Playing Surface

Hockey, Canada, and the Day Everything Changed
By Stephen Brunt
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 272 pp.

How Hockey Explains Modern Canada
By Bruce Dowbiggin
Key Porter Books, 232 pp.

The Dismayed Fan’s Handbook to Why the Leafs Stink and How They Can Rise Again
By Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange
Random House Canada, 262 pp.

Hockey and Identity
Edited by Andrew C. Holman
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 236 pp.

A People’s History
By Michael McKinley
McClelland and Stewart, 384 pp.

Unless you don’t own a television, you will be altogether familiar with the Tim Hortons ad featuring Sydney Crosby on screen and in voice-over.  Cue the slow plinking of the piano and the home movies of kids and old-timers, sticks in hand:

“Hockey?” asks the Next One. “Hockey’s our game.  But really it’s much more than just a game.  It’s a passion that brings us all together.  On frozen ponds.  At the community rink.  And in our living rooms.  It’s the feeling you got the first time you stepped on the ice.  The feeling you had when you scored your first goal.  Hockey is in our driveways, it’s in our dreams, in every post-game celebration.  It’s in the streets every time your friend yells `Car!’  In every rink across the country.  It’s in our hearts.  Hockey is that thought inside your head saying: Wouldn’t it be amazing, getting up every day and playing, doing something that you love to do?”

And there you have it in a 60-second nutshell.  We, the people, certainly know how to marshal hockey as a national cultural identifier, a feel-good bond of commonality, a means to make ourselves feel simultaneously special, proud and sentimental.  Not to mention a pretext to market maple-dipped doughnuts and double-doubles.

In the United States, they would call this patriotism.  In the Canadian political lexicon, we really have no such word.  So we call it citizenship instead.

To be a Canadian, you don’t have to have played hockey, or love hockey, or follow hockey.  You don’t even have to know how to skate.  But you do have to be able to appreciate the place of hockey in the national imagination such that the Tim Hortons ad is not only intelligible but effective.  You may not know Veronica Tennant from Veronica Mars; you can care not for the Saskatchewan Roughriders; you can have no idea who Margaret Atwood is.  But the resident of Canada who is oblivious to hockey is either newly arrived or worrisomely estranged from the culture.  Show me a Canadian who could not understand what all the nail-biting fuss was about in the last event of the Vancouver Olympics, and I’ll show you someone with a forged passport.

Other countries have their sports, of course, and have exported them to the world, but it is difficult to imagine any other nation so vividly identified – or identifying itself – with a single game.  Cricket may be a distinctively English pastime that became a passion from Kingston, Jamaica to Islamabad, but it is hardly crucial to the sense of self of the British Isles.  They sure don’t play it in Glasgow, let me tell you.

And no one except antipodean headcases may play Australian Rules Football – the sporting blueprint for the Mad Max movies – but “footy” isn’t essential to the Australian character such that the latter couldn’t exist without the former.  Truth be told, although Aussie Rules is played from Brisbane to Freemantle, it’s really a Melbourne game, not an Australian one.

Even the United States has no single sport that speaks its national character.  Sure, baseball is America writ large, but so is football, so is basketball, so is NASCAR and nitro drag racing and WWE wrestling for that matter.  In the U.S. of A., where everything has to be bigger and better, they have a whole clutch of sporting competitions that say America to the world.

And yes, Spain has bullfighting and Japan has sumo wrestling, but these are cultural practices that are merely particular to Spain and Japan, respectively.  They are not their national cultures in and of themselves.

But Canada?  Canada is hockey, to the world and to ourselves.

It’s not the only thing by which the world knows us, certainly.  There’s our wildlife – the fauna of the boreal forests, the beaver and moose, along with the polar bears of the tundra.  Nothing unusual about that.  All sorts of nations are identified through their indigenous species.  Qantas paints kangaroos on the tailfins of its aircraft.

But the two other major markers of Canada internationally are the Mounties and hockey, and that is unusual, particularly in combination.  Is there another nation on the face of the planet that proudly coughs up its police force as a cultural signifier?  Much less in tandem with a sport at which it may excel but is routinely chided on the international stage as the proponent of an ugly version of it in which grotesque behaviour is condoned because winning is so desperately everything?

Canada, however, carries it off.  The RCMP are not seen as an armed paramilitary authority, but a symbol of rectitude, peaceable order and virtue.  Hockey, meanwhile, is a fast, freewheeling, dangerous game that we are deadly serious about and so don’t get between us and the net, eh?  Put them together and we have a national police force that patrols streets of comparative safety, and rectangles of frozen water where they have next to no jurisdiction.  We project to the world – or at least we want to project to the world – that we value, respect and enforce social security, even as we show ourselves through our national game to be just a little scary.

Small wonder, then, that the place of hockey in Canadian culture has been a perennial preoccupation.  The actual playing of hockey – from the pee-wee leagues to the Stanley Cup – is a dense, hot core surrounded by a vast atmosphere of running commentary on hockey: in the sports pages, on the airwaves, in the blogosphere, around the water cooler, in novels, in histories, in sociological studies and in pop songs.

When the modern game began in the 1870s, figure skating was already a sport, there were already indoor rinks, and the Starr company of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was churning out skates that could be easily clamped to one’s boots – Spring Skates.  Hockey was first played using a ball, but that kept bouncing out of bounds and was replaced by a wooden disc.  Sure, an ice surface in a stadium was just the NHL waiting to happen, but from these comical origins as a mid-Victorian winter amusement for the upper crust, how did hockey become the signature feature of a G-8 nation-state in the 21st century?  Presumably by the same quantum-gravitational process by which stars coalesce: we can’t shut up about hockey because it is essential to us.  What makes it essential to us is that we can’t shut up about it.

By this mechanism immigrants are invited into the fold and the nation reproduces itself.  Did you know that the CBC broadcasts hockey games in Punjabi?

All well and good, but what if we are selling ourselves a poisoned chalice?  If we have made hockey in our own image, surely we are obliged to consider the reflection.  There is the Platonic ideal of the game as portrayed in the Tim Hortons campaign, and captured in the exultant Olympic victory in Vancouver, and then there is the dispiriting practice, where out-of-control fathers scream abuse at the refs and coaches in local arenas; where parents have to sit in the bleachers and watch their sons drop the gloves for the first time, hearing the sickening thud as their kid’s fist ploughs into another boy’s face, or vice versa; where young talent wants nothing more than to play in the big leagues, but the big leagues are run by crooks, incompetents and Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL and the Snidely Whiplash of professional hockey, friendless among anyone who doesn’t own a franchise.

Look no further for the ugly underside of hockey than the career of Tim Horton himself.  He played in the NHL for 24 years, from 1950 until his death in a car accident in 1974.  Though he was a defenceman, a policeman, one of the toughest guys on the ice, he hit cleanly, he took relatively few penalty minutes, and if he did get into a fight he preferred not to trade blows.  His move was to bear hug his opponents into submission.  In short, he was a sportsman, not a thug, and widely respected in the league.

And yet Tim Horton lost an entire season in 1955 when some guy named Bill Gadsby of the New York Rangers broke both his jaw and his leg.  It wasn’t certain Horton would ever play again. Reconcile that with the fact that Leslie McFarlane – the best-sellingest Canadian author of all time, because he wrote the Hardy Boys novels under a pseudonym – also wrote a series of very popular young-adult novels about hockey.  The type of player McFarlane inspires his young readers to emulate is Tim Horton.  But a moral gyroscope and physical toughness weren’t enough to protect the real Tim Horton when Gadsby came after him.

These five books under review amount to a synchronic sampling of Canadian hockey chronicles, like a band in a core specimen of Arctic ice.  One, Michael McKinley’s Hockey: A People’s History, is the companion volume to the CBC series of the same name, and amounts to a loving tribute to the national sport.  It doesn’t flinch from the more unsavory incidents in the story of the game, but it is ultimately celebratory: a handsomely illustrated, scrupulously researched, very well written compendium of lore for besotted hockey aficionados of all ages.

Canada’s Game, meanwhile, is a collection of academic essays taken from a conference hosted by the Canadian Studies Program at Bridgewater State College, Massachusetts, in 2005.  Chapters range from the analysis of motifs in hockey fiction to a study of American fans’ attitudes to the game; from the political economy of the lockout that scrapped the 2004 NHL season to (inevitably) a re-reading of the 1972 summit series with the Soviets.  Like all such anthologies, different chapters are more or less interesting depending on one’s tastes – me, I recommend Jason Blake’s essay subtitled “Depictions of Violence in Hockey Prose” – but the academics can be counted on to mine aspects of hockey and its history that otherwise would be overlooked.  What sports journalist would pause to investigate “the experience of spectating” in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the period during which the great cathedrals of hockey – Maple Leaf Gardens and Madison Square Garden – were built?

The remaining three books are by professional hockey writers, and none of them paints a rosy picture.  Tellingly, the people who are paid to follow the sport on a daily basis are the ones most inclined to indict it rather than extol it.

Every contemporary complaint about the game turns out to be as old as the game itself.  You think Canada’s performance in the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino was a sign of creeping rot in the uppermost echelons of hockey?  The scandal over a selection process that saw Vancouver’s Todd Bertuzzi included on the roster, coming off a 20-game suspension for a premeditated assault on Colorado Avalanche Steve Moore in which he broke Moore’s neck, while 18-year-old phenomenon Sydney Crosby was left to watch the Games at home?  The subsequent debacle as the team failed to advance beyond the quarter-finals and finished an ignominious seventh?

Back in 1936 Canada was gripped by a near-identical scandal over the selection of the Port Arthur Bear Cats to represent the country at the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, accusations that players were being paid under the table, and the team’s failure to win gold.  Plus ça change.

How about the worry that the NHL is owned and controlled by scam artists who keep getting hauled off to the hoosegow in handcuffs (Bruce McNall, Peter Pocklington, et al.)?  Believe me, as colourful as these crooks might be, they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Conn Smythe and Harold Ballard.  And if you think Don Cherry is a xenophobic loudmouth, he’s the model of muted propriety next to Ballard, who in his off-hours used to drive the Zamboni around Maple Leaf Gardens in the nude and banned female reporters from the locker room unless they undressed first.

And the lament that the game is being ruined by fighting?  That what used to be a policing mechanism – a form of breaking the rules in order to enforce the rules – has been elevated to spectacle for the baying crowds, and a means for Neanderthals like Tie Domi to neutralize far better players?  In the 1905 Stanley Cup playoffs, Bruce Dowbiggin points out in The Meaning of Puck, Cobalt stick man Harry Smith did such violence to his Haileybury opponents that the constabulary were called and carted him off to jail.  When he returned to Cobalt he was greeted by the town band.

Dowbiggin quotes Stanley Cup trustee P.D. Ross from 1904: “Hockey as our leading Canadian teams play it is being made a byword and a disgrace by the manner in which matches are conducted and foul play tolerated.  Unless a radical change occurs at once … the noble Canadian winter sport must … sink in the public estimation to the level of pugilism.”

No, the shady deals, the exploitation of talent, and the willful violence are neither recent nor aberrant.  They are the game, or at least a part of it, and always have been.

Even its heroes are implicated.  Perhaps especially its heroes.  Gretzky’s Tears by Stephen Brunt, the Globe and Mail sportswriter, is part biography of the Great One, part excoriation of the current state of the NHL.  It’s also a very good read, as one would expect from one of the best sportswriters in the country.  The title refers to that day in August 1988 in Edmonton, the culmination of backroom connivance in which Gretzky himself played a part, when he was traded from the Oilers he had led to four Stanley Cup championships and shipped to the Los Angeles Kings of huckster extraordinaire Bruce McNall.

Oh, the gnashing of teeth in Edmonton and across the land!  The betrayal!  The perfidy!  But as Brunt tells it, the move was the central gambit in an ambitious strategy on the part of the league to establish hockey as America’s fourth major sport, with all the attendant riches that would come from full arenas in populous cities and a U.S. television network contract.  On the strength of Gretzky’s incandescent talent and popularity, along with owner McNall’s showbiz savvy, the idea was that the Kings would come to rival the Lakers as the hottest sports ticket in the capital of the U.S. entertainment industry; the boost to the game would fill the seats of expansion franchises in sun-kissed cities in Florida and Arizona; and the big broadcasting bucks would surely follow.

It didn’t work that way, of course.  In the end, Winnipeg and Quebec City lost their NHL teams, the sunbelt franchises for the most part floundered, and except for a brief dalliance on the part of the Fox network – complete with a digitized comet trail that would show the uninitiated the puck’s trajectory on the ice – the network contract never materialized.  Gretzky, the golden boy of the game, was the catalyst for an episode of disastrous mismanagement, the effects of which still linger.

And yet, as documented by Dave Feschuk and Michael Grange – a tag-team of youngish sports writers from the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail – hockey is such a perverse business with such a hold on its slavish devotees that catastrophic mismanagement is no obstacle to making a fortune, at least in the case of the Maple Leafs.  Don’t be put off by the gaudy cover and the hyperventilated title: this is a briskly written and highly entertaining dissection of everything the Leafs have done wrong since 1967 – which is to say, everything the Leafs have done since 1967.

Feschuk and Grange posit that the Leafs have been so bad for so long that the corporate seats lining the coffers of the franchise, and which companies claim as an “entertainment” expense on their tax deductions, should be investigated by the Canada Revenue Agency.  “We’re not accountants, but a strict interpretation of the tax code suggests that the events should be, you know, fun in order to be deductible.  By that narrow definition, do the Leafs even qualify?”

The rueful point of the book is that there is such a dislocation between what the Leafs are selling and how their substantial profits are generated that it defies common sense.  If Toyota makes lousy cars, people stop buying Toyotas.  The Leaf franchise, its players, its managers and its shareholders, are rewarded for truly execrable performance, year in, year out.  When Matts Sundin – a talent, but no NHL superstar – scored his 500th career goal, the Maple Leafs organization took the nylon mesh from the net, cut it into 2.000 pieces, individually framed them and sold the memorabilia to the faithful to the tune of $40,000.  For god’s sake, they took the slush from Maple Leaf Gardens on the last night they played there – that shrine to their incompetence – injected it into pucks, sold them at $50 a pop, and cleared another $125,000.

I wonder if they study this at the Rotman School of Management?  I wonder if it’s a business model that could be profitably adapted to other precincts of commerce?  Think of the wealth that could be generated if we could all get rich by being terrible at our jobs.

The most ambitious of the books is Dowbiggin’s The Meaning of Puck, an attempt to read Canadian culture through hockey and hockey through Canadian culture: to use one to make sense of the other.  Dowbiggin is another Globe and Mail sportswriter (and, along with Brunt, a regular weekly panelist on CBC Radio’s Q).   His book is less a treatise than an armchair rant, albeit one by someone who is extremely knowledgeable about hockey.  I have to confess I found it infuriating at first, and mystifying.  I couldn’t see what his point was, except to tick off various grievances about Canada as we know it (the insular prejudice of Quebec nationalists, the duplicitous hegemony of the federal Liberal Party, the political correctness of multiculturalism, the resistance of the central Canadian power elites to the economic clout and political will of oil-rich Alberta).  Stephen Harper keeps threatening to write a book about hockey, but Bruce Dowbiggin may have written it for him.

Though he now works for the Globe, he used to write for the Calgary Herald, he still lives in his adopted Calgary, and his view of Canada seems to be the view of the National Post: an irascible exasperation with what we have allowed ourselves to become.  Indeed, the person quoted most often in the book, and quoted approvingly, is Mark Steyn, that darling of the contrarian right.

Ultimately, though, The Meaning of Puck does have a point.  In Dowbiggin’s estimation, a sport that is not simply an emblem but an engine of the national project is corrupt to its core – from its explicit endorsement of a hooliganism that would not be even tacitly tolerated in any other walk of Canadian society to its corporate culture of white collar thievery – such that the joyous national celebration of the game is a pernicious instance of what the Marxists used to call false consciousness.  If the game is corrupt, and we made it that way while insisting that it speaks our national character, then it follows that the national project itself is a ruinous, deluded undertaking.  And who are we settled Canadians to insist that new arrivals adopt our values when the most prominent exemplar of what we prize and enjoy is this stick-slashing spectacle with its valorization of toothless mercenaries?

In short, it’s not simply that the Leafs suck.  Canada sucks.

You can buy that argument or find it far too dyspeptic, but either way give Dowbiggin credit for a forceful and passionate – downright angry – denunciation of a sporting culture that allows its rinks to be prowled by predators.  We say we “play” hockey, but since when did “play” include the prospect of abandoning the rules to smash an opponent repeatedly in the face? There are only two sports in the world that allow such a thing, Dowbiggin points out, and they are both Canadian: hockey and lacrosse.

Every Canadian male over the age of 14 who laces up for a competitive game is well aware that it’s a hard-checking sport, but he also knows there is a chance he may be physically assaulted within the next 60 minutes of ice time.  Or, worse, he contemplates dropping the gloves himself.

This isn’t what Sydney Crosby means when he talks about “getting up every day and playing, doing something you love to do.”

If Stephen Harper is serious about his law-and-order agenda, he might start with the arenas of the

  • Literary Review of Canada April 2010