Hockey Hall of Fame Treasures

HHOF Treasures* is a fantastic book with great stories by great writers, and of course, with Matt Manor’s magnificent photos. I got to be a small part of it with the chapter I wrote about the men and women working behind the scenes at the Hockey Hall of Fame Resource Center. Here it is.

Descricption in the HHOF receipt:

Preserving Hockey’s History

Hockey history is full of important, inspiring, capital “M” moments: the cups, the medals, the records and the milestones — the once-in-a-lifetime scenarios. The physical items immortalized in these moments are what first come to mind when you think of the Hockey Hall of Fame; items like the Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby’s Olympic gold medal-winning puck and stick, or Jacques Plante’s legendary mask.

Then there are moments that become more significant as time passes. The objects related to these moments become an increasingly valuable part of keeping hockey history alive. And while moments may not be created equal, everything collected at the Hockey Hall of Fame’s D.K. (Doc) Seaman Hockey Resource Centre is treated equally — they’re all mementos of the game, after all.

As far as Phil Pritchard, Vice-President and Curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame (the man known to most as the “Keeper of the Cup”), is concerned, hockey history is made every day, all over the world, and it is the job of his team at the Resource Centre to collect, catalogue and conserve the objects intrinsic to hockey’s history.

Take, for instance, an old sweater that I found in an arena storage locker in Finland in 1995. I was playing for a team in Finland’s fourth highest division (or third lowest, depending on your philosophy). We played our games late at night in front of one, maybe two, spectators — a number contingent upon whether any of the players had recently entered a relationship. We had a player-coach.

It’s safe to say that no one on the team was going to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but we were still making hockey history — and the sweater I found was certainly part of hockey’s history. It was dark blue, like the blue of Team Sweden, and it had five yellow letters running across its chest the same way the Pittsburgh Penguins had “Pittsburgh” back in the 1980s. The five letters were “V,” “O,” “I,” “M,” and “A,” spelling “Voima”, which means, “power,” in Finnish.

The sweater was small. Maybe it had shrunk? Maybe players were smaller in the 1970s? Maybe their shoulder pads were even smaller than the ones I was wearing (which weren’t much more than two plastic cups stapled to my suspenders) in the 1990s? The fabric of the sweater was wool, not synthetic like the new sweaters my team was using. The blue Voima sweater was heavy and tiny, and soiled.

And that’s what the D.K. (Doc) Seaman Hockey Resource Centre identification tag now says. “Blue hockey sweater, with “VOIMA” across the chest. Circa 1970s. Soiled.”

Soiled or not, the sweater is a part of the Hockey Hall of Fame collection, adding a piece to the puzzle of the game.

“We’re trying to cover the entire game, on all levels, in all countries. Wherever hockey is played, we’d like to be there to record it,” says Pritchard.

But how does the Hockey Hall of Fame and the staff at the Resource Center go about obtaining hockey’s mementos?

Pritchard explains that because the Hockey Hall of Fame is a non-profit organization, they don’t buy artifacts, and as such, there are typically four different ways the Hall of Fame obtains items for its collection: by personal donation; by anonymous donation (which Pritchard calls “random,” as most of these donations come via the daily mail without any identifiers whatsoever); by tracking milestones and special games in the NHL and elsewhere and then asking for the donation when the opportunity arises; and, finally, by attending events. Nothing beats being there when you want to get hockey artifacts, like the time Pritchard found himself in the Team Canada dressing room after the Men’s hockey final at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

“It was pandemonium in there. And in the middle of all of it Wayne Gretzky came over to me and handed me the lucky loonie that was dug from center ice. He just put it in my hand, looked at me and said, ‘On the way back to Canada don’t spend this in pop machine, because your whole country is depending on you to get this home!’”

The team at the Resource Center can’t be in every dressing room after the game. However, wherever there’s an International Ice Hockey Federation tournament, the Hockey Hall of Fame is there. Even if none of the staff can be present, the Hall has official and unofficial representatives that can help them. In January 2011, when Team Finland won the bronze medal game against the Czech Republic in the under-18 women’s tournament in Stockholm, Sweden, freelance photographer Matthew Murnaghan was quick to approach Team Finland’s management to see if he could get some artifacts to take back to the Hall of Fame.

He knew what he wanted — something from the team’s leading scorer, forward Susanna Tapani. However, having the Hall of Fame grab a glove would have meant that a 17-year-old Finnish girl would have had to buy a pair of new gloves with her own money. So Murnaghan went for the blue helmet, property of the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation, and got an OK from the team manager.

The fact that the Hall of Fame had requested Tapani’s helmet was front-page news on the Finnish federation’s website the next day. The story also ran in their quarterly magazine. “She’s only 17, and already in the Hall of Fame.”

Such is the magic of the Hall of Fame.

“It may not look significant at the time, but that helmet we got from the under-18 women’s tournament may belong to somebody who will go on to have a great career,” says Phil Pritchard.

And the work is never done, as Craig Campbell, Resource Center Manager, attests.

“There are absolutely things out there that we’d like to have in our collections,” he says.

“Our goal is to get at least one artifact from each of our 362 honored members, but we’d love to have something between six and twelve. That way we can honor them here forever. Philosophically, we’d love to have something from every team that’s ever played the game. We do it out of passion, to preserve the history of the game well. That’s our reward.”

Their passion for the game, and the reward of preserving its history for future generations is what unites the Hall of Fame and its donors.

For example, the Hockey Hall of Fame has three sweaters worn by Marty Barry, one of the Hall’s honored members who played in the NHL in the 1930s and 1940s, and who was nicknamed “Goal-a-game” Barry by local sportswriters. Mr. Barry’s daughter and son-in-law decided to donate his sweaters to the Hall of Fame instead of auctioning them off. The Barry sweaters have since been on display not only in the Toronto museum, but also in traveling displays in the East coast, giving the Barry family a chance to see them, and the people’s reaction to them, close to home.

“We’re asking people to give up, possibly, their treasured possessions. Once they get to the museum and see how everything is presented and preserved, and realize it will always be available for the general public to see, they know they’ve made the right choice,” says Pritchard.

Campbell concurs, “If somebody has a sweater, a program collection or a photo collection, and we enquire about it for donation, it means a lot to them that the Hockey Hall of Fame calls. They may have spent their life trying to capture the game for the local team or media and maybe they want to leave a legacy here.”

Just as Jack and Peter Mecca did. The relationship between the Hall and the brother photographers started when Campbell found a slide of the Philadelphia Flyers’ forward Bill Barber. On the slide were the names of Jack and Peter. Campbell managed to get in touch with Jack and explained to the former photographer that the Hall of Fame would be interested in preserving any images they still had.

It turned out that the Mecca brothers had a whole bunch of photos. The two ran a hockey magazine of their own, called Hockey, in the 1970s, and they also shot games for other publications, such as TIME. Jack donated the photos to the Hall of Fame, where the collection was organized and preserved. He and his family then visited the Hall to see the legacy of his and his brother’s work.

“It was a powerful moment. Jack is very proud that the Mecca collection is now at the Hall of Fame, helping us preserve the history of the game,” Campbell says.

Donors and NHL players can also be reluctant to part with their treasures. Steve Poirier, coordinator of the Hockey Hall of Fame images and archival services, attended the 2011 NHL All-Star Game in Carolina and asked superstar winger Alex Ovechkin what he was willing to donate to the Hall. “Ovechkin wanted to keep almost everything, but he did give me the Carolina Hurricanes flip-flops he had worn his entire time in Raleigh,” Poirier says, laughing.

But, as Miragh Bitove, the archivist and collections registrar, insists, “We’re hockey’s archeologists. If we find half a clay pot, well, it’s half a clay pot more than we had before.” And that is the point. Whether it is Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals wearing Carolina Hurricanes flip-flops for an All-Star weekend, or it is the helmet of a promising teenage girl from Finland, everything is important and has it’s place.

A great example of a rare and unlikely artifact is one of Bitove’s personal favourites from the collection, “We have a Mexican flag from the 1928 Olympics. A family member called us and said that their father was on the Canadian team, and that after their last game, he had climbed up the flagpole and stolen the Mexican flag, on a dare. It was also the first year that Mexico participated in the Winter Olympics, so that’s a little special, but for me, the fun part is imagining the 20-year-olds daring each other to do it,” she says.

Another great story involves Hobey Baker, the only American among twelve original inductees into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945. Baker was a multi-sport talent who played both football and hockey for Princeton University in the early 20th century, and died tragically when his plane crashed during a test flight, right after World War I.

“A woman told me that her grandfather had been a farmhand at the Baker farm in Pennsylvania. When he left work at the farm, the family gave him some of the trophies that Hobey, and his brother Thorton Baker had won in school,” says Bitove. Today the Hobey Baker Award is awarded annually to the best player in NCAA hockey.

The revolving, high density shelving at the Resource Center houses the collection of archives when they aren’t on display at the Hall or part of a travelling display. Currently they contain more than 26,000 published hockey books, programs and guides; approximately10,000 individual player files (including photos, contracts an other ephemera); close to10,000 individual team, league and trophy files; more than 450 binders of hockey cards, tickets, and schedules and more than one million negatives and million slides, 32,000 photographs and 4,000 film reels. Plus 4,000 hockey sticks, more than 1,500 jerseys and over 3,000 thousand pieces of equipment. And counting.

It wasn’t always this way. When Pritchard started at the Hockey Hall of Fame 25 years ago, it was housed in the 7,500 square-foot premises at the Canadian National Exhibition that had opened there in 1961. While there, Pritchard would use the exhibition grounds to expand the reach of the collection, physically and emotionally, by having outdoor displays and competitions for the fair visitors. For many Canadians, an annual summer ritual was to go to the Canadian National Exhibition, and while there, visit the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In 1993 the Hall of Fame moved to its current location, the former Bank of Montreal building at the corner of Yonge St. and Front St. in the heart of Toronto. The heritage building is part of a larger property called Brookfield Place, and the Hockey Hall of Fame is firmly entrenched as a marquee proprietor, covering almost 60,000 square feet of exhibition space — eight times larger than the former CNE space. But even that was too small to house everything.

To alleviate the problem the Hall used off-site storage, but this posed logistical problems, and made it difficult to access important artifacts quickly and easily. The solution was the dedicated, state-of-the-art home for the archival collection, complete with offices; the 18,000 square foot D.K. (Doc) Seaman Hockey Resource Centre (named in honour of the late Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman, one of the founding owners of the Calgary Flames) that opened in 2009.

“The resource center allows us to consolidate our collections into a single satellite operation to better serve our principal museum attraction which continues to flourish at Brookfield Place,” Pritchard said.

The dedicated archive building also provides historians and authors a place to conduct research and gives hockey nuts a chance to book tours to see the state-of-the-art facility. Most importantly, the Resource Center allows the Hall of Fame to really concentrate and build upon one of their Outreach Program, in which the Hall arranges road shows, taking selected parts of their collection to the public.

“Our outreach program covers everything that we take on the road. Traveling exhibits, temporary exhibits or loans that can last up to a year, including our interactive games, the trophies, and artwork,” says Izak Westgate, manager of the Outreach Exhibits, and Assistant Curator.

The Hall of Fame works in conjunction with teams, leagues and federations to create exhibits that showcase the Hall of Fame while also celebrating the league or area they are visiting. Not everybody can get to Toronto, but the Outreach Program gives them a chance to see some of the collection. Getting the collection on the road to different locations ensures that different items are constantly being presented to the public. It also gets the staff out on the road, and you never know whom you’re going to meet, or what you’re going to find once you’re out there.

“When we sell the Hall, it comes from the heart. We talk from our heart to their hearts, and hope that they share our belief that it is important to be able to show these wonderful artifacts to the general public,” says Pritchard.

And let’s not forget the Stanley Cup, which travels with Pritchard or with one of a select few Cup Keepers, over 300 days a year. It is the world’s most recognizable trophy, and it gets a lot of attention.

“The great thing about the Cup is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it still sends a little chill down your spine. That is what makes it the greatest trophy is sports. It’s special,” says Pritchard, who has had some pretty special moments with Stanley.

In the summer of 2009 Pritchard, the Stanley Cup and the Prince of Wales Trophy (given to the Eastern Conference playoff champion) were on a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan salmon fishing with Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. By noon they’d already caught over 600 pounds of salmon. Who knew Lord Stanley was a fisherman?

“In the beginning, we didn’t know what our role in the hockey world was,” says Campbell. “Both Phil and I collected things as kids and I guess that nature of collecting and archiving has become our life here.”

So, pieces of hockey’s history are added, daily, to the Hockey Hall of Fame collection. Some donated items belong to the capital “M” moments, and others, like the sweater from Finland that I donated, help flesh-out the rest of hockey’s story. That sweater, by the way, was most likely worn by defenseman Eino Niiranen in Finland’s 4th highest league in the 1970s. Niiranen’s nickname was “Nakki,” which means, “sausage,” and it was bestowed upon the stocky rearguard for obvious reasons, but he was a key player on the team’s blueline.

He was also a key person for the Voima club, staying on as a trainer and all-round helper after his own career came to an end. He finally ended up as the team statistician. (And curiously, in the morning paper the day after a game there was always a Voima story penned by the mysterious “N.”)

Nakki kept the club alive, and with it, he kept a small community alive and vibrant. Phil Pritchard knows the Nakkis of the world and while they may never be inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the game wouldn’t be anything without them.

“We salute those that have made the game great,” says Pritchard. “We’re only as good as our past and present.”

Actually, from left: Craig and Phil.

How does that make you feel?