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"Of puck and self":

Hockey and the making of Canadian identiy

 

 

Bernt Pölling-Vocke, May 2007, berntpv@gmx.com

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1       Of what it is all about: an introduction

It is a simple fact of life in Canada that hockey, directly or indirectly, touches virtually anyone.[1]

 

 

Hockey is the Canadian metaphor, the rink a symbol of this country’s vast stretches of water and wilderness, its extremes of climate, the player a symbol of our struggle to civilize such a land.[2]

 

On a fine Sunday afternoon in the middle of February 2005, more than three hundred Vancouverites blocked off the city’s eclectic Commercial Drive to protest the expansion of the Trans-Canada Highway…what could have been just another street protest was made striking by how the protesters chose to express themselves: they played a game of street hockey.[3]

 

 

 

Hockey is part of life in Canada. Thousands play it, millions follow it, and millions more surely try their best to ignore it altogether. But if they do, their disregard must be purposeful.[4]

 

Like many Canadian men of our generation, we have vivid memories of the seemingly endless pick-up hockey games that made winter fun in our youth.[5] 

 

Avoiding the laborious and troublesome quest for introductorily grandeur, the formulation of this thesis’ appropriate opening lines has been left to the likes of Podniecks, Kidd, Macfarlane, McKinley, Dryden, MacGregor, Gruneau and Whitson. No matter the actual heterogeneity of their findings, these writers’ eye-catching opening phrases all assure of a common appropriateness for a discussion of hockey within the framework of a typical Canadian self’s selfing. In short, little appears more natural than the apparently all-too obvious bond between puck and self.

Subsequently, this thesis’ outline will be briefly introduced. Throughout the text’s main body, chapters consisting of multiple subsections, namely chapters two through six, will feature separate, more elaborate introductorily comments, explaining each subsections’ structure and respective focus. Furthermore, many continuative elaborations have been shifted towards numerous footnotes in order to increase this work’s concreteness. Even though such footnoted elaborations are highly recommendable for the interested reader, the text’s main findings are largely comprehendible without.

In short, “Of Puck and Self” aims at a multi-layered analysis of the complex relationship between the makings of “self” and hockey as a supposable integral component of such Canadian manifestations and experiences of identity, typically perceived in reference to somewhat distinctive conceptions of place. Therefore, puck’s significance will be analysed in regard of municipal, regional and national perceptions of identity and belonging. What shall be questioned is not only the true substance behind above quoted, allegedly all-encompassing assurances of experienced commonality, but also the reasons why such assurances are deemed highly significant, both in past and present.

In a first step, important conceptualisations necessary for puck and self’s further discussion will be introduced in chapter two, namely the concept of culture, its contemporary studies, sports’ significance within and the general concept of a community’s making.

Based upon this foundation, chapter three will explain codified hockey’s early development within an emergent Canadian nation state, including references to the Victorian Era’s ideological framework of proper physical recreation and gendered restrictions of such. As a modern nation state, Canada was based upon the populace’s common willingness to imagine the self as part of the nation’s relative and individually unknowable arbitrariness, a willingness fostered by the invention of popular traditions. Modern hockey quickly became one of them – as puck met self. However, the process of its increasingly popular nation-wide assertion was far from natural and required the unifying means of a trophy’s quests and journeys, as will be explained.

Chapter four’s focus will rest upon the manufacture of we-ness and other-ness, both in general terms and in reference to specific levels of imagined identity. As the Canadian self’s assumed symbolic relation to puck occurs on numerous, even simultaneously held or imagined senses of we-ness, the game’s specific significance for the manufacture of municipal, regional and national perceptions of such will be introduced.

Often purposefully enacted, such perceptions of we-ness, based upon the currency of hockey as a means of identification among strangers, allowed for the amassment of currency in the hands of the game’s professional athletes and the successful sporting entrepreneur, as chapter five will illustrate. What is more, US-based entrepreneurs appeared to take over hockey, perceived as a threatened “Canadian specific”. An analysis of such perceived fears of a cultural sellout will round out the chapter.

Chapter six will focus upon a gendered analysis of hockey and this thesis’ previous findings. Firstly focusing on “him”, it will be shown what kind of manliness it helped to promote, both historically and ever since. Equally, it will be analysed how the game coped with the perpetual issue of violence and how universal the experience of hockey, both for him and her, actually is. Equally, a telling, gendered account of the nation’s most storied mass ritual, Hockey Night in Canada, will be introduced, opening up new perspectives for a thorough discussion of puck and self.  Do totalising claims in regard of hockey’s cultural significance stand up to gendered scrutiny – or not? If not, how does this alter its cultural significance? Analysing hockey’s history, what kind of herstory, cloaked by the amnesia of manufactured commonality, is there to be found?

Chapter seven will focus upon the present-day issues of globalization, modernity and subsequent practices of selfing, especially in regard of an allegedly post-national commonality of consumed triviality. Based upon previous conceptualisations regarding a community’s making, the continuous existence, or non-existence, of somewhat typical national identities will be scrutinized in the face of current world affairs. It will be explained how the process of a self’s selfing has changed and how individuated individuals challenge past, apparently more homogenous, conceptualisations of imagined identity. Equally, it will be shown how Canada has actively begun a promotion of lived diversity, commonly perceived as a cultural en-masse empowerment by some and, in lockstep with modernity’s core ideologies, an en-masse fostering of asociality by others.

Drawing upon chapter seven’s conclusions, this thesis’ final chapter will attempt to analyse what an apparently post-national and post-cultural future holds in store for puck and self. It will be shown where and how puck and self contemporarily meet, not only in reference to the actual, rink-based, on- or off-ice experience, but equally in regard of its continuous significance as a mutually shared and sporadically consumed anchor of imagined commonality. As it is commonly claimed that current-day Canada appears to come apart under the strains of modernity, what truth remains in this introduction’s initial citations? Looking backwards how puck and self have evolved, what is there to be seen glancing forwards?



[1] Podnieks, Andrew: A Canadian Saturday Night: Hockey and the culture of a country (Greystone Books, Vancouver, Canada, 2006), page 3

[2] Kidd, Bruce and Macfarlane, John: The Death of Hockey (New Press, Toronto, Canada, 1972), page 4

[3] McKinley, Michael: Hockey: A People’s History (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Canada, 2006), page 1

[4] Dryden, Ken and MacGregor, Roy: Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada (McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, Canada), page 9

[5] Gruneau, Richard and Whitson, David: Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (Garamond Press, Toronto, Canada, 1993), page 1

 

 

 

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