Hockey: Canada`s Pass Time, Religion and Way Of Life

Ben Cousins@@cousins_benCorrespondent IMarch 5, 2010

Hockey is Canada`s game, there is no doubt about it. It is the national pass time, religion and way of life. From outdoor rinks to outdoor stadiums, from Stompin’ Tom Connors to Tom Cochrane, from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia to Parry Sound, Ontario to Floral, Saskatchewan, from Stanley Cups to World Cups, hockey has been engraved in the essence of Canadianna. The Canadian spirit has been perfectly identified through many sources of media, most notably the Molson Canadian advertisement campaign where “we call anyone with goalie equipment a friend”[1] or “are proud to know someone who got jiggy with a pro hockey player.”[2]  Although these are humorous, Canadians easily relate to them. Hockey is our identity because it seems like it is the only thing that can unify Canadians, it embodies the political system, identifies the Canadian sense of Anti-Americanism and has some of history’s greatest Canadians.      

            Fostering a Canadian identity is a difficult task to do as Canadians are so divided. It seems as though other than Hockey, little can be agreed upon across the nation. Case in point, both the national flag and anthem of Canada, were under intense deliberation before becoming official. The flag took over forty years to be officially agreed upon and Canadians did not have an officially recognized anthem until 1980.[3] It is obvious how diverse and indecisive Canadians are, that is, unless the discussion is of hockey.

 The problem of diversity in our identity is completely erased when talking about hockey. It is the one thing Canadians can agree upon. Take the 2010 World Junior Championship gold medal final for example. The tournament was hosted in Saskatoon and did feature a single NHL player. The game was Canada facing their arch rivals the Americans in which Canada came back from two goals down to tie the Americans and send the game into overtime. The Canadians would eventually lose.

Despite the sad feelings of many Canadians around the country, this was a momentous day for Canadian media. Ratings for TSN (The Sports Network) were through the roof, they were the highest TSN has ever seen in their 25 year history. An estimated 5.3 million viewers watched the entire broadcast. An amazing 12.3 million people at least tuned in to see the score of the game, more than one in three Canadians. This is the sixth largest attendance for a Canadian broadcast in the history of the records which date back to 1994.[4] These were not even NHL players; they were kids, at a maximum 19 years old.

Even more recently, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics have arguably unified Canadians like no other event in history. Perhaps no other event at the games provided this unifying experience more than the gold medal hockey game. The game, an epic instalment to the Canada/United States rivalry would be the most watched event in Canadian history, where an amazing 80% of Canadian population tuned in. The second largest event would be the closing ceremonies of these very games only hours after the gold medal game.[5]  

The truth is it seems as though, other than those of hockey, there are few defining moments in Canada’s history that many people can relate to. Yes, perhaps the battle of Vimy Ridge in World War One, but that is something to mourn and not celebrate. Also, the French-Canadian population, for the most part, did not participate. There are certainly no modern defining moments. Americans are extremely rich in these moments. On 9/11 they stood together unified, or the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Canadians do not have that sort of event in their history and maybe that speaks volumes for the Canadian neutrality in the world or the nice-guy persona of Canada, but that is why hockey is part of our identity. It supplies these moments that Canadians long for. Americans have a Pearl Harbour, Canadians have a summit series.[6] 

Hockey follows along quite tightly with Canadian politics. Take the Montreal Canadiens for example, is there any better way to describe the people of Quebec than the Montreal Canadiens? Their fans are some of the most dedicated, loyal and boisterous in the league. They are almost as dedicated to the Canadiens as they are to the separatist movement and the French language.  To illustrate this, case in point Saku Koivu.[7] The long time captain of the Montreal Canadiens had gone through some tough times in the past, all are well documented, the biggest being his battle with cancer. Following a heartbreaking loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 playoffs where in game 3, Hurricanes forward Justin Williams got his stick caught in the visor of the Montreal captain, severely damaging his eye. Doctors originally thought his eye had received permanent damage, effectively ending his career, although this was not the case.[8] With still a patch on his eye, Koivu took to a press conference where Quebec politics would kick in. Charles Fairbault[9], a respected reporter asked a question to him in French, in a nutshell it was this: “After 10 years as a captain of Quebec’s team, why is it that you still have not taken the time to learn French?”[10]

The deed was done; no matter the response that Koivu would manage his reputation would be damaged.  Not because of his poor play or questionable antics off the ice, like perhaps some other players, it was the political stance among the people of Quebec that tarnished his reputation. It did not matter that he had just donated nearly a million dollars to the Montreal Hospital to improve their cancer treatment center, or that he loved being in a town that nobody else did or even that he had battled cancer only to return and play for “Les Habitants”.[11] It was that he was portrayed as an English-speaker and the captain of the Montreal Canadiens who apparently had no desire to learn French. This was just not allowed for Quebec’s team.

The issue of Hockey as an embodiment of Canadian politics is certainly not that lone instance with Koivu. Take the Canadians again for instance. In 2002-2003 the Americans were planning an attack on Iraqi forces, calling it the “War on Terror”. Canadians had already signed on to help the Americans in Afghanistan but would not join in on the Iraqi War. Despite growing pressure, the Canadians would not join in.[12] Tension mounted to the point where Canadians had to make a statement and where else to do but on a hockey rink? During a game against the New York Islanders, Canadiens fans would make a stand against the Americans, choosing to boo their national anthem. “The Star Spangled Banner” was booed for the entire duration of the song, a gesture towards Canadian refusal to join in on the Iraqi War on terror.[13] This is obviously a blemish on Canadian history, but nevertheless one that embodies Canadian politics through hockey and one that needs to be addressed.

Yet another way to illustrate the Montreal Canadiens and the connection with their provincial politics is the Quiet Revolution.[14] It was the mid-nineteen fifties and the people of Quebec were in a dark time. But the one thing they had going for them was the Montreal Canadiens and more importantly their star, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. He was one of their own, a hard-working, French-Canadian, from the factories who made it big with the Montreal Canadiens. The fact that he made it, gave hope to a nation that they all could make it.

One game in 1955, everything would change. Richard was always on the receiving end of abuse from the opponents, but on this day he would lose it. Richard took his stick and violently slashed Milt Schmidt and then proceeded to fight a referee.[15] Days later, it was announced that Richard would be suspended for the rest of the season.[16] The people of Quebec had had enough; they saw this as just another way the English-speaking people of North America are trying to put the French speakers at a disadvantage. They started up what would be forever called the “Richard Riot” of 1955. This would cause over 500,000 dollars in damages to the city of Montreal and leave at least 37 people with serious injuries.[17] The “Richard Riot” would be the start of the Quiet Revolution, a revolution in which few people were seriously hurt, but it was a stand by the people of Quebec against the laws of old Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canadians.[18]

Canadian politicians are even much like Canadian hockey players. Although aggressive and violent on the ice, hockey players tend to be extremely well-reserved off the ice. If you want to be a great hockey player, a sense of humility is almost a prerequisite.[19] Canadian politicians have the same reputation of not doing anything too drastic and being always the quiet type (With maybe the exception of Trudeau). In Canadian politics, flashiness and boldness are weaknesses.[20] This same comparison can be made with professional basketball or football with American presidents. These athletes are known to be flamboyant and willing to speak their mind. Although Presidents are not as outspoken as NBA or NFL athletes an argument can be made that Bill Clinton or even President Barack Obama are much more outspoken and flamboyant than Jean Chretien or Stephen Harper.   

 The previous examples about the correlation between Canadian politics and hockey were about those of Montreal Canadiens and the ideologies of the Quebecers, but the next two will illustrate the rest of Canada. In 2007, Chris Simon of the New York Islanders took exception to a cheap shot by Ryan Hollweg of the New York Rangers and proceeded to slash Hollweg across the neck.[21] A gruesome move that gave Simon a suspension that lasted the rest of the season. Commissioner Colin Campbell originally claimed that his could be blamed on Simon’s return to alcohol abuse, something that was not true. What was failed to mention was that Simon is of Native American descent, people who have a problem with both alcohol and drugs.[22] It looked as though Commissioner Campbell’s claims were made solely on the fact that Simon was a Native. Although Simon did have a past history with such abuses,[23] he had become a role model for Natives who feel like they do not have a chance of becoming anything.

This not the sole instance where Native Canadians have been discriminated by the NHL. Take head coach Ted Nolan as another example. Hired in 1995 as only second Native American to head coach an NHL team. He initially had great success, winning the Jack Adams Trophy as best coach in 1997.[24] Even though it seemed as though he would be a long time coach, his life would soon be forever changed. Not only did he and star goaltender Dominik Hasek have a dispute that would last his career in Buffalo, but rumours were ramped around the NHL that he was an alcoholic and that he was sleeping with one of his player’s wives. He even went as far to say “I guess this stuff fits the stereotype” in an interview with Tim Wharnsby.[25] When Nolan was offered a small one-year contract to continue with them, he denied, in protest of Hasek. He thought, being a former Jack Adams winner, jobs would be easy to find, boy was he wrong. Nolan would not become a legitimate candidate for a head coaching position for almost a decade. In that same time span, some white coaches with worse records would be hired and subsequently hired multiple times over.[26] It was said that Nolan was too strict, too loud, too much of a liability for any NHL team to take him. Mike Keenan, a man renowned for these features was hired and fired four times in that same time span.[27]

Since the time when the first Europeans arrived to Canada, Native Americans have been pushed aside and taken advantage of, leaving them with little rights over their homeland. Natives have been given little chance in their reserves and as a result have become very poor, and susceptible to addiction and crime. The stories of Chris Simon and Ted Nolan are just a microcosm of what is happening all over in Canada.   

The most evident example of how hockey has embodied the politics of Canadians was the 1972 summit series. Everyone from that era remembers the pivotal moments of the series, whether it be Paul Henderson’s goal late to give Team Canada a 6-5 lead late in the third period and eventually win the series, or Bobby Clarke’s slash to the leg of Russian star forward Victor Kharlamov that would break his ankle he eliminate him from the series, a huge loss for the Russians.[28]  The more subtle aspect of the series was that of politics. Canada and the United States were, at the time, mired in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Although the war never had any bloodshed, there was one way the War could be fought, the only way Canadians knew how to do it, on the ice. The Soviet Union were gold medalists at the Olympics, but Canadians were not allowed to send their best players, as they were in the NHL and thus, deemed to be professionals.[29]

This would be different, Russia’s best against Canada’s best, a Cold War in its own right. The series would consist of eight games, the first four in Canada and the last four in the Soviet Union. The Canadians composed of a team of rich members of the NHL that lived a flamboyant lifestyle, much like North American Capitalism at that time. Meanwhile, the Soviets had a life dedicated to hockey and nothing else; they all had the same haircut and had no expression on their face, no matter what the situation. This was representative of their communist political system.[30]

The Canadians were confident (overly confident in hind sight) of a sweep. How could anyone be better than the Canadians at their own game? That confidence was quickly shattered after the Russian’s would easily win game 1.[31] This was when Team Canada knew this would be no walk in the park. The rest of the games would be very close to the point where the last game would decide the series.  Again, this game was tight, it was 5-5 late in the third period when Paul Henderson scored his now infamous goal to win the series and solidify Canada’s supremacy in the hockey world.[32] In many ways, this was foreshadowing the result of the Cold War as in 1991, Communism would collapse and capitalism would prevail.[33] 

Canadians certainly feel a sense of Anti-Americanism through hockey, to illustrate this, it is best to look back at the origins of hockey. Hockey was invented in a time just after Confederation, a time of great uncertainty for its provinces.  There was huge pressure from both the Americans and British for various reasons including free trade and territory, but these are beside the point. The point is that American baseball and British cricket were slowly making their way into Canadian recreation, out of this came hockey, something very, very different from both sports, something that was their own, something that is nothing like the British and Americans, something that they would not dare play.[34] It was something unique, something Canadian, which everyone could call their own.

Going back to the 2010 World Junior Championships and Winter Olympics, one could argue that the game got such great ratings because it was against the Americans. Canada had many games against the Americans in the previous few international competitions and the games did not disappoint, they were instant classics. Maybe the audiences were so large because Canadians wanted their team to take down the Americans once again. There is certainly something innately Canadian about watching the Americans fail.

            Some people say that hockey is not in the Canadian identity because Canada is so multicultural that hockey does not relate to everyone, thus not being the identity. The fact is that many immigrants embrace the sport as a way fit in as a Canadian. This next quote comes from one of the only books written about hockey spectatorship and the idea of race and ethnicity. The book is called Hockey night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics written by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson. Whitson and Gruneau write about how immigrants may not completely embrace the sport, but their children sure do:

There was no other cultural form, no other popular practise that brought “two solitudes” [Anglophone and francophone Canada] into regular engagement with each other in quite the same way. Moreover, although millions of immigrants from other European countries had brought their own popular recreations with them when they moved to Canada, it wasn’t long before their children and grandchildren were watching and playing hockey.[35]       

That myth is certainly debunked now.

Some people say that hockey cannot be part of our identity because hockey is known for being violent and aggressive and Canadians are known for their friendliness and peace-keeping. To eliminate this point, there is no one to better quote than Stephan Harper, the current Prime Minister and huge hockey fan. He said this about the connection between Canada and hockey:  "It's sometimes forgotten because Canadians are thought of as peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant. Which we are. But that's not inconsistent with tough and aggressive and ambitious." [36]

As a final example to prove how much hockey is in the Canadian identity, take “The Greatest Canadian” poll.  In 2004, The Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) did a well-documented poll to find out the ten best Canadians.[37] The final results seem to be a perfect representation of the Canadian identity. The results are as follows:

1.      Tommy Douglas

2.      Terry Fox

3.      Pierre Elliott Trudeau

4.      Sir Fredrick Banting

5.      David Suzuki

6.      Lester B. Pearson

7.      Don Cherry

8.      Sir. John A. Macdonald

9.      Alexander Graham Bell

10.  Wayne Gretzky[38]

All great Canadians in their own right for sure. The winner, Tommy Douglas gave Canadians one of the things that separates Canada from so many other countries, universal health care. The runner-up, Terry Fox, is one of the most recognizable Canadians in the world. His cross-Canada marathon on one leg to help raise money for cancer research is one of the greatest humanitarian stories around the world. He symbolizes how polite and friendly Canadians are. There are three politicians, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Sir John A Macdonald and Lester B. Pearson, all of whom represent our peacekeeping abilities that are renowned around the world. There are three scientists or inventors, Sir Frederick Banting the discoverer of insulin,[39] David Suzuki the famous environmentalist who is fighting to make global warming a mainstream discussion around the world and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century, the telephone. These three represent that Canadians are, and has always been at the fore-front of the scientific and communicative world, although Canada is not well known for it. The last two are the most surprising, two hockey personalities, Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry.

Wayne might not be that surprising being arguably, the greatest hockey player of all time. He is also arguably the most recognizable Canadian athlete of all time. He is soft spoken and polite, representative of Canadians. He was Canada’s hero, a small town boy who would be the greatest of all-time. When Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles in 1988, MP Nelson Riis had this to say: “Wayne Gretzky is a national symbol like the beaver, Pierre Berton and Harold Ballard. It’s like the Wheel of Fortune without Vanna White....They might as well have sent him to the moon...”[40] This quote perfectly illustrates how important Wayne is to Canadians. To further his importance, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics are evidence. He lit the Olympic flame, despite only competing in the Olympics once (1998) and not even winning a medal. And yet, for Canadians, there was no other person fit for the job.  

Don Cherry, seventh place on the list is the most surprising one, he is not known for his greatness on the ice, having played only one NHL game. He is known for is 15 minute show on Saturday nights where he talks about hockey. He is, what people other than Canadians would call, obnoxious, loud mouthed and ignorant. Cherry even won the National Post’s “Beautiful minds” contest in 2005, beating out many influential Canadians.[41] But there is something that Canadians find endearing about him, he has done much less for this country than all nine of the others, but it his is pure hockey knowledge and personality that put him there.  

In many ways, hockey is the way of life for Canadians. Taking an entitlement to the game is something that all people of Canada do. It is the one source of arrogance in a nation that is known for its quiet voice and neutrality. It is the one stereotype Canadians take pride in. There is no doubt hockey is the Canadian identity, whether it be from the water cooler to the bar, the early morning Timbit practices or late night beer league, the World stage or one on one in the backyard rink. Hockey is just in the Canadian blood stream, it is as simple as that.  

Works Cited

Belanger, Claude. The Quiet Revolution. August 23, 2000. (accessed February 20, 2010).

Brunt, Stephen. Gretzky's Tears. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009.

CBC. The Greatest Canadian. 2010. (accessed February 20, 2010).

Dowbiggin, Bruce. The Meaning of Puck. Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 2008.

Edmonton Oilers Heritage. International Hockey and The WHA- Spirit of '74. n.d. (accessed February 20, 2010). News Services. Simon Suspended for Hitting Player with Stick. March 10, 2007. (accessed February 18, 2010).

Farbar, Michael. "Canada Osessed." Sports Illustrated, 2010: 86.

Gruneau, Richard and David Whitson. Hockey Night in Canada:Sport Identities and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Garamond, 1993.

Hamilton, Joel and Cam Waddington. There's an unwritten code i Canada... n.d.!/group.php?v=info&ref=search&gid=13848218111 (accessed February 20, 2010).

History Explorer. Russia History Timeline. February 23, 2009. (accessed February 1, 2010).

Morris, Jason. "Skating on Thin Ice: Hockey and the Canadian National Identity." Proteus, 2008: 47-51.

Robidoux, Michael A. "Imaging a Canadian Identity Through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey." Journal of American Folklore, 2002: 209-225.

Scanlan, Wayne. "Why Hockey Matters So Much." The Ottawa Citizen, 2010: K1-K2.

The Nobel Foundation. Frederick G. Banting. n.d. (accessed February 20, 2010). Staff. Oh Canada! 80 percent of Canadians watch Gold Medal Game. March 1, 2010. (accessed March 1, 2010).

—. World Juniors Thriller Delivers All-time Audience Record. January 6, 2010. (accessed February 10, 2010).

Wilson, J.J. "27 remarkable days: the 1972 summit series of ice hockey between Canada and the Soviet Union ." Totaliaritan Movments and Political Religions, 2004: 271-280.

[2] Hamilton, Joel and Cam Waddington, There’s an Unwritten Code in Canada, (n.d.)

[3] Jason Morris, "Skating on Thin Ice: Hockey and the Canadian National Identity." Proteus (2008): 47-51.

[4] Staff, World Juniors Thriller Delivers All-time Audience Record, , (January 2010)

[5] Staff, Oh Canada! 80 percent of Canadians Watch Gold Medal Games, , (March 2010)

[6] Bruce Dowbiggin, The Meaning of Puck (Toronto, 2008), pp 15. 

[7] Dowbiggin, pp 26.

[8] Dowbiggin, pp 27.

[9] Dowbiggin, pp 28.

[10] Dowbiggin, pp 28.

[11] Dowbiggin, pp 28.

[12] Dowbiggin, pp 123.

[13] Dowbiggin, pp 124.

[14] Dowbiggin, pp 26.

[15] Dowbiggin, pp 46.

[16] Dowbiggin, pp 48.

[17] Dowbiggin, pp 48.

[18] Claude Belanger, The Quiet Revolution, , (August 2000)

[19] Dowbiggin, pp 76.

[20] Dowbiggin, pp 148.

[21] News Services, Simon Suspended for Hitting Player with Stick, , (March 2007) 

[22] Dowbiggin, pp 194-195.

[23] Dowbiggin, pp 194.

[24] Dowbiggin, pp 201.

[25] Dowbiggin, pp 201.

[26] Dowbiggin, pp 202.

[28] J.J. Wilson, “27 remarkable days: the 1972 summit series of ice hockey between Canada and the Soviet Union,” Totalariantan Movements and Political Religions (Autumn 2004) pp 271-280.

[29] Wayne Scanlan, “Why Hockey Matters So Much”, The Ottawa Citizen (2010), pp K1-K2

[30] J.J. Wilson, pp 271-280.

[31] J.J. Wilson, pp 271-280.

[32] J.J. Wilson, pp 271-280.

[33] History Explorer, Russia History Timeline. (February 2009).

[34] Michael A. Robidoux "Imaging a Canadian Identity Through Sport: A Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey." Journal of American Folklore (2002): 209-225.

[35] Richard Gruneau and David Whitson, Hockey Night in Canada: Sport Identities and Cultural Politics (Toronto, 1993), pp 101.

[36] Michael Farbar, "Canada Osessed." Sports Illustrated (2010): 86

[37] CBC, The Greatest Canadian. (2010)

[38] CBC, The Greatest Canadian. (2010)

[39] The Noble Foundation, Frederick G. Banting. (n.d.).

[40] Stephen Brunt, Gretzky’s Tears, (Toronto, 2009), pp 154

[41] Dowbiggin, pp 130.


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