Getting it right

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

When 16 of the most dedicated hockey researchers in Canada gather for their monthly meeting, you don't expect a salute to director Ron Howard's new boxing movie to top the agenda. But this is the Society of International Hockey Research, fiercely priding itself on digging out the game's toughest truffles and cutting down the tallest tales. Their ranks applaud fact-checking as much as coaches value back-checking.

So, on this cold night in a Yonge St. office, SIHR's Toronto chapter isn't far into comparing notes and chomping on pizza when Howard is saluted, in abstentia, by SIHR member Larry Robertson. He was an extra on Howard's Cinderella Man, the story of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock, and passed five months of filming at locales such as Maple Leaf Gardens by examining backdrops for the movie.

The Gardens posed as New York's Madison Square Garden during hockey season and Robertson zeroed in on a faithful recreation of a 1935 NHL standings board, with all nine teams of the day, including the short-lived St. Louis Eagles and the old spelling of Black Hawks. The arena marquee, (constructed on the Richmond St. facade of the Bay department store) was true to actual upcoming games throughout filming. What really amazed Robertson was that Howard included a playoff game between the Rangers and Canadiens on March 24, 1935, a real-life 2-1 Rangers win.

A few Carolina Hurricanes fans back in Mayberry would be proud of Opie, but not as much as SIHR.

"Many of our guys are the greatest sticklers for detail," said Rick Boulton, a former journalist and editor of the Maple Leafs game program in the 1970s. "You've heard of that saying: 'Get it first, but first, get it right.' Well, we all make mistakes at some point, but with these guys, mistakes just seem to jump off the page.

"The great thing about SIHR is that it gives a lot of people the chance to be published."

SIHR's reputation is tested in its own newsletters and reports, its most well-known dealing with the contentious claim of Windsor, N.S., as the birthplace of hockey in the early 1800s. Chapter chairman Len Kotylo, a Toronto lawyer, and Kingston historian Edward Grenda helped put SIHR on the map as part of the six-man committee that combed through old books, newspapers, paintings and other archives.

They established basic parameters of proof -- two teams, sticks with shafts and correctly angled blades, nets and documentation. A 27-page submission eventually rejected the claim, despite lobbying from some Bluenosers who wanted SIHR's approval as the key to creating a tourist attraction.

"I told everyone to expect people to take shots at us and lots of people in the Halifax/Dartmouth area did," Kotylo said. "That's fine, but they should also do their own research."

The origins argument came up again in the Yonge St. meeting when Kotylo passed around an illustration he had found of an indoor game in Boston, circa 1870s, with players on roller skates swinging field-hockey type sticks at a ball. Members quickly recognized it as "roller polo," noting the one-handed grip and shape of the stick.

"There's a lot of confusion between hockey and stick-and-ball games of that era," Kotylo said. "Is it hockey or is it a harbinger of hockey?"

An 1870s claim from the Kingston area about hockey on Lake Ontario also was dismissed after it was proven there would have been open water at the time and place where the alleged game was played. SIHR leaves the argument of hockey's actual beginning open-ended for now, but recognizes the first eyewitness account of a game with two identified teams and a recorded score took place March 3, 1875 at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal.

The Toronto chapter, formed in 1999 and numbering about 50 at full strength, got to its unique seat in the game from every walk of life. Kotylo has been honoured for writing about hockey and the law, but he is just as eager to delve into Notre Dame's Sleepy Jim Crowley, one of college football's famed Four Horsemen of the 1920s, who still holds school records as the Fighting Irish goalie.

Between he and the bookworm Boulton, they are believed to own about 3,000 hockey publications.

Grenda is a former professor at Queen's University in Kingston, is affiliated with the International Hockey Hall of Fame in that city and he and Bill Fitsell were among the original 17 who launched SIHR there in 1991. Almost 300 members are now on board worldwide and Grenda would like to see SIHR's hard work get a much broader audience.

"It's Canadian history. It's a topic that can be taught in English and French and we shouldn't be downplaying it," Grenda said.

"That's why it's important to separate myth from fact and try and make sure that we're not duplicating research."

Sitting beside Grenda at the long table is historian/statisitician Robertson, who has held various information posts with the Canadian Football League, the Ontario Hockey Association and semi-pro baseball for more than 30 years. He is next to young hockey card/sports collectibles expert Stephen Laroche and autograph specialist Ross Haton. To their left is minor hockey father Leighton Kemmett, whose specialty is the Ottawa Silver Seven and the world of hockey 100 years ago.

Kemmett has brought along an Ottawa Citizen story and summary from Jan. 16, 1905, Ottawa's 23-2 win over those intrepid Cup challengers, the Dawson City Nuggets. It lists all of one-eyed Frank McGee's 14 goals, but it is quickly observed that there is no mention of the Nuggets in the story, nor has it been proven such a name existed.

At the other end of the room are Kevin Shea, who is Bill Barilko's biographer and a Hockey Hall of Fame volunteer, ex-Blue Jays scout Ed Heather, a Galt native and trainer with several Senior A teams in the Cambridge area. Also circulated is a then-and-now photo essay of a regional champion Bracebridge kids team from the 1950s. The project made Etobicoke teacher Eugene Willis a hero in that northern Ontario town.

It's not just written history that fascinates SIHR. Paul Patskou is an audio/visual archivist who says the earliest hockey film made was on Feb. 24, 1898, by motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison. It's 50 seconds worth of two railway companies playing outdoors in the Montreal area.

"One of the benefits of finding such old films is that it allows for the proper recording of hockey history," Paskou said.

For example, a 1941 home movie from the Montreal Forum settled a dispute about the white sweaters the Habs wore at the time, and film of Barilko's Stanley Cup-winning goal gave new perspective on the famous still picture of his overtime heroics.

Paskou has just come upon rare TV footage of the Detroit Red Wings the day after the Rocket Richard riot. CFPL in London, Ont., went to the train station as the Wings changed lines from Montreal to Detroit, and caught irate Wings boss Jack Adams blasting the suspended Richard for being "bigger than the game," while young Gordie Howe and Red Kelly add their two cents.

Patskou's discovery sparks lively debate about who was more valuable to his team on and off the ice, the scoring champion Howe or the fiery Richard. Every facet of their careers becomes fair game, from their playing style, fighting prowess and stance on the player union movement of the day. Opinions come from almost every corner of the room, the kind of talk you could join with ease at an unfamiliar bar.

Voices get heated in the Gordie Howe-Maurice Richard debate, but the courtroom savvy Kotylo lets both sides make final points before moving on.

SIHR's members at large include broadcaster Brian McFarlane, ex-St. Louis Blues general manager Ron Caron, TV honcho Ralph Mellanby, Howie Morenz III, Frances Donellan (daughter of Hall of Famer Frank Patrick), professors, authors, sportswriters, politicians, NHL team employees, scouts, pastors, museum curators, WHA die-hards and ex-players such as Morris Mott.

A question on what their wives and significant others think of them locked away with a copy of Total Hockey is met with silence, then a few chuckles about vital research "accidentally" ending up in the blue box on garbage day.

"Our wives understand it's a hobby and understand our commitment," Kotylo said, adding that SIHR also has about 10 females on its worldwide roll.

"My wife (Meezan) loves gardening. When she feels she has to dig at weeds to make things look better, well it's the same idea with my hockey research."


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