“Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.”
The National Hockey League entered its third work stoppage in just two decades on Sept. 15, 2012, putting the season on hold as hockey’s doomsday clock struck midnight with no last-minute resolution.
Fans would wait 113 days for the owners and players to reach an agreement. The previous lockout, a mere eight years ago, resulted in the cancellation of the entire season; Lord Stanley’s Cup lingered in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as winter turned to spring. It would be a long wait for Stanley, and all hockey fans, wishing to see our favourite teams take to the ice.
Canadian fans are renowned for die-hard support and loyalty to our colours—a Toronto Maple Leaf fan would never be caught dead wearing anything rouge. However, if there is one thing Canadian fans are especially good at, it’s taking a punch in the chops—then coming right back for another.
After the NHL tortured fans in 2004 with the longest lockout in sports history, what was the response? Breaking attendance records the next season without a second thought. Canadian teams played in front of nearly full stadiums all season, while Montréal, Calgary, and Vancouver sold out every home game. The Canadiens broke the single-season attendance record at 872,193, meaning one in every two city-dwelling Montréalers visited Les Habs. Judging by the mass number of fans cheering this lockout’s end, arenas could see even greater attendance records. Despite fans constantly being neglected by the NHL, we keep coming back for more. Surely it’s not because Canadian fans are shameless (…right?), but it certainly begs the question: why?
It is partly because hockey is etched as a way of life for many Canadians—watching, playing, talking, and dreaming hockey. It also reflects the essence of being Canadian. But what is that essence exactly, which Stephen Leacock suggested captures our national experience? More importantly, if he speaks the truth when he dramatically claims that hockey affirms we are still alive…what are we without hockey?
Canada and Hockey Rise Together
Hockey is certainly ingrained in our history. The first organized games took place in the mid-1800s, and Montréal students played the first recorded match in 1875. Meanwhile, Canada was rising as a nation in just its eighth year of independence, having been granted autonomy from Britain with little drama—unlike the U.S., which fought for its freedom through the American Revolution. That made for a peaceable atmosphere—but little for 19th century Canadians to get passionate about.
Except hockey, argues VIU History professor, Timothy Lewis. “Shortly after confederation, hockey catches on and it begins to evolve into its modern form,” he says. “At the exact same time the nation is beginning to evolve into its modern forms, and the two are growing together. There was not a lot of passion for [Canada], or for what it meant to be Canadian. It’s a large nation, with a lot of regional division, so there’s not much to bring the nation together… [hockey] starts to become a commonality across the nation.”
Hockey was a perfect match for Canada’s prolonged winters and often-frigid climate. Much of the early economy was seasonal, meaning fishermen, farmers, and lumbermen spent months with little work and had spare time to devote to recreational activities. Hockey was also a remedy for the crisis of masculinity many men endured, says Lewis. “It’s a time period when the Christian church was probably at a height in terms of influence in Canada, and female values of love, patience, and kindness were greatly valued and becoming projected on men too.” Women were originally banned from playing hockey, allowing men the opportunity to display historically-masculine values of physical power, strength, and courage. However, it was Lord Stanley’s daughter Isobel who helped convince her father to donate hockey’s most prestigious trophy to Canada.
A Reflection of our Patriotism
Since its creation, hockey has come to serve as a patriotic outlet for many Canadians. Outside the rink, we aren’t known for brazen nationalism and flamboyant cheering—collectively gregarious behavior of any sort, for that matter. We are “supposed” to be those subdued, sheltered, and agreeable people from above the United States; where did all this hollering come from?
But Canadians came upon a vital realization during the 1920s at the dawn of professional leagues: we’re pretty damn good at hockey. We won the sport’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1920 with a resounding 14–1 victory over Sweden, followed by another gold medal in 1924 after outscoring opponents 132–3 in six matches. Newfoundland’s Harry “Moose” Watson led the tournament with 46 points. We’d found something we were uniquely good at, perhaps for the first time ever.
Canadian fans relied on hockey during the Great Depression as entertainment. The arrival of Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) on the airwaves in 1931 was as vital to national connectivity as the Canadian Pacific Railway. Few opportunities for entertainment existed during the era, but radio was an accessible and affordable option for many. Every Saturday night, as many as three million Canadians tuned into an NHL game—the same match heard in Halifax and Vancouver as it was at home. Announcer Foster Hewitt was instantly one of the greatest Canadian celebrities of all time, greeting listeners every week with, “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”
The onset of WWII took over a million Canadians out of their living rooms and onto the frontlines. Lewis says the impact of HNIC was realized during the war, as many soldiers bemoaned missing the broadcasts. “We had all kinds of officers saying, ‘more than cigarettes, more than packages from home, what really gets the guys excited are the hockey broadcasts.’ It just reminds them so much of home, in that sort of sense of belonging.”
The Canadian military shipped recordings of games overseas to raise morale. Even the Germans realized how much our troops loved hockey, Lewis says. “I think in 1944-45, some of their propaganda broadcasts in English to the Canadian troops said, ‘Now boys, wouldn’t you rather be back home listening to the hockey games? Why are you over here fighting in Germany?’”
That love of hockey and sense of protection was never more heightened than during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. While Canada’s NHL superstars weren’t allowed to play, the top Soviet leagues were still regarded as amateur—and Canada’s non-professional players could no longer compete with the Russian Red Army. Canada had not won a tournament in twenty years and was in danger of losing our professional hockey dominance for good. However, amidst the Cold War there were much more than sports implications on the line. Soviet players were also KGB and army officers, paid by the government to train year-round. Canadian players and fans alike viewed the series as war on ice.
“Before the series we are just over the moon, like, ‘We’re finally gonna get those red so-and-so’s, we’ll show them what we got,’” Lewis says. “But when that first game is a 7–3 loss you can just hear crickets across the nation. And because it was one of those rare things that we were good at, it was a real sense of loss for Canadians who followed hockey. [We thought] maybe we aren’t as good as we thought we were?”
Over 3000 Canadian fans travelled to Moscow for the final four games of the Summit Series. “Fans were on their feet waving that flag, which was still a pretty new thing, as we only got the maple leaf in 1965,” Lewis says. “People were still kind of getting used to it. But there was this national team with a stylized maple leaf, and the crowd singing “O Canada” throughout the game, and making all these cheers. It was something we really hadn’t seen before.”
In fact, most of would struggle to recall the last time we sang the national anthem away from a rink or out of earshot of “Hockey Night in Canada.” Without hockey, O Canada would become as disused as God Save the Queen, and we would rarely see the flashes of nationalism that bust Canadians from our shells. If only for health reasons, Canadians need hockey as a safety valve to ensure we don’t blow a gasket.
The Community of Hockey
Although Canada boasts the second largest land mass on Earth, the community of hockey seems to make the borders of our great country recede. This is especially true in small communities, where many Canadians have a hometown hero to cheer for in the NHL.
Over 4700 players have graduated from Canada’s rinks and frozen ponds to the NHL, representing hundreds of communities across the country. Men from the reaches of Inuvik, North West Territories and Bonavista, Newfoundland have made their way to the big leagues. Some of Canada’s smallest towns have an uncanny ability to produce gifted players—Flin Flon, Manitoba, population 6000, has laid claim to 17 NHL players in its history, including Hall-of-Famer Bobby Clarke.
Across the country, teams ranging from girls’ pee-wee to men’s beer league, and all the way up to major junior, fill arenas from sunrise to well after sunset. When the game is between two cities or towns, a rare inter-community connection occurs; hockey allows communities to interact and become more than just isolated dots on the map. Even as rival fans cheer their teams, they’re also connecting with one another.
Canada is a vast country, meaning out-of-town games often require hours of driving—through snow, rain, wind, and hail. These unpleasant aspects are all part of the hockey experience. And there is something quintessentially Canadian about waking up at ghastly hours to defrost the car for a pre-sunrise game away from home. Many family memories are created, rather than spring break trips to Disneyland, by strategically packing four bags of gear into the sedan every weekend and setting out on a road trip.
Few activities require the financial support and sacrifice of time as having a child registered in hockey. Since ice time is limited in nearly every arena across Canada, the prime time slots are reserved for skating lessons and more competitive teams, and practices are often scheduled for 6 or 7 a.m.—early enough to shower afterwards and get to school. As soon as a player reaches Bantam age (14+), he or she is often relegated to the late-evening slot. If a family is traveling from another community, this can return them home after midnight. But there are few alternatives for Canadians possessed with a burning passion of playing hockey, and those late-night trips gave families and teammates an opportunity to bond.
Dynamic families exist in all professional sports, but none as much as in hockey. The Sutters, who once had six of seven siblings playing in the NHL at the same time, are one of the most famous families in sports history. And now a second generation of Sutters has reached the NHL, with five drafted into the league. Gordie Howe, known as “Mr. Hockey,” had the unique experience of playing professionally with two of his sons, Mark and Marty. Gordie’s wife, Colleen, became a sports agent and was later named “Mrs. Hockey,” making the Howes a true hockey family. But even the Howes from Saskatoon and the Sutters from rural Alberta likely embarked on those early morning and late-night road trips before stardom.
Truly Canada’s Game
Not everyone is a hockey fan—or even a sports enthusiast—and many Canadians counter the claim that hockey is our “national pastime” with valid arguments. Soccer fans note that their sport has more registered players than hockey, while lacrosse supporters like to cite its status as Canada’s first official sport. Others point to the country’s increasingly successful culture industries, suggesting sports have taken a backseat to arts and entertainment as financial engines and sources of national pride.
Still, we go to extraordinary efforts to make hockey accessible to as many Canadians as possible. There are over 2700 arenas coast-to-coast, plus an unknown plethora of outdoor rinks. While soccer and baseball fields are found on many Canadian school grounds, the resources necessary for building and maintaining a functioning hockey arena are far greater. Organizations like KidSport and Canadian Tire Jumpstart help alleviate the financial barriers many families face when registering children for hockey. These groups are often approached by immigrant families wishing to use hockey as an opportunity to experience Canadian culture.
“As the game becomes more and more expensive, you wonder if you’re shutting the doors and making it more difficult for immigrant families to use that as a way of feeling ‘more Canadian’ and fitting into the broader culture,” Lewis says.
Canadian hockey associations reach out to nearly every demographic. Special leagues tailored to players with a disability have sprouted up in the past few decades, making hockey accessible to the blind, deaf, and developmentally challenged, and to amputees, and even quadriplegic athletes through the use of hand-operated electric wheelchairs. Tournaments also exist for players over 80, and there are leagues available for those wishing to dabble in alternative forms such as underwater and unicycle hockey. The sport is popular year round, with skill camps and competitive leagues sometimes garnering a turnout of youth during the summer that is comparable to the local swimming hole.
Something about hockey makes even non-fans take notice of it once in a while, especially when it’s on a grand stage. An estimated 26.5 million Canadians—80 percent of our population—tuned in to watch at least a portion of the men’s 2010 Olympic gold medal match. After Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in overtime, Canadians spilled onto streets to cheer across the country. Anyone clamoring around downtown Vancouver after that famous goal couldn’t walk a foot without bumping into someone dressed in red and white. Play-by-play announcer, Chris Cuthbert said it best when he opened the gold medal game with, “Good afternoon, Canada. Is there anywhere you’d rather be for the next three hours?”
On Boxing Day, Canada began its attempt to reclaim its first World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC) title in three years. The tournament is a holiday fixture among hockey fans, and this year Canadians were to be treated to a star-studded roster of locked-out NHL players—if the labour dispute continued into 2013. Hockey fans have protested the owners’ and players’ inability to find a resolution for months, with many fans saying, “It’s a battle between millionaires and billionaires.”
But then something strange happened—we didn’t want the lockout to end just yet. Canada had a genuine opportunity to stand atop the hockey world and let off some patriotic steam. Instead of seeing our favourite team back in action, we wanted Canada’s best junior players to compete with a maple leaf on their chests. We wanted a collective, rather than personal, joy to share among Canadian fans. That’s the essence of the Canadian experience; engaging in a passion, and a moment, be it lasting or fleeting that can be shared provinces apart. Even for just ten days during the WJHC, hockey brought that essence to light.