Prior to 1972, Christmas hockey games used to be a holiday tradition in the NHL. For Ted Irvine and Butch Goring, who began their pro careers with the LA Kings in the late 1960s, it was just part of the job.
Irvine played his first Christmas Day game for the Kings in 1967, and scored a goal in a 4-3 loss to the Penguins. Two years later, with Goring in the lineup for the Kings, they both suited up for back-to-back Christmas Eve and Christmas Day games. Although the duo, both from Winnipeg, Manitoba, were happy to be in the big leagues, they would have preferred to spend the holidays with their families.
"For me, that was my first year pro," Goring remembered. "I actually flew from LA the day before and spent Christmas morning with my family and then hopped on a plane and flew out later that day around noon. It wasn't ideal, but at the same time, for me, it was exciting just to be in the NHL."
That excitement might have faded a little bit once the Kings began their pair of holiday games that season. After losing 8-1 to the Maple Leafs in Toronto on Christmas Eve, the Kings were defeated 7-1 the next day in Boston. "We got hosed," Goring recalled.
Following a tie against the Rangers in New York a few days later, the Kings flew back to LA for a couple days off before beginning a homestand that stretched into the New Year.
When Irvine returned home, his family was waiting for him.
"We had visitors all the time at that time of year in California for Christmas, which was special for Canadians because of cold weather up here and snow," the hard-nosed winger reminisced. "That became quite a fun habit because they would come down and we would all head over to Disneyland or one of the studios."
Although Goring and Irvine made the most of the limited time they had with their families over the holidays, as they got older, it became more difficult to leave their loved ones at Christmas.
"I pushed for a long time when I was a little older before they started taking time off at Christmas time because I was a firm believer that you should be home with your family," Goring recollected. "Christmas was a big day when you have family and young kids. To be able to celebrate it with them was part of the whole package. It was like not having Christmas if you couldn't be there. What was the point?"
By the time the NHL officially abandoned Christmas Eve and Christmas Day games in 1973, Irvine was with the Rangers. While the policy may have changed at the league level, Irvine remembers one coach who apparently didn't get the memo.
"I remember we got schooled pretty darn good in New York. We had Christmas morning with the family and we had to practice that afternoon," he called. "I remember that vividly. That was in New York, Larry Popein was our coach. We were being taught a lesson for not playing well."
With all the family over at the Irvine residence, it was certainly tense scene on Christmas morning when he had to get ready and head out to the rink.
"I remember it being an exciting time the night before and then the next day you had to get up and rush your presents and leave earlier to go to practice," Irvine said.
"You weren't too popular with the family. I remember that specifically because it was so awkward because the night before was so good but then you wake up and you had to rush everything and went to practice and came home."
Goring, who went on to become an NHL head coach after a playing career that included four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, scoffed at the idea of doing that to his players.
"I could be tough on my team as a coach, but I would never do that," he declared. "If I recall, we might have scheduled a practice on the 24th but it was never because it was punishment, it was because we needed a practice because we had a few days off over the holidays."
Aside from spending more time with family, there was another reason why both Irvine and Goring embraced the holiday shutdown during their NHL playing days.
"I do remember it was nice to have a couple days off before Christmas to get some Christmas shopping done," Irvine chuckled.
Having Christmas Eve off held special significance for Goring, who used to save all of his shopping for that day.
"I would go right after practice on the 24th and I would be in the mall for six hours, and I loved it," he explained. "I think it just puts you in the spirit. A lot of people don't want to go because there's big lines and stuff, but I just enjoyed the day. I was never in a rush. I knew what I wanted, so I would just go from store to store and get that I needed. I wasn't trying to do it in an hour or two. I was committed to six hours."
It's been nearly 50 years since the NHL held its last Christmas game, and both Goring and Irvine are glad that the league remains committed to keeping it as a special day for families.
"It's a family day and a faith-based day and a day to celebrate," Irvine declared. "I like that they can just enjoy it with the family and get back to work the next day."
"The amount of travel that the guys do - there are so many days that are taken away from families and kids," Irvine said. "When you play in the NHL a lot of people want to visit you and Christmas Day is a celebration day you finally get to see your mom and dad and brothers and sisters."
Goring agrees that Christmas should be spent celebrating with family and taking some much-needed quality time during an otherwise hectic season.
"I just think that the NHL, whether it's the players, the management or the ownership, understands that it's an important time of the year and people need to be with their families," the former center turned broadcaster noted.
"Every player with a family now, and even players without families, will tell you that you want to be able to relax and celebrate with them."