Let’s talk hockey. Hockey in 1963. I know, I know. It was a long time ago. But it was an interesting time and maybe in a way that could never happen again. The world has become too sophisticated, too fast, to embrace what happened then. The NHL has expanded, salaries have skyrocketed, and millions of hockey moms and dads have became rude and surly agents for their kids.
But it was different in 1963. Take the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Edmonton Gardens where they played their games. The Oil Kings were a great hockey team. They won the Memorial Cup – the best under 20 hockey team in Canada – but they prepared for it by playing the entire year against senior Intermediate ‘A’ teams, teams that were competing for the Allan Cup, symbolic of the best amateur team in Canada. Teams included the Drumheller Miners, Lacombe Rockets, Red Deer Rustlers, Olds Elks, and, at one time, the Ponoka Stampeders. Needless to say, the situation was highly unusual. It was boys against men.
The miracle is the Oil Kings seemed to thrive on it.
But this story isn’t about how good the Oil Kings were (well, maybe a little bit) but of the environment in which they played – the Edmonton Gardens – and , specifically, Sunday afternoon games. It’s about the mystique of being an Oil King in a country where hockey was, for so many, the hope for the future. In rural Alberta, a young man’s choices were few (a young woman’s even less): Go to University (few did); get a job doing something agricultural, or play hockey. If you made it to the Oil Kings, you had a chance. If you didn’t, well, as Judge Smayles said in Caddyshack, “The world needs ditchdiggers too!”.
Remember, this was not a time when a journeyman defenceman could sign a 5-year contract for 10 million dollars. Even if you were good enough to play at the professional level, chances were you would still have to shovel manure in the summer just to make ends meet. After all, there were still only 140 or so that made it to the NHL. No one told these young men just how grungy life in the minors could be with its low pay, brutal schedules, heavy drinking, and precarious future (The movie “Slaphot” had a lot of things right).
As mentioned, Oil King home games were played in the Edmonton Gardens. Descriptions of the Gardens always seemed to begin with the adjective, ‘cavernous’. It was big for its day, seating over 5000 people and boasting the largest ice surface in the country (Jokes about playing an entire game in the abnormally large area behind the nets, were common). It was a husky brick building that resembled an over-sized Amish barn or a twentieth century church for some fundamentalist sect that believed God really only cared about size, not architectural aesthetics. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Cow Barn’ it frequently played host to a variety of livestock-related productions. Nevertheless, in early 1963, a lot of hockey was being played even if the rich aroma of the farmyard had worked its way into every board, girder, seat, and floor.
The Oil Kings shared the Gardens with the Edmonton Flyers, a professional Western Hockey League team. Sharing for the amateur team meant taking whatever dates the professional team didn’t need or want. The Flyers didn’t care for Sunday afternoon games. For good reason. At the time, God’s earthly minions were still very active in law-making circles and one of those laws was you couldn’t operate for-profit businesses on Sundays. I.e., you couldn’t charge people admission. Pro hockey teams, like their street-walking cousins, didn’t “give it away for nuthin’”. So the amateur Oil Kings played on Sunday afternoons.
Yet they turned this unpopular time into a money-maker with one simple remedy that even the churches – especially the churches – could not argue with – the collection plate. So began a short-lived but enormously popular Edmonton Gardens custom – a Sunday afternoon hockey game paid for by a silver collection (Bills were welcome, of course, but were reportedly difficult to retrieve from one’s pocket or wallet). The city’s hockey patrons seemed to embrace the notion of a good hockey game funded by a volunteer contribution and Gardens management never complained.
The majority of fans were hockey players, under-25 hockey players, some of them squiring gum-chewing girlfriends. And what did they all wear? Of course -hockey jackets, bomber jackets with leather sleeves, team logo on the chest and the player’s number and crossed hockey sticks on one sleeve. The proudest accoutrement in a limited wardrobe. If a girl friend was really special, she might even get to wear the jacket.
The action of the game itself was fierce and brutal and sometimes wondrously creative. Everyone was energized by the beauty and speed and intensity of each game, no matter the opposition. The Oil Kings big line of Butch Paul, Max Mestinsek, and Glen Sather (yes, that Glen Sather) was a marvelous trio gifted with talent, speed, and orneriness. And opposing teams always seemed to have at least one line of ex-pros possessing matching talent and orneriness. As the period wound down, the high action left the crowd spent but pumped.
But there was something else that made these afternoon games special. It was the crowd and, specifically, the crowd during intermission.
Intermissions lasted longer in 1963, mainly because it took longer to clean and resurface the ice between periods. The Zamboni may have been invented by 1963, but the Gardens stuck with tradition, men with scrapers followed by men pulling barrels of water.
So now there were dozens and dozens of spectator hockey players leaving their seats at the end of each period and entering the concourse. And what they did was always interesting.
There were two basic camps in this crowd. One, a younger one made up of city kids with their Maple Leaf and K of C jackets and hopes for an Oil King future and, two, an older crowd of men who had missed the Oil King boat and played hockey for recreation and, for some, a small playing stipend. The younger ones tended to crowd the walls in the concourse, there to watch the older ones and see, if by chance, some forgotten hero of a bygone hockey era might walk by. The rural teams featured on the oldster’s jackets meant nothing to them.
The first item on the between-periods agenda was lining up at the concessions. These were the days before the marketing gurus discovered that selling over-priced junk food at sporting events could be the proverbial mother lode. The Gardens concession menu was basic, cheap, and edible. Coffee, soft drinks, hot dogs, hamburgers, popcorn, and chocolate bars pretty much exhausted the list of choices. Lineups moved quickly and calmly. And the drinks came in manageable sizes.
Then the older crowd began to do something very strange and wonderful.
In bull fighting, there is an associated dance called the paso doble (literally, double step). The dance was created to evoke the sound, the drama, and the movement of the bullfight; in other words, a dance inseparable from the sport.
In between periods at the Sunday afternoon Oil King games, a slower – much, much slower! – version of this dance took place and it was meant to honor the game of hockey. It, too, was inseparable from the sport. It wasn’t so much a dance as it was a promenade but it’s intent was the same as the paso doble – to honor the sport.
Between the first and second period, a wintry, prairie version of the paso doble began. Each of those hockey jackets began walking around the concourse, maybe a girl hanging from one arm or maybe a friend following. A sea of hockey jackets and assorted fans circulating around the rink. They didn’t so much walk as they strutted, ever so slightly, evoking a sang froid they associated with their on-ice persona. The movements were deliberate, almost nonchalant, with cool eyes searching the crowd coming the other way.
This slow-moving wave of fans was nothing less than a macho display by hockey players of every type. Maybe we met on the ice, maybe we didn’t, but if we did, you would remember, surely, how good and rugged I was. Actual greetings were rarely exchanged. Maybe the occasional nod of recognition. But make no mistake, it was a male mating display without the mating. The thing was, you didn’t have to do anything else – just walk slowly around the concourse and let the opposition soak up your special aura of skill and toughness. And on it went, for twenty or so minutes, twice a game. Oh, what a stately hockey paso doble it was. You could see girlfriends flushing with pride. The hockey jackets virtually glowed in the yellow light of the concourse. The kids leaning on the wall watched closely.
There was rarely any animosity or belligerence associated with the concourse walk, only strutting males emitting the unmistakable message, “I may never have played for the Oil Kings but I could have – or should have – and you all know it!” Participants would eye each carefully, surrepititiously scanning the jacket for recognition while rifling through their mental filing cabinet of places played and games remembered. It was all choreographed carefully and seriously. A celebration, of sorts, of the game of hockey by men who loved and lived the game set against a backdrop of a game featuring the best young players in the country.
Who were some of these promenaders? Most played in Intermediate ‘B’ and Intermediate ‘C’ Leagues in Northern Alberta, leagues one rung – or more – below the Senior players against which the Oil Kings were pitted. Some were young enough to still entertain dreams of the Oil Kings but most were simply hockey players who couldn’t give up the game, not yet.
The strollers swirled around each other in a stately walk of mutual admiration and/or loathing. Many of them wished fervently that such days would never end and they could forever wander the bowels of the “Cow Barn” to see and be seen.
The langorous between-periods hockey version of the paso doble ended as the Oil Kings and their opponents returned to the ice.
If everything went well, the Oil Kings won.
Robert Alan Davidson