Hockey in Wartime: 11 Things to Remember

In Canada, patriotism and hockey go hand in hand. We hear it whenever the anthem is sung before a game, whether in a local hockey rink or in a major arena. We feel it when the Canadian flag is lifted to the rafters after a gold-medal victory. We see it in the faces of excited fans and proud players.

In fact, hockey is so deeply engrained in Canadian pride and morale that during both World Wars, the federal government urged various leagues to continue operation during wartime.

They considered hockey a crucial dynamic of the Canadian home front.

“We don’t have a major crisis as was going on in the First World War or the Second World War,” says legendary play-by-play announcer Jim Robson, comparing today’s hockey to the past. “Sports became a real release or outlet for people in those tough times.”

“It was the escape of the reality.”

So today, on Remembrance Day which happens to fall on 11-11-11 this year, I’m posting 11 facts about hockey and warfare that will remind you that an NHL lockout isn’t the worst thing that could happen to hockey…

Lest we forget.

1.      In 1914 Vancouver was the first Canadian city to be threatened by war with the Germans. Reports of German cruisers prowling in the waters off the coast alerted both Victoria and Vancouver into action. Guns were set up at the entrance to the Burrard Inlet and Vancouver’s harbour was under constant patrol.

Cyclone Taylor, the Vancouver Millionaires’ star player, enlisted to go overseas.

“If they wanted me and needed me, I was ready to go,” he said, but because of Taylor’s off-season position as an immigration officer, Taylor was granted an honourable discharge from active duty and continued to play for the Millionaires. Vancouver won the Stanley Cup during the war in 1915.

2.      Despite wanting to enlist in WWI, Frank and Lester Patrick, the brothers behind the Millionaires and Victoria Aristocrats, were requested to stay in Vancouver and Victoria by Ottawa, due to the fact that hockey was considered vital to the morale on the West Coast.

However, in 1917, the Canadian government needed the Victoria Arena for military operations, forcing Lester’s Victoria Aristocrats to move to Spokane, Washington. Hockey would return to Victoria for the 1918-1919 season with the  establishment of the Victoria Cougars.

Conn Smythe, during WWII

3.      Conn Smythe, the Maple Leafs owner and managing director, was taken prisoner  in WWI when his plane was shot down by German forces in 1917. He was imprisoned for 14 months. Despite his frightening experience, Smythe enlisted again in WWII at nearly 50 years of age and was badly injured in a Luftwaffe raid in 1944, and returned home two months later.

4.     In WWII, overseas service was not compulsory for Canadian males, mostly due to Quebec’s backlash to conscription. Instead, men could sign up for the “Home Defense Draft”, which was perfect for Canada’s hockey players.

After 30 days of compulsory training, hockey players could get back to playing hockey without fear of being called up again. But as the war raged on, the government increased the length of home-defense duties to six months, then indefinite. Feeling the pressure to avoid the label “duty dodger”, many hockey players enlisted voluntarily, but this upset team owners who didn’t want their investments dying on the battlefield. Other non-combat duties were found for hockey players, such as physical-education instructors or as players on temporary leagues established on various military bases, much like you see in Kandahar in recent years.

5      During WWII, Maple Leafs prospect Howie Meeker (who now resides on Vancouver Island) was badly maimed by a grenade blast. He was told he would never walk again, yet miraculously Meeker recovered and went on to beat Gordie Howe for Rookie of the Year in 1946-1947.

6.      By 1942-1943, around 80 hockey players were in the armed forces. In wartime the six-team NHL responded to the draft by filling their rosters with players who were too lame, “too young, too old or too married to be drafted.” 16 year olds hit the ice with men considered far too old for hockey, and injury-plagued players like Rocket Richard finally had the opportunity to prove their skills.

7.      Due to curfew restrictions in WWII, overtime was discontinued from the regular season and would not return for 41 years.

8.      A shortage of certain materials in wartime affected the game of hockey. Errant pucks could not be kept by fans. Pucks had to be returned to the ice due to a shortage of rubber. Also the scarcity of gasoline affected crowd turnout; many fans who lived far from the arena could not afford to travel to games.

9.      As far as researchers know, only two NHLers died in WWII: Dudley “Red” Garrett and Joe Turner, who died 3 weeks apart in 1944.

10.     A casualty to war, the New York Americans went under after the 1941-42 season, leaving the NHL with its “Original Six” franchises.

11.     Despite widely felt struggles in the NHL, WWII proved to be a prosperous business for some teams. Surprisingly, Maple Leaf Gardens donated absolutely nothing to war charities, despite the fact that earnings soared from $192,274 in 1939 to $315,763 in 1945.

Sadly it appears the NHL has always, first and foremost, been a business.

If you haven’t done so already, please take a moment to think about those who have lost their lives in order to improve the world we live in today.

(Facts and figures from Hockey Central and

3 Responses

  1. Fireboxermagazine says:

    Don’t forget WW II vet Johnny Bower.

  2. Merinacurrie says:

    This is the most appropriate post I can think of for this day. Thanks Katie, you have truly opened up an important area in both Canadian and hockey history.

  1. November 11, 2011

    […] Hockey in Wartime: 11 Things to Remember […]

%d bloggers like this: