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You may have noticed a bit of a theme going on this past week. We’re showcasing some of our titles that are about the Olympics and competitive sports. For today’s blog excerpt, Michael Buma’s Refereeing Identity examines the hockey novel genre and how the game is represented – and misrepresented – in Canadian society.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so Canadian as on 24 February 2002. The men’s hockey finals were taking place at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Team Canada versus Team USA, and I was watching the game from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with an exuberant group of fellow expatriates. The tension in the room was palpable when the Americans scored first; it was as if the goal had thrown a blanket on the ire of our collective hopes, reinforced our doubts about Canada’s chances against a strong American team. But then it happened: only minutes after the American goal, Canada’s Chris Pronger made a cross-ice pass to team captain Mario Lemieux. As if by clairvoyance or extrasensory perception, Lemieux somehow sensed teammate Paul Kariya directly behind him and in better position to get a shot away. As the puck sped toward Lemieux, the captain opened his legs and allowed it to glide through to Kariya, who converted the pass for a game-tying goal.
I’ll never forget the split second before the room erupted into cheering, screaming, and applause. It was a moment of mutual understanding, an awareness among everyone present that we had witnessed an act of inimitable athletic brilliance. Certainly our shouts and cheers paid tribute to Lemieux’s remarkable unselfishness and astonishing hockey sense, but the moment felt bigger than simply this; in a way, we were celebrating our shared capacity to perceive such brilliance and be thrilled by it.
What was most striking about this feeling of unity and togetherness, however, is that it somehow brought us closer to home. It was as if Kariya’s goal had connected us to our fellow Canadians, whoever they were and wherever they were watching from. After that there could be no doubt that Canada would win, and the simmer of our enthusiasm was carried to full boil by four more Canadian goals before the game was over. The final score was 5–2, and Team Canada brought home Olympic gold for the first time in fifty years.
When I think back on my reaction to Canada’s 2002 gold-medal win, I’m struck by how much the way I felt resembled the way I was supposed to feel. In other words, my reaction fell almost perfectly into line with certain cultural expectations and assumptions about what it means to be Canadian. Canadians are bombarded by cultural representations of hockey that encourage them to think about the game as contributing to national unity and identity. Hockey has been seen by many commentators as “Canada’s game,” and has frequently been mobilized in the rhetoric of identity discourse and cultural nationalism. In this configuration, the game purports to unify diverse internal populations while at the same time marking Canada as symbolically different from external others such as the United States. In other words, hockey has often been represented in popular culture as an expression of Canadian character, unity, and identity. Much of the basis for such nationalistic representations has arisen from hockey’s purportedly “natural” connection with Canada’s northern setting, as well as from the idea that Canadians symbolically possess hockey in a way that other nations don’t (we invented it, are best at it, care most about it, etc.). As Jamie Dopp and Richard Harrison suggest, “investigating hockey critically is to think of it not as expressing some real connection between nature and culture, but to see it as carrying a story, often expressed in mythic terms, that people desire to be true about themselves and their place in the world”.
In addition to its long-standing association with national identity, hockey has often been represented in Canadian culture as expressing a version of masculinity that is contingent on physical toughness. We have entered a time in which such representations have, paradoxically, never been more abundant or less true. While globalizing processes, new technologies, alternative recreational options, changing ideas about gender, and the emergence of a post-industrial economy have worked in various ways to diminish the essential Canadianness and assumed masculinity of hockey, representations of the game that propose and encourage these traditional identities have never been more plentiful or pronounced.