Interview with Michael McKinley
With the hockey season about to start again, I thought it would be a good time to recommend a book that covers Hockey’s arduous past. Hockey: A People’s History follows the humble journey of our great sport. From its organized roots in amateur athletic clubs, to the international battle of supremacy between Canada and Russia, to the current state of the NHL. Whether it is 1893 or 2010, two things motivated all of the players on the ice. Their love of the game and the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. If you haven’t had a chance to read the book or watch the DVDs, I highly recommend you pick up a copy. I had a chance to briefly chat with the author Michael McKinley about the book, the NHL and hockey in general.
How did you first fall in love with hockey?
I used to watch hockey games on TV with my father, and so because he liked it, I liked it. Then I started skating, playing, and imagining a life in the NHL, and I was hooked.
Did you play hockey yourself?
I do play– left wing, like my politics –though now that I live in New York City, it’s harder to find a friendly Saturday afternoon beer league team to play with than it was in Vancouver, where I grew up, and used to live. Indeed, I played roller hockey as a kid in Vancouver because we had no natural ice, but lots of bare asphalt in winter, and so once we got out of school in the afternoons, we’d put on the roller skates and play until dark. Of course, we treated the chain link fencing around the asphalt playground as boards, and would ram each other into them without any dire consequences, but it was a lot of fun. The only kids I knew in Vancouver who played organized hockey had families who belonged to private clubs with private rinks, and that was certainly not my family!
What made you want to write this book?
I wrote a book called Putting a Roof on Winter that told the story of hockey from the first indoor game in 1875 until the 1972 Summit Series. The CBC read it, and used it to develop a TV series on the history of hockey. They asked me if I’d like to write a longer book to accompany the TV series, and I said yes. So that’s how Hockey: A People’s History came to be. There was more to the story to tell, and I had the luxury of researchers working on a ten-hour TV series to help me to tell it.
Who was your favorite team growing up?
The Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks. I still follow the Canucks on Versus and the NHL network, and I like going to Devils games because the fans are a cult and because the Devils have a great team. I like the Rangers too, and will like them more when they stop thinking that a Manhattan address automatically makes them a contender.
Who is your favorite player and why?
My favorite old time player is Rocket Richard, just because he was such an icon on and off the ice– and a hockey genius. He was the human flag for the Montreal Canadiens for so many years, and I have always loved the Habs. My current favorite player is a two-pack: the Sedin Twins of Vancouver. Henrik won the Hart Trophy this year, but really, he and his brother Daniel could have shared it. They’re an amazing duo to watch, and they take a lot of hard knocks from people in Vancouver because they’re perceived as soft. You can’t survive and excel as they have in the NHL by being soft. They’re amazingly skilled, they’re team players, and they show up every night and do magical things with that little rubber disk.
How hard was it to research some of the older stories/events?
Well, I was grateful for our team of researchers, and my own collection of newspapers and photos from the days of yore, as well as the work of other writers. But there are some things that will elude us forever, such as why James Creighton, the man who staged the first indoor hockey game in Montreal on March 3, 1875, who developed rules for the game, and had a hand in the creation of the Stanley Cup, did what he did. Even though he was an engineer, a lawyer, and a journalist, he never wrote down an account of his amazing achievements. We’ve had to imagine the story.
Was there anything you wanted to include in the book but didn’t or couldn’t?
Yes, there were some criminal things that happened in and around the game that were not really germane to the telling of the story. However, I saved them up and wrote a crime novel set in the world of pro hockey– The Penalty Killing. It came out in March.
If you had to pick just one moment in hockey’s history as the most important, what would it be?
The invention of the International Hockey League in 1904 in the USA. It created the first pro league for the game, and though it only lasted three years, it was directly responsible for the creation of the NHL in 1917. And the rest is history…
What’s the greatest hockey moment you saw on TV and/or live that you will never forget?
I think both questions are answered by Game 6 and 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup Final between the Canucks and the Rangers, my two teams, and cities. The Canucks tied the series in game 6, in an amazing comeback, and the Rangers ended The Curse in Game 7– just barely. It was as exciting as hockey gets.
Do you ever think that Americans will feel the same way about hockey that Canadians do?
I watched the Stanley Cup playoffs with friends here in New York, and I think American fans are among the best in the world. Those who get the game love the game. I think HD TV will help, as people who don’t grow up watching hockey live have trouble following the puck (in the way they don’t seem to have trouble following a 99 MPH fastball…). It was nice to see the playoffs draw their best ratings ever, as did Versus, which broadcasts the regular season. I don’t know if Americans will ever embrace the sport they way the do the NFL as a cultural phenomenon that crosses race and class and climate, but with more American kids playing the game– and the Junior team winning the World Championship–I think we’ll see a steady growth in love for the world’s other “most beautiful game”.
If the Gretzky trade didn’t happen or happened to another Canadian team, how do you think that would have impacted the US expansion southward?
Well, there has always been a strong hockey presence in Southern California, but Gretzky was about star power in Hollywood. And he certainly got the attention of the USA and opened up the US marketplace to the idea of expansion. And yet we see what happened to him Phoenix, and how even he couldn’t save that franchise from almost wrecking itself on the rocks (and his what, $7-8 million a season coaching salary sure didn’t help). America likes winning, and so any team that wins catches the attention of the masses. Gretzky never won a Cup in the USA, but he made it seem possible.
The Seattle Metropolitans were the first US team to win the Stanley Cup but the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Portland) has never had an NHL team. Considering the hockey history in that region and the success of the current junior WHL, do you think it’s strange that’s the case?
It’s very strange, and you’d think with the history, the population base, and the Microsoft money, it would be a natural. If the NHL says it would interfere with the Vancouver Canucks franchise I would say the sea is boiling hot and pigs can fly. The Canucks can sell out practices, let alone games, and have been selling out the latter for a long time now, despite never having won a Cup. I also think that Seattle would be a great and keen market, now that they’ve lost the Sonics, and the Seahawks and Mariners aren’t exactly rocking the city with regular championships. However, the real problem– in the US’s second largest TV market without an NHL team, the first being Houston –is that the Key Arena only has 10,000 unrestricted view seats. Not enough for the NHL, and until they fix that problem, they won’t be in the running.
I played ice hockey one year but the cost of the gear (I borrowed most of it) and the rink fees made it nearly impossible to keep playing. I also know somebody who can’t afford to play ice hockey, so they just stick to floor hockey. You mentioned the fact that your family didn’t belong to a private club/rink. What do you think of the cost to play? Do you think it has an impact on the number of kids who would be more interested in playing ice hockey and the ability for it to take off in popularity? It’s much cheaper and convenient to play soccer and basketball for instance.
Hockey USA has the genius solution. My daughter can get four weeks of hockey instruction, on four successive Saturday mornings, for three hours a session, plus all the gear, and skates, and stick, at a nice state-of-the-art rink here in Brooklyn, for $35. Yes, that’s $35 for the whole thing. If she wants to keep playing after this barely $3 an hour investment, then they have a gear exchange to pick up gear at discounts, and onward we go. It’s the best urban answer I have found to the problem of hockey’s cost, and I wish they’d do the same in Canada. However, the game is so much part of the country’s national identity that families will pay whatever cost (monetary, social) to have their kid play in the NHL. There is a solution, though, and it is why we’re seeing so many fine young players come out of the USA.
You mentioned fighting in the book in the last chapter and how some wanted it gone from hockey and others did not. Hockey is the only sport where you can get into a fight and generally not get thrown out and suspended. What’s your take on fighting? Do you feel it’s an integral part of the game?
I think hockey fighting should go the way of goalies without face-masks and players without helmets– as in, it should vanish. It disappears during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and during the Olympics, and does it reduce the quality of the game? No. The game gets better. So I wish that once and for all the knuckle-draggers in management and media would accept that fact, and since they don’t actually have to do the fighting, call for an end to it.
Players can adapt almost instantly to a change in culture, and if the league said that anyone who fought, or committed a heinous foul, would be tossed from the game, and miss the next one, too (in addition to whatever else was warranted by way of punishment) you would see it disappear overnight. And good riddance. It’s an embarrassment to a beautiful sport.
Any thoughts or comments on Gary Bettman and the job he is doing?
Gary Bettman knows he works for the owners, and they want to make a profit, and so, from their point of view, he’s been wonderful. As an ambassador for the game, he’s far from being a good one. The reason so many people seem to dislike him is he that he acts– deliberately or not –as if he’s the smartest guy in the room during media interviews. If he’d stop behaving as if he’s trying to win a court case and just have a conversation, people might cut him some more slack. But really, his job isn’t to win the hearts and minds of the fans, or to put more teams in Canada for sentimental reasons, or to stand up to St. Wayne Gretzky’s Phoenix Fiasco. It’s to make money for the owners, and he’s certainly done that. And in truth, I don’t know of any beloved pro sports commissioners/presidents. They’re all perceived as being anti-fan by virtue of who they work for, as it’s tough to find a beloved owner these days, too. I mean, billionaires and billionaire companies don’t really give us the warm fuzzies, do they?