Hockey culture is deeply embedded in our Canadian identity. It acts as a community builder and a social connector, with a special ability to cut across social divisions, young and old, urban and rural, French and English, East and West. Playing and watching hockey is part of the experience of living in Canada, and is at the very core of Canadian community and identity.
During the Second World War as Canadian families faced the many hardships war brought on, hockey culture gained prominence. Hockey continued to be a great social connector, breaking through boundaries and differences, as civilian and military, whether at home or abroad, played and watched the game. Hockey news continued to dominate our newspapers throughout the Second World War, acting as a social fabric to bind Canadians closer together.
However, the Second World War brought on many pressures and changes to the game. Young men were encouraged to enlist, but at the same time good players were needed to preserve the quality of the game. Even though enlistment for overseas service was on a voluntary basis until the winter of 1945, many young Canadians with promising talents interrupted their promising careers to serve overseas. Yet, hockey remained central, and in the dark days of the winter of 1942-1943, when an Allied Victory was far from certain, the NHL announced that the league would continue to operate in the interest of public of morale.
With the war raging across the globe, the desire to serve their country drew many talented players to hang up their skates and pick up a rifle. Russ McConnell played 4 championship seasons with McGill University and was the most valuable player of the Quebec Senior Hockey League in 1938-39. Despite pro offers to play for the New York Rangers, McConnell turned them down to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy. Milt Schmidt, another war veteran, despite being a four-time all-star, and winner of the Art Ross Trophy and the Hart Trophy, decided to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. Conn Smythe, a central figure in Canadian hockey and a veteran of both wars, served overseas in the anti-aircraft battery he helped to create. He was seriously wounded in a Luftwaffe raid in Normandy in July 1944 and returned home that September.
There is no doubt that the need for men in the services during the Second World War created a dilution of talent in all the layers of teams and leagues across Canada. The most notable war time change to the rules of the game was brought on in 1943. Before 1943, a player was not allowed to make a forward pass across his own blue line. That changed in the 1943-44 season, when the NHL ruled that players could pass from their defensive zone up to the middle of the rink, which would be marked by a new red line at center ice. This changed the game dramatically. The new rules allowed a player in his own defensive zone to make a breakout pass as far as the red line, which created the high-speed game we are familiar with today.
The Second World War brought on another change to the game; in regular season play, overtime had to be discontinued due to wartime curfew restrictions. Overtime, an aspect of the game we all now take for granted, would not be reintroduced for another four decades after the war.
Despite wartime changes and challenges, the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1944, and dominated the 1944-45 regular season, losing only eight of 50 games they played and securing five of the six First All-Star Team positions as linemates Richard and Lach respectively set new league records for goals (50) and assists (54).
Many veterans whose careers had been interrupted by military service found the faster-paced game too much for their advancing age and declining skills, and the way was paved for fresh recruits like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Ted Kennedy. As Conn Smythe wrote from overseas in April 1944, “You have to admit that one NHLer is worth two wartime NHLers…” Many returning war veterans discovered this upon their return home
The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was easily one of Canada’s top contributions to victory in the Second World War. Part of the wider Empire Air Training Plan, in Canada, the BCATP laid the foundations for the training of over 131,500 aircrew (nearly 73,000 with the RCAF) and 80,000 ground grew between October 1940 and March 1945. As training bases and aerodromes sprung up all across Canada, the integration of military personnel-in-training in local hockey teams was a great factor for community cohesion, especially as many towns had to adapt to the large influx of foreign military personnel brought in by the BCATP. Games with teams made up of a mix of civilian and military players increased comradery and friendly rivalries that helped create a sense of community much needed in times of hardship and social changes brought on by the war.
Canadians stationed in England trained for years before being sent to Sicily and Italy in 1943, and to Normandy in June 1944. Hockey was central to the social fabric and cohesion of the units stationed there. Tournaments on bases and in English towns enabled Canadian soldiers and English civilians to interact around the social event that a hockey night created. The Maple Leaf, the Canadian Army’s newspaper during the Second World War, reported on games, as did the plethora of regimental newspapers published in the field to provide humour and news from home for the fighting man overseas.
Coast to Coast: Hockey in Canada to the Second World, John Chi-Kit Wong, University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Richard Gruneau and David Whitson, Hockey Night In Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993)
Ken Dryden and Roy MacGregor, Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989)
The Juno Beach Centre would like to give credit to the great work done by Jennifer Kabeary: The Field of Play: Military and Sport in Southern Alberta Communities during the Second World War, University of Lethbridge, 2009.
Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at email@example.com.