School is in for hockey history

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Toronto Scum and Fish Wrap

At this hockey school, you get to know players from No. 99 to the 19th century, see the Forum, the Gardens, go over strategy, learn to stay under the salary cap and hopefully end with a Hall Of Fame pass.

All in just 14 weeks — and maybe a little overtime for instructor Phil Pritchard’s tales of travelling the world with the Stanley Cup.

“The game is the education,” said Pritchard, one of three instructors who teaches the on-line elective ‘The Hockey Hall Of Fame Presents’ at a growing number of community colleges in Ontario.

Sixteen years ago Pritchard and Kevin Shea first put out feelers to post-secondary schools for their unique course in the history of hockey. Toronto’s Seneca College leapt at the chance and now, through the Ontariolearn Program, it’s offered through Georgian, Mohawk, Cambrian, Centennial and many other colleges.

“The great thing about starting with Seneca was its state-of-the-art technology and a very multinational population,” Pritchard said. “You had a lot of students unfamiliar to hockey, but who could see it was all around them and that this would be a good way to learn more about Canada.

“We also have those who grew up playing, some as high as Jr. A or Jr. B, who think ‘hockey’s in my blood, but I want to know why.’ Others just signed up telling us ‘my dad’s a big Leafs fan and I want to impress him.’ This is the behind-the-scenes story of the game.”

Pritchard worked his way up from the Hall’s final days on Toronto’s Exhibition grounds to the white-gloved ‘Keeper Of The Cup’ in its current BCE Place shrine. Author Shea is an archivist, edits Hall-related publications and runs the massive Road Hockey To Conquer Cancer ball hockey tournament. The third instructor is Peter Jagla, the Hall’s vice-president of marketing. When school is in, the trio split about 100 students between them per semester for weekly discussion modules.                 

“The make-up of the enrolment astonished me,” said Shea. “I assumed it was going to be mostly male jocks. But it’s 35% female and overall, a lot of new Canadians. Maybe a few think it’s an easy (full General Education) credit, but I believe they all want a refreshing perspective of the game. About 10 to 15% of our classes are mature students and it’s great to see their banter with the young 21-year-olds.”

No corner of the rink is overlooked, with students immersed in the game’s humble beginnings, the formation of the NHL, the Original Six and expansion, both nationally and internationally.

The dynamics of race relations now played out on TV each night, part of which mirror hockey’s own struggles, puts a new emphasis on one course module pertaining to bias and discrimination in the game.

“Some of my favourite moments have been the candour of the guests,” Shea said of the early years of in-class visits. “Herb Carnegie and his great sorrow (as a black player) denied his chance, indigenous NHL coach Ted Nolan, national women’s goalie Sami Jo Small … there was jaw-dropping reaction at their stories.”

Others to address the class have been former NHLer Mike Cammalleri, reps from stick companies and an NHL equipment manager, as part of examining the evolution of gear through the years. Now that the course is fully on-line, there are links to films, websites and other little-known hockey avenues.   

The course, which costs $430, includes four interactive assignments, two multiple choice tests and a research project. Once COVID-19 passes, there will return to a final in-person exam. During the interactive phase, at least three students debate via e-mail a series of topics, such as whether fighting belongs in the game and the future of women’s hockey.

The state of the players union, ancillary hockey business and media are also broached. Some conversation has turned right up Pritchard’s alley, such as which players have been overlooked for Hall selection and building a case for the Hall’s Class of 2022.

Pritchard also instructs a more advanced eight-week on-line course on behalf of the Hall for U.S.-based Sports Management World Wide, which includes football, baseball, basketball and golf among its study options. SMWW’s hockey element not only deals with famous characters, traditions, trophy history and superstitions, but looks at people who stained the game through corruption and other wrong-doing. It also examines the future of hockey’s digital age.

“People who work in the game or who want to, would get a lot out of it,” Pritchard said.

ROAD WARRIOR

When Phil Pritchard’s students discover he travels more than 300,000 km a year with the Stanley Cup, they naturally want to hear about a few of his road trips.

“They usually ask me first who I think will win it, then they want some stories,” laughed Pritchard, who works a lot of Cup lore into the Hall’s college course.

While spending nearly 30 summers transferring it between the hometowns of champions for their special day, he’s stopped by many people wanting a selfie with Stanley. Police and hotel staff escorting him have been known to wake him up early in his room for an opportunity with ‘the people’s trophy.’

“The best part is going to different countries, experiencing their food and culture and seeing how hockey ties in,” Pritchard said. “In Slovenia, Anze Kopitar (of the L.A. Kings) and all his friends were out on the runway to meet our plane.

“My favourite place is Finland. The landscape is a lot like Canada and at that time of year, there’s almost 24 hours of daylight. The celebrations can go on outside a long time.”