A comical and nostalgic description of a ragtag hockey team.

 

New Haven Blades

Stephen H. Wentland

 

In the ’50’s, hockey was not all that popular in the United States. Sports-minded people were aware of the National Hockey League, the ultimate in American hockey. But this league had only six teams, localized between Boston and Chicago; and of these six, two were in Canada. Interestingly, when a Canadian team played an American team, both national anthems would be sung before the game. If the Toronto team was playing, their anthem would be sung in English; if from Montreal, it would be sung in French. Until I went to college, this was the extent of my hockey experience.

 

Collegiate hockey was very big at my undergraduate school in upstate New York, and our skating rink was packed for every Saturday’s game. But the game served more as a place to take a date and finalize plans for that evening’s party than as an opportunity to appreciate hockey. So I never learned all the rules. I just knew that when a player hit the puck past the goalie and into the net, it was time to sing the college fight song.

But as a graduate student in New Haven CT, my interest in hockey blossomed. This city had a professional minor league hockey team called the New Haven Blades. They were members of the Eastern Hockey League, which was at least two levels below the National Hockey League. So the Blades didn’t play under the best of conditions. Their red uniforms were worn and faded. They played in the New Haven Arena, an antiquated hockey rink, capacity only 4000, with hard wooden seats, walls that needed re-plastering, and restrooms sadly in need of re-tiling.

The mix of players in the Eastern Hockey League was unique. Young amateurs, on the way up, would enter the professional ranks through this league, and the aging players from the National Hockey League, on their way down, would exit their career through the same league. The two groups did not like each other. The younger considered the older as washed-up has-beens and were eager to take their place. The older were jealous of the younger and resented them for threatening to displace them. When they met on the ice, they produced the ultimate spectacle: the hockey fight.

The hockey fight was a well choreographed ritual. The two combatants would eye each other menacingly, then skate toward each other and stand nose-to-nose. Remarks about the other’s parentage and mother’s profession would be exchanged. After a little jostling, they would push away from each other and throw their gloves onto the ice. That was it! No turning back! The moment the gloves hit the ice, the fans would jump to their feet, yelling, “Hit him, kill him,” all the time waving their fists in the air. The women behaved no differently; they joined in and yelled with the best of them. As the two players threw punches at each other, the remaining players would pair up, one player from each team, and grab on to each other. Frequently, one of these pairs would start fighting, which would notch up the crowd’s decibel level. Once in a while all the pairs would be fighting, and then—pandemonium. The Arena had a low ceiling, so the sound would resonate back and forth, creating a quasi-orgiastic experience. Where were the referees in all of this? Standing back and watching. The owners pressured the refs to let them fight, because that’s what brought in the paying customers. Eventually one of the combatants prevailed or they both got tired. Then the refs sorted out the penalties, the players picked up their gloves and sticks, the fans settled down, and the game continued.

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