John Walter (Bill) Fitsell is a local author who is widely considered as the dean of Canadian hockey historians. The founding president of the Society for International Hockey Research, Fitsell also serves as the historian for the International Hockey Hall of Fame. A former Whig-Standard columnist, he has also written four books including: Hockey’s Captains, Colonels and Kings (Boston Mills Press, 1987), Fitsell’s Guide to the Old Ontario Strand: A Cultural and Historical Companion (with Michael Dawber, Quarry Press, 1994), Hockey’s Hub: Three Centuries of Hockey in Kingston (with Mark Potter, Quarry Heritage Books, 2003) and How Hockey Happened (Quarry Press, 2007).
1. Your love of hockey is rooted in early experiences as a player and coach. Could you please share one of your fondest on-ice memories, and describe the influence it had on your lifelong passion to increase awareness and knowledge of Canada’s game.
It all started in Lindsay, Ontario, on the rink that we built on our double lot. It was a garden in the summer time, and a well used rink during the winter months. I spent countless hours on that rink playing shinny, which developed my interest in the game, and led to me starting a scrapbook that housed a collection of hockey related articles, programs, cards and whatever else I could get my hands on. I still have my original scrapbook, however my collection has expanded, and it now takes up an entire room in my house.
As Lindsay was close enough to Toronto, I was a big fan of the Maple Leafs. On one occasion the Leafs boarded a bus to play game of scrimmage in my hometown, while I was given the honour of introducing my teammates to the Leafs as they exited the bus. To this day blue and white are still pinned on me.
2. You are widely credited for reviving and sustaining the Historic Hockey Series, which commemorates the early games played on the ice of the Limestone City’s inner harbour. What challenges have you and the organizers faced over the years as you’ve continued this tradition. How important is the Historic Hockey Series to both the game and Kingston’s place in hockey’s history?
The late Phil Quattrocchi was the founder, who created the annual commemorative game between Queen’s and RMC, while it served as a focal point for the Winter Carnival. Being involved with the Hall of Fame, I was asked to research the rules of the early game. That peaked my interest in how the hockey got started, and I followed through over the years to serve as scorekeeper and statistician for the Historic Hockey Series. The series was sponsored by the Hall of Fame as an outreach program. Of course, we went through all the challenges of managing outdoor ice, and responding to varying weather conditions. The crowds have fluctuated over the years, but there has always been great competition, particularly involving the students and military teams including the RCHA.
The Historic Hockey Series is important, not in the sense of Kingston’s relation to the birthplace of hockey, but because it is a history lesson on ice. It probably ignites in some people a spark of interest in the early game. They know that the game was not always played the same way, as the original game was an onside one where players could not go ahead of the puck carrier. The series has helped to solidify Kingston as one of the cradles of hockey. While the Historic Hockey Series is now played on artificial ice behind City Hall, it remains an outdoor game and an important outreach program for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Hopefully it will spark other people’s interest in the evolution of hockey.
3. How Hockey Happened chronicles the roots of Canada’s National Winter Game, while it claims to settle, once and for all time, the national debate over the birthplace of hockey. What were some of the most compelling claims out there, and how extensive was your research in an attempt to set the record straight. How certain are you that Montreal is the birthplace of hockey?
I don’t think the argument will ever be settled. It’s an ongoing debate, but it’s pretty clear when you get down to the actual facts within the recorded history of the game that exists in daily newspapers, journals and diaries. There were three cities principally that were vying for the honour of having the Hockey Hall of Fame, while Kingston was awarded that by the CHA and the NHL. Much to the chagrin of Montreal who had a terrific record of games played 10 years earlier than what was played outdoors in Kingston, Montreal was playing games indoors. Halifax also had a a decent claim because they were playing an early version of the game under a different name. It still a raging debate, but I think that Kingston stands tall as one of the early centres of the game, and the fact that we’ve produced so many good teams and players over the years.
In my mind the debate is settled. When I’m asked the question ‘where did hockey originate’ I say ‘ you tell me what hockey is’. Is it the well organized, professional, commercial game that we see on television, or is it the freewheeling sort of game that we play on outdoor ice or in shinny matches. If you’re talking about the game as we know it today, it tracks right back to Montreal on March the 3rd of 1875 where there is a recorded history of the game, right down to who played and who scored. No other community can actually match that record.
4. Between 1969 to 2005 you served as secretary, curator, vice-president, president and historian of the International Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum. In your early years with the organization, and with consideration Clarence Campbell’s decision to open the HHOF to Toronto in 1961, what struggles did the local IHHOF overcome? Of the IHHOF’s achievements during your tenor, what are most proud of?
A majority of struggles that the local Hall of Fame has faced have been associated with it’s finances, as it’s run entirely on donations by volunteers. At one time the City provided some financial support, however that support no longer exists. Kingston had the original Hall of Fame, and the NHL in their wisdom decided to move it to Toronto when Kingston wasn’t moving fast enough for them. After Captain Sutherland spend year’s amassing a top tier collection of hockey memorabilia, all of the historic sticks, sweaters and what have you were packed up and moved to Toronto. Being second best is just that, and trying to compete with the Toronto Hockey Hall of Fame has been difficult, with their finances and position in relation to the NHL.
I’ve been to to the Toronto’s Hall of Fame on several occasions, and while some of it is sensational other aspects are a bit disappointing. It doesn’t always project the full history of the game, as it’s more of an NHL Hall of Fame. It doesn’t tell the broad picture of hockey as it evolved throughout communities across Canada.
There are a few IHHOF achievements that I am most proud of, specifically the annual Historic Hockey Series, and the inauguration of the Carr-Harris Cup between Queen’s and RMC. Also, I think the recognition of local players and teams who have done exceedingly well, is also a highlight. Before Kingston’s Sports Hall of Fame was established, the Hockey Hall of Fame was it in terms of celebrating their achievements and success.
5. Over the years, you have witnessed the implementation of countless rules changes, most recently the legalization of two-line passes, decision to end games with a shoot out, and an all-out war to eliminate headshots. Which rule changes do you think have had the biggest impact on changing the game, and in retrospect, which ones have been absolutely unnecessary.
I think the introduction of the red line in 1943 had a big affect on the game. It opened it up to a more free-wheeling game, because at one time you had to stick handle over your own blue line, you couldn’t pass it over your blue line. The creation of artificial ice year’s before that also impacted the game greatly, as well as the enclosure of the rink with plexiglass. Players nowadays can bounce the puck off of the glass and out of their end, whereas before that would have landed in the crowd. Of course, the improvement in equipment has really effected and improved the game, as it’s much faster, difficult and in some ways a meaner game. While the equipment has improved so much, players are now like warriors the way they’re padded. The injury factor is something that has to be addressed, particularly concussions and fighting. Some people think that fighting was always a part of the game, but history shows that it wasn’t in the early years. Hockey used to be a more gentlemanly game with a lot of sportsmanship. The highsticks came up as trophies became available, and competition became more serious. The boarding and charging still bother me in comparison to what we saw years ago.
In terms of unnecessary rule changes, I would like to see the return of the red line so you can only pass up to that line. My feeling is that you have to earn the ice, whereas now you can pass all the way to the opposing blue line and flick it in. What you miss is the intricate play, the stick handling and passing down the ice, over both blue lines. I call today’s game ping pong hockey, maybe it’s a sign of old age but the game moves so fast. You have to admire the players though, they’re tremendous athletes. The injury factor is also too high nowadays, as goal tenders aren’t protected they way they used to be. I think they’ll come around to toning down fighting, eventually.
6. Kingston has produced numerous notable names in hockey, including Don Cherry, Kirk Muller and of course Doug Gilmour. What are your thoughts on Doug’s recent induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the return to the local hockey scene?
I think the election of Doug Gilmour to the Hall of Fame is welcomed, as he is a positive example of a good small player. It shows that even in these days, where there are many brutish players, that a small player still has a role and can make an impact. It honours all of the players who have struggled with size and weight. Doug has certainly earned his spot.
With respect to his time with the Frontenacs, I think that he is a better General Manager than he is a coach. I think sometimes notable players have a difficult time teaching the game, and he had the difficulty of going into junior hockey with very little coaching experiencing. Now players work their way up through tier-two and major-junior. While Kirk Muller is ready for the NHL, he has had to develop his ability as a coach, with Queen’s, as an assistant coach in Montreal and most recently with an AHL team in Milwaukee.
Kingston has produced a lot of notable names in hockey. You can go over every segment of the game, from administration to equipment managers, and there’s always a Kingstonian who has shone in that position. Kingston is synonymous with hockey. And of course, Grapes has really put Kingston on the map in recent years. He’s controversial and he upsets a lot of people, but he certainly focuses his attention on the game and Kingston.