specifically Bram van der Stok of the Netherlands and prince Bazu Cantacuzino of Romania.

Here in Canada the Winnipeg Falcons served quite famously in World War I. Upon their arrival home they returned to the ice and became the Canadian Allan Cup amateur champions and then the very first Olympic hockey champions, in 1920. Teammates/best friends Frank Fredrickson and Konnie Johannesson (pictured to the right, courtesy WinnipegFalcons.com) were expert fighter pilot instructors for the allied forces.

World War II saw the cancellation of the World Championships from 1940 through 1946.

By The Way: Former hockey players are still getting involved with the armed forces to this day.

Ben Stafford, who spent four seasons with the AHL Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' American Hockey League affiliate, deployed for Iraq as a member of the United States Marine Corps.

Stafford is a Yale graduate was part of the Phantoms' 2005 Calder Cup championship team, playing along side the likes of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and close friend Antero Niittymaki.

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