For Early Antarctic Explorers, Hockey Was Cold Comfort

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NHL fans may have gotten desperate during the lockout, but not as desperate as Ernest Shackleton's men.

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The Folio Society

The wait is over. After a summer stalemate and 113-day lockout, the NHL returns to action this weekend. No more press conferences with aloof executives to endure. No more reactions from players shrugging at the cameras in their summer wear.

We'll soon learn whether another waiting game—the NHL's third lockout in less than 20 years—has caused permanent damage to the sport. The talented forward for the New York Rangers, Brian Boyle, recently acknowledged the possibility in an interview with the New York Times. "We [the players] were dying to play—those were dark days," he said. "It was awful the way it happened. We're not insensitive to that. Now it's a huge relief; we're ready to play. Hopefully, we can ease some of the pain from what was lost."

These descriptions—dark days, time lost, easing pain—resonated with me, as I'd spent the lockout period reading about truly harrowing icebound waiting games. My starting point was the South Polar Times, a handmade newspaper published by Antarctic explorers more than a century ago as a way to boost morale and stave off boredom during long stretches on the ice. In addition to putting on plays, huddling around the gramophone, dressing up as women—anything to keep spirits up—the shipmates collaborated on this typewritten and beautifully illustrated paper, complete with weather reports, humor pieces, and birth notices of sledge dog puppies. The articles were read aloud and the issue was then circulated throughout the cabin, one reader at a time. Last year, the Folio Society released a box set compiling each issue of the SPT, which published during multiple expeditions between 1902 and 1913.

An editorial from 1903, written after the crew of the English vessel Discovery established winter quarters in huts along the frozen shore, stressed the importance of hockey to help cure loneliness: "A new and healthy pastime this autumn has been the games of hockey on the ice. Notwithstanding the low temperatures, the occasional biting wind, and the unstinted generosity with which bruised shins and black eyes have been bestowed, the enthusiasm is unabated and the game still remains popular." A column cataloguing "principal monthly events" pinpoints the inaugural Antarctic hockey game occurring on March 25th, 1903. The men's window for daytime exercise was brief; the sun disappeared from April to August, though occasional matches commenced under a full moon. "As we can expect no light from without," wrote Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on the Discovery and the first editor of the SPT, "we look for the light within."

The humbling realization that explorers with only sledge dogs as companions managed to rally together and organize some games on the ice makes the return of professional hockey feel all the more appropriate. It certainly lends perspective to what truly constitutes a waiting game.

"A new and healthy pastime this autumn has been the games of hockey on the ice," read a 1903 editorial. "Notwithstanding the low temperatures, the occasional biting wind, and the unstinted generosity with which bruised shins and black eyes have been bestowed."

Comparing polar opposites—Antarctic survival, North American recreation—is not entirely fair, of course, though I couldn't help but detect a certain charm in reports of NHL players and personnel occupying unwanted free time as if they were castaways. A center for the Washington Capitals tinkered around his house so much he contemplated knocking down entire walls. National broadcaster Mike Emrick called play-by-play for a girls' 12-and-under game. After Christmas, a bored Canadiens defenseman took to Twitter to suggest a pickup game at a public rink in Montreal, the hockey-crazed city where the NHL was founded in 1917, and people of all ages arrived in droves to skate alongside a pro. Like all bright spots during hockey's shipwrecked season, however, there was a bitter chaser. The following week the New York Times reported that cooling systems are now required to keep ice inside Arctic arenas frozen, posing concerns that the Canadian tradition of pond hockey might fade by midcentury.

Cooling systems were hardly necessary at Antarctic pick-up games. In Sara Wheeler's biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the English zoologist and third editor of the South Polar Times, she recounts a hockey game in 1911 that "was abandoned when the puck, which they had made from shellac and paraffin wax, shattered as soon as it was struck." Other pieces of equipment were built to last. Among the items preserved by sub-freezing conditions inside a prefabricated hut erected during Robert Falcon Scott's deadly Terra Nova expedition over a century ago, one can still find tins of digestive biscuits, a chemistry set frozen in mid-use, a box of penguin eggs, and hockey sticks. (On a related note, a stick belonging to the Australian cartographer Alexander Lorimer Kennedy, used during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14, sold at a Christie's auction in 2007 for more than $3,000.)

No account of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration is complete without reflecting on Shackleton's ill-fated voyage on the Endurance. In 1915 the ship froze into the ice "like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar," according to the ship's storekeeper, resulting in an unimaginable quest to reach civilization that stretched over 400 days. The icebergs that surrounded the ship resembled "the creations of some brilliant architect when suffering from delirium," the captain wrote in his diary. The men's faces were filthy from blubber smoke and the icicles on their noses couldn't be cracked off without tearing skin. In the early days of their isolation, the men kept their spirits up by hosting dog derbies and stockpiling seal meat. "Hockey and football on the floe were our chief recreations," Shackleton wrote in his diary, "and all hands joined in many a strenuous game. " He later noted that hockey games "on the rough snow-covered floe kept all hands in good fettle." The welcome distraction didn't last long. The crew lived in perpetual fear of the "Crack of Doom" that would split their ship for good and send it sinking into "the drink." In July 1915, Shackleton met with his captain and second in command to plan a full retreat from the relative comfort of the ship's cabin and exist out in the open. "The ship can't live in this, Skipper," Shackleton said. "What the ice gets, the ice keeps."

Shackleton's premonition is a sobering reminder as Zamboni engines finally rev up again to coat North American rinks with fresh sheets of ice, hastily preparing for another season already adrift.

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James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to SlateThe BelieverWax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint. 

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