the last hockey game-bruce mcdougall

not since stephen king’s needful things have i said “fuuuuuuck” upon finishing a book. unlike that one, which was a riveting 800-odd pages that ended in the worst possible way, this one was the book version of gangs of new york for me-every time i thought it was over, it spiralled into a whole other plot line and i had no idea where it was going, and i was not enjoying the journey.

in a lot of ways, i am the prime candidate for this book-i actually have no idea what happened in that game, or most of the other hockey games that have ever been played in history-i was not susceptible to any spoiler. but in the end, i discovered what i already knew-i’m not at all interested in hockey (as a teenager, i once read a day in the life of ivan denisovich at a canucks’ game and marvelled at the like environments, literally and literally) and leafs fans are fucking insane.

“While their owners diminish the team’s human values, the Leafs will remain financially the most valuable franchise in the National Hockey League. And even as it becomes abundantly clear that no other value matters to its owners, fans will remain loyal to the team. Forty years after tonight, one-quarter of all Canadians will still say they cheer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Few of them, though, will have enough money to attend a game.” (323)

“What difference would it make if they’d sold him? Would people have stopped coming to the games? Not bloody likely. The way to make money in this business was to pay as little as possible in overhead and salaries, sell as many tickets as you could, pump up your concession prices and drive a hard bargain with advertisers. Companies would pay millions to get their messages onto televised broadcasts of hockey games, especially Leafs games. In that context, how much was a single player worth?” (139-40)

“Coaches in this league were like players: a dime a dozen. As soon as the Leafs hit a losing stream, Imlach would have no job at all.” (147-8)

this really confirms the fact that all other sports teams in this town are doomed by this model, and how people can’t really handle it when a team starts winning-like the young raptors (it’s only a 20-year old team!) of late, or the bluejays as of now-fingers crossed that we can get over this ice hump, because this madness is built into the history of the city. this is also why people have been so quick to call for dwayne casey‘s job-but hey-at least they didn’t build a concession stand for him. i also wonder where the heck folks find so much money in this place-we not only pay more than anyone else in north america for public transit (i checked before i moved here), but leafs fans also pay more than anyone else in north america-more than all the 122 teams in the four major professional sports (basketball, hockey, baseball, football) to watch games in the stadium. hashtag, fourthbiggestcitychumps. who hurt us, toronto? why do people stand for this?! why don’t we believe that we deserve better?

the writing is good, the research is phenomenal, and i’m glad (mostly?) that i read this one that is nominated for this year’s toronto book award, but i could not help but feel an overwhelming sense of relief upon firing this one back into the library’s return chute. i am interested into looking further into some of the points, like the maritime coloured leagues that predated the NHL and the american negro leagues, the george hannah molesting scandal, and the basic exploitation of the players by the NHL.

“If they had to, NHL owners would shut down entire teams rather than capitulate to players’ wishes for a fair shake. In 1925, players on the Hamilton Tigers asked for an additional $200 to play in the playoffs, after they’d already played an additional six games in the regular season. Instead of giving them what they wanted, the president of the league suspended the team, fined each player $200 and dismantled the franchise. That was the last time a team from Hamilton ever played in the NHL.” (92)

“The NHL didn’t care what the wives thought. The league seemed to have a higher regard for hookers than it did for them. On a player’s journey through the NHL, the league would turn a blind eye if a stripper sat on his lap or snuck into his hotel room, but it frowned upon wives and children who didn’t sit quietly on the sidelines and keep their mouths shut.” (180)

“He tosses his soggy jersey into the centre of the dressing room. An attendant picks it up as soon as it hits the floor. The Leafs never allow a player to take his jersey home at the end of the season unless he pays for it, even if he’s helped the team win the Stanley Cup.” (309)

“Despite Pulford’s achievement, most NHL owners thought that educating a hockey player was like pouring honey into a Swiss watch. Conn Smythe, the Leafs’ founder, objected to players attending school, because they would then have to serve two masters, only one of whom was him.” (168)

the moments of the players winning came few and far between, but i can’t help but wonder what it would be if everyone had the same access to these travel exceptions:

“If a player’s past caused a problem when he crossed the border into the United States, his team could contact a cabinet minister to obtain a passport for him. Judges allowed their courtrooms to be used by hockey players for practical jokes on their teammates. They dismissed charges against hockey players that would have earned any other man a term in jail. In Quebec, policemen offered to park Jean Beliveau’s car.” (217)

“NHL owners-who’d treated their players like serfs, with the Canadian government’s tacit approval-now had to scramble to keep their organizations intact or else watch their former indentured servants walk out the door with their silverware. An expansion team called the New York Islanders lost seven of its twenty draft choices to the WHA. The no-names who remained on the team couldn’t win more than one game in four.” (254)

up until this point, the league was getting away with paying people peanuts, and the tragic stories of players getting robbed of their youth, bodies, lives, and minds were rampant in the book, and i couldn’t help but feel bad for these guys-and that was way before the concussion era. and i also kept thinking that the players in this sport, with its inherent built-in violence, have never seen the kind of profiling that basketball players have-especially when they cannot even touch each other on the court.

perhaps it took so long to get through this book not only because i kept getting lost down the rabbit hole, but because it drove home too many of the points that i didn’t need any help lamenting about this sport that has been built into this nation’s identity whether we like it or not.

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