The Corporate Construction of Hockey: Tim Hortons, Hockey, and the Canadian Immigrant Experience

“The Corporate Construction of Hockey” is an occasional feature on Hockey in Society that examines and critiques the ways in which corporations construct the social meaning of hockey through their marketing efforts. If you have suggestions for future features please contact us.

Tim Hortons has, over a period of decades, established itself as a quintessentially Canadian corporation. The success of this effort is self-evident: as of 2006, Tim Hortons accounted for a whopping 76 percent of the coffee and baked goods market in Canada by customers served. To reiterate: roughly three out of every four purchases of coffee and backed goods in Canada are made from Tim Hortons. The company has clearly been extremely successful at making its products a key part of many Canadians’ consumption habits.

In recent years, Tim Hortons has quite brilliantly incorporated the changing racial and ethnic demographics of Canada into its marketing, while maintaining a clear focus on the construction of a particular form of Canadian identity (often, as will be discussed, using hockey). This is in sharp contrast to, say, Molson’s, a company that frequently presents a vision of Canadian culture that is overwhelmingly populated by young white males. Tim Hortons, which admittedly has a much wider target demographic than Molson’s, has obviously recognized the financial potential of expanding its representation to include a broader cross-section of Canadian society. In doing so, however, it draws upon a range of cultural stereotypes and a sanitized immigrant narrative to make this minority representation palatable and accessible to the broader Canadian population. Consider this commercial, which first aired during the 2006 Winter Olympics:

There’s no question: Tim Hortons is brilliant at marketing. Even I, a cynical sociologist of sport, get a little choked up when the grandfather hands his son that faded picture and then proudly cheers on his grandson’s play on the ice. It is interesting, then, that Tim Horton’s is constructing not simply the Canadian hockey experience but the Canadian immigrant experience. See this commercial for another example of this corporate construction (and again, see if you can watch it without getting at least a little bit choked up). Both commercials are rife with cultural stereotypes, but for the purposes of this article I am going to focus primarily on the first commercial’s deployment and construction of archetypal/mythological narratives.

In the commercial we are shown an archetypal intergenerational immigrant story. There is the hard-scrabble grandfather whose insistence on hard work and education (presumably) allowed him to help his family settle and survive in Canada, even if it was at the expense of his own pursuit of leisure. His son is caught between two cultures; he enjoyed the fruits of his father’s labour in the form of a middle class Canadian lifestyle, but was culturally constrained from pursuing his passions. Finally, there is the grandson who, though never shown in the commercial, is seemingly fully assimilated into Canadian culture and is embracing this identity through hockey in a supportive and unconstrained environment. It is only hockey that is able to ultimately bridge these generational divides and unite the grandfather, son, and grandson (the gender implications of this commercial are a matter for a different discussion).

I don’t deny that, for some immigrants, there may be some truth to this narrative – even if the commercial grossly oversimplifies the many issues, such as racial discrimination, that even many “successful” Canadian immigrants face. What is problematic to me is Tim Hortons’ selective representation of a particular form of immigrant experience that ignores the realities faced by many immigrants to Canada. Many immigrants live in poverty and enjoy little structural support, which contributes to poor health, inadequate living conditions, a lack of social support networks, and a reduced access to social and cultural opportunities. Tim Hortons certainly does not showcase this immigrant reality in its marketing campaigns. Certainly it suggests some challenges, including clashing cultural mores and the challenges of social integration, which immigrants may face. But these issues are nothing that hockey and a Tim Hortons double-double can’t resolve.

With specific regard to the commercial’s deployment of hockey, it is important to recognize that the range of social, cultural, and economic barriers faced my immigrants to Canada make it highly doubtful that many, even at the second generation, are able to participate in such expensive forms of recreation. In fact, a 2009 CBC article stated:

Cost, cultural differences and, for some, a seemingly uninviting atmosphere are keeping immigrants and non-whites from playing Canada’s game. . . . The cost for a child to play house league hockey can easily surpass $300. Equipment can cost at least that amount, and that’s not including expenses like travel or tournament fees. Hockey at more competitive levels can cost a several thousands of dollars each year.

The article also noted that racism in hockey and the sport’s violent culture are also barriers to participation for immigrants. A Statistics Canada report similarly notes that the cost of playing hockey is decreasing its participation levels amongst children from low-income backgrounds:

Hockey – formerly the number one organized sport for boys – has seen a dip in participation, especially among boys from households in the lowest adjusted income quintile.

Despite these realities, Tim Hortons conveniently ignores the challenges faced by many Canadian immigrants in its narrative. Instead it presents the “typical” immigrant experience as one of gradual cultural integration – helped along by hockey and, of course, Tim Hortons coffee.

Given that many immigrants do not enjoy the same experience as that represented in this commercial, I would suggest that they are not the people being targeted in the advert. Rather, Tim Hortons appears to be aiming commercials like this squarely at Canadians who never have to experience, or even acknowledge, the hardships faced by many immigrants to Canada. As such, Tim Hortons presents a romanticized and sanitized version of the immigrant experience that is both comforting and non-threatening. And this is where hockey takes on extremely interesting symbolic meaning within the commercial.

This commercial draws on two interconnected and extremely powerful myths in Canadian society: that Canada is a nation of harmonious multiculturalism; and that hockey is both a central pillar of Canadian identity and a social lubricant that can build bridges across social and cultural differences. Tim Hortons has brilliantly (and somewhat disturbingly) inserted itself into this cultural narrative so that its coffee is now represented as a crucial component of being or becoming Canadian. The commercial is so resonant because it suggests that hockey can and does unite all Canadians, regardless of their racial, ethnic, or cultural differences. In doing so, it not only draws upon this mythological construction of hockey (which even a cursory reading of critical writing on the history and culture of the sport shows to be false), but also contributes to its strength and resonance.

It is quite remarkable how much social meaning Tim Hortons can impart in one 60 second commercial. In this spot, the company ties together the powerful discourses of Canadian multiculturalism and hockey as a social lubricant to insert its products into a narrative of Canadian unity. In doing so, it constructs an idealized narrative about not just hockey, but also about the Canadian immigrant experience. It does so, however, at the expense of recognizing the numerous forms of discrimination and structural barriers with which many immigrants must grapple on a daily basis. Hockey, it turns out, is not the social panacea that Tim Hortons would lead us to believe.


12 thoughts on “The Corporate Construction of Hockey: Tim Hortons, Hockey, and the Canadian Immigrant Experience

  1. great post Mark! and thanks for making me cry two times in a row. When the first commercial came out, I LOVED it! totally reminded me of my childhood and also the grandfather’s cantonese is kinda funny. I think you have drawn on some really relevant connections. Tim Horton’s is offering, in many ways, “the Canadian Dream” to which I guess Canadian immigrants could aspire to. However, different from the “American Dream” which largely revolves around fame, fortune and sport, it appears the Canadian Dream (as sold by Timmy’s) is to become a middle-class hockey family?

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  3. Thanks Courtney, glad you enjoyed it. I’ve been fascinated by the deployment of hockey in marketing campaigns recently, including those of Tim Hortons (the new ad about community rinks is fascinating as hell), Molson’s, and Canadian Tire. Definitely an area I want to explore in more depth.

    Also, one of the links this week was to a Maclean’s story from when this ad came out – apparently it was quite resonant for many Chinese-Canadians. But I still maintain that it packages a particular class-based understanding of hockey which, as you say, could be seen as the Canadian Dream.

  4. Beginning of the 3rd § should read “I dont deny”…
    An interesting read, for somebody who came in Canada and went out of it, and for whom hockey has realy be an integrating experience, but, it’s also true that I’m white and already middle class…

    • Hey, thanks for checking out the other site at which I blog, BeCanucks! Yeah you are right that hockey can be a unifying experience for Canadians new and old, and I think it’s great when it can be. But as you recognize, this tends to be the case more for people from certain economic, racial/ethnic backgrounds, etc.

      And thanks for catching the typo, I have corrected that!

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  6. Hi Mark,
    My name is Veronica and I go to Saint Mary’s University. Myself and a couple of other classmates from my sociology class are doing a presentation on a blog of our choice ( we chose this one) and each of us picked a post from it to elaborate on along with the overall blog itself. I chose to pick your post because i found it very intriguing and well put together. I was just wondering if you would mind answering a couple of questions I had about your post, like what got you interesting in writing such a topic? For me this post really opened my eyes because I have never really stepped out of my white middle classed mind to look at Tim Hortons in such a frame, or even hockey for that matter. It’s quite fascinating how society can make someone believe that as long as you have the right thing, just one thing, all your problems will fade.
    Also I was wondering what theorist, if any, do you admire or look up to?

    -Thanks for your time & great job with the post!

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