Michigan’s hidden hockey history
For years, sports historians and scholars have archived the cultural importance of baseball, soccer, and other major sports. But what about hockey? Professor, historian, and hockey-fanatic Bruce Berglund looked to do exactly that with his book, The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports.
In researching the world history of the sport, Berglund traveled to hockey hotspots across the globe. His book traces the sport’s early development to the emergence of professional and youth leagues, using hockey to draw greater social, economic, and cultural observations.
“There is an entire field in Canadian scholarship dedicated to the study of hockey,” Berglund said. “So, of course, since hockey is Canada's national game, it receives a lot of attention. But hockey is also a world game… And in terms of hockey played in the U.S., hockey in Europe, the Soviet Union, and other parts of the world, there hasn't been as much attention.”
Berglund pinpointed the origins of hockey in two locations: North America and Europe. This created a degree of variation in how the sport was played in each continent.
“So when we think of hockey, we think of the game played with the puck that…originated in eastern Canada. It spreads into the Great Lakes region, into New England. But already in the 19th century, there was a game that was called hockey that was being played in Europe. It started out in England and it spread onto the continent as far east as Russia.”
The brand of hockey that developed in Europe bears a closer resemblance to soccer.
“There would be anywhere from 10 to 12 players on a side,” Berglund said. “Rather than using a puck, they used a ball. They had skates, they had goals, and their sticks did not look like the hockey sticks we see today. Instead, they look more like field hockey sticks.”
On the other side of the pond, North American hockey went in another direction.
“[North American hockey] really came out of rugby. And in fact, the earliest hockey teams in eastern Canada in the late 19th century, hockey developed as a way for them to stay in shape for rugby season. And so, you know, the emphasis on hitting and violence that you have in North American hockey, which starts right from the beginning, comes out of the roots in rugby.”
Once the puck and the Canadian style of play made its way over to Europe, the two variations of hockey began to mix together. This resulted in the game fans know today.
“Hockey fans will know that there's a distinction in terms of strategy and style of play between North American hockey and between European hockey. And already, these distinctive elements began to form at the turn of the century.”
Another important development of hockey occurred around the turn of the century — a development that took place in Michigan’s U.P. Prior to 1904, hockey was only an amateur sport, but that changed with the creation of the IHL.
“The IHL, the International Hockey League, is the first ever professional hockey league in the history of hockey. And so, this new professional league begins in the Upper Peninsula in 1904, and it was started by a dentist who had come from Ontario. He had actually gone to dental school in Detroit and then ended up as the town dentist in Houghton. And he and some other local businessmen decided to start a league off as entertainment for local miners.”
A handful of decades later, hockey history would find itself in Michigan once again. Today, it’s commonplace for parents and young athletes to commit large sums of time and money to a highly competitive youth team. But, in the 1980s, this was a new phenomenon started by Detroit businessman Peter Karmanos and his computer software company, Compuware.
“His sons played youth hockey and beginning in the early 1980s, he began to develop, with resources from Canada, where he began to develop this youth hockey program. And what we have here is really the early example of what we see as standard in youth hockey today, where you have what are called ‘select teams,’ where the players are chosen, not because they're from the community or on the rink, but because they're particularly talented. And Compuware would draw players from across the country.”
Just as youth sports occasionally do today, Compuware’s youth hockey program drew a share of criticism. For one, some detractors took issue with the 60 to 70 games a young athlete would play in a given season.
“You're up in the territory of how many games a professional player plays, so that the time demand was just too much, that the cost was too much in terms of what families needed to commit.”
“These new select programs began to play upon parents' ambitions and parents' fears in many respects for the future of their children, right? That what is a better future for your child in terms of earning potential and status than to have your child be a professional athlete or an Olympian? And so the organizers of these new youth programs played upon that with parents and parents were willing customers.”
In addition to elite-level youth teams, another thing driving up the price a young athlete must pay to play hockey is the diminishing availability of outdoor rinks.
“Ice is expensive. I grew up playing in northern Minnesota on outdoor ice. But one of the big concerns for hockey now is the fact that winters are shrinking and ice rinks are not open as long as they used to be in the past.”
While other hockey fans and players might be yearning for more outdoor hockey, Berglund got his fill at the start of the new year.
“On New Year's Night at Target Field in Minneapolis…the Minnesota Wild played against the St. Louis Blues. I was there with my dad. He and I were both bundled with many layers. And it was just a fun, fun Minnesota event,” Berglund said.