How do you tell the story of Busher?

Busher Jackson – just past his peak. This was the greatest left winger in the game for most of the 1930s

The story of Harvey Jackson isn’t one that’s unique to hockey, to sport or to society at large.  It’s one that’s really far too common – a young person with the tools to take the world by storm succumbs to substance abuse and addiction and dies alone and broken.  It’s a tragic tale and a cautionary one and it deserves to be told.  The question really revolves around who tells it, in what context and to what end.

Jackson was just 18 years old when he made the bigs in 1929.  He was the perfect story – a natural athlete, a hometown kid, tall, strong, good-looking with a tremendous skill set.  He was a fantastic, fluid skater with an excellent shot.  He was cocky (he chirped Leafs’ trainer Tim Daly in his first season – Daly replied “You’re nothing but a fresh busher (bush leaguer)!” and the name stuck) but charming.  He’d team with fellow youngsters Joe Primeau and Charlie Conacher to form the “Kid Line,” which was soon the dominant line in the game.  Jackson would win his first scoring title at 21 and his first Stanley Cup the same season.  He was a four-time First Team All-Star between 1932 and 1937 and a Second Team All-Star once.

The Leafs of the early 1930s were the “Gashouse Gang” – a rough and tumble group that played hard and sometimes lived hard as well.  They were a powerhouse that got to the Stanley Cup Final year after year, but only manged to win it once – 1931-32.  Conn Smythe blamed his stars – Jackson and Conacher in particular – for their partying and celebrity lifestyles and said it made them incapable of focusing the way they needed to in order to win.  (The championship teams of the 1940s were of a very different character and much, much more disciplined.)

The celebrity lifestyle eventually got to Jackson.  Like so many who got too much too soon and too easily, he got caught up in the drinking and the partying and developed an alcohol dependency that he couldn’t escape.  Dealt from the Leafs to the lowly NY Americans in 1939, he never again reached the heights he once did.  He’d play acceptably well as a Bruin for a couple of seasons but was finished as a professional by 1944 at the age of 43. (Edit – oops – make that 33.)

Jackson then became the former celebrity coping with the loss of prestige, a lack of real experience outside of hockey and no significant education.  The alcohol issues got worse and the rest of the Jackson story is a spiral into decay and destruction.  There were failed businesses, failed marriages, talk of domestic assaults and always the alcoholism.  His wife and child had to hide from him.

Jackson’s story is the archetypal fall from grace.  It is one of the oldest story forms we have and has been repeated innumerable times.  With only minor variations, you could tell the same story of Habs legend Doug Harvey – a chronic alcoholic who would wind up destitute and living in a rail car.  You could look at the very public and nasty divorce of Bobby Hull and its lurid descriptions of alcohol and domestic abuse.  In baseball, there is the downward spiral of Mickey Mantle.  For some, there was eventual redemption, at least of a sort.  For others, it simply never happened.  The fall was complete.

Over at Backhand Shelf, Ellen Etchingham goes into more specifics about the fall of Busher Jackson and looks at the push by Conn Smythe to keep him out of the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Smythe was of the commonly-held opinion that addiciton was essentially a moral failing and as such, Jackson did not deserve to be held in the esteem of hockey’s elect.  (Note – the same forces delayed Doug Harvey’s admission as well and for the same reasons – when he did get inducted, he told them he’d be fishing the day of the ceremony and not to expect him.)

Where she goes from there, though, is interesting.  As she points out, the official Jackson biography makes no mention of Jackson’s life problems beyond a vague mention that he was “controversial.”  The same is true of Doug Harvey and Bobby Hull.  Their careers have been sanctified.  If someone did something of value outside of hockey, it is duly noted.  If the end was sad, particularly if it’s tied to substance abuse, it is glossed over.

This isn’t just true of the legends and inducted members.  The page about Derek Boogaard is remarkably thin.  If not for a note at the bottom that he passed away in 2011, one would simply assume he’d wandered off somewhere.  John Kordic’s page is no better.

She notes that other ugly incidents – the Bailey/Shore hit and the Richard Riot, to name two – are discussed in full detail, so why not these?   Her text:

Perhaps people should not speak ill of the dead, but it is generally better that cultural institutions- especially those that claim to be custodians of the collective memory- speak the truth. The Hockey Hall of Fame can either be a temple or a museum, but whichever it chooses, it should be honest. If it’s going to be a temple, then Smythe was right: it should elevate the players who were honestly worth reverence. If it’s going to be a museum, though, it should embrace players of diverse significance and speak the whole truth about them. It isn’t as if the Hall is entirely afraid of ugliness.  The exhibits on Ace Bailey and Eddie Shore (which are sort of creepily right next to each other) make mention of their ugly encounter and all the trouble it caused. They don’t shy away from mention of the Richard Riot. If the Hall doesn’t feel compelled to whitewash the hockey part of hockey history, why is it so reluctant to show the full colors of the non-hockey part?

She muses that there is no redemption for Jackson and therefore no good story to tell, whereas there was something to find in both the Bailey and Richard cases.  Her criticism is that the NHL presents basically a pollyanna’s view of the sport, stripped of the complexity that makes the players human.

At its core, I can’t really argue with this.  It’s true.  From the stories presented, nothing happened that wasn’t hockey.  If there was a controversy that was hockey-related, though, it does merit some attention, even if off-ice and not particularly flattering.  This, even though it has been sanitized in order to fit in a single paragraph, comes from the bio of Darryl Sittler:

In 1977-78, Sittler registered 117 points and was selected to the league’s Second All-Star Team. The Leafs had their best playoff showing in years, making it to the semi-finals. But things began to fall apart, for the franchise and for its captain, in 1979-80 when cantankerous owner Harold Ballard replaced much of his management, bringing in Punch Imlach to run the team.

Sittler was represented by Alan Eagleson, a lawyer and agent who never saw eye to eye with Ballard or Imlach. Relations were strained to the point that Sittler took a pair of scissors to the “C” on his sweater before a game in late 1979 to protest, among other things, the trade of Lanny McDonald to the Colorado Rockies. Ballard then threatened to lock Sittler out before the beginning of the next season. The two men resolved some of their differences and Sittler returned as captain, but it was a tenuous reconciliation. Midway through the 1981-82 season, Sittler went AWOL and demanded a trade. He was depressed and worn out from his battles with management in Toronto. In January he was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers, a one-time nemesis but a team that nonetheless had a great deal of respect for Sittler.

The premise for the Hall seems to be that if controversy is untimately hockey-related, it’ll merit discussion.  If it’s not, it doesn’t.  Post-hockey life might get a mention if it reflects well on the person or the game.  The mention might be slight – Carl Brewer’s takedown of Allan Eagleson – one of the most significant events of the past 25 years – merits just a single paragraph.  It doesn’t reflect so well on the league.

The question of whether the Hockey Hall of Fame is a museum or a temple is probably the most significant.  The French name for the HHOF – Le Temple de la Renommée – illustrates the choice taken.  A temple is for exalting things.  A museum is for explaining them.

Halls of Fame to me harken back to an era when journalists who covered sports were primarily involved in hero-building.  The reporters all knew who drank too much, who was unfaithful and who was simply a jerk, but none of that ever made the paper.  If it was written, it wouldn’t have survived the copy desk.  It was the manifestation of “what goes on in the room stays in the room.”  It benefited the players, it benefited the leagues.  I can’t say it particularly benefited the readers, but if the goal was projecting some form of wholesome ideal, it certainly worked.

This is why Jim Bouton’s Ball Four was such a bombshell when it was released.  Mickey Mantle was a drinker and a peeping Tom?  The Mick?  It was both beyond belief and instantly believeable.  It stripped the wool from our eyes and let us see the sport as it was – human, full of decent moments and bits that were stupid and miserable.  At the cost of its sanctity, it became more real.

The tendency to look at athletes as complete human beings, full of flaws and failure and the occasional great achievement, springs from this time.  It’s something that people seem to crave and clubs desperately try to thwart because heroes likely generate more revenue that selfish jerks who happen to be good at a particular activity.  It’s rather unfair to the people who are legitimately larger than life, but that’s how it seems to be.

So is the Hall of Fame an anachronism as currently constituted?  That seems to be the feeling of Etchingham, who feels denied the information that would allow for a proper understanding of the humanity of its members.

Again, I agree with the basic premise.  I too would rather a museum of hockey than a temple.  What I don’t know is how you execute it.  As it stands, the bios are short, the stories superficial.  By limiting the scope of the story to the field of play, they never have to deal with whether who a person was has anything to do with their inclusion or exclusion.  It’s all about what happened when the game was on.

Consider baseball, whose hall includes both Jackie Robinson, who broke the colour barrier, and Cap Anson, the baseball pioneer who was a key figure in implementing it.  There is the potential there for a truly in-depth look at the role of race relations in sport, but is it amenable to the format?  We could look at the role of fame, pressure and money to substance abuse in sport, but this sort of thing is the basis of a good doctoral thesis.  Does it relate to the picture-board world of the hall of fame?

I think that somewhere there is room for this kind of thing.  I’m not sure the hall is really set up for it.  I think we need a proper museum alongside our temple.  We can elevate our heroes in one and tell their stories in the other.

When I was in school, we went to Delphi in Greece.  Delphi was famous for its oracle, but the town itself became immensely wealthy as a pilgrimage site.  It was laid out in this long processional line that wound its way up the side of a hill (absolutely everything in Greece is on a hill – it’s like living on a giant Stairmaster).

There were a number of buildings clearly identifiable amongst the ruins, but the positioning of three was rather interesting.  They represented the three key forms – the temple, the theatre and the arena.  The Temple of Apollo dominated the view from the road below.  It was the first major thing passed and a good place to leave offerings.

The theatre was perched on the hill above.  Greek theatres didn’t use a constructed backdrop like Roman theatres did.  The plays were presented against the backdrop of the temple of the gods and the landscape itself. The plays covered all the bases – comedies, tragedies, you name it.  This was the forum for the proper telling of stories and legends.

The highest point on the pilgrimage route was the stadium.  There was a practical reason for this as there was actually a plain large enough to support it, but it was presented to us that there was a larger meaning for it as well – the Greeks felt (I’m repeating the prof here, don’t shoot the messenger if you disagree) that the closest human beings could come to the state of the gods was through athletic competition.  It was through sport that one became legend.

I think we still feel this way.  We build legends around our athletes.

We have the arena, where we create our legends and our halls/temples where we sanctify them (think about the hall – it’s filled with relics and icons – that just screams temple).  What we lack is the kind of theatre (or museum, for continuity’s sake) where we can tell more about the legends and what they might actually mean.

Given the space constraints of the Hockey Hall of Fame, I have no idea where you would put such a thing.  It may be that this can’t be a physical space but a virtual one.  There are no limits to the amount you can stick on the web.

So ultimately, I don’t think you change the Hall of Fame itself.  It does what it does and it’s really not suitable for anything more than reverence and legend-building.  I think you extend it with a wing – perhaps a virtual one – off on the side, a place where you stop talking about gods and start talking about people.   This is where Busher gets to be all too human.

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One Response to How do you tell the story of Busher?

  1. shanediaz82 says:

    Fantastic read, thoroughly enjoyable!

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