Hockey and Smoking, How Far We’ve Come

old-time-smoking

The game was a good one, by all accounts, one of the most exciting to have played in Ottawa in the wartime winter of 1917. In a contest that featured some of the finest players ever to chase a puck — Frank Nighbor, Howard McNamara, Clint Benedict — there was also the drama of a disputed goal ending in a scuffle between the referee and a player who disagreed with him. Local fans, at least, went home happy as the hometowners ended the night defeating the visitors from Toronto.

Would they have enjoyed themselves more if the on-ice action hadn’t been beclouded by the low-lying smoke of their own cigarettes? Maybe. As it was, spectators had to do the best that they could with the weather system they’d help create. That included reporters covering the game, one of whose dispatches wryly noted the next morning: “We heard a lot and, by observing closely, caught occasional glimpses of the game.”

Social attitudes to smoking have, of course, shifted since those early 20th-century times, as medical science has instructed us in its deadly dangers. To look back now on the way tobacco laces its way through the history of hockey is to shudder at how casual — blithely oblivious, even — the relationship appears. The first exhibit for the prosecution might be an ad that ran in Toronto newspapers in the winter of 1898: “To watch a hockey match a smoke is one of the necessary adjuncts. Try a Regal Cigar, a Regal Puff, or a pipe of Regal Mixture.”

Appalling as it now seems, smoking was, for many years, as much a part of the public experience of hockey as cheering a goal by the home team. And not just for fans, either — players haven’t exactly denied themselves when it comes to tobacco products over the course of the game’s history. Case in point: a 1932 rundown of the pre-game routine followed by the Boston Bruins noted that the players liked to eat their supper at 4.30 in the afternoon. The usual menu? “Soup, steak, potatoes, one other vegetable, tea, coffee, or milk, ice cream.” Also: “Cigars or cigarettes, if the boys desire. They smoke between periods, before and after. No ban on smokes for the hockey players.”

The list of dedicated NHL smokers through the years could double as the start of an all-time all-star line-up: Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley were dedicated smokers during their playing years, Stan Mikita, Guy Lafleur. Another stellar Montreal Canadiens’ goaltender, Bill Durnan, suffered so badly from nerves when he was guarding the nets that he was known to rush from the ice after every game to light up a calming cigarette. “He removed his pads,” one of the local papers noted in the 1950s, “only after his relaxation was complete.

Not that players like Durnan would necessarily counsel youngsters to do as they themselves were doing. Hockey’s literature is full of helpful how-to manuals, many of them with advice to offer on drinking and smoking right alongside tips on wrist-shots and how to handle a two-on-one as a defenceman.

The very first hockey book ever published is no exception: when an accomplished player by the name of Arthur Farrell wrote Hockey: Canada’s Royal Winter Game in 1899, he advised prospective players to give up smoking if they hoped to go far in the game. “A cigar or pipe occasionally can cause but little injury to a man,” he wrote, “but cigarettes are decidedly injurious.”

A 1949 booklet featuring interviews with the season’s NHL All-Stars takes more or less the same line addressing matters of diet and conditioning. Don’t drink, Chicago’s Roy Conacher counsels. “Smoking, of course,” he continues, “is harmful to the wind so youngsters are urged to refrain or, at least, to keep from smoking to excess.”

Black Jack Stewart, Detroit defenceman, warns against “pickles and pastries.” As for cigarettes, up to you, but as he saw it: “A boy who is really serious about becoming a topnotch player will be wise to shun smoking until he has attained his 21st birthday.”

Rocket Richard? “I do not indulge at all except for the occasional cigar.”

Richard was on the ice for Montreal one night in New York in 1955 when Sports Illustrated sent the Nobel-winning novelist William Faulkner to see his first hockey game and report back. Faulkner didn’t really understand what all those agitated Canadians were up to — he would liken what he saw to the “frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools.” Richard caught Faulkner’s attention — the Rocket had the focus of a lethal snake, he decided. Mostly, though, what the writer noticed was the smoke oppressing Madison Square Garden that night — “the trapped pall of spectator tobacco.”

Back Ottawa, the air still needed clearing nearly a decade after that original gloomy 1917 game. The original Ottawa Senators were an NHL force by then, on the verge of winning the team’s first Stanley Cup — but they were still coughing their way around their home rink.

It got so bad that in January of 1926, with the Montreal Maroons coming to town, the manager of Ottawa’s Auditorium made a public appeal to fans — please! — to think about the smoke they were producing.

Contrary to popular belief, he told The Ottawa Journal, it wasn’t the fans in the cheap seats who were clouding the rink, but those who were lighting up in the lower corridors between corridors. Would they think about heading upstairs to the mezzanine, which was better ventilated, or maybe stepping out onto O’Connor Street?

“The results will be found to fully justify the trouble as it will mean better hockey and keener enjoyment of the game by all concerned.”

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