Canada, class and sport: three pieces of hockey literature reviewed
March 3, 2006

Doug Beardsley, ed., Our Game: An All-Star Collection of Hockey Fiction, (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2005).

Dave Bidini, The Best Game You Can Name, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005).

Steven Galloway, Finnie Walsh, (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2005).

While the NHL dragged its way through the lockout that obliterated the 2004/05 season, commentators often wondered aloud about the long-term effect of the dispute on hockey fans.  Certainly many believed that it would damage fan support, perhaps even as profoundly as the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, which caused a major drop in ticket sales, and eventually led to the relocation of the Montreal Expos.  There were even a few brave souls who ventured the opinion that the popularity of the NHL might decline in Canada, to be replaced by basketball, or at least junior or semi-pro hockey leagues that fans grew attached to during the lockout.

Of course, all of these predictions were wrong.  The NHL’s return has been a strong success – ticket sales are up, the product is very good, and small market teams are competitive (as promised), although the American television deal appears to be an unmitigated disaster. 

Canadian fans have shown especially strong support – all of the Canadian teams are playing in front of sellouts virtually every night in their home arenas, and television ratings have been slightly up. 

Canadians obsession with high level hockey extends beyond the NHL.  The recent defeat of the Canadian men’s hockey team at the Olympics is threatening to overshadow the impressive performance of many Canadian amateur athletes, including one of the all-time greatest performances at an Olympics by five-time medal winner Cindy Klassen.  How has hockey come to hold this place in Canadian culture, and to Canadians individually?  Hockey is perhaps Canada’s only truly national symbol – how is it that a sport has come to hold this place in a country as artistically, industrially, and scientifically successful as Canada?

Three recent publications of hockey related books (one of which, to be fair, is a republication) offer a starting point to try to answer these questions.  When compared to each other, the three offer conflicting messages about the role of hockey in Canadian life.  Taken as a whole, though, they begin to demonstrate the flexibility of hockey as a metaphor, and in a way perhaps suggest why it might appeal so strongly to Canadians.

First of all, allow me to get some prosaic notation out of the way.  All three books are strong, although Steven Galloway’s Finnie Walsh, and Dave Bidini’s The Best Game You Can Name stand out as significant additions to broader Canadian literature, whereas Our Game, edited by Doug Beardsley, is enjoyable but a little less important to those of us not interested in every hockey related publication. 

All three books try to explain, either explicitly or implicitly, why hockey is such a powerful symbol for Canadians.  One and all, they recognize that its overwhelming popularity grows out of the fact that it is fun, both to play and watch.  Not only is the sport itself exciting, but the camaraderie created within teams or fan groups is often personally fulfilling.  Galloway’s Finnie Walsh and the narrator of the book, Paul Woodward, remain close friends throughout their lives as a result of bonds built playing hockey.  But it is Bidini who captures this best, when he compares hockey to his career path – rock musician.  He explains,

I remember coming to a game once after a heart-kicking rehearsal.  My bandmates and I had fought for three hours, and like any player arriving after a spousal dust-up or fight with the boss, I was a mess of misery and confusion.  A few minutes into the game, I chopped the puck away from an opposing forward, who took offence by turning and slew-footing me to the ice.  Not stopping there, he kicked my helmet with his skate, at which point our goalie, Mark, raced from his crease, brought his stick into the air, and tomahawked the offending forward.  Instantly, I felt better.  Someone was looking out for me. (38)

The collectivity of hockey clearly plays a role in its popularity, but all three books demonstrate that there is more involved than that.  The Best Game You Can Name, which often feels like a piece of rock and roll journalism, makes the point again and again that some of Canada’s largest dramas are played out in miniature, and by clearly established rules, on hockey rinks across the country. 

Bidini touches on issues of ethnicity, class, and the rural-urban divide as examples of the real life struggles that are part of playing organized sport.  But sports are meritocracies (in theory), at least in the sense that everyone knows the rules and so competes on a level playing field within the confines of the event.  As a result, some of these issues can feel like they are being fairly adjudicated (perhaps for the only time) when they are played out on the ice. 

This is one of the central themes of Finnie Walsh, and its role in the novel offers considerable insight into the popularity of sports within Canada.  The narrator, Paul, befriends Finnie Walsh as a direct result of hockey, overcoming the distance created by class in a company town, where Finnie’s dad is the owner of the of the mill that employs Paul’s father.  Their relationship is the source of considerable confusion within the town, where Finnie is enormously unpopular, due to the identity of his father and his strange demeanor.  Nonetheless, the two remain close friends and on-ice compatriots, with Finnie the town’s star goalie and Paul its best defenceman.

Despite the role hockey plays in overcoming the class distinctions the shaped their relationship, Galloway at no point suggests that it results in classlessness. Instead, Finnie uses hockey to integrate himself more fully in Paul’s working class family, and the town’s working class community in general.  Because it is clear, within all three books, that hockey fandom is the preserve of the working class (generally men) who are the majority of the subjects of these stories.  Thus the rapprochement that hockey allows between Finnie and Paul is done on working class terms, although shaped by the impartial, and level, social playing field the rink represents. 

This might ultimately be an insight into the Canadian passion for hockey, and its growing power.  Hockey provides a location for conflict that is fun, collective, and governed by a set of rules that do not bend to class or ethnic power structures.  But these structures still exist for people on the ice (and watching the game), at a greatly reduced potency.  Although issues of identity and power are still at stake, the stakes are very low.  Thus, hockey becomes a place where Canadians can act out some of the battles that characterize their lives, without the costs associated with such struggles off the ice.

This may be the secret of why Canadians care so much about the Olympic defeat.  Canadians are obsessed with matching themselves up to other countries, especially the United States, and so are generally interested in the Olympics.  With the added symbolism and power of men’s hockey, as explored by these three books, Canadian sports fans may see the tournament as a microcosmic opportunity to put one over on Americans, Northern Europeans, and the rest of the world, and reassure ourselves that we can do at least one thing better than anyone.

Of course, hockey’s popularity could just result from the fact that most of Canada is frozen for eight months of the year.  But after reading Bidini, Galloway, and the broad collection of authors within Our Game, this seems harder to believe.  And that perhaps is the best praise I can offer such books.

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