The Cultural Myth of Hockey in Canada

Here’s a quick recap of how I spent last weekend: Friday afternoon we all went to Moose Winooski’s in Kitchener to watch the Canada/U.S.A. Olympic hockey game, after the victory I drove down to St. Catharines to play in a Friday night pickup hockey league, on Saturday we were back in Kitchener for a round of outdoor hockey (after scouring the city’s rinks for suitable ice), then on Sunday we were up at 6am for the glorious gold medal Canada/Sweden hockey game, which we watched from the same comfortably crowded Moose Winooski’s we were in on Friday (by 6:30am, every seat in the house was taken); wearing our Team Canada jerseys we set out to celebrate the win with even more outdoor hockey (that’s called shinny, by the way) until we were all so wiped we had to call it quits, so I went home and took a mid-afternoon snooze, because I had to get my energy back up for the Sunday night hockey league I play in.

The word “hockey” makes seven appearances in that opening paragraph.

I had a hockey weekend.

nicks_sloniowski“If hockey is just a game in Canada, then the Rockies are just hills in the prairies,” writes Neil Earle in “Hockey as Canadian Popular Culture: Team Canada 1972, Television and the Canadian Identity” from Slippery Pastimes: Reading the Popular in Canadian Culture, Joan Nicks and Jeannette Sloniowski, editors.

Slippery Pastimes takes a look at popular culture in Canada that’s vital to the body politic, and to “what it means” to be Canadian as interpreted by the culture we collectively consume. Sixteen essays tackle everything from rock and roll, advertising, tourism, and, of course, sport. The essays come from all sorts of perspectives—and I recommend picking this book up and checking them all out if you’re at all interested in Canadian culture—but it’s Earle that presents the timeliest case study, that of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Series.

Earle argues that mass communication (as was sufficiently developed by 1972) was able to transform the sport into a “form of collective drama,” claiming that the medium of television, with its peculiar abilities, cemented hockey as cultural identity firmly in the Canadian psyche. See, hockey is particularly well-suited for television, with its quick action, swift line changes, and the proximity of its fans, who line up against the very boards players careen each other into. Cameras and microphones pick all this up, transmitting it into the homes where the families who have gathered to watch are essentially transported right there onto the ice, sharing the reactions of those fans cheering behind their favourite players.

Earle likens hockey to the Greek and Shakespearean drama:

“As noted, the audience is very much involved. Add to this the distinctive pacing and ‘rhythm’ of a hockey game, the changing mood and psychological tempo created by the switches in focus from the team to the individual player and back again. This makes for a superb aesthetic spectacle.”

That still doesn’t quite explain the almost-juvenile enthusiasm everyone packed into that Moose Winooski’s was buzzing with on Sunday, though. Hockey, asserts Earle, evokes the “paradisiacal myth of the boy inside the man,” with its powerful “imaginative hold” over Canadian males. The hold itself is fortified by the medium that carried it into Canadian homes. “The alchemy of electronic technology thus made possible in televised hockey a synchronization of the mythopoeic and the mechanical. A flooded driveway became a locus of myth.”

Broadcasting hockey gave us all that little voice that pops into our heads whenever we take up a stick and play the game. Whether you hear Don Cherry, Joe Bowen, or Foster Hewitt is irrelevant. Thanks to mass communication, when you break out, split the D and wind up on a shot, you can hear the play-by-play, the audience roaring, and the excitement exploding in your ears.

That’s hockey as cultural myth, working its mystic magic on your imagination:

“This is the romance of hockey: play as idyll. The mysterious bonding of millions of Canadian males to ‘the game’ traces back to the pond, the slough, the indoor rink, to the iced driveway, to the time when they, in their youthful fantasies, were Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky. Here is hockey’s spiritual core, the central explanation for its mystical attraction for prime ministers and pipefitters, for Nobel prize winners and new immigrants.”

Just like our 1972 counterparts, last Sunday Canadians across the country were watching a broadcast from distant Russia, involved in “something deeper than sport.” We cheered together and we held our breath together, connected by nothing save that we were all Canadians watching Canadians play a game we had long ago managed to stake our claim on. To be in that Moose Winooski’s was to take part in the cultural myth of our national pastime. And just like in 1972:

“…Canadians heard that voice say they were the best in the world at the game of hockey. It was a unique Canadian epiphany. A Soviet coach commented years later: ‘We do not have the spirit to draw on that these Canadians do.’ To him, the Canadian players had ‘a light that cannot be put out…you defeat them sometimes, but you discourage them never’ (Beardsley 36). What was the source of that light? Was it money and commercialism? Was it male physicality and exclusiveness? It was something much deeper. It was being caught up in the rapture of a collective myth as enhanced by electronic technology.”

Earle’s essay is one of many in this book that examine Canadian identity as presented in our popular culture, and Slippery Pastimes is the next from-the-archive book on my reading list. If you’ve ever wondered why hockey has the hold it does on so many of us, or why Stompin’ Tom Collins was such a big deal, this book is for you.

Good job boys:

And let’s not forget this beautiful winning goal from our women’s team, who celebrated their fourth straight Olympic gold medal last Thursday. Hockey isn’t all about the guys these days, but that’s a story for another blog post:

New from Jeannette Sloniowski:

Sloniowski_v3.indd

Detecting Canada

Writers of Canadian crime fiction have learned to gird our loins when we are asked a question that is as irritating as it is inevitable: When are you going to write a real novel? By offering not simply an overview of the history of crime fiction in Canada but thoughtful essays on the themes Canadian crime writers explore and on the roles played by landscape, gender, class, race, and community in our works, Detecting Canada answers that question decisively. Canadian crime writers are writing real novels, and Detecting Canada offers solid evidence to prove the point.”

— Gail Bowen, author of The Gifted, the latest in the Joanne Kilbourn mystery series

 

Also from Joan Nicks:

nicks-grantCovering Niagara

Covering Niagara will finally bust loose a secret that’s been all too well concealed from all too many people: because of its unique geographical position, as a kind of radar dish picking up influences from all compass points, both sides of the border and the myriad backgrounds of the millions who have settled there, it’s a pop cultural torrent.”

— Geoff Pevere, broadcaster, author, and critic

One Response to “The Cultural Myth of Hockey in Canada”

  1. Neil Earle Says:

    Nice writeup–great riff–could you e-mail me a copy of this blog as I am finishing up a book on hockey and may use this to bring it up to date—-my computer doesn’t seem to pick it up–much appreciated–Neil Earle

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