Signal Boost: Barb Underhill, the woman who teaches the NHL how to skate

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Underhill working with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Photo from Tampa Bay Lightning.

** Cross posted on The Rabbit Hole.

The Pacific Standard recently wrote an article about NHL skating coach and consultant Barb Underhill.  I have been a hockey fan since I was six and I had never heard about this woman before.  After reading the article and watching a couple of YouTube clips I am inspired and want nothing more than for her to  add me to her list of pupils.  I don’t know how the world of sports has managed to keep Underhill such a well kept secret (perhaps its because NHL hockey remains a marginal sport in the US market?) but I think that proponents of women’s equality in sports should have her face plastered on every piece of marketing material possible!

Underhill, 51, is a former Canadian competitive pairs figure skater who skated in two Olympic Games and in 2009 was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.  After her competitive career ended she moved into television commentating but for the last eight years she has been back on the ice where she belongs teaching the best of the best how to be…even better!  While not a hockey player herself she has been surrounded by the game and really, it doesn’t matter whether or not she knows hockey because she knows skating.  As Underhill points out, figure skaters take private lessons for pretty much their entire skating careers but hockey is predominantly learned in a group setting and skating, oddly enough, skating is kind of learned incidentally.  So if you have done like I have and walked by the figure skaters practicing with your hockey bag on your shoulder shooting the toe picks a snide grin of superiority maybe next time it should be an inviting grin that will hopefully turn into a new friend and free skating coach! Read more of this post

Tensions: The Changing Demographics of Hockey

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Harnarayan Singh. Screen capture from the Calgary Flames.

At the end of January the Calgary Flames became the first Canadian team to offer commentary in a language other than English or French.  Flames TV Punjabi will be hosted by none other than Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) – Punjabi Edition’s Harnarayan Singh.  Punjabi is the third most spoken language in Canada and, despite the large Punjabi populations in Vancouver and Toronto, Calgary is the first to capitalize on this growing hockey crazed demographic.  Singh explains that the broadcasts facilitate inter-generational love of the game enabling immigrant Punjabi grandparents to watch the games with their grandchildren.  Many kudos have been passed around for this move by the Calgary Flames, which will hopefully encourage more teams to join suit – and rumour has it that the Toronto Maple Leafs are looking into a similar broadcast opportunity. Read more of this post

Letting boys be boys is what sent Orpik to the hospital

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Photo from The National Post.

Another cheap shot. Another player leaving the ice on a stretcher. Another apology.  Boys will be boys, I guess. So when will we hold boys and men to a higher standard of masculinity (or at least a different one)?  Or are we really okay with the status quo?

Tonight, Shawn Thornton threw an unwitting Brooks Orpik to the ice and then punched him in the face a few times before Orpik had to be stretchered off the ice.  Thornton received a match penalty and luckily Orpik will  be travelling back to Pittsburgh with the team. To read the NHL.com report of the incident is like reading the summary of a pre-season game.

Thornton and Orpik became involved after Bruins forward Brad Marchand, while on the ice, took a knee to the head from the Penguins forward James Neal.

Thornton was assessed a match penalty; he appeared to pull Orpik down and punch him while he was on the ice.

Orpik was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was alert and conscious, the Penguins announced.  Orpik returned from the hospital and will travel with the team back to Pittsburgh, coach Dan Bylsma said after the game.

It is so matter of fact; it reads as if this is an every game occurrence. I mean, I get it, it’s supposed to be an informative article but there is not one ounce of rage, concern, or fear in this article from the league. In my opinion, every time incidents like this happen the NHL should be very afraid.  Even CBS Sports writer, Chris Peters, writes “This infraction will definitely draw the attention of the league and could lead to a lengthy suspension for Thornton.  This is an outright attack on Orpik that had seemingly disastrous results.  There’s no place for this in the game or anywhere for that matter.”  At a minimum the NHL could have at least thrown in a token statement like “this incident will be taken very seriously by the Department of Player Safety”.  For a professional league that is under huge scrutiny with regards to player safety a little emotion would be welcome, even if fake.

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“A little frozen water, and hockey is possible”: Roland Barthes’ perspective on hockey

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Photo by Courtney Szto.

Despite the fact that this blog is a site for critical reflection on the sport of hockey, every now and again it’s nice to raise the hammer and appreciate what is great about the sport.  This is one of those opportunities.   Roland Barthes (1915-1980), the famed French literary theorist and philosopher, took part in a Canadian documentary film titled Le Sport et les homes.  He was asked by Hubert Aquin, a Quebecois writer and producer for the National Film Board, to do the commentary for the film. After many different versions of the title the one that stuck was one of Barthes’ suggestions, Qu’est-ce que le sport?  or What is sport?  For this project, Barthes was shown stock footage of certain sporting events (bullfighting in Spain, car racing in America, the Tour de France, hockey in Canada, soccer in England) and was asked for his reflections.  The finished product was shown on June 1, 1961 on the television network of Radio Canada.

Barthes has a lyrical way of writing.  It is not exactly the most accessible piece of writing but he makes some fascinating observations about hockey, which I have included in full below.  Here is what hockey looked like through the eyes (and mind) of Roland Barthes (emphasis added):

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Book Review: “Journeyman” by Sean Pronger (2012)

journeymanHonest. That is about the best way I can sum up Journeyman: The many triumphs (and even more numerous defeats) of a guy who’s seen just about everything in the game of hockey.  I loved reading this book! If you have ever dreamt about playing in the NHL with the best of the best this is a phenomenal way to live vicariously (if not successfully) through Pronger’s experience.   I have read quite a few sports biographies but this book evoked a different set of emotions as compared to something like Andre Agassi’s Open (which was my previous favourite auto-bio) or Ken Dryden’s The Game.  It’s different reading about championships and triumphs than it is reading about the pure desire to compete with the best, and that is what Journeyman is about – the process, not the outcome.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Pronger has a wicked sense of self-deprecating humour, which makes for an easy read.  You also learn a million and one ways to refer to beer. He takes you on his highs and lows and he would probably be the first to tell you that the highs aren’t all that high.  From living in a farmhouse playing in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) to scoring one-timers with the Blue Jackets it is a sincere account of what it is like for two-way players.  There is no sugar-coating about what it is like to fight for a spot in the NHL but throughout it all there is an underlying respect and love for the game that drips from the pages.  I think every young player who has the dream of playing in the NHL should read this book because Journeyman represents the other side of the coin.  Behind all the glamour that is the ‘fastest game on earth’ lies truths that, unless you have done it yourself, are hard to fathom.  I had an idea of what it might be like for a journeyman but I was humbled through my reading.

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‘The Code’: A powerful mechanism of control or just plain laziness?

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Photo from MileHighHockey.com

I just finished playing an extremely dirty recreational playoff game.  It was the kind of game that makes me dislike hockey.  The hockey I play is as recreational as recreational gets. No one is going to get a college scholarship. No one will play for the Olympics. No one is even going to make a provincial team.   Now, I get it.  Teams who don’t have speed have to hack and slash to survive.  My team on the other hand is built upon a ‘first to the puck’ mentality.  We have no one on our roster good enough to dominate a game; therefore, as it should be, we win and lose as a team.  This particular team we played tonight we also played a week ago in the final game of the regular season; we won 8-2.  We just so happened to draw them for the first two games of the playoffs.  Our team expected a hacky game but what we ended up participating in was absolute lawlessness and a perfect example of why The Code doesn’t work.

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Book Review: “Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence is Killing Hockey” by Adam Proteau (2011)

bookBefore I left on vacation I visited my local library to pick up some ‘summer beach reads’.  Naturally, as an academic geek and hockey fan I left the library with Adam Proteau’s Fighting the Good Fight: Why on-ice violence is killing hockey and Sheema Khan’s Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman (I don’t know how much hockey is in this one but the hockey sticks on the cover were enough to sell me).  The review of Khan’s book will have to wait for now but for anyone wanting to learn more about the arguments for and against hockey fighting Proteau’s book is an easy read with some interesting perspectives from players, coaches and other hockey personnel.

For those of you unfamiliar with Adam Proteau’s stance on hockey fighting he refers to fighting in the book as a “dancing bear show”.  He believes that fighting takes away from the excellence of the sport and that the NHL has severely failed as far as player safety is concerned.  Throughout the book he highlights how the culture of hockey has changed from using one’s body to separate a player from the puck to separating a player’s body from their head.  He backs up his statements with solid suspension and injury facts and from testimonials from hockey insiders such as long-time NHL referee Kerry Fraser and players Mathieu Schneider and Georges Laraque.

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Hockey Canada and Livestrong: Pushing the boundaries of corporate social responsibility?

Tessa Bonhomme. Photo from Facebook.

Recently Hockey Canada announced that the national women’s team would play their first game of the 2013 World Championships wearing Livestrong inspired jerseys.  That’s right, goodbye red and white (for one game) and hello black and yellow.  This decision comes from an attempt by Livestrong, Lance Armstrong’s cancer charity, to distance itself from the whole Armstrong debacle and Hockey Canada’s desire to demonstrate that their players are “great role models”.  Nike is also the sponsor for Hockey Canada and Nike has committed to Livestrong for the next two years, even without Armstrong.  Hockey Canada explains that it is important for us to look beyond one man and to the millions afflicted by cancer, such as:

Canadian forward Jayna Hefford’s father Larry [who] died in 2007 of the disease.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser’s sister Jane [who] is a cancer survivor.

Defenceman Tessa Bonhomme, who is sponsored by Nike, [and] is a poster girl for the Livestrong jersey campaign.  Her grandmother Sylvia is a breast cancer survivor.

When I first saw the new jersey I, like many, was confused.  Are we team Livestrong or team Canada?  What does Livestrong have to do with a competition between countries? Herein lies the tangled web of nationalism, corporatism, and ‘social responsibility’.  Nationalism and sport have a strong marriage, as do sport and corporations, and sport and philanthropy; therefore, perhaps it was inevitable that nationalism and philanthropy would soon be joined by the bonds of sport.

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“A N*gger in Net”: A proud product of Canadian immigration and Canadian integration?

Malcolm Subban. Photo from the Toronto Sun.

Like peanut butter and jam, with Malcolm Subban in net for Team Canada during the World Junior Tournament also came the racist tweets and comments.  It is becoming old news: black hockey player = racist taunts.  If you would like to see what was tweeted check out this article by Rachel DeCoste, ‘A N*gger in Net’: Racism at the World Juniors, or this one by Neate Sager, World junior championship: Racial tinge to social media slams of Canada goalie Malcolm Subban.  Like I said, it’s nothing new when social media enthusiasts capitalize on the rarity of a watching a person of colour play hockey to write about bananas, cages, and monkeys, but what I noticed this time is how writers and commenters are so quick to defend Canada’s multicultural identity.  Granted, not all of the tweets are from Canadians but regardless of where they come from we as noble Canadians often uncritically stand up and say “Whoa! Racism is not cool and that is not what the maple leaf stands for.”  I think it’s time to face that fact that maybe it is what we are about, at least a little.

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A Violation of Human Rights? Girls getting too much ice time in Newfoundland

Photo from newstimes.com

Photo from newstimes.com

CBC News has reported that a volunteer minor hockey coach in Newfoundland (Stephenville to be exact) has filed a complaint with the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.  His complaint? That the girls in the area receive an unfair advantage because some of them are able to play in two leagues, the co-ed league and the girls league. First, girls in Newfoundland getting to play more hockey than boys is not a human rights violation.  Rape, murder, war – these are human rights violations.  Discrimination would count as a human rights violation but for Brent Watkins, the Bantam A coach who filed the complaint, the issue is “if we allow more ice time for a female player then they have more advantages than a male player with skill development.”  Welcome to the wonderful world of sports Brent!

In Stephenville, girls who are talented enough to play in the coed (or mixed) league are also allowed to play in the girls league.  Thus Watkins believes that those few girls who play in both leagues receive an unfair advantage of extra ice time, which makes the boys disadvantaged for coed tryouts.  Watkins argues

Sometimes people say we don’t want [girls] there. I picked those [girls]. I want the most skilled players on my team.

That’s not the dispute, the fact that they’re female.  What is the dispute is how people get their skills.

Let’s have a look at a couple of the human rights that may pertain to this “case”.  Article 2 states

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

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