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The Old Bootheel

It's Black, it's Round: the Hockey Puck as Never Seen Before

They've flown into outer space with an astronaut, been used to insult audiences by comedians, starred in movies and songs. Some Americans vow they can never see them, some Canadians see them in their dreams.....

"I've had nightmares about pucks, but not while I'm sleeping," said Detroit Red Wings goalie Greg Stafan, once hospitalized for taking a puck in the throat. "I do get flashed though. You know, I'm just starting to fall asleep and then I jump, feeling something coming at me."

The puck first appeared as a flat disc on March 3, 1875. "A game of hockey will be played at the Victoria Skating Rink this evening between two nines from among the members," the Montreal Gazette announced. "Good fun can be expected, as some of the players are reputed to be exceedingly expert at the game."

"Some fears have been expressed on the part of the intending spectators that accidents were likely to occur through the ball flying about in a too lively manner, to the imminent dangers of lookers-on ... but we understand that the game will be played with a flat, circular piece of wood, thus preventing all danger of it leaving the surface of the ice."

Before that game, numerous items had been used as a puck, including lacrosse balls, fruit, frozen manure, tin cans and pieces of coal or wood. Most often, a rubber ball was used in the first organized hockey games in Montreal in the 1870s. But the owners of the Victoria Rink found that they were paying hundreds of dollars to replace windows shattered by the bouncing ball, so the top and bottom of the ball were sliced off to create a flat disc.

The players found the sliding flat object easier to play with and audiences found it more exciting to watch. Although wooden pucks were still experimented with, and all sorts of objects would continue to be used in pick-up games, by the 1890s the rubber puck was entrenched in organized hockey.

In one early Ontario Hockey Association game, a puck split in half as it was sailing toward the net, with one part falling into the goal and the other bounding into a corner of the rink. During the squabbling about whether it was a goal, referee Fred Waghorne pulled out the rule book which stated a puck was one-inch thick. Waghorne ruled that the piece that had entered the goal wasn't a puck because it wasn't an inch think. The OHA backed Waghorne's decision and announced that pucks would now be one piece of rubber, rather than two cemented together.

The word "puck" appeared in print as early as 1891. "The ball (or 'puck', as it is called) is a flat piece of india-rubber, circular in shape, about two inches thick, and with a diameter of about four inches," explained an article in a long-defunct publication called Field. "The game is played with, usually, seven a-side, and no striking with the stick is allowed, only pushing the 'puck' along the ice."

One bit of hockey lore says "puck" came into hockey use because it means a sprite or elf, darting about, disappearing and reappearing. The mischievous Puck of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream helped popularize the word. And the literate hockey-going public of the 1800s recognized the connection.

But the most likely explanation is that the word derived from the traditional Irish game of hurling. Hockey and its rules developed in the late 19th century in eastern Canada, then the home of a large, hurling-playing Irish diaspora, and it's easy to conclude the term "puck" was probably picked up from hurling to describe the ball being struck in hockey, which was called the ice hurley by some.

Known as "the fastest grass sport in the world," hurling is a combination of lacrosse and field hockey played by 15-member teams on a rectangular field. In hurling, the "puck-out" is much like the soccer goal-kick, with the hurling goalkeeper putting the ball back into play by whacking it with a large stick. "Puck-in" describes a ball being returned from the sidelines. "Puck" was also used in hurling as a general term for striking the ball. "The rival hurlers .... meet together in wild rivalry for a puck at the ever flying ball," noted a publication called 19th Century in 1900.

"Puck", meaning to strike or smack, is also a popular Irish term apart from hurling, as in "Do you want a puck in the puss?" In Ulysses, James Joyce wrote: "Myler Keogh, Dublin's pet lamb, will meet sergeant-major Bennett, the Portobello bruiser .... God, that'd be a good pucking match to see."

Whatever its origin, National Hockey League Rule 25 states: "The puck shall be made of vulcanized rubber, or other approved material, one inch thick and three inches in diameter and shall weigh between five and a half ounces and six ounces."

The puck is a mixture of carbon black, raw rubber and sulphur. After it is mixed, the hot substance is dropped on to rollers which flatten it into sheets of rubber. They are rolled in a sausage shape, then cut, refrigerated and molded. NHL pucks have the league logo silk-screened on one side, the team emblem of the other. NHL teams keep the pucks in a freezer before games because that takes some of the bounce out.

In the 1920s the puck had sharp edges which could cut a player. These edges have long since been slightly beveled, but today's puck is hardly non-violent. Hockey has experimented with different colors and sizes but always returns to the vulcanized black pucks, which hold their shape and chip less than colored pucks.

While most pucks are slapped around in obscurity, some are in the Hall of Fame, including the three Bill Mosienko used to notch a hat trick in 21 seconds and the one Canadian astronaut Mark Gareau took aboard the space shuttle in 1984. And the puck has been featured in movies (1975's Mystery of the Million Dollar Puck) and songs (the "Puck Rock" compilation albums). The International Hockey Hall of Fame in Kingston, Ontario displays the square rubber puck used in an 1886 game between Kingston's Queens University and Royal Military College.

John Qualls, of Grand Rapid, Michigan has amassed a collection of more than 1,500 pucks. Qualls' interest was piqued in the mid-1960s when Gordie Howe gave him an autographed puck. "I was down at the old Olympia and I met Gordie Howe. I thought all hockey pucks were the same, but then I saw the Detroit Red Wing crest, and I thought, 'That's neat.'"

There are other collectors. In 1972, a Canadian company obtained pucks that had been used in NHL games and mounted them on plaques, engraved with the puck's history. "There is a definite market for this," said businessman Reg Wright. "They are unique. Each one is different. They are like rare coins." Not rare enough, apparently, for people to buy them, and the plaques were discontinued.

While some pay homage to the puck, others — notably bruised goaltenders — have little affection for it. "I don't get to hold it or look at it too much," said Greg Stafan. "I feel it on my arm and that's about it."

But some can tell whether the puck is too big or too small, too soft or too hard. After a game in Philadelphia in 1985. Edmonton Oilers coach Glen Sather was irate. "Those pucks are horsecrap," he said. "They're the new ones the league approved. Sometimes you see the puck hit the post and come back warped."

"We used out old pucks for most of the year. The league kept sending us memos telling us to change but we didn't pay any attention. They are awful pucks."

The puck has taken blame for a lot of things, and comedian Don Rickles turned "you hockey puck" into a popular insult. But, mostly, the puck has been blamed for hockey's lack of success on U.S. television. Viewers can't see it.

"With your eyesight I'm surprised you can see the puck," Diane Keaton tells Woody Allen at a Rangers game in Manhattan Murder Mystery.

The World Hockey Association tried a flaming red puck in 1972, but the paint quickly peeled off. The league switched to a color called "superpuck blue" the following season, but these pucks wear soft by the third period and bounced erratically.

Peter Rossi, a spokesman for the colored puck company, admitted that there had been some adverse response from the end users: "Geez, the players. They take one look at a puck that isn't black and they say, 'Hell, what is this?' So they're against it from the start."

J.C. Tremblay of the Quebec Nordiques, an outspoken advocate of the black puck, was enlisted by the league to try out its revamped colorized puck. "If you can find a puck Tremblay likes, we're in," said Rossi.

"I like the orange better than blue or red," Tremblay said. "It was very bad last year because the rubber was too soft. I called the president of the league about it and told him, 'This blue puck, it's no good.'"

The WHA had other big ideas such as a puck embedded with an electronic device so it would appear on screen as a red glow. That faltered and colored pucks passed.

"It's a load of garbage," said NHL president Clarence Campbell, after the WHA's puck plan was unveiled. "The puck isn't invisible. I can see it plainly. You can see it. All right, it's less visible than a football, we can admit that."

After the demise of the WHA, the NHL would change in tune. In 1981, NHL president John Zieglar and other league executives met with Gary Berner, who had invented a flourescent puck called the Berner High Visibility Ice Hockey Puck. "We're very open-minded to anything that will improve visibility, especially on television," said NHL vice president Brian O'Neill.

Then there's the question of the puck's nationality. "Pucks are called les rondelles in their native Canada," TV Guide reported, referring to the Quebec-Fench name.

By 1985 millions of Eastern European pucks had landed on North American shores. The European pucks were dangerously hard, said Canadian Ton Bruhm, president of Viceroy Rubber and Plastics. "We felt someone was going to be hurt in the future."

But it wasn't just European pucks that were battering more than goaltenders. In the 1980s, an American-produced puck which allegedly contained metal particles from worn-out steel-belted tires left shattered glass in its wake. The American Hockey League's Maine Mariners, for instance, had to replace 24 "shatterproof" panels at the ends of their rink before the pucks were recalled.

In the late 1980s, the NHL approached the Canadian Standards Association to discuss problems being caused by some pucks. "The pucks were breaking the polycarbonate shields around the rinks and the goaltenders were remarking these pucks had a different feel. Setting a standard is costly and the manufacturers were not anxious to disclose the content of their pucks," said the CSA's Tom Pashby.

Following a series of incidents involving pucks that broke or contained metal fragments or air bubbles, the Canadian Standards Association began calling for international standards in 1994. "We are thinking safety," said Tom Pashby. "We don't need to worry about shape or content. We don't care if they are made of cheese, as long as they don't break."

An electronically enhanced puck appeared in 1996 when the Fox Network introduced FoxTrax. These high-tech discs appeared to be no different than a standard puck in the arena, but television audiences saw a puck surrounded by a blue glow that was supplemented by a red trail when shot or passed briskly. TV host David Letterman responded with "DaveTrax," a blue dot around his head, following him as he raced about the stage.

The glowing puck proved to be a passing fancy, joining other puck innovations in the dustbin of hockey history – ideas such as enlarging the puck. "Doesn't surprise me in the least," said Bobby Hull. "A goaltender probably thought of it."

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