Saturday, January 13, 2007

The First Nation of Hockey

Today is Hockey Day in Canada. I don’t know what that means, really, but it means something. It is a commemoration of hockey in a nationalistic vein, a celebration of the idea that there is some deep, reciprocal relationship between Canada and hockey that transcends the simple statement that a lot of Canadians like it.

A national sport is a shared image. The pastime of my nation (for some reason ‘pastime’ is the approved term in this case) is baseball, and though I don’t particularly like baseball as a game, I can claim it as mine because I know the image of it, because it is burned in my brain like a memory of something I never actually experienced.

It is late afternoon on a Sunday in summer, the declining hours where sweltering heat just becomes bearable. The air smells dry and fresh at the same time, the mingled scent of dust and grass, and the light has that golden-orange quality only found in Jerry Bruckheimer movies, travel ads for Florida, and nostalgic recollection. We are sitting on bleachers in T-shirts, eating hot dogs and drinking, beer for the adults, soda for the kids. The wood is warm and worn smooth. Repetitive tunes are hammered out on an organ somewhere out of sight. We talk amongst ourselves, point at the field or the scoreboard, occasionally yelling or hooting to each other or the men beyond. The pitcher stands in that distinctive way that pitchers do, stretching his arms, shifting his weight. The batter taps his bat against the plate, scrapes his feet against the dirt, spits, and then finally lifts the bat behind his shoulder. The catcher punches his glove. The outfielders hunch over. The pitcher leans back and snaps forward, and less than a millisecond later there follows the distinctive sharp crack that everyone knows can mean only one thing, and we stand up, hands shading our eyes, heads craning upward to try to see the tiny speck against a glittering blue sky. We haven’t yet seen the ball, not since it left the pitcher’s hand, but we know it’s there, and finally someone catches a glimpse of it, falling back towards earth in the distance. The batter runs the bases at a slow jog while we cheer.

I know nothing of baseball as a sport, but I am American in the most stereotypical sense, and therefore I have this image. It is no actual baseball game that has ever happened, anywhere, but nevertheless it is Baseball. It is what Baseball really is for us, it is what makes it a piece of ‘our nation’. We believe, for no good reason, that this image- in all its details, right down to the tune on the organ and the stride of the runner- tells us something about ourselves, that thing which we are that others are not.

There must, I think, be an equivalent image of hockey for Canadians, some meta-scene of the sport that speaks in some mysterious way to the sense of national identity, but I don’t have that image. All I know of hockey are actual players and actual games, a thousand specifics in search of a generalization. I have no sense of the Platonic ideal of Canadian hockey, but I wish I did, because I think somehow that it would then be more meaningful for me.

So to the various and sundry Canadians who might stop by this site today (or tomorrow, or the day after that), what’s the image that makes hockey more than just a sport for you? Not the logic of it, but the visceral sensation of it, that thing that flashes through your mind for a second when you think of hockey, which makes it not just yours personally but yours as a Canadian?

[I know, it’s usually a bad idea to try to use a post to start a conversation, people don’t like to comment, etc., but sometimes it’s better to ask than to tell.]


Julian said...

E, if I were in Montreal right now, I'd insist on meeting you for a beer (or coffee, if that's your thing) to discuss this.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what you're asking for specifically, so I'll just throw some things out and see what sticks :

If you want to see the defining image of hockey-Canadiana, just look on a five dollar bill. Or better yet, read The Sweater by Roch Carrier. Or watch it online here :

If you're asking for the defining image of hockey in Canada, like your baseball imagery, I'd imagine it's one of two things for most people. 1. Gathering with friends and/or family on a saturday night to watch the game, talk, drink beer, and be quiet when Cherry is on. 2. Waking up at 6:00am, dragging your kid out of bed to take him to practice, stopping for Timmy's along the way, helping him get dressed, cheering from the stands, and then taking him home again and back to bed.

Margaret Atwood (I think it was her...) called Survival the literary theme of Canadian life, so one might say that hockey is the triump of that survival. Not only can we live quite well during the winter months, we can actually use it to our advantage, we can use it to play games to entertain the whole nation.

Sometimes when I think about the impact of hockey in Canada, I wonder if it's really as big as people make it out to be. There are far more people who don't watch games on TV than do, and there are far more who don't care about hockey than do. But then I remember being in first year university during the gold medal game of the 2002 Olympics, and how EVERYONE in my residence was watching. And then after the win, driving up and down the packed streets, people occupying a lane of a busy street to play road hockey with a beer can, people hanging from streetlights, Canadian flags everywhere, people standing by the side of the road as we drove through the streets hanging out the car windows and giving high fives. The picture of Younge St in Toronto during the game, dead empty on a sunday afternoon.
And I wonder.... what else could provoke that sort of response? Or the responses we saw in Calgary in 2004 and Edmonton in 2006 after every playoff win? What else could bring people out into the streets like that? There are few things I can think of, perhaps the No-side gathering in Montreal in 1995, days before the referendum. Probably the reaction in the streets on D-day. That's what's needed to provoke the same reaction as a hockey win? The possibility of the country breaking up, and the begining of the end of a five year, all encompassing world war? And, of course, the Richard riots, but we know what sparked those.
Go here :
and watch this :

you'll see what I mean.

Anyway, this isn't anything that other nations don't have, ie Brazil (or most any country) with football, Austraila or India or whereever with cricket, etc. But hockey's ours.

This is getting a little long, so I'll stop here (even though I've got more I could write) and see if that answers any of your questions.

Julian said...

Crap, some of those links might not work...

The Sweater

Hockey Clips at

Henderson 1972

Hope that works....