It was touching to see former Toronto Maple Leaf and Second World War veteran Gaye Stewart read “In Flanders Fields” before the Leafs-Habs game on Saturday.
Being both the Hall of Fame game and the last Saturday before Remembrance Day, the reading of the iconic poem really put into perspective how different the game of hockey is today compared to the Original Six era.
Stewart put up nearly a point per game in his rookie NHL campaign back in 1942-43. The next season, he shipped off to war and didn't return until it was finished, picking up his hockey career in '45-46. And he was not an anomaly for the time.
In fact, the Boston Bruins famously lost their entire top line when Milt Schmidt, Bobby Bauer and Woody Dumart all signed up for duty, missing three hockey seasons during the massive conflict. 'The Kraut Line,' so named because the trio all hailed from the heavily Teutonic Kitchener-Waterloo area of Southern Ontario, did their part to make sure their home was safe; hockey could wait.
Even during the Vietnam War, American players were being conscripted and some even saw action. Former Red Wing and Kansas City Scout Henry Boucha narrowly missed the jungles of Asia, instead being assigned as a military policeman in Germany before his NHL career began.
For something like that to happen today would be pretty much unprecedented and it's because the game has changed so much.
Back in the Original Six days, players worked summer jobs; and not easy ones, either. Many of the old Toronto Maple Leafs worked in quarries (which in those days counted as dry-land training), while goalie Johnny Bower famously sold hamburgers. During Red Kelly's first training camp with the Red Wings, the stalwart defenseman would go back to the family farm in the afternoon and help harvest the crops.
Now, I don't tell you these things to belittle today's players: Giving Patrick Kane a rifle and sending him to Iraq isn't going to end the violence any faster. But the troops over in the Middle East or Afghanistan know that people are behind them with every Don Cherry tribute or every visit from Bob Probert and you never have to ask people like that twice for help.
The days of hockey players with summer jobs and soldiering instincts are gone, but the tributes that pour in every year around this time, not to mention the honoring of such men, remind us of the freedom they helped us all earn.
As the years go by, the number of men and women who were heroes of the two World Wars – and those who were too young to fight, but not too young to remember – naturally continues to decline. But for those of my generation, who can only remember the distant relatives who died or lived through the conflicts, seeing the sentinels of those heart-rending victories on the ice before a Saturday night game, with poppies on their lapels and tears in their eyes, re-stokes the fire to never forget.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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