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Mail Box Before E-commerce: A History of Canadian 
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  Skates, Eaton's Fall Winter 1958-59, 
p. 540.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1958-59, p. 540.


Professional Hockey and the Mail-order Catalogue
by John Willis

By convention, hockey is Canada's national sport. Hockey is central to how Canadian men and women view themselves in terms of sports excellence. Originally an amateur sport, the game has become a business in which investment, marketing, and communication play major roles. The mail-order catalogue was part and parcel of the business of making hockey popular for it contributed to the emergence of professional hockey stars. Hockey players first appeared in catalogues during the 1930s. Two decades later, a very special hockey star became a well-known commodity of mail-order merchandising. His name was Maurice Richard.

Early Years of Hockey | Professional Hockey | Selling Hockey | Stardom and the Catalogue | Further Reading


  Sports equipment, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1905-06, p. 243.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1905-06, p. 243 (detail).


Early Years of Hockey

Hockey began in Canada as an amateur sport. University students and members of amateur athletic organizations played the game outdoors — not in an arena. (Even during the early years of professional hockey, the playoffs were still taking place outdoors.

  Hockey equipment, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1906-07, p. 161.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1906-07, p. 161.


During a spring thaw, sawdust was sprinkled over areas of unsure ice to protect players from breaking through the surface. Skaters dashed madly up the ice only to lose the puck in a ball of slush.) Although amateur in status, hockey was increasingly recognized as a popular team sport with a standard set of rules and equipment requirements.

  Hockey supplies, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1912-13, p. 162.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1912-13, p. 162.


As amateur hockey gained in popularity, especially among young athletes, the game began to show up in mail-order catalogues. Early Eaton's catalogues contain small and vague depictions of people playing hockey outdoors; sticks and skates were shown. The 1912-13 catalogue devoted an entire page to hockey including the first visual representations of protective equipment. During the 1910s, the Eaton's catalogue offered to outfit entire hockey teams with sweaters, socks, regulation nets, and everything else down to the referees' whistles.

Professional Hockey

  Hockey skates, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1917-18, p. 303.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1917-18, p. 303.


In November 1917, five entrepreneurs met at the Windsor Hotel in Montréal to form the National Hockey League (NHL), a new professional hockey association. In the process, they dispensed with the Toronto franchise, the Blueshirts, and its owner E. J. Livingston. Having achieved this, one of the NHL founders, Tommy Gorman of the Ottawa team, allegedly remarked: "Now we can get on with the business of making money." This, the NHL set out to do during the 1920s.

NHL teams began using artificial ice surfaces and indoor arenas to extend the hockey season and maximize gate receipts. The Ottawa Auditorium was built for the Ottawa Senators in 1923. It was a 10 000-seat facility. The Montreal Forum was built at a cost of $1 million the following year in 1924. Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto was completed by November 1931 and cost $5 million. Competing leagues in Western Canada were put out of business. Expansion into big-city American markets was initiated. Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago were all awarded franchises and brought into the league by 1927. In the U.S., a series of arenas (Boston Garden, Madison Square Gardens, and Chicago Stadium) was built to accommodate the thousands of fans willing to pay to attend a game.

  Hockey sweaters, Eaton Automne hiver 
1934-35, p. 268.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1934-35, p. 268.


In the U.S. and Canada, filling these arenas was a business proposition. The Montreal Arena Company, owners of the Montreal Forum, also owned the city's two hockey teams: the Montréal Canadiens and the Montreal Maroons (1925-1938). They had the best of both worlds: The Canadiens were popular with the francophone market and the Maroons were the favourite of English Montrealers. During the 1920s, the success of these two teams and the rivalry between them did much to popularize the sport of professional ice hockey in Montréal. During five of the six seasons between 1924 and 1930, one or other of the two found themselves in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

  Hockey equipment, Dupuis Frères 
Mi-hiver 1949, p. 29 .  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères Mid-winter Catalogue, 1949, p. 29.


In the midst of the Depression, around 1937, the Montreal Arena Company fell into debt. The company rationalized by sacrificing the Maroons in 1938. Team star Toe Blake was transferred to the Canadiens. Now known as the Habs, the Canadiens became the only show in town, Montréal became a single-team market, and many Montrealers had to transfer their hockey allegiance to the other side of Montreal's linguistic barrier. The stage was set for a new era of selling hockey.

Selling Hockey

  Hockey skates and sweaters, Eaton's 
Fall Winter 1935-36, p. 269.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1935-36, p. 269.


Hockey owners and entrepreneurs in the NHL deployed a number of tools to promote the fortunes of their teams. The key challenge was to ensure the loyalty of the public, who attended game after game and bought from the team and its sponsors. First and foremost in the arts of persuasion were the instruments of communication. Newspaper reporters functioned as adjunct members of the team. They were spoon-fed a continuous diet of press communiqués, background material, and team trivia, which they, in turn, served up to the public. An effective public relations tool that generated newspaper copy and focused attention on the home team during preseason play was the training camp, an invention of the Maple Leafs' organization during the 1930s.

  Hockey skates, Dupuis Frères 
hiver 1930-31, p. 216.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1930-31, p. 216.


A powerful means of popularizing hockey emerged during the late 1920s and early 1930s: radio. Foster Hewitt began broadcasting Leaf games live for the Toronto radio station CFCA. By the early 1930s, the games were broadcast in Montréal. By 1933, Hewitt was broadcasting to a coast-to-coast, English-speaking market on a 20-station radio network. At first, General Motors sponsored the broadcasts. In 1936, Imperial Oil took the lead in sponsoring hockey.

In Canada as in the U.S., the 1930s marked the commercialization of radio. Radio programs and the products they peddled on behalf of their sponsors burrowed into the inner reaches of North American family life, and, not just in the home. By the late 1930s, radios began showing up in cars. Automobile travellers could thus treat themselves to the ultimate experience of listening to a game, fantasizing about what was happening on the ice as they continued on their journey.

The single most powerful means of selling hockey was the institution of stardom. The renown of the star players exceeded that of the entire team and came to characterize hockey most powerfully, as in the case of Howie Morenz, star and homme fatal of the Canadiens in the 1920s and 1930s. His dramatic injury and death in January 1937 was a huge public event in Montréal. Morenz was mourned as a much loved public celebrity, a first-rate star.

  Sticks, skates and sweaters, Eaton 
Automne hiver 1933-34, p. 297.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1933-34, p. 297.


Live radio broadcast no doubt facilitated hockey stardom, but, without considerable investment, no significant outlays on key players could occur. In 1930, the popular Ottawa Senators player King Clancy was acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs for the unprecedented sum of $35 000. Clancy thus joined a team whose "stars" would achieve considerable renown during the 1930s. Among these stars were the three members of the kid line: Charlie Conacher, Busher Jackson, and Joe Primeau. Other Leaf stars popularized during the 1930s were Syl Apps and Red Horner, the archtypical hard-nosed defenceman. Apps was a track-and-field athlete in his own right who played on and off for the Leafs from 1936-1948. Horner was the most penalized player in the league for eight of his twelve seasons (1928-1940).

  Skates autographed by Syl Apps, 
Simpson Automne hiver 1940-41, p. 331.  

Enlarge image.Simpson's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1940-41, p. 330.


These players were the historical bedrock of NHL stardom. They were the first and, for that reason, the class of the 1930s and 1940s is fondly remembered. It was no coincidence that the custom of numbering hockey sweaters was introduced during the 1930s: The object was to make individual players more recognizable. The cult of stardom was thus firmly established.

Hockey was by no means the only sport to make use of stardom; boxing and baseball, as well as the rodeo in the West, immediately come to mind. Moreover, the analogies with the movie business during the 1930s are striking.

Stars are as old as the movies. However, stardom, according to media expert Jib Fowles, was an innovation of the 1930s. With the introduction of sound to the pictures and the heavier financial investment in film production, the major film studios assembled a roster of stars to further the company's business interests. Stars were weeded out through the B-film process after which the successful ones were taken on as permanent members of the major studios' rosters.

  Fashion autographed by Ginger Rogers, 
Sears 1935, p. 12.  

Enlarge image.Sears Catalogue, 1935, p. 12.


The system was not unlike that of horseracing where stables endeavoured to raise a herd of winning horses. For stardom to succeed it was necessary to have a good amount of publicity. Nothing leant itself more or better to publicity and advertising culture than movie stardom. The two fed off each other. A specific form of publicity known as the licensed image emerged during the 1930s. The master of this form was Walt Disney. His best-known character, Mickey Mouse, was found on everything from cereal boxes to toothbrushes, lampshades, and dolls. Disney, according to historian Gary Cross, managed a tour de force: He licensed Snow White and her seven associates prior to the screening of the film of the same name.

Stardom and the Catalogue

  Hockey equipment, Eaton Automne hiver 
1941-42, p. 364.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1941-42, p. 364.


During the 1930s, corporate control, radio, press management, and star-procurement and placement in specific markets all came together to sell the game in Canadian professional hockey. Mail-order catalogues were an integral part of the selling of hockey. Although the Dupuis Frères catalogues began showing Canadiens and Maroons sweaters during the 1920s, NHL team sweaters and hockey sweaters began showing up more regularly in mail-order catalogues during the 1930s. Favourite numbers to sew on a hockey jersey could be ordered from the Eaton's 1934-35 catalogue.

The Simpson's catalogue of 1936-37 enthusiastically appealed to male youths: "Hockey sweaters in Popular Hockey Team Colours. Every young fellow would be mighty glad to get one of these sweaters … worn by one of the famous teams." Similarly, Eaton's targeted young hockey fans in 1941-42: "Every Canadian boy has his idol in the NHL and wants to have a sweater to represent his favourite team or player."

  Protective hockey equipment, Simpson's 
Fall Winter 1945-46, p. 327.  

Enlarge image.Simpson's Fall /Winter Catalogue, 1945-46, p. 327.

  Hockey sweaters, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1948-49, p. 490.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1948-49, p. 490.

  Hats, Dupuis Frères Automne 
1951-52, p. 24.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1951-52, p. 24.


The sale of team sweaters in mail-order catalogues was one way to sell the game. Another was the endorsement of products by NHL stars, usually hockey equipment.

  Hockey skates and equipment, Eaton 
Automne hiver 1934-35, p. 269.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1934-35, p. 269.

  Sports equipment, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1937-38, p. 337.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1937-38, p. 337.


The specialized sports catalogue of Omer de Serres featured such endorsements from Joe Malone and goalie George Hainsworth. In the Eaton's fall-and-winter catalogue of 1933-34, consumers could chose a stick autographed by King Clancy, Ken Deraty, or goalie Lorne Chabot. A pair of gloves was endorsed by the man who centred the fabled "kid line" of the Maple Leafs, Joe Primeau. Primeau would eventually become a regular feature on the hockey pages of the Simpson's catalogue endorsing sticks and other equipment, as would another Leafs player, Syl Apps. Eaton's, meanwhile, chose the rugged Red Horner to grace its mail-order hockey pages around 1937-38; he endorsed men's hockey skates that sold for $4.50 a pair.

The tradition of using hockey stars to endorse sporting equipment and clothing in the mail-order catalogue continued through the 1950s. New stars and new French names began to show up in the Toronto and Montreal based catalogues: Béliveau, Geoffrion and, above all, Maurice "Rocket" Richard. Many of the same stars also showed up in the Dupuis Frères catalogue. The mid-winter catalogue for 1951-52, for example, shows a selection of overalls, sweatshirts, and windbreakers, all sporting the signature and image of the Rocket.

  Skates, Eaton's Fall Winter 1958-59, 
p. 540.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1958-59, p. 540.

  Skates, Eaton Automne hiver 1950-51, 
p. 542.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1950-51, p. 542.


The mail-order catalogue was just the tip of the iceberg. Richard, like other hockey stars, endorsed all sorts of products. He was a publicity star and because of this became a household name. And, of course, he and the others could be seen live on the television screen every Saturday night, beginning in the early 1950s.

Rocket Richard, owner of the fabled number 9 hockey sweater, played for the Montréal Canadiens from 1942 to 1960. Buoyed by strong endorsement in the media including mail-order catalogues, Richard became popular throughout Canada, but nowhere more so than in the province of Quebec where he was revered as something of a sporting god. His popularity reached out to the most faraway places, such as the little village of Saint-Justine, east of Québec. Years later during the 1970s, a former resident of Sainte-Justine set out to capture the importance of Richard during his childhood.

  Maurice Richard hockey clothing, 
Dupuis Frères Mi-hiver 1951-52.  

Enlarge image.Dupuis Frères Mid-winter Catalogue,1951-52.


"I remember very well the winter of 1946. We all wore the same uniform as Maurice Richard … We all combed our hair like Maurice Richard … We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard. We cut his pictures out of all the newspapers …

  Hockey skates, Eaton's Fall Winter 
1953-54, p. 559.  

Enlarge image.Eaton's Fall/Winter Catalogue, 1953-54, p. 559.


"On the ice … we were five Maurice Richards against five other Maurice Richards … We were ten players all wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadian, all with the same burning enthusiasm. We all wore the famous number 9 on our backs. How could we forget that?"

These are the opening lines of Roch Carrier's book, The Hockey Sweater.


Further Reading

Cross, Gary. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Fowles, Jib. "Mass Media and the Star System." In Communication in History, Technology, Culture, Society edited by D. Crowley and P. Heyer, pp. 207-214. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1995.

Kidd, Bruce. The Struggle for Canadian Sport. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

McFarlane, Brian. The Lively World of Hockey: A History of the National Hockey League. Toronto: Signet Books, 1968.

Saint-Pierre, Jacques. "Le Hockey et le sport professionel dans les catalogues à l'époque de leur âge d'or, 1880-1960." Unpublished manuscript, Canadian Postal Museum, 2001.



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