Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hockey

Let's shift away from contemporary political issues and back to a more Canadian Studies like topic: hockey. For some time now I have wondered exactly how hockey fits into, reflects, constructs, the Canadian experience, nationalism, culture. I know the standard lines, particularly from those who might consider themselves pro-hockey. Hockey is "Canada's game," "the frozen pond," etc., etc. I will confess that I have an immediate reaction against this image of hockey's relationship to Canada. After all, professional hockey is hardly Canadian, is it? Canadians are over-represented in professional hockey, to be sure, but there is no way to claim that Canadians dominate the game any more. In addition, a lot of Canadians, quite frankly, ignore the game. I have a small coterie of Leafs fans with whom I associate but my wife is, at best, indifferent; my son will pay attention to the game but Hockey Night in Canada is someone else's family ritual and not his. After all, he can watch a game any night of the week. Some of my coworkers are enthusiasts; others rent a action film or romantic comedy on Saturday night. In other words, there seems to be a great deal of variation in Canadians contemporary responses to hockey and I have no reason to believe that this variations is something that is historically new. If some patterns -- the massive infusion of Russians into the pro game -- are new, the pattern of mixed reactions likely is not.

What is more, I don't think we should believe the self-proclaimed defenders of hockey when they talk about hockey's importance. Asking a hockey fan if hockey is important is like asking a chef if a good meal is important, a new anchor if journalism is important. We know the answer is advance. If hockey is going to stand up to serious analysis, then, I think we need to look at impartial sources. I won't claim to be that source. And, I might say, impartiality is not the objective of this blog. But, let me throw a few ideas into the ring.

My argument is that hockey does indeed represent Canada but not because "Canadians love hockey" or "it is the only thing that provides unity." There are a number of things that promote national unity in Canada, to be sure. Hockey has no pride of place over things like, say, icons of nation (the maple leaf), social values (which are surprising consistent despite all the talk of regionalism), heritage, specific institutions (the Charter, multiculturalism, bilingualism). None of these, of course, is uncontroversial but, then, neither is hockey.

Hockey, then, represents Canada not because hockey is bread in the bone of Canadians but because hockey highlights the contradictions of contemporary Canadian culture. Let's look at a few of these contradictions:

1) hockey is both remarkably popular and ignored. Consider the Olympic Games a few years ago when it was widely reported that half of all Canadians watched the gold medal game between Canada and the US. Interesting, but have you paused to think about what this means from the other side: half of all Canadians decided *not* to watch a game billed as one of the most important hockey games in Canadian history. Despite all kind of options to tune in, half of the population chose to ignore the game.

2) hockey represents the purity of the outdoors life and childhood innocence and is a big business geared to commercialism and lace, in the discourse of some commentators, with violence and bigotry (particularly against foreign players but among some Anglos against French-speaking Canadians as well).

3) hockey is a hyper masculine sport whose enrollments at the minor level are being upheld only by the massive entry of girls into the game. In an odd sense, then, hockey has feminism to thank for its on-going popularity as a minor and amateur sport.

4) hockey is a violent sport and its discourse is violent ("rock 'em,  sock 'em hockey), the co-national sport of a country that prides itself on peacekeeping. This violence of hockey, in this sense, sits unevenly next to Canadians self image as peacekeepers.

5) hockey emphasizes rural life (again, the "frozen pond") in a country that is one of the most urbanized countries going. How many Canadians, for instance, encounter a frozen pond that is not artificial as part of their daily life?

There may be others but those strikes me as some of the important considerations. Now, please note, I'm not making a statement one way or another here about the moral value of some of these things. What I am trying to do is make an argument about why we should study hockey -- even if we don't like it -- as part of Canadian Studies. My argument here is not that hockey is, in some deep essence kind of way, embedded in Canada's national psyche. I actually doubt there is such a thing as a national psyche. What I am saying is that hockey serves as a valuable prism through which to explore some of the contradictory dynamics of Canada.
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