Hockey Central

Pioneer Executive W.A. Hewitt

Hockey's Rapid Growth in the Early 1900's
Challenged the Game's Organizers

The public voice of hockey transmitted across Canada — the voice that young boys heard in their imagination as they played their games on frozen ponds or back alleyways — was the voice of Foster Hewitt. Foster Hewitt developed the terms that defined the sport. He generated the excitement that captured the imagination of youngsters across the country and transported them from their family living rooms to Maple Leaf Gardens. But long before Foster’s famed gondola in Maple Leaf Gardens, Hewitt’s father had been the powerful private voice of hockey. Although the sound of W.A. Hewitt’s voice has long been silenced, the effects of his decisions helped to define and structure the modern game of hockey.

William Abraham Hewitt was born into a working-class family in Cobourg, Ontario on May 15, 1875. The family moved to Toronto when he was four years old. There, three major pursuits kept young William and his three brothers occupied: school, work and sports. School and work were necessities. Sports was a passion. The place to view sports in Toronto a century ago was on Ward’s Island. Hewitt and his friends would swim across the harbor to watch professional baseball, cricket and lacrosse, which all drew great crowds and excitement to the island. But the swim could be dangerous. It once nearly cost Hewitt his life when he got caught in a log jam and could not surface for air because the logs were so tightly packed. Hewitt’s love for baseball took on a new meaning one hot summer’s day on Ward’s Island while watching the Toronto team practice. He was asked to play catch with one of the players, who was impressed by the boy’s curve ball; a new style of pitch which the team’s pitcher had yet to master. Hewitt was asked to practice pitch for the team. Many of the players had trouble hitting his curve.

In the winter, the Toronto harbor would freeze over and be transformed into a playground for the rich in their ice boats (a type of sailboat built on steel runners which could reach incredible speeds). For the less well-to-do, the frozen harbor was perfect for pleasure skating. While pleasure skating on Toronto harbor, Hewitt saw his first game of hockey. Fascinated by this new sport which seemed to combine the best elements of lacrosse, field hockey and soccer, Hewitt took up the game.

With the untimely death of his father, Hewitt’s childhood and school days came to an abrupt end. He left Jarvis Collegiate at the age of 15 and secured a job as a reporter with the Toronto News. His first assignment was the police beat, but he soon was transferred to cover sports. At about the time that young Hewitt was being trained as a cub reporter, a group of 13 well-connected men met at the Queen’s Hotel in Toronto to form a new amateur hockey association. Their plan was to make the competitions between their respective towns more structured and to play for defined championships. At this first meeting in November of 1890, the rules of the sport were agreed upon and written down. The Governor-General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston, agreed to be a patron of the new organization, known as the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). His decision hardly was surprising since one of the teams represented (the Rideau Rebels) played in his back garden. Two of Stanley’s sons not only played for Ottawa’s Rebel Hockey Club at this time, they were founding members of the OHA. In 1892, Lord Stanley donated a cup to be emblematic of amateur hockey supremacy in Canada. The Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup quickly became known as the Stanley Cup. Later, it would become the symbol of professional hockey greatness.

Hockey’s popularity grew quickly in the years after the OHA was formed, and the changing attitudes toward the game could be seen in Toronto. Prior to the OHA, hockey was played by very few people. The arenas of the city had been geared towards pleasure skating. Often the ice surface was circular with a band shell in the middle which the skaters could circle around, arm in arm to the music. Hockey players might be hard pressed to guess which side of the band shell their opponent would skate around during a game — provided they could get any ice time at all. The owners of the arenas viewed hockey players as an annoyance and saw pleasure skaters as the group that paid their bills. After the press, amongst whom was now W.A. Hewitt, began reporting on the game, interest grew. Fans began following the progress of local teams and, with the introduction of championship trophies, hockey was gaining ground rapidly as Canada’s official winter sport.

As interest in hockey grew, so too did gambling. Individuals bet heavily on the outcome of games and this opened up an opportunity for con artists. One of the many flim-flams that arose was a scam to circumvent the OHA’s strict residency rules, which stated that a player had to live in the area and register to play for a team prior to October 1 of the year before they were going to play. Towns without a great talent base would bring in a ringer from outside, give him a false birth certificate, put him on the roster, and hope that nobody in the towns that they were playing against would recognize him. Suddenly, a mediocre team was a powerhouse and the visiting team’s supporters would clean up financially and divide the winnings.

 
Meanwhile, Hewitt’s talent as a writer and his knowledge of sports were rewarded by the News when, at age 20, he was promoted to sports editor. Shortly afterwards (in 1897), the OHA passed tough regulations to combat the scams that were tarnishing hockey’s image. The OHA ruled that any player who received money for games would be suspended, as would the entire team and its coaching staff. Any player who ever had played for money would be suspended and any trophies or awards granted to his team would be disallowed. The onus of this new bylaw was upon the individual accused of being a professional to prove that he was innocent. The introduction of these regulations coincided with the appointment of a new member of the OHA board, the tough anti-professional proponent John Ross Robertson. Robertson was just one member among an executive of 11, but as owner of the Evening Telegram and a Member of Parliament in Canada’s House of Commons, he was not only the richest OHA executive but also its best-connected and its strongest personality. Inevitably, he was able to dominate the OHA executive’s agenda, and what Robertson wanted was amateur hockey untainted by money.
 
One of the first cases to enact the anti-professional stance of the OHA involved two teams from southwestern Ontario. The team from Berlin (which would become Kitchener during World War I) had won the Ontario intermediate championship in 1897 and moved up to the senior ranks in 1898. Its first senior game came against local rival Waterloo on January 6, 1898. The arena was filled with fans from both cities and the excitement was palpable. The rules of the day called for seven men per side with no substitutions, two 30-minute halves, and no forward passing. The game was hard-fought, with players from both sides playing through injuries. Berlin raced out to a 6-0 lead, but one top player took a slash to the cheek while another had his ankle cut badly by the puck. Both were dripping blood, but refused to leave the ice. Weakened, the Berlin team allowed Waterloo four goals in the second half but managed to hold on for a 6-4 victory. The mayor of Berlin was ecstatic with the victory. He visited the dressing room after the game and gave each player a souvenir 10-dollar coin as a memento.
 
The next morning’s newspaper accounts of the Berlin-Waterloo game mentioned the mayor’s generosity. The OHA executive was outraged. The gift was clearly a blatant violation of their newly passed anti-professional stand. The Berlin hockey club was requested to meet with the executive and explain the situation. At the hearing, the Berlin players argued that the coins were not going to be spent, but that a watchmaker was going to attach them to the back of their pocket watches. Unfortunately, very few of the players could produce their coins (most had spent them already) and the entire team was banned from the hockey.
 
Denied a winter of fun watching the Berlin-Waterloo rivalry, most fans of the area threw their support behind Waterloo. A 9-5 playoff loss to the Kingston Frontenacs appeared to end any championship dreams, but the game was ordered replayed because a member of the Kingston team had been playing for pay in New York. Waterloo won the rematch 7-3, then beat Listowel 10-4 for the OHA senior championship. However, professional charges were now brought against three Waterloo players and their title was taken away. There would be lasting feelings of bitterness towards the OHA from the fans of southwestern Ontario.
 
It was during the height of the reign of the anti-professional zealots on the OHA executive that W.A. Hewitt was asked to join in 1903. It was an appointment Hewitt accepted, and he was acclaimed to the position of secretary. At the age of 28, he was at the threshold of 58 years as a key decision-maker in one of the most influential hockey organizations in the world.
 
Hewitt had the ability to align himself with the right people and he quickly realized that the holder of the most influence within the OHA was John Ross Robertson, who was serving as president. The OHA executive no longer met at the Queen’s Hotel, but in Robertson’s Telegram office. At first, Robertson was dubious of Hewitt, who was, after all, the sports editor of a rival newspaper. (Since January of 1900, it has been the Toronto Star.) His fears soon proved to be unfounded and the two became strong allies against the onslaught of professionalism.
 
An early example of the power wielded by W.A.H. (as he would become known) can be seen in his treatment of a teenage hockey player from Listowel during the winter of 1904-05. Long before he was known to the world as “Cyclone,” Frederick Wellington Taylor was just a skinny 16-year-old kid who had an amazing talent for hockey. He was a fast skater and talented stickhandler who could score plenty of goals and had become something of a celebrity in his small town. When Hewitt learned of the Listowel whiz kid, he wanted him to play for the Toronto Marlboros. (Although there never has been a concrete link made between Hewitt and the Marlboros, accusations were made throughout his time with the OHA that he favored the big city’s top team.) Taylor considered Hewitt’s offer, but decided it would mean too big a change for him to move to Toronto and be away from his family and friends. Hewitt responded by telling Taylor that if he would not play hockey in Toronto, he would not play anywhere. Hewitt proved true to his word. Taylor tried without success to play for other OHA teams, but each application was returned with the request denied.
 
Taylor missed a full season of play because of his dispute with Hewitt and went through some very tough times, including the loss of his job at the piano stringing factory in Listowel. It was not until he was invited to play in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in 1905-06 that Taylor was able to return to the game. (Hewitt’s reach did not extend beyond Ontario’s provincial boundaries.) Ironically, Taylor would leave Portage la Prairie during the year to join a fully professional team in Houghton, Michigan. Both the International (Pro) Hockey League and the Portage Lakes team he joined were operated by Dr. John Liddell “Jack” Gibson who had been a member of the Berlin team that was banned by the OHA in 1898.
 
Together Hewitt, Robertson and fellow board member Dwight Turner became known as “the Three White Czars” of the OHA. When a dispute arose about professionalism, residency or eligibility of a player, it was referred to the three czars, whose decision was final. Despite the fact that championships often were being determined in the office of Robertson as opposed to the ice rinks of Ontario, guidelines governing eligibility were tightened so that professionals were not even allowed to coach a team or be associated with them in any way for fear they might taint the purity of the OHA. This fixation took on the proportions of a witch hunt, with players living in fear that they were going to be accused of professionalism and be hauled before the three czars to prove their innocence.
 
By 1910, with the OHA still determined to be rid of the professionals, the National Hockey Association (forerunner of the NHL) started up as a purely professional league. Not only did the NHA gobble up many of the OHA’s top intermediate and senior players, it eventually would stake its claim to the Stanley Cup. (In fact, with professional teams already competing for the Stanley Cup, Sir H. Montagu Allan of Montreal had donated a fine silver cup in 1908 for the sole competition of amateur teams in leagues like the OHA all across Canada.)
 
Others who gave the OHA grief during this time were the local mercantile leagues and, in particular, the banks. Each of the major banks had a hockey team and they were always looking for talented players. Bank games brought out large crowds and it was a great promotion for a bank to win a game or, better yet, a championship. The banks would send scouts to watch for talented youngsters. When they came across prospects, they would offer them a job in the bank and promote them to the Toronto office, where they would play for the bank hockey team. The OHA resented the talent pool being skimmed this way but could do little to retaliate, since the banks were not a part of the OHA.
 
Though the OHA remained staunchly amateur, the league was still instrumental in some of the changes that helped shaped the modern game. Innovations of the era such as the blue line, goal creases, and six-man teams with substitutions found some of their earliest support in the Ontario Hockey Association.
 
In December of 1918, John Ross Robertson died. Although his influence had been waning in his later years, Robertson had been installed as a life member of the OHA and he continued to make his presence felt. It wasn’t until after his death that the OHA finally began to ease its regulations surrounding professionals, allowing ex-pros to coach OHA teams and even to play for them. Professional athletes from other sports also were permitted to play hockey in the OHA. It was a lawyer by the name of George S. Dudley who had pushed hardest for these changes. Hewitt, sensing which way the wind was blowing, aligned himself with Dudley.
 
By this time, Hewitt was not only busy in his role as sports editor and OHA secretary, but he had become the registrar and treasurer of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association in 1915. He had managed the Toronto Argonauts rugby football team in 1907 and 1908 and had convened the meeting in 1907 which organized the Big Four (a forerunner of the Canadian Football League). Still, he had time for more active involvement in hockey. In 1920, he accompanied the Allan Cup champion Winnipeg Falcons to Antwerp, Belgium for the first Olympic hockey tournament. Appalled by the general lack of knowledge about the game of hockey he found in Europe, Hewitt convinced the International Ice Hockey Federation to adopt the Canadian rules for the competition. The IIHF was so impressed by Hewitt they gave him the honor of refereeing the first Olympic game — an 8-0 win by Sweden over Belgium on April 23, 1920. The Falcons defeated Czechoslovakia 15-0, the United States 2-0 and Sweden 12-1 to earn a gold medal for Canada.
 
Following the 1920 Olympics, the International Ice Hockey Federation ruled that the tournament results would not be listed as official (though in 1983, the 1920 Games were recognized retroactively as the first World Championship.) Hewitt felt the IIHF decision took away from the Falcons’ victory. However, in 1924, Hewitt served as general manager for the Toronto Granites team that won the gold medal at the first official Winter Olympics. So strong was the Canadian entry this year that legend has it goaltender Jack Cameron would leave his net during games to sign autographs for the young ladies in attendance. When questioned years later, Cameron denied the allegations though he did admit to leaving the net to talk to a young Norwegian figure skater named Sonja Henie. Four years later, Hewitt returned to the Olympics with the University of Toronto Varsity Grads and acted as general manager for another gold medal winner.
 
W.A. Hewitt remained involved with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association until 1954 and stayed on with the OHA until 1961. He passed away on September 8, 1966. Hewitt had served as the manager of attractions at Maple Leaf Gardens when it opened in 1931 and was the public relations director of the Ontario Racing Commission when it opened in 1951. He also had been the long-time presiding steward on Canadian racing tracks. Hewitt not only witnessed much of Canadian sports history during his lifetime, he played an active role in the stewardship of hockey from an oddity seen only on Canada’s frozen harbors to a sport televised and played all over the world.