Library and Archives Canada (LAC) currently has an exhibition at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, which runs until January 22, 2016. Hockey Marching as to War engages viewers in the many stories of hockey players’ involvement in Canada’s First World War effort—from the men who enlisted and served overseas to the women who took up sticks at home.
A particularly fascinating story is the emergence of highly successful military hockey teams. In 1916, Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion won the prestigious Allan Cup—the senior amateur hockey championship—and Montreal’s 87th Battalion was good enough to play an exhibition game against Montreal professionals, including players from the Canadiens.
No military team was more famous than the 228th Battalion, whose history is there for all to see in LAC’s rich collection of government records. Known as the Northern Fusiliers, the 228th mustered in North Bay, Ontario, under the command of Lt.-Col. Archie Earchman, and was so successful recruiting talented hockey players that in the fall of 1916 it was invited to join the National Hockey Association (NHA), the main professional league and forerunner of the National Hockey League.
The NHA needed another club because its players were enlisting to fight overseas. With the 228th added in, stars like George McNamara, Gordon “Duke” Keats, Goldie Prodgers and Art Duncan could now be kept in the NHA playing hockey (and making money for NHA owners), while training for overseas duty.
Dressed in their khaki sweaters, the Fusiliers defeated an NHA all-star team 10-0 in December 1916. By the New Year they were in first place. However, by then fellow Canadian soldiers were fully engaged in Europe and there was talk of conscription. An uncomfortable question was in the air: Why were soldiers making money playing hockey when men were dying overseas?
The official line was that profits made by the 228th were going into the regimental fund; but the criticism seems to have led to the battalion being suddenly ordered to ship out in February—before the NHA season was even over! It also turned out the battalion had not paid many of its bills, and some suggested bringing Earchman back to Canada to face a court martial.
This story and other fascinating ones like it are discoverable through LAC’s military documents, many of them now online, including: