Recalibrating the place of hockey in our culture

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Almost all of us miss NHL hockey some of the time. And some of us miss it all of the time: players, owners, sports journalists. But its absence may also be a covert present in this gifting season: a chance to rebalance and recalibrate the place of hockey in our culture.

You see that imbalance in references to missing "hockey" and yearning for "hockey" to return. Yet it's only NHL hockey that's lacking. This is the result of a stealth coup by the NHL: it's made itself equivalent to hockey altogether.

I'd never deny that the NHL is a key element in the broad hockey culture, which itself may be the biggest piece of our national culture. The NHL grew with and through that larger culture, partly via the voice of Foster Hewitt on radio and TV -- carried by CBC, also a major component. But there are other pieces: minor hockey, house leagues, street hockey, international competition, nonplaying family who provide transport or watch games together -- plus culture in the narrower sense: music (O The Good Old Hockey Game); fiction -- though I don't think we've yet had a hockey ballet, which would be a natural fit.

A sublime case of hockey culture in balance is Roch Carrier's short story, The Hockey Sweater, also an NFB animated film narrated by Carrier. It contains rural Quebec, pond hockey, Catholicism, Eaton's when it was both an economic titan and cultural icon, along with NHL star Rocket Richard and the emblematic Maple Leafs sweater -- all in brief, funny, meaning-saturated context. A recent article by children's book reviewer Bernie Goedhart describes her midnight chat in the club car on a train ride through the Rockies with a conductor and engineer during which the two Anglo crew members retold Carrier's tale -- in his Quebecois accent. It's indisputable evidence that Canada may actually exist.

But that complex balance gets destabilized if hockey equals NHL. This may happen partly due to climate change, so the country feels less northern and therefore less about hockey; soaring equipment costs for kids' hockey, disgust with violence and concern over concussions; subtraction of the "fun" element due to victory-obsessed coaches or parents; rival sports like soccer -- all of which diminish the non-NHL components in hockey and clear space for the NHL to claim total ownership of it. Above all, there's the power of NHL business/media interests who profit from ads, franchising, etc. Even the CBC now cowers before the league it helped create, desperate for TV revenues. It's a world Foster Hewitt never knew. There's always been a tight, fruitful, problemmatic relationship between the NHL and hockey culture. It only gets dangerous when one annihilates the other. The lockout may be an opportunity to bolster the non-NHL side of the equation.

I've wondered if it's too late: for example, if the kids' hockey novels I read, like Scott Young's Lightning on Ice, were now entirely structured around NHL themes. Not so, says Gillian O'Reilly, editor of Canadian Children's Book News. Some books have "NHL trademarks all over them" but most are "still geared to that pure joy of kids playing hockey" on ponds or driveways, where kids try to beat other kids down the street, or a girls' softball team takes up hockey so they can outdo the boys. "Since Canada is so much about hockey," she adds, "any time you want to write about anything you do it through hockey": friendships, bullying, overbearing coaches, overbearing parents, racism, loneliness (an Inuk boy comes south to board in Alberta). "For kids who get it like that," she says, "the NHL absence isn't a death blow."

For kids who get it through books, there's another benefit. Hockey used to be an escape hatch from adult supervision and control. For me, it was playing on flooded natural rinks in the schoolyard, long after class, the sky darkening as you shifted gradually from sight to sound for purposes of puck location without slowing down so you still skated full tilt, I swear, but sonically. At last, feet near frozen, you'd head home for (this may be retrospective fantasy) a cocoa denouement. None of that's feasible now, says O'Reilly, who has three kids. Natural rinks don't exist and wouldn't freeze; parents wouldn't leave their kids out alone. But good kidlit often removes adults from the scene -- like the child's idealization of being orphaned -- so reading about non-adult supervised games may substitute for skating and scoring all by yourself.

I asked her how kids learn of these books. She said from other kids and children's librarians, suggesting I put in a good word for the latter, which I gladly do, based on lifelong positive experience. But there's something else now: the Internet, Facebook etc., where kids meet and tell each other things, out of adult reach, like darkened rinks where you play by ear. Tim Berners-Lee, "father of the Internet," says teenagers "would probably go to jail with their iPhone rather than be deprived of connectivity." Parents and other adults should think about why that is, and what cold lost spaces those kids are doing their best to recreate.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Xiaozhuli/Flickr

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