Outsiders don’t get us and hockey - Macleans.ca

Outsiders don’t get us and hockey

A groundbreaking new guide looks at the nuances of our national obsession in literature

Outsiders don’t get us and hockey

Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty Images

As if anybody needs them during playoff season, here are a few reminders of how inescapable hockey is in Canada. On our $5 bill, in a spot where another country might offer an old Latin motto, there’s a bilingual quotation from Roch Carrier’s short story “The Hockey Sweater.” When Michael Ignatieff wrote an essay about Canada’s two solitudes, back before he entered politics, his epiphany about the language divide occurred—where else?–in a Trois-Rivières, Que., hockey arena. Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Stephen Harper burnishes his image by letting it be known that he toils during spare moments over some sort of history of the game.

All these examples concern writing about hockey, rather than lacing ’em up and actually playing. The national obsession has, in recent decades, inspired an outpouring of prose that Jason Blake aims to make sense of in his new, groundbreaking book Canadian Hockey Literature. Despite the rather generic title, this is no dry critical survey. Blake is an engaging guide, not just to obvious highlights—like Mordecai Richler weaving hockey into some of his best scenes—but also to examples a reader might easily skate right past—like Alice Munro naming streets for original-six NHL teams in her superb story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.”

First-line talents like Richler and Munro slip hockey into their fiction effortlessly. At least, it seems that way to Canadian readers. Outsiders don’t always get it. A British book reviewer, for instance, praised Richler’s novel Barney’s Version, but found fault with the title character’s hockey obsession, which he deemed unrealistic in so intelligent a protagonist. Blake contrasts that misguided skepticism with the perspective of a Canadian critic who saw nothing odd, of course, in a sophisticated character loving hockey, but “found it incredible that decrepit Barney executed a tap dance.”

Blake is insightful on how hockey provides a private dialect for Canadian readers. That doesn’t exclude non-Canadian audiences, he suggests, but cuts them out of nuances. This must be particularly true about the way violence is treated. Anyone who hasn’t watched much hockey would miss the layers of Hanford Woods’s story “The Drubbing of [Eric] Nesterenko,” which makes creative use of the infamous beating the Montreal Canadiens’ enforcer John Ferguson laid on the Chicago Blackhawks centre in 1965. “The horror,” Blake observes, “comes from seeing Ferguson cross the line of accepted violence, and is worsened because Ferguson attacks a favourite player.” Uninitiated readers would have to take it on faith that hockey fights are usually too cartoonish to be truly horrifying.

Violence is a core theme in hockey fiction. In Mark Anthony Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya!—a novel Blake admires as much as discerning critics before him have—a player takes up brawling only to prolong his career. “The same sort of violence that is tacitly or openly applauded in real hockey,” Blake says, “is represented as a corruption of the game in fiction.” As idealized on the page, hockey’s heart is pure. The game can even transcend money, and not only in stories. “For Canadians,” Blake observes, “playing hockey is not a social or class statement in the way that golf or skiing is, even though the expenses are similar.”

Yet he doesn’t go overboard. Canadian Hockey Literature touches on novelist David Adams Richards’s extravagant claims about the game’s importance, and mentions Roch Carrier’s doctrine that “you can explain everything through hockey,” but Blake is more restrained. (Although a Canadian, he’s a literature professor in, of all places, Slovenia.) He sees hockey’s quotidian side. Deeply rooted as it may be in Canadian folklore, Blake notes that TV networks market it as “an entertainment media bulwark of Canadianness against the tempting American television shows we watch the rest of the week.”

Still, hockey was around before TV, even before radio, and long before all the stories and novels Blake mines for meaning. The title character of the late Paul Quarrington’s brilliant novel King Leary captures hockey’s timeless quality best after he listens to an American hold forth on the game’s origins in soccer and lacrosse. “I bit my tongue,” King says, “but the truth of the matter is, I never knew that hockey originated. I figured it was just always there, like the moon.” A sentence like that makes a Canadian want to play some shinny, or at least read about it.


Outsiders don’t get us and hockey

  1. Outsiders don't get?

    I don't buy it.

    Canadians don't New Zealander's obsession with Rugby?
    American's obsession with Baseball? Football?
    The whole rest of the entire world with Soccer??
    We're not unique… we have sports fans, like everyone else, and, like everyone else, we have a group of people interested in crafting a national identity out of basic cultural establishments like the sports we play and watch on TV.
    How is a book about Canada's obsession with hockey "groundbreaking"?? I think a much more groundbreaking book for 2010 would be an examination of how hockey has been used in a country desperate for a coherent national identity to build a sense of long-absent flag-waving patriotism through a modern an often contrived media campaign. Tim Hortons Ads? Moslon beer ads? Canadian television networks? I've no problem with hockey. I play it, I watch it, I love it. But this defines who I am?? Gimme a break. Trust me, plenty of people all over the world go crazy for their sports, get riled up, paint themselves, get rowdy, cheer on the big hits and the passionate excesses, get furious at the cheap shots, critique the play and parse every detail of every tactic, and trash talk their rivals. Others, just like Canadians, even play their game, love the game, and raise their kids to do the same,… and yet plenty of others, just like plenty of Canadians, could care less about a game that has had, continues to have and always will have nearly zero effect upon their lives. Write that book in Canada, and I'll call it "groundbreaking".

    • don't forget curling – on survivor wasn't one of the tasks to curl? Which none of the contestants had any idea about? Of course ice sports are more of a Canadian thing. Weather conditions are very easily linked to the type of sport a country is most interested in. Common sense really.

  2. Obsession with a sport is fine, fun and healthy. It's when it goes too far that others begin to object: chanting "F*** USA" in Vancouver (see youtube) or booing national anthems and ripping down the flags of your opponents.

    • Being obnoxious is part of the fun. That, in fact, is why being a sports fan is a good time.

      You get to have an identifiable enemy.

  3. I tend to be wary of shared national myths where the audience eggs the players toward excessive violence. In Ancient Rome, this led to the Nikia Riots, and in modern Europe, it gives us 'football hooligans'. In Canada, it results in hordes of jersey clad fans setting cars and buildings ablaze in Montréal right after a game-no matter who wins or loses.

    America's obsession with football is truly bizarre, something I have never fully understood. This past weekend, Tulane University's commencement ceremony for the 2010 graduates included a lengthy presentation on the Superbowl win by the New Orleans Saints, as well as an award bestowed upon the owner of the franchise by the university's President. Two of the players on the stage could at least claim they were alumni, but the owner receiving the accolades had no connection to the school at all. Yet, she was given pride of place at a ceremony ostensibly there to celebrate the graduating class-not football.

    Still, American Football fans rarely take to the streets to destroy whatever city they happen to be in after the big game. The same cannot be said for Canadian hockey fans or British football fans. In some parts of Europe, supporters of the political Far Right express their sentiments by the football team whose jersey they support. In Northern Ireland, which side one was on during the Troubles was also a matter of one's choice of sports clothing.

    I distrust collective myths in general, although some more than others. I do not anticipate that golf, another sport I cannot get my head around, will ever inspire crowds to a visceral rage in quite the same way Canadian hockey can.

  4. I suppose what

  5. I suppose what is unique about hockey and Canadians is that we are pretty much a reserved bunch that are generally overly polite and don't seem to be passionate about much else really. It is a little troubling to think that outside of our continual pursuit of trying to be a bilingual and united nation and hockey there is really little that separates us from being American.

  6. The thing with hockey, it's becoming the new religion. We have left our churches to flock to hockey games or at least watch them from at home. We need someone to look up to, and religious leaders, politicians, have lost that appeal. The effort from a hockey player to win the Stanley Cup, probably the hardest trophy to win in team sports, is something even a person who is not interested in sports can still look up to, elevates hockey in the mind of Canadians to a religious level. It is certainlywhat explains a part of that mystique that people from other countries do not fully grasp.

  7. I have a problem when writers self-appoint themselves to decide what is or is not Canadian.

    Growing up, I had no interest whatsoever in hockey. Or CFL football. My interest was in science and history. The sport I played was soccer.

    Are "nerds" less Canadian than hockey jocks? Are the 50% of Canadians who didn't watch the Olympic Men's Hockey game less Canadian than the 50% who did?

    • Yes…on both counts.

  8. I guess I know more hockey more than literary criticism . . . when he mentioned Jason Blake as being the author, I was thinking "that little guy who played for the Leafs? Writing a book about hockey in Canadian literature? I thought he's American."

    Quite mischievious of John to identify who this Jason Blake is only in the sixth paragraph . . .

  9. Now let's see if anyone is looking at this old thread…

    Hockey is all very well, but whatever happened to Lacrosse? It is, after all, Canada's official national sport unless somebody snuck a bill past that I didn't notice (possible, because I don't subscribe to the Canada Gazette).

    Side note: My spelling checker has never heard of the past form of sneak (snuck). I suppose it wanted 'has sneaked', which I consider a really poor construction. Oh, well …