Hockey Central

From Steel Rails to Jet Trials

Discuss travel with a National Hockey league player and he'll probably state that it is the most difficult part of his job. It was not always thus. Let's return to the expansion year of 1926 when the National Hockey League added three clubs to the existing seven and divided the 10 members into the Canadian and American Divisions. Travel arrangements were made with the railroads and, on rare occasions, aboard coastal or Great Lakes steamships.

A 44-game schedule was in effect, with the season commencing in mid-November and ending in late March. The playoffs followed in April. The Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Cougars, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates competed in the American Division. The Canadian grouping included the two Montreal clubs: Canadiens and Maroons, New York Americans, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto St. Patricks, who finished the season as the Maple Leafs when the franchise was sold in February 1927.

Teams played six games with each division member and four with each of the other group. The normal interval between games was three to five days and only once, at the end of each season, were two games scheduled on consecutive nights. It was a time of well-rested teams that played hard-nosed defensive hockey. Salaries were almost as low as the scores, but complaints are few when men get paid for what they enjoy doing. Most clubs carried only two forward lines, four defensemen, a spare skater and one goaltender. Traveling around the league was easy and carefree. To the average hockey player, it was a time for relaxation, strategy planning, card playing or horseplay.

There is a tendency today to downgrade railroad travel because the service was allowed to deteriorate in the 1960s. When the NHL was young in years, there was intense competition for passenger business and it was good advertising to carry a professional baseball or hockey club. Teams patronized the better trains of the day and a half-dozen railroads provided special Pullman service for them. A caste system of sorts existed among the players. Veterans get the lower berths on overnight trips with rookies and writers forced to occupy the uppers. The coach and general manager enjoyed the extra privacy of the drawing room in the standard 12-section and one-drawing-room heavyweight Pullman Company Car. Placement of the vehicle was either at the front or rear of the train to prevent other passengers from passing through. An undisturbed night's rest was thus assured.

Let's use New York as a starting point for a road trip by the Rangers or Americans or a visiting club on its way home or onto the next game on "foreign" ice. New York Central's famous 'Water Level Route' took the club to Chicago and Detroit aboard the Lake Shore Limited, Wolverine, or Detroiter. If necessary, alternate routing could be obtained from the Pennsylvania Railroad on the Mercantile Express and Detroit Arrow. Normally, the Pennsylvania was used only for Pittsburgh trips. The Delaware & Hudson's Montreal Limited carried the teams to and from Montreal and connected with the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific for Ottawa and Toronto. The New York New Haven and Hartford's Knickerbocker Limited, consisting of reserved Pullman chair cars and a diner, was the deluxe Shore Line train to Boston. The New Haven boasted luxurious 'limiteds', world-famous Long Island Sound streamship service and a number of subsidiary transit companies. In Canada, the Canadian Pacific provided the last word in transportation from coast to coast and joined the Dominion with the British Empire with a veritable fleet of steamships. The Canadian National, operated by the government, served great cities and small towns with distinctive green, gold and black passenger equipment. Its system timetable contained 168 pages of service over some 290 separate routes. It was the largest railroad in North America.

In addition to providing a high standard of transportation, the railroads were proud of their dining cars which, like the old hotel restaurants, were a profitable sideline. Service and quality were maintained at a high standard and food was always freshly prepared in contrast to the precooked frozen variety offered on most airplanes. Many dining cars had a specialty such as Canadian Pacific's Rocky Mountain Trout, New Haven's Boston scrod, or New York Central's charcoal-broiled steaks. The Pennsylvania, self-proclaimed 'Standard Railroad of the World', was not known for outstanding cuisine, but it was adequate. The players had few complaints while dining on nicely served food at 60 or 70 miles per hour.

Just as there are convenient jet departures from not-so-convenient airports, the railroads offered freguent services to cities around the league with a choice of routes. A club might go from New York to Montreal via the New York Central connecting with either the Delaware & Hudson or Rutland Railroads; via the New Haven in connection with Canadian National or Boston & Maine/Canadian Pacific. All offered a choice of daytime or overnight trains.

Weather was seldom a problem and delays due to high winds, turbulence, or overcrowded landing strips were unknown. One didn't have to resort to tranquilizers or 80-proof cough syrup to calm the jitters before boarding a night express and players didn't retire due to the pressure of traveling.

A few franchises were moved around during the 1930s but travel habits remained pretty much the same. Pittsburgh transferred to Philadelphia and lasted one season. Ottawa moved to St. Louis but the change was a wasted effort and the club disbanded at the close of the 1934-35 season. The Montreal Maroons became a depression victim in 1938 causing the NHL to revert to a single grouping of seven clubs. The New York Americans, wards of the league, hung on until 1942 when most of their players entered the armed forces or were needed for essential war work. The faithful trains served the remaining six teams until the late 1950s.

The first team to take to the air was the Detroit Red Wings during the latter half of the 1938-39 season. They flew from Newark, New Jersey to Chicago on United Air Lines. A few weeks later Red Dutton's New York Americans came home from Chiacgo to Newark aboard a DC–3 "Mainliner." Remarkably, there was no major airport in the New York City metropolitan area in 1939.

Most clubs, however, preferred the dependable trains that they had used for so many years. The speed, safety and reliability of jet aircraft eventually led to almost total abandonment of rail passenger service and all professional sports teams changed their travel habits. The Montreal Canadiens were one of the last clubs to extensively travel by train. In many cases, it was the railroads themselves that forced them to take to the air. Reductions in service and inconvenient arrival and departure times hastened the change.

The National Hockey League has come a long way since the 1950s. When rail travel was the universal norm, the league was limited to cities that fell within a 1,000-square-mile radius. Universal air travel permitted unlimited geographic expansion. Distant cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Denver and San Jose were no longer perennial or potential minor-leaguers due to limitations of geography and travel time. Economic necessity dictated longer schedules and greater playoff participation. None of this would have been possible if travel speeds had not increased from 60 to many hundreds of miles an hour.

Those big green heavyweight Pullman Company cars, like the 44-game schedule, are things of the past. Life was a bit less complicated and perhaps more fun, but hockey remains as interesting as ever and considerably faster in keeping with the jet age. The teams have gone from the rails to the airways in quest of the Stanley Cup. Happy landing!