Drop-In Ball Hockey at the YMCA: An Ethnographic Study

“It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A” goes the refrain of the famous Village People disco song. As someone studying sport policy, I decided to see if it’s true.

What is the experience of a new visitor to a Toronto-area YMCA drop-in ball hockey program? Some students at an English language centre where I occasionally teach have memberships at this particular YMCA location, which allows them to participate in drop-in ball hockey alongside other fitness programs. None of them (to my knowledge) has tried this sport, though some have considered participating especially after being “inspired” from watching hockey during the recent Winter Olympics.

I have played ball hockey extensively at various different settings. Some friends at one location would affectionately call me “Captain” because I would be the most outspoken in terms of enforcing fair play. To be honest, my understanding of “sportsmanlike conduct” was inspired by years of watching Don Cherry in his Coach’s Corner segment every Saturday night: “humble” but “vicious competitors” that exemplify the spirit of being “good ol’ Canadian boys” (Allain, 2011). Other times, particularly when I play drop-in hockey with complete strangers as a younger, smaller, and less-skilled participant, I want to blend in as seamlessly as possible without questioning the “old boy’s club” culture of playing hard and leaving non-hockey topics out of the conversation.

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The KHL as Cartel Buster? Ilya Kovalchuk, the Kontinental Hockey League, and the Challenge to the NHL’s Control of Labour Conditions

The (North American) hockey world was shocked yesterday to learn that superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk was retiring from the National Hockey League and, according to subsequent reports, planning to sign with SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Today, it was announced that he has signed with the KHL club for four years. Kovalchuk’s decision is of interest to hockey fans for numerous reasons, including obviously fans of his now-former NHL team the New Jersey Devils, SKA St. Petersburg, and the KHL. However, it is also a fascinating development in the labour rights of hockey players – particularly concerning the binding nature of contracts and the right to labour mobility.

This post examines Kovalchuk’s NHL career and retirement, explores notable criticisms of the player’s actions by Don Cherry and Jeremy Roenick, and finally discusses whether the competition between the KHL and NHL poses a threat to the NHL’s ability to control the labour conditions of its athletes.

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Roundtable: The NHL and NHLPA Partner with the You Can Play Project

Roundtables are an occasional feature on Hockey in Society. Roundtables will present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting a diverse range of critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.

On April 11, the NHL and NHL Player’s Association announced a joint partnership with the You Can Play Project, an anti-homophobia initiative started by NHL scout Patrick Burke. The partnership will aim to create a welcoming environment for hockey players of all sexual orientations and to provide educational resources to incoming and current players. From You Can Play’s press release:

The official partnership with You Can Play includes a significant commitment to education and training for teams, players, media and fans plus the production and broadcast of more public service announcements.  The NHL becomes the first major American professional sports league to officially partner with an LGBT advocacy group on this scale. . . .

You Can Play will conduct seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium to educate young prospects on LGBT issues. In addition, You Can Play will make its resources and personnel available to each individual team as desired. The NHLPA and NHL also will work with You Can Play to integrate the project into their Behavioral Health Program, enabling players to confidentially seek counseling or simply ask questions regarding matters of sexual orientation.

Regular readers of Hockey in Society will know that issues of homophobia in or related to hockey cultures have been a prominent feature on this blog – from the notable recent changes to hockey’s traditionally homophobic culture, to Brian Burke’s strident and public anti-homophobia stance, to the Canadian Conservative government’s downplaying of Canada’s support of gay marriage in favour of publicizing famous hockey victories, to, of course, the emergence of the You Can Play project in 2012. Given this history of critical treatment of LGBTQ issues in hockey and the significance of the newly formed partnership, Hockey in Society is proud to present its second Roundtable on this topic. After the jump, you will find commentary from three Hockey in Society contributors: Courtney Szto, Matt Ventresca, and Alvin Ma. Hopefully these differing views shed valuable light on the issue of homophobia in hockey cultures and spark important debate and discussion on this subject and related issues.

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Teaching a sociocultural course on hockey at the undergraduate level: Thoughts on course content and critically engaging students

Starting next week, I will be teaching a third year course to undergraduates in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. The course is called “Hockey in Canadian Society” – and yes, I realize that the title is incredibly similar to the name of this blog! I am extremely excited, if a little nervous, about starting the course. I do not have nerves about public speaking or about the course preparation – I have been excited to teach this course for months and so have already spent quite a lot of time on its design – but rather whether I can successfully impart the complexities of hockey’s social construction in Canadian society to undergraduate students.

This post simply offers an overview of the course, my thoughts about engaging students critically with a sport many of them love, and presents a list of sources that students will read. I hope that it may provide a useful resource for other scholars teaching about hockey and more generally provide a useful list of some good academic and online sources about the sport. If you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions please let me know!

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Steve Bernier and the Policing of Masculinity

Photo from ESPN.

Last night, Steve Bernier hit Rob Scuderi from behind in the first period of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bernier received a five minute major and was ejected from the game for his hit.  Scuderi left the ice and returned at the start of the second period.  During the Kings five minute power play they scored three goals against Martin Brodeur. I think almost everyone could read the writing on the wall at that point.  Sure there was a lot of hockey left to be played but on the road against the frugal Kings, the Devils had a very tall task ahead of them.

While Bernier was probably in the locker room lamenting his actions “hockey fans” hopped on their computers and decided to channel their frustration through Wikipedia changing Bernier’s write-up.  Puck Daddy provides some of the examples as:

Steve Bernier (born March 31, 1985) is a Bitch ass.

On June 11th, 2012, Steve Bernier became the first NHL player to get his name on the Stanley Cup as the loser in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Bernier is a douche who pees sitting down and cost the Devils a chance at winning the Stanley Cup.

Steve Bernier (born March 31, 1985) is a flaming homosexual that is the sole reason why the Devils lost the Stanley Cup in 2012.  He is notorious for liking Mandingo up his a$$.

Sorry to tell you clever blokes that Bernier did not cost you the Cup. He cost you 3 goals, but he didn’t lose the first 3 games that put the Devils in the hole.  Regardless, pointing fingers is not the topic of discussion.  The issue at hand is how Bernier’s stupid, yes I will say stupid, hit becomes not about his poor decision-making as a player but about his masculinity.  I think there is plenty of room for insults directed at Bernier for being an idiot but neither his intelligence nor his dedication to the team are questioned.

Every single comment feminizes Bernier: bitch, douche, pees sitting down, flaming homosexual (P.S. how could Bernier be homosexual if gays don’t exist in the NHL?). Bernier had his man-card confiscated from him last night, which I find ironic because it was for a pretty stereotypically male action – physically intimidating and potentially injuring someone.  Isn’t that what all men are taught? Be physical. Be tough.  Be aggressive.  Bernier did all of those things.  He did it at the wrong time and under the wrong circumstances but he was behaving in a manner consistent with the connotation of MAN, was he not? I could see if he shied away from a fight or took a dive. These are actions that have already been labelled as unmanly, but since when has being overly aggressive been equated with women or being gay? Or are we just saying that stupidity is equated with women and gay men?

It saddens me to see comments like these. For one, they are hurtful to all women and homosexuals; but mostly, it is hurtful to other men.  What this example should say to all men is that your masculinity has the ability to be questioned and challenged at any time for any reason.  There is no rhyme or reason needed.  These types of comments just make the already tiny box you inhabit so much smaller.  We constantly talk about the women’s movement taking steps backwards, but during game 6 men, as a collective, took a step in the wrong direction.  As the list of what it means to be a woman continues to grow, the list of what it means to be a man shrinks.  Consequently, your odds of being on the outside are increasing.  Are you okay with this?

Weekly Links: More reviews of Theoren Fleury documentary; Fallout from Ron Maclean’s 9/11 comments; New media and hockey fandom

Welcome to Hockey in Society’s Weekly Links post. This feature highlights articles or blog entries that are related to Hockey in Society’s areas of interest and that may be of interest to the site’s readers.

Hockey Links

  • Last weekend I reviewed Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire. This week, a few more reviews of the film have come out. [Backhand Shelf; Globe and Mail]
  • Ellen Etchingham sees a critical role for on-ice officiating in cracking down on dangerous play in hockey and argues that refereeing, not supplemental discipline, needs to be more prominent in changing the culture of the sport. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Insightful and disturbing article by Sean Gordon about the prominence of prescription drugs in NHL hockey, often seen by players as a necessary way of coping with the grueling schedule and travel required of them. [Globe and Mail]
  • Ron Maclean has drawn considerable flak for comparing Washington Capitals and New York Rangers players to the firefighters and cops who responded on 9/11. He has issued a clarifying statement, but the controversy lingers. [Puck Daddy; Backhand Shelf]
  • Very interesting fan movement that aims to track the popularity of Twitter amongst hockey users in order to refute the idea, put forward by ESPN’s Senior VP, that hockey is not part of “a national discussion” in the United States. [Queen Crash, via Not Another Hockey Blog]
  • Speaking of Twitter, Justin Bourne thinks that the tongue-in-cheek tweets from the Los Angeles Kings’ account may point the way toward NHL teams’ new media future. [Backhand Shelf]
  • Interesting news from the IIHF World Championships being co-hosted by Stockholm, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland: high ticket prices have dissuaded spectators from attending games, and organizers have been forced to slash ticket prices in response. [Puck Worlds]
  • Brian Burke, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, will attend an anti-homophobia flag-raising outside Toronto City Hall. Rob Ford, Toronto’s mayor, will not. [Globe and Mail]
  • James Mirtle on the rise of shot-blocking as a defensive tactic in the NHL playoffs. [Globe and Mail]
  • Interesting post that touches on a wide variety of issues in hockey, including violence, masculinity, corporate interests, and legacy/heroism [Vintage Leaf Memories]
  • Greg Wyshynksi reports that some Philadelphia Flyers fans are suing the team over their ticket policy for the Winter Classic. It is an interesting case of fans vs. teams and access to and cost of tickets. [Puck Daddy]

General Sport Links

  • Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, has a provocative editorial about why NCAA football should be eliminated. [Wall Street Journal]
  • Concerns about fan racism and hooliganism cloud the preparations for the 2012 Euro Cup being held in Poland and Lithuania this summer. [BBC Sport]

Talking Hockey and Don Cherry at the “Bodies of Knowledge” Conference at the University of Toronto

Bodies of Knowledge (BOK) is an annual graduate student conference held at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at University of Toronto. The conference is entirely organized and run by graduate students (full disclosure: I am on the organizing committee and am presenting, so this post is somewhat self-promotional) and all presentations are by graduate students from Ontario and abroad.

The conference aims to bring a multidisciplinary approach to exploring sport, physical activity, exercise, and the human body. Disciplinary perspectives include sociology, cultural studies, physiology, kinesiology, motor control, psychology, and education.

This year’s conference takes place on May 3-4. If you are interested in attending, please visit the conference website for more details.

Unfortunately the hockey content is quite light this year in comparison to past years, with only one presentation – a paper by Hockey in Society contributor and UBC graduate student Courtney Szto and I. Courtney and I will be presenting on some research we have done on Don Cherry and his Coach’s Corner program.

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The World Junior Hockey Championship: The Best of Both Worlds

Image courtesy our friends at the Globe and Mail

“It’s a holiday tradition!” says TSN’s Bob McKenzie in this year’s edition of the network’s marketing campaign for the World Junior Hockey Championship (WJHC). This year’s advertisement features a number of former WJHC competitors from Eric Lindros to Theo Fleury to Darcy Tucker to Andrew Ladd exclaiming “I was there in [insert year of Canadian gold medal here].” Interspersed between these images are appearances from TSN commentators (such as McKenzie and the ubiquitous Gord Miller), past coaches such as Pat Quinn and the inexplicable presence of random fans extolling the virtues of various mobile devices (OK, perhaps we can explain this – type “vertical integration” into Google and you’ll see what I mean). But McKenzie is right; as evidenced by the 6.1 million fans who tuned in to watch Team Canada’s remarkable third period collapse this past January (notice how it is never described as “the Russians’ valiant comeback?”), TSN’s broadcasts of the WJHC are an essential part of the holiday season for many Canadians.

But how did this happen? The WJHC (officially known as the IIHF World U20 Championship) has been played annually since 1977, but few spectators (and even fewer media representatives) showed up to witness the likes of Gretzky (1978) or Lemieux (1983) lace up their skates for the Canadian side in the tournament’s early years. It was not until emerging Cable TV channel The Sports Network sunk its teeth into the tournament as a means to fill its otherwise vacant holiday programming schedule that the WJHC took off as a Canadian cultural phenomenon. As the always cantankerous Bruce Dowbiggin explains in the December 23rd edition of the Globe and Mail:

“Before the broadcaster [TSN] adopted its annual rite of Hockey Holidays, the tournament was a desultory under-20 fixture on the calendar of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Played by teenagers in backwater European burgs for the benefit of scouts, suits and sweethearts, most saw it as the Spengler Cup’s bookend, unloved and, until the famous 1987 brawl in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, unremarkable. But in this red-headed stepchild, the TSN brain trust saw programming opportunities at a time when the cable network didn’t have the extensive NHL contract it does now.”

Dowbiggin goes on to explain how the WJHC tourney is also viewed as a chance to see the stars of the upcoming NHL draft (for which, coincidentally, TSN has long owned the television rights), and how interest in the tournament outside of Canada is paltry at best (reinforcing our belief that Canada is the world’s most “hockey-mad” nation). This type of reasoning should not be new for any avid follower of the WJHC, or anyone who takes seriously the cultural politics of Canadian sport. But I, personally, am left wanting more. Would TSN’s stroke of marketing genius have occurred had they bet the house on another tournament or media property? Sure the WHJC gives us a chance to watch “great hockey,” but high calibre hockey can also be found at the NCAA Frozen Four, the Women’s World Championship, the CWHL, the Spengler Cup or the AHL playoffs (some of these are also showcases for future NHL talent). Yet none of these events inspire the fervour that characterizes our love of “the Juniors.” After the jump, I delve into the symbolism that underlies dominant understandings of the WJHC and do my best  to provide some insight into the tournament’s popularity. Read more of this post

Mo’ Than Just a Moustache – Hockey, masculinity and Movember

Jonas Hiller’s Movember mask has garnered a lot of publicity for the Ducks’ goaltender. Unfortunately, he posted a 1-6-3 record for the month of November.

“Hey man, nice moustache.”
Throughout the month of November, this male-to-male greeting appears more common than any other simple platitude, salutation or secret handshake. It has become so ubiquitous that it almost needs no introduction: for the past month, countless men across the globe have grown moustaches to “raise vital funds and awareness for men’s health” as part of the annual tradition known as Movember. According to the Movember website, over 1.1 million participants have pledged funds and support for prostate cancer initiatives such as Prostate Cancer Canada since 2003. Yes, moustaches are back; “soup strainers,” “cookie dusters” and “push brooms” are no longer the exclusive domain of poindexters like Ned Flanders and Wilfred Brimley. Thanks to Movember, moustaches are cool again and have been re-affirmed as an appropriate way to express one’s manhood (at least for the thirty days between Halloween and December 1st).

Of course, we do not have to rack our brains to remember times when moustaches (and facial hair in general) were largely considered enduring symbols of manliness and masculinity. We can think back to Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Tom Sellick in Magnum P.I. (1980-1988) or the way Hulkamania compelled so many youngsters throughout the 1980s to draw replica moustaches on their otherwise smooth faces (I’ll leave Chuck Norris out of this). Yet a vast body of scholarship exists outlining how the 1990s ushered in a widespread crisis of masculinity through which understandings of what it meant to be a man became tenuous, fluid and fragmented. New trends in literature and popular culture made it appear possible for big guys to be sensitive and emotional, little men to be brave and heroic and (most importantly) the hairless to be rough and tumble. It suddenly became commonplace for sports superstars to be labeled metrosexuals and action heroes to have their faces waxed, plucked and exfoliated. Given the fragile state of contemporary masculinit(ies), facial hair can no longer be considered a ready-made symbol of strength, toughness and manhood.

The undeniable popularity of the Movember campaign, however, adds another layer to the complex nature of our understandings of masculinity, especially recognizing how National Hockey League (NHL) players (and coaches, broadcasters etc.) have been some of the most visible supporters of the campaign. While players’ participation in Movember appears to be separate from the league’s official Hockey Fights Cancer campaign (which is also affiliated with Prostate Cancer Canada), their involvement has been promoted on team websites and broadcasts. The Toronto Maple Leafs and former captain Wendel Clark have been the most outspoken promoters of the campaign (raising well over $100,000), while George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks has received a shocking amount of media coverage following the progress of his (in)famous moustache (even after he was sidelined with an eye injury five days into November). Meanwhile, goaltenders Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins and Parros’ teammate Jonas Hiller have sported Movember-themed masks throughout the month that have received considerable publicity and fanfare. By the time of this writing, the NHL’s Movember network is listed as raising over $175,000. Indeed, by all accounts the marriage of Movember and the NHL appears to be match made in philanthropy heaven.

But how can we explain the mutually beneficial relationship between Movember and the NHL? Why are NHL players considered ideal ambassadors for a uniquely male campaign that involves the seemingly trivial act of growing facial hair? At first glance, the connections may seem obvious; yet the cultural politics that underlie the league’s involvement in Movember are surprisingly complex and bound up in broader social forces. Read more of this post

In Their Own Words: Sports Illustrated Talks to NHL Enforcers

The latest issue of Sports Illustrated has a fascinating and disturbing article by Austin Murphy about fighting and fighters in the NHL. The article is notable for its extensive interview excerpts, including statements from current or former enforcers George Parros, Tony Twist, Shawn Thornton, Todd Fedoruk, Lyndon Byers, Kelly Chase, and Jim McKenzie. I fully suggest reading the full article, as it includes not only lengthy excerpts from interviews but also some insightful commentary from Austin Murphy, but after the jump I present some very revealing excerpts from the interviews.

One of the mind-boggling things to me is that fighting is so widely accepted as a way to prevent star players from getting injured through cheap hits or illegal stick-work. What a brilliant system for the NHL, which has to take virtually no accountability for the safety of its players or, y’know, actually enforce its own rules of play. If the league were to combine a more severe punishment of fighting with a much, much stricter system of penalizing, suspending, and fining players for dangerous and illegal play – to actually create disincentives for players to engage in dangerous play – it’s hard to see how this would not create a significant and progressive culture shift in professional hockey.

Currently, as some of the interviews excerpts reveal, players have a strong incentive to fight because they are rewarded for it. Fighting becomes an acceptable means to achieve the dream of playing NHL hockey, regardless of the physical and mental toll it takes on both the individual player and countless others in the professional and minor hockey ranks – including the many scrappers whose NHL dreams are never realized. Furthermore, once socialized into the role of enforcer, some players clearly revel in the glory of the role, embrace the aggressive masculine image that is associated with the practice, and do whatever it takes to cling to this position.

After the jump, I present excerpts from the Sports Illustrated interviews because, I believe, they reveal a great deal about the motivations for becoming a fighter; the physical toll that this role entails; the self-policed norms of “the Code”; and the effects of a league that is too cowardly to enact or enforce rules to curb the damaging effects of on-ice violence. But enough of my own commentary, let’s hear it in fighters’ own words:

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