- Lords of the Rinks: The Emergence of the National Hockey League 1875–1936
The present frequently appears as the natural unfolding of events with few alternative scenarios. John Chi-Kit Wong's nuanced analysis of the numerous contesting forces and struggles that shaped the world of hockey as it emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries corrects that misconception about Canada's national game. Focusing on the broad network of stakeholders who constituted hockey's early commercial interests, Lords of the Rinks details how the National Hockey League ultimately emerged from the undifferentiated world of commercialized sport to stand as the victorious, dominating force in hockey. But the creation of a single, dominant, professional league was never inevitable and remained contested until at least the 1930s.
From the first recorded match in 1875 at Montreal's Victoria rink, organized hockey began as an upper-class pastime that emphasized fair play and the amateur ethos Baron de Coubertin tried to enshrine in the modern Olympic Games in 1896. But in the same way that Coubertin's Games were ensnared in the market forces of the time, hockey was tied to the commercial interests of rink owners, the expectations of spectators paying for their leisure entertainment, newspapers seeking a broader readership, increased circulation, and a growth in advertising revenues, as well as directors who wanted to use hockey as a major revenue source for their clubs' activities.
The formation of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) in 1887 was the watershed decision that recast hockey from a game enjoyed by amateurs in spirited intra-club competitions to one of inter-club contests where personal and association reputations were won and lost. The AHAC quickly became the exclusive association of the nation's best senior hockey clubs – a status the Canadian Amateur Hockey League (CAHL), formed in 1898, took to its full extreme. The CAHL's 1899 decision [End Page 279] to forbid clubs from playing any team outside the league consolidated hockey's formal structure as one in which the best talent was separated out of the entire hockey system and concentrated in an exclusive, small group of teams. For economic reasons, the league restricted membership, and sought to increase revenues and, by various regulations, to control team expenditures. Professional hockey's cartel structure was firmly in place before the turn of the century.
The heart of Wong's analysis focuses on the struggles and shifting fortunes of players, club owners, leagues, arena owners, and other commercial interests as they attempted to advance their own vested interests. As Canada's most popular winter spectator sport, hockey was front and centre in the 'Athletic War' of amateur versus professional, but arena owners' commercial interests, the CAHL's league structure, the competition for spectators' loyalties and cash, as well as the pursuit of the Stanley Cup all combined to encourage the overt and underthe table payments to secure the best players available. Since team success ensured greater revenue and facilitated the concentration of talent in just a few elite teams, it is not the professionalization of hockey that was surprising; it was the dynamics over who would control the lion's share of the revenues that makes the history riveting. Player revolts, salary caps, rogue owners, and iron-fisted presidents battled to shape professional hockey leading up to the Second World War, but extra-league, commercial interests were heavily involved and had strong reasons to exert as much influence as possible.
While Wong's study provides sport historians with new documentary evidence on the early professionalization of hockey, the final chapter contains his major contribution. In 'Overtime' Wong explores some of the other paths that hockey might have followed. The genuine importance of professional hockey at the local level today would have been very different had the AHAC failed to create the elite-league model. If hockey had developed like soccer in Europe, with teams moving up and sliding down divisions based on each season's performance, Trail, Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Halifax...