When did fighting become embedded into the character of hockey in Canada? The answer appears with the heritage mix of cultures swirling around the ice of Montreal surfaces over a century ago. I will be quoting plus using material from New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, this year’s Massey Lecturer winner on his essays about winter. Gopnik grew up in Montreal with its abundance of blizzards and with clannish style hockey rituals as his observational winter window for us to peer through. These observations come from Gopnik’s book, Winter: Five Windows on a Season.
The mix of religion shaped by cultural passions immerses the swirling influence of Montreal’s French versus English language backdrops to create the stage of hockey contests. Also the original inhabitants scattered around the Hochelaga village which became Montreal, the Hurons, the Iroquois and the Algonquins played their own game of Lacrosse, as if this tribal setting were a field of temporary war battle. According to the main design elements from the old Montreal flag with its quadrants involving a Fleur de Lys, a Shamrock, a Rose plus a Thistle. These four representative shapes symbolize to monopolize the main tribal contributions toward creating violent hockey according to Gopnik. These four particular symbols each represented a primal Montreal tribe which in the same order of the flag quadrants are: the French, the Irish, the English and finally the Scottish.
For those readers who may not be aware about the origins of the historical weaving to stitch a delicious mix of these strident tongues creating the unique mix that is my tapestry of Montreal. Like all good history taking the historical record will be flawed in the perspectives chosen to be emphasized in the recreation of the making of the tapestry. Here’s an example. As the Montreal ancestors, les-coureurs-du-bois paddled away from the Hochelaga river banks on the mighty St-Lawrence gateway to the riches of the inner continent, their canoes included another tribe rarely mentioned as a significant contributor to the tapestry of images of ancient Montreal. The forgotten contributors in these same canoes were a band of Jewish merchant business negotiators also from Europe, specifically arriving from the city of Amsterdam who founded the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal in 1768. So whilst in the French Canadian-Quebecois memory banks the image of a flying canoe represents their collective memory of their glorious past. The memory is flawed. Jewish merchants, having being erased from the flying canoes image, skillfully negotiated the fur deals with the Indian traders that they encountered on their travels into the interior of the founding native nation of America. Their journey was at times a violent one too, being burned at the stake and scalped in savage encounters with hostile natives, as recorded in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue’s own archives.
The first recorded official game of hockey also took place in Montreal at McGill University on March 3, 1875. So as historians debate the institutionalization of hockey origins, its inherent violence had its start on the icy mean streets of Montreal. The battling against each other was imbued with a Montrealais tribal scent of war permitting an anything-goes attitude on the ice. The Indians clubbed each other with their Lacrosse sticks, swinging sticks broke bones and shattered heads. The English were at the throats of the French each cursing in their own dialect at each other. Both the Scottish and the Irish were hostile to the English and with each other, yet the Irish permitted French players onto their club teams. The French didn’t remain on those teams they also played with their own so a uniquely Canadian solution arose, they represented both club teams without surrendering their tribal allegiances. But it was all a fine mess of blood and gore staining the ice. This is the condoned atmosphere of fighting that heralds itself as a way to, ‘let off steam amongst the players, ‘ according to Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the National Hockey League.
After viewing the horrific details of the shortened life of hockey fighter, 28-year-old Derek Boogaard death earlier this summer in the recent New York Times series of articles, written by John Branch. What is especially disturbing is the findings from Boston University from the autopsy of Derek Boogaard’s, young brain. It was riddled with what neurological pathologists term entanglements, specifically called, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Spun bits of tissue around scarred twisted tangles like flotsam detritus inside Derek Boogaard’s brain. This is not normal at all for a 28 year old brain. For all my previous postings about cerebral concussions, and how brain shape changes, Derek Boogaard’s brain shape was like a brain tissue car wreck, all his inner brain shape bent, twisted and deformed from all the hockey fighting he suffered. So as the crowd rose to its collective feet each time Derek Boogaard fought, they were witnessing a small shape change to his brain each time they lustily called out in their primal voice for blood. Chris Nowinski, co-director whose Boston University lab Derek Boogard’s brain was sent to for analysis, calls the hockey crowd’s fight reaction, ‘trading money for brain cells.’
So it is not a proud image that comes from Montreal, this sacrifice for brain shape that we call organized hockey. But hopefully there will be a Montreal connection counterbalancing all this brain shape mayhem. That is the reason for our research here also starting itself in Montreal this week. Tiny mice will be given minor concussions, just like the early ones of Derek Boogaard. The difference will be there will be no hoarse crowd rising to their feet at the anticipation of spilled blood, the primal blood call still alive in our collective genes. No- instead, in a hushed laboratory, the first tiny steps of measurement, of tracking the same metabolites that were in Derek Boogaard’s brain will take place. We will be measuring to the best of our scientific methods toward trying to get a new image of brain shape altering after concussion. Shape change strong enough to alter the thickness of these tiny mice bones after an induced concussion. Brain shape changes that probably affected Derek Boogaard’s bones too, although he was not aware of it. Hopefully we will begin to learn the awful truth that happened to Derek Boogaard’s brain. Hopefully we honour his courage -his strength -his life- so his fighting concussions will not be in vain. Hopefully the hockey fighting will stop. Hopefully, one day Derek Boogaard will be remembered as one of the last fighters. The Montreal connection to fighting concussions will now be played out in our Montreal labs over the next year.