Hockey is our culture

Posted: November 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

You know it is.

I was part of a neat discussion in Mary Anne Poutanen’s Canadian Studies class at McGill Monday, talking about hockey and Canadian culture alongside historian Michel Vigneault and McGill Martlets’ head coach Peter Smith. Vigneault kicked things off with lots of detail about the early days of hockey in Montreal, long before the Habs, and then Smith followed up by chatting about the changing landscape of hockey in our country, noting that hockey enrollment for men keeps dipping while it’s up for women.

“Back in the day, hockey was played by everybody,” said Smith. “It was an inexpensive sport to play. You’d play on outdoor rinks. Play on the street. The sport of hockey now is an expensive sport to play. I think that’s changed things a great deal…and that’s made for cultural differences in our country.”

Me I was on my favourite hobby horse, yakking about the intersection of hockey and culture. Here’s some of what I said:

If you’re in Montreal, even if you’re not a hockey fan, you can see how hockey is such a big part of the culture. You can’t escape it. The Canadiens are the most storied franchise in the National Hockey League, they’ve won more Cups than anyone. But the great teams are in the past. They haven’t been that kind of great team for a long, long time. I grew up here in the ’70s when they used to have that line – ‘The parade will follow the usual route’. Because they’d have a parade, if not every year, then every year or two.

Now the teams are not nearly as good but in my view the team is more popular than ever. People are more into the Canadiens now than they were when it was a much better team. So you have to wonder how that happened. It cuts across all cultural, social lines. People, if they’re from somewhere else, their top sport is likely soccer but they get into hockey when they get here. I know the team is very aware of that. I think it probably started in the George Gillett years when he owned the Habs. He’s an American who comes in here, doesn’t have a hockey history at all. He’s a guy who used to own the Harlem Globetrotters. So he’s a marketing guy. They really brilliantly marketed this team and it wasn’t a very good team.

Then I talked about the documentary on the 100th anniversary of the Canadiens that I co-wrote with my old pal Roddy McManus, The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years – 100 Stars. We talked to hockey players of course in the doc but we also talked to cultural figures – everyone from Viggo Mortensen to Roy Dupuis to Sam Roberts – about the cultural importance of the Canadiens. I recounted the great story Sam told me that was his real-life version of The Hockey Sweaters. How, as a kid, his parents – who’re from South Africa – bought him a Bruins sweater to play in the local rink in the West Island , having no idea just how much this was beyond a bad idea.

That’s worse than the original Roch Carrier story. A Bruins jersey is even more of an act of treason than a Leafs sweater. The Leafs aren’t our real rivals. That’s a Hockey Night in Canada invention. Our real enemy is the Bruins.

In the documentary, we talked about how the history of the Habs is wrapped up in the culture and history of Quebec. Look at the whole question of the renaming of the Champlain Bridge, changing it to the Maurice Richard Bridge. Clearly The Rocket was much more than just a hockey player. It’s now pretty well the common wisdom that the roots of the Quiet Revolution of the ’60s were sowed at the Rocket Richard Riot. Folks ici were angry with a hockey league run by anglos that had suspended their franco superstar.

So in Quebec culture, people’s relationship to the team are tangled up in all kinds of things that have nothing to do with hockey. Of course it’s different now because the team doesn’t have that franco Quebec make-up. Now you have a team that hasn’t had a large number of francophone players really since that last Cup-winning team in ’93. Though it is interesting to note that Marc Bergevin, who is very conscious of his own franco roots, has hired as many francophones as possible as coaches.

So it’s clear there is a cultural aspect to hockey and our love of the game.

Next installment – hockey, culture and English Canada. (Or why I have always had issues with Hockey Night in Canada.)

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