August 26th, 2013
Facts not in evidence:
The 1970s was a time when American hockey players weren’t, uh, really welcomed in Canada for many, ah, reasons -- some handy theories smacked of both prejudice in the marketplace and society in general, plus Americans had those big mustaches. Unfortunately, American hockey players were fiercely resented right here in the USA too. The National Motel Owner’s Association, for instance, banned hockey players from their establishments in 1974 because of the damage hockey skates caused in showers and on linoleum floors. So did bowling alleys. Ever see what kind of devastation ice skates can inflict on freshly poured concrete? And putting greens and sand traps? How about Japanese tea gardens? Wear them to bed and see what happens. Can you imagine the shock of a theater-goer watching Jamie Lee Curtis’s Halloween only to find a hockey player wearing a goalie mask in the next seat? Or: what about the societal threat posed by someone wearing a helmet playing gin rummy with a big hockey stick?
So, a de facto social and cultural dynamic of oppression, odd uniforms, unemployment, personal devastation and family loss came to pass. And, as the saying goes, few things are more irksome than watching a socio-economic fight when a hockey game breaks out, so American hockey players went north. They fled across the border into Canada to work in places like Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec, Vancouver, and Winnipeg (though many were forced to wear numbers on their sweat shirts and skates).
One of the busiest points of human smuggling in this epic but illegal immigration occurred between Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick, where the hockey players swam across the St. Croix River under cover of darkness. Ever try to swim in hockey skates? Some hockey players didn’t make it, to put it mildly, and of course others, alas, were traumatized for life and so stayed away from the water when it wasn’t frozen (and there’s a lot of water in Canada).
A famous sportscaster from Iowa in 1982, Joe Dolly, referred to the “illegal Yank alien invaders” as “wetbacks” because of the St. Croix River/swimming/drowning thing.
Sidebar: Joe Dolly was a cousin of Dolly Parton, the musician, whose “famous” family included her uncles The Dolly Lama and Salvador Dolly, all originally from Tennessee.
Of course with Sweden, Norway, and Finland accepting American hockey-refugees the flashpoint in Canada dwindled over time. It was finally extinguished with the advent of physical therapy and footwear collusion between mental health specialists and shoe designers. American hockey players were taught to transition from skates to softer footwear in both the public and private arenas. The aftermath: while many hockey players came home to America many stayed home in Canada under the American Hockey Player Illegal Alien Amnesty Program.
Anyway: that’s where the term wetback came from.
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