Recent re-creations in Ottawa and Korea of a championship hockey game held during the Korean War got me thinking about the importance of hockey in wartime.
When young, healthy lads take to frozen ponds to play their national game near foreign battlefields, it’s not just a relief from the tension of war, but an expression of irrepressible Canadian values. It’s an egalitarian game—anybody who wants to can play (and if they can’t play, root for a team). What matters is skill, hard work and will to win, not lineage, wealth or connection to power. And it’s a great leveller, with fans representing every facet of society.
During the First World War the pro hockey teams were decimated as players signed up—but this meant there was a source of entertainment for soldiers in Europe, as soldier teams sprang up, often with very experienced members. One such team was led by Conn Smythe, whose namesake trophy is given to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Smythe’s team once earned a profit of $6,706 from one game , and this at a time when average family income was about $800 a year.
An airborne observer, Smythe was shot down and spent the last 14 months of the First World War as a prisoner of war. He signed up early to serve in the Second World War and was wounded in a bomb blast in France in 1944.
Hockey didn’t just lift the spirits of troops—it had quite an effect on the morale of local populations, as Ellen Praag of Zutphen in the Netherlands, remembers. Canadians who had liberated her town paused before pressing on. Ellen remembers the sound of war in the distance, shelling, gunfire, and her astonishment as these healthy young men put their precious between-battle time to good use. They found a frozen pond and began to play hockey. To hoot and holler. And laugh. They soon drew a crowd.
After five years of increasingly savage occupation by the Nazis, ravaged by the starvation of the Hunger Winter, it had been a long time since the Dutch had heard the sounds of joy. “We couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Such happiness in the midst of war.” It was, for her, the day life started to return to normal.
In early 1952, on a rink on the Imjin River, near the front lines in South Korea, two soldier teams faced off, starting a tradition honoured by successive battalions during the remainder of the Korean War. The Imjin River Cup games gained Canada a reputation among allies as being hard to intimidate, remembers columnist and veteran Peter Worthington.
Korean War veteran Dennis Moore recalls a visiting minister of defence promising to send over equipment. It arrived in December, 1951, and Moore played in the first game in January on “the most beautiful ice rink…it was like a mirror, like glass.” The game attracted between 500 and 600 spectators, he says. Hockey “overrides some of the garbage thoughts,” he says in this memoir for The Memory Project. “It was such a release, not only for the players.”
Modern military activities have taken Canada’s soldiers to warmer climes. I wonder: how does the hockey spirit—and the values associated with it—still thrive among our troops in climes where skates are unknown?