Hockey: Canada’s national game?

The Oberamtnmann has written here extensively about the American national sport of baseball. As the lone Canadian here, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to write about hockey–ice hockey, specifically–and the way it relates to Canada.

Briefly? Modern hockey took off first in Canada, specifically in Montréal.

While the game’s origins may lie elsewhere, Montreal is at the centre of the development of the modern sport of ice hockey. On March 3, 1875, the first organized indoor game was played at Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink between two sides of nine-player teams, including James Creighton and several McGill University students. Instead of a ball, the game featured the use of a puck, the purpose of which was to prevent the puck from exiting the rink, which did not have boards, and hitting spectators. The goals were goal posts 6 feet (1.8 m) apart, and the game lasted 60 minutes.

In 1877, several McGill students, including Creighton, Henry Joseph, Richard F. Smith, W. F. Robertson, and W. L. Murray codified seven ice hockey rules, based on the rules of field hockey. The first ice hockey club, McGill University Hockey Club, was founded in 1877 followed by the Montreal Victorias, organized in 1881.

The game became so popular that the first “world championship” of ice hockey was featured in Montreal’s annual Winter Carnival in 1883 and the McGill team captured the “Carnival Cup”. [. . .] In 1886, the teams which competed at the Winter Carnival would organize the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC) league and play a regular season composed of “challenges” to the existing champion.

In Canada, the game flourished, the different teams coalescing into a National Hockey Association in 1910 which became the modern National Hockey League in 1917. The 1920s saw the NHL’s expansion beyond Canada into the northeastern United States (Boston, New York City, Detroit, Chicago) and substantial expansion in the United States afterwards. Still, Canadians fancied themselves having a special claim to the game, with the Toronto Maple Leafs regularly contesting with the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup and the game providing–as author Roch Carrier notes–Canadians with some basic catch-phrases and patterns of thought.

Hockey is surely the most Canadian of metaphors. When explaining something complicated, Canadians will often make a comparison to hockey in order to make the concept easier to understand. It is also fairly common to compare politics and hockey. Businesses motivate their managers or sales people by drawing parallels between their challenges and those of a hockey game. Even in church, a priest has been heard to explain in his sermon that the faithful will go to heaven like a puck into the net; but that to do so they have to outsmart Satan at the blue line!

Hockey is also the history of Canadians. The game reflects the reality of Canada in its evolution, ambitions, character, tensions and partnerships. If you want to see a child’s eyes sparkle, ask: “Who’s your favourite hockey player?” If you want to light up the eyes of a Canadian of a certain age, be they a judge, doctor or blue-collar worker, ask: “Do you remember when Maurice Richard…?”

But now? We’ve lost our hockey mojo.

Why? Partly it’s a result of competition. We no longer live in a homogeneous society.

Although an impressive one million Canadians tuned in to some part of the recent NHL draft, [sociologist Reginald] Bibby counters that this only represents about three per cent of the so-called “hockey-mad” population. Viewership of this year’s Stanley Cup finals hovered between 1.6 and 1.9 million for the first five games, reached 2.6 million in Game 6, then peaked at 3.5 million for Game 7 — a healthy draw, but nonetheless, a fraction of the population. Previously, Stanley Cup games have garnered as many as 4.96 million viewers, as was the case in the 1994 faceoff between Vancouver and New York, and the 4.79 million Canadians who tuned into the Calgary-Montreal final 20 years ago.

Bibby explains that the “death of the monoculture” has led to a splintering of individual interests, with more consumer choices leading to fewer pastimes that are truly embraced on a national level. While hockey may still be the country’s favourite, compared to other sports, he notes that the sheer number of choices reduces the actual numbers of avid followers.

Think of comparing I Love Lucy to CSI. Both top-rated shows, but the former — with far less competition — drew audiences as large as 44 million while the latter, in a landscape with hundreds of channels, draws about half that.

“It’s one of the few Canadian myths we have, this alleged (nationwide) love of hockey,” says Bibby. “So, these results will annoy some people, and initially we’ll see some questioning of reality.”

Meanwhile, Canadian immigrants and their children, coming (by and large) from societies where hockey isn’t played and are not being actively cultivated as players, are not picking up the game. This coincides with long-standing complaints that there are too many foreign-born–specifically, European–players on Canadian NHL teams. Sports icon Don Cherry has complained about European players’ lack of heart and the wimpiness of Québécois players who wear visors.

Finally, there’s the growing non-Canadian composition of the NHL. With the closure of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques franchises, and the rapid–if perhaps ill-judged–expansion in the United States, the NHL is overwhelmingly non-Canadian in terms of membership and audiences.

What becomes of a national sport when most of the people playing it aren’t from your nation? That’s the question afoot.

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5 Responses to Hockey: Canada’s national game?

  1. Pingback: Toronto’s patriotic problems with sports | History and Futility

  2. Pingback: Hockey and pride as seen from Québec City | History and Futility

  3. Pingback: What hockey has shown us about Canada | History and Futility

  4. Pingback: [BRIEF NOTE] On the NHL and hockey and Canada and the sunbelt « A Bit More Detail

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