An unobserved invasion from the north

The Canadians, strengthened with recent Olympians, came down in force. In front of absolutely no one, they edged their U.S. hosts as shins got whacked smartly and players of both countries howled in outraged pain
May 30, 1965

At 9 o'clock on a hazy Saturday morning a field hockey team known as the Greenwich Apaches faced the North Jersey Field Hockey Club on a reed-bordered field in Rye, N.Y. to start the annual men's invitational field hockey tournament. For 12 years now the most newsworthy feature of this event has been the spectacular lack of public interest attached to it. Last weekend form held. Almost nobody watched as most of the best field hockey players in North America whacked each other's shins and cavorted up and down green fields in what, in many another country, would be recognized as championship fashion.

Among the difficulties involved in mastering the game of field hockey is the problem of finding out where the games are being played. To get to one site for the invitational a determined spectator had to drive through the grounds of Rye's Playland amusement park on Long Island Sound. The Ferris wheel rotated majestically. Shrieks and happy cries of terror came from the roller coaster. The thump of mechanical music was borne faintly over the water. And on a pretty field, found at last, the field hockey men carried on in comparative quiet.

A fisherman came by from a place called The Point, just beyond the field, carrying six big blackfish. He did not even glance at the players. A man in shorts and a heavy sweater was looking for Dan Spaeth, the Greenwich captain. "Are we going to be late?" he asked. "I want to get back to my boat. It's sinking."

Without so much as a flicker, North Jersey beat the Greenwich Apaches 3-0. The Ookpiks of Toronto, considered one of the strongest Canadian teams—it had two of several Olympians playing for the Canadians—beat Hofstra 4-0. At the Rye Recreation Youth Center, a mile or so away, the New York Field Hockey Club, the strongest U.S. contender, was defeating another Greenwich Field Hockey Club team even more decisively—7-0. There were, at both playing fields, other games going on between the 14 teams in the tournament.

But then Saturday's play (there would be another full schedule Sunday) began to settle down to a decisive battle between the Ookpiks and New York, who had beaten the same opponents by identical scores. They came together at the Recreation Center, which was more centrally located than the field by the amusement park and far quieter. This was so even though cars raced by on Midland Avenue with the busy purposelessness of a suburban Saturday and a softball game ran its languid course beside the hockey field, with its players and spectators oblivious of the international drama that was building up beside them.

The time was 5:30 and the crowd, at a generous guess, was 70, made up principally of players whose games had finished. They were stretched out on a grassy knoll near the west goal, shaded by a grove of oaks from the late-afternoon sun, most of them businessmen in their 30s, a few of them accompanied by beautifully groomed wives and wide-eyed children, to whom the tournament was plainly an event. The softball players gradually disappeared. Church bells clanged somewhere beyond the park. A flight of crows cawed slowly overhead.

A field hockey game begins with what is called a bully. The two centers tap the ground, tap their sticks, repeat the process rapidly two more times, then slash at the ball, and hell breaks loose. A hockey player hit on the shins makes no pretense of stoic unconcern. He may yell, grimace, roar, jump up and down, or even hop the length of the field on one foot, hands clasped on his outraged shin. Surprisingly, the players on the sidelines display no sympathy. The very most one would say might be, "That's the second time (chuckle) he's been hit."

Even those most wrapped up in field hockey have a way of making the game in progress a non sequitur. "We want to get field hockey started in the schools," said John Greer, a crisp, businesslike, friendly young IBM executive, the son of the founder of the annual tournaments and secretary of the Field Hockey Association. "We need young players." And bop went the ball down the field.

"One of our players has a broken nose," said Mitchell Sacks of Hofstra, looking pale. "It was broken in the game with New York." About six New Yorkers and Canadians were at the moment involved in a wild melee for the ball at midfield.

Field hockey is like polo without the pony and ice hockey without the skates. It is fast and almost impossible to master. Amateurs look very amateur, indeed, and only those good athletes who have played it a long time can make it look like a contest you would care to go see. The Ookpik-New York contest, by any standards, was a good one. At half time the score was 0-0. "This is a very good game," said Greer, who had been pressed into service as a referee. After five minutes' rest the players started again. Halfway through the second half Dick Fellows of Ookpik slanted a shot past the New York goalie for the only score of Saturday's best game.

Annual field hockey tournaments were the creation of Henry Kirk Greer, father of John, and a New York lawyer whose first wife was an English girl imported to teach women's hockey at Rosemary Hall, a fashionable girls' school in Greenwich. While Greer did not expect the men's game to be as popular as the women's, he thought it would gain some following. That it has not is no fault of his. The first spring tournament was scheduled to coincide with the Queen's Birthday in Canada (which always falls on the Monday before May 25, regardless of the actual date of Her Majesty's birth) so Canadian teams could take advantage of the long weekend to play, and the tournaments have been a matter of deadly U.S.-Canadian rivalry ever since, with the U.S. winning as often as Canada.

This year four Canadian teams were entered. The Canadian players generally left their offices on Friday afternoon, drove until early Saturday morning to some point in the Catskills, slept for a few hours and drove on to the games of the first day. "When 88 men are willing to drive from Canada, travel 600 to 650 miles," said one player, "and then play two or three hard games a day on two consecutive days, it means they really love the game."

It also seemed to mean they loved to beat U.S. teams. "Our chaps have finished on top in each division," said a Canadian player who was studying the scores that were penciled on a piece of cardboard after the Ookpik-New York game. As the sun sank over Rye and the bright lights stuttered to life over Play-land there appeared to be a perceptible cooling-off of the Dominion good feeling that had persisted throughout the first day.

But by the end of the next afternoon amity had been restored. Canada's Ookpik won it all, New York was second, and the weary Americans trooped off, confident that in field hockey, as in other sports, there is always next year.