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


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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Beyond the Stats: An Interview with Rob Vollman

Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract

Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract

The field of hockey analytics took a big step with the recent release of Hockey Abstract, a book which aims to provide a guide to statistical analysis in hockey. As more and more people, including fans and professional teams, seek a deeper understanding of the game, hockey analytics continues to grow and develop.

Author Rob Vollman currently provides analysis for ESPN, Hockey Prospectus, the Nation Network and Arctic Ice Hockey. He was kind enough to provide some additional insight into hockey analytics and what its role is in the game.

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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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Roch Carrier’s Classic Children’s Book “The Hockey Sweater” to be Performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Image from Wikipedia

The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier is a classic and beloved piece of Canadian children’s literature. The book tells the tale of a young boy who idolizes Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and his Montreal Canadiens, and who faces extreme embarrassment and social discomfort when his mother accidentally orders him a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater instead of the ubiquitous bleu, blanc et rouge worn by all of his friends.

The Hockey Sweater was published in French 1979, and translated into English shortly thereafter. In 1980, the National Film Board of Canada produced an animated short film, Le Chandaille/The Sweater, based upon the book. Both the book and the film are considered by many to be important Canadian cultural artifacts. The Canadian Museum of Civilization even offers an examination of the book’s cultural context on its website.

In an interesting merging of literature, music and sport, in May the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will be presenting a performance of The Hockey Sweater, narrated by Carrier and introduced by Ken Dryden. Read more of this post

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

Future Reading is an occasional feature that highlights new or upcoming publications on sport, and particularly hockey, that relate to Hockey in Society’s content and/or that may be of interest to its readers.

Adam Proteau’s new book, Fighting the Good Fight: Why On-Ice Violence Is Killing Hockey, is incredibly timely. In particular, one can’t help but feel that the subtitle is a conscious allusion to the off-ice death of three hockey enforcers this past summer. Hockey fighting quickly became a hot button issue following the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, and this debate has taken on increased intensity following the New York Times‘ series on the life and untimely death of Boogaard. It is in this climate that Proteau’s book has been released, and while Fighting the Good Fight was most likely undertaken well before the events of this past summer, it will instantly become part of the ongoing, but recently intensified, debate about the role and consequences of fighting in hockey.

Proteau is an excellent columnist for The Hockey News, a rare writer who can simultaneously be informative, analytical, and entertaining. He is noted as a prominent anti-fighting voice within the mainstream media, and brings this perspective to bear in this book. The early reviews from the hockey blogosphere suggest that Proteau’s book could be quite influential in swaying the opinions of some of those who remain in the pro-fighting crowd. A review on The Hockey Writers states:

I was skeptical at best before reading Proteau’s book. However, his factual evidence, persuasive arguments, and straight-forward ideas have forced me to rethink what hockey actually is versus what it should/could be. Fighting the Good Fight should be mandatory reading for all hockey fans. It may just make one think about what really belongs in the sport.

What gets me really excited as a sociologist is that Proteau not only appears to have used extensive interviewing to reach his conclusions, but also that he expands the discussion from the single issue of fighting to critique the broader culture of hockey. From a review on Hockey Book Reviews:

[Proteau] talks with medical experts on head injuries and concussions. He talks with players, coaches, managers and experts about head shots, aggressive bodychecking, injuries and discipline. . . . Furthermore he expands his attack to the entire established hockey culture.

This definitely looks to be valuable contribution to the popular hockey literature, and it is a book that I am excited to read. I purchase the book over the holidays, and hope to have a review of it up on this site early in the new year.

Future Reading: “Sport, Violence and Society” by Kevin Young (2011)

Future Reading is an occasional feature that highlights new or upcoming publications on sport, and particularly hockey, that relate to Hockey in Society’s content and/or that may be of interest to its readers.

Well this is exciting, at least if you’re a nerd like me: a new book on sport and violence by sociologist Kevin Young. Dr. Young is a professor working in the University of Calgary’s Department of Sociology, and he has written extensively on issues relating to criminology, violence, and sport.

The summary of Sport, Violence and Society from Routledge’s website:

In this landmark study of violence in and around contemporary sport, Kevin Young offers the first comprehensive sociological analysis of an issue of central importance within sport studies. The book explores organized and spontaneous violence, both on the field and off, and calls for a much broader definition of ‘sports-related violence’, to include issues as diverse as criminal behaviour by players, abuse within sport and exploitatory labor practices.

Offering a sophisticated new theoretical framework for understanding violence in a sporting context, and including a wide range of case-studies and empirical data – from professional soccer in Europe to ice hockey in North America – the book establishes a benchmark for the study of violence within sport and wider society. Through close examination of often contradictory trends, from anti-violence initiatives in professional sports leagues to the role of the media in encouraging hyper-aggression, the book throws new light on our understanding of the socially-embedded character of sport and its fundamental ties to history, culture, politics, social class, gender and the law.

The Table of Contents offers some intriguing chapter titles, including “A History of Violence: Definitions, Theories, and Perspectives”; “Player Violence: The Drift to Criminalization”; and “Risk, Pain, and Injury in Sport: A Cause or Effect of Violence?”. Young has produced some very interesting scholarship over the years, so his new insights into sport violence should make for a fascinating and enlightening read.

One quibble: unless Young offers specific insight into the incident pictured on the cover – that is, Zenidine Zidane’s headbutt to Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final – I don’t find it a particularly helpful cover image, as I think there are far more compelling and less sensational examples that better highlight the many sociological problems concerning sports violence. I suspect that the choice of cover was a decision made by the publisher rather than the author, and that Routledge may have picked an image designed to appeal to a larger market rather than to reflect the content of the book. But, lest I be accused of judging a cover by its book, I will have to wait until I read Sport, Violence and Society to pass judgement.

Overall, this looks like it should be a very insightful publication that seems particularly topical to hockey fans and scholars, given the current climate surrounding issues such as fighting, headshots, frontier justice, and concussions.