The Yanks are Coming! Hockey Weekend in America and the Threat to Canadian Culture

Of course, you see past the positive vibes. Hockey Weekend in America is a sales pitch put on by the NHL that relies on a positive notion of the game itself and on the game’s growing influence in America. The sale comes first, but it relies on the positive vibes being at least mostly authentic. And they are. The game is genuinely growing in the USA, just as the quality of Team USA has grown increasingly consistent while the NHL settles more and more comfortably into its more entertaining post-lockout incarnation, which, it seems, can only lead to the league’s continuing American success (barring a second lockout).

But it’s not all pretty backhand passes and shootout dekes in America’s relationship with Canada’s game. Canadians have long resented any intrusion into their national pastime, and while with time such resentments tend to fade, there is still a sense that Canada’s hold on hockey is central to the nation’s identity as a whole. Just look at a Tim Horton’s or Molson Canadian ad in which Canadian identity is conflated with hockey tradition in order to sell products as impressively Canadian. Like Hockey Weekend in America, these ads exist to sell products, to move money, but to do so they must tap into a real national mood. Thus, if Molson Canadian thinks talking about “our game” will sell beers, then Canadians must still think of hockey as “our game.” Does that make Hockey Weekend in America yet another iteration of that perennial Canadian fear: American cultural imperialism?

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Canada has had a longstanding, and I think justifiable, fear of losing its symbolic ownership of hockey. As a colonial subject, the country was overshadowed by Britain, and it has always been hard to see Canada through the intense glare coming off its southern neighbour. That is not to say Canada lacks a national identity, but that it has often struggled to assert that identity. Its national literature, for instance, didn’t really coalesce until the 60’s. In light of that cultural unease, it’s not surprising that hockey has been so important to its mother country’s self-identity. It’s also no surprise, then, that the movement of hockey capital from Canada to America–from Gretzky to the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques–is seen as a threat to Canadian identity.

But in Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity, a collection of scholarly essays, Craig Hyatt and Julie Stevens argue that Canadians are mistaken to pit themselves as enemies of American hockey. Their essay is titled “Are Americans Really Hockey’s Villians?” Their answer: no. Hyatt and Stevens find that Canadians who regard American hockey as a villain fail to consider that Americans, such as those from Hartford, have also suffered from losing an NHL franchise and that, in general, evil capitalist owners and victimized fans can be found in both American and Canadian cities alike. In other words, Canadians are drawing a false distinction between themselves and American fans.

You might accuse Canadian poet and writer Richard Harrison of falling into that trap. In “Between a Puck and a Showpiece,” found in the same essay collection, Harrison claims that “the poetics” of hockey are attuned to the particular sensibility of Canadians, and that they do not translate to American culture. For that reason, Harrison argues that the attempt to push the game into the United States is “flawed (154).” To Harrison, Americans like a game that allows for more individual greatness, that celebrates lush green grass that stretches as far as the eye can see or a comfortable artificial terrain of polished wood, as opposed to cold and unforgiving ice, and that Americans want a sport that deals in emphatic certainties, rather than the passing-based ambivalence of Canada’s game (in which you often can’t even see the puck!).

Harrison makes some very interesting points here, but he leaves a gapping hole in his argument: what about Michigan, Minnesota, upstate New York? Or for that matter, what about the similarities Hyatt and Stevens find between jilted Hartford Whaler Fans and those from the once-jilted Winnipeg and the still-jilted Quebec City? This counter-claim could be easily countered by focusing Harrison’s argument on the South and West of America, essentially folding American’s traditional hockey bastions in with Canada. But that would miss a key point that Stevens and Hyatt make, one that actually supports Harrison’s spirited claim that hockey is, indeed, Canada’s game.

Amongst the Whalers fans they interview, Hyatt and Stevens found a decent font of respect for Canada’s place as Hockey’s founding nation. Based on my experience growing up in Detroit, America’s hockey bastions in general hold a similar respect for the Canadian Hockey tradition. I grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada, so long as the reception came through alright from Windsor. This is important, because it means that no matter how far hockey spreads, no matter where hockey-related money lands, chances are that Canada will retain its traditional claim on the sport. No matter how well ingrained the game becomes elsewhere, the hockey myth will always find it’s founding on a frozen Canadian pond. After all, Canada’s claim on hockey survived Russian hockey’s rise, why not America’s?

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The answer to that question may lay beyond hockey. As mentioned above, Canadian identity is often found on the defensive, with American influence seen by many here as a constant threat to national identity. When the Soviets challenged Canada’s supremacy, it was not coupled with other threats to Canada’s culture, as is the case with America (interestingly, you could look to the Czech-Russian hockey rivalry of the 60’s to see a dynamic more comparable, if also way more violent, to that found between the U.S. and Canada, with the U.S. playing the cultural equivalent of the Soviet’s military dominance over the Czechs).

Take a thread I recently saw in the comments section below an NHL.com article promoting the weekend celebration. In this thread, two fans, one Canadian, one American, get into it over apparent Canadian disrespect for American fans (as in: “The Star Spangled Banner” gets booed in Montreal, USA is cheered against vehemently in international play in Canada, no matter the opponent, Americans are blamed for the commercialization that Canadians have also willingly participated in, etc.). The argument is stupid, but it’s interesting to note where it starts and ends. It starts with hockey and it ends with:

Size of the economy has nothing to do with how it’s regulated. Good grief, did you not notice what has happened over the past 5 years? Go stroke your American ego somewhere else, you ignorant tool.

Hmmmm, not to put too fine a point on this one argument, but it’s a prime example of how a general resentment of America can easily supplement Canadian resentment of its neighbour’s hockey. And while Hyatt and Stevens might be right that Canadian defensiveness over their place in hockey tradition is “outdated (17),” if that defensiveness is drawn from a larger, more relevant, cultural defensiveness, it is at least understandable.

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Of Canada’s early literature, Dennis Lee has written:

The words I knew said Britain, and they said America. But they did not say my home. They were always and only about someone else’s life. All the rich structures of language were available, but the currents that animated them were not native to the people who use the language here (“Cadence, Country, Silence,” 17).

But while the writers of Lee’s generation helped to change that situation, hockey spoke of Canada long before Canada’s literature ever did. Indeed, Harrison is convincing when he uses literary words like “poetics” to describe the nation’s bond with the game. Harrison isn’t saying hockey is and was like the Canadian literature that had once been marked by its own absence, but that hockey was and is that national literature, or at least a huge part of it. You can see, then, why he might be in such a fury to defend the game’s Canadian-ness.

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Gold Medal Game, Canada vs. United States, 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m the only American in the room, wearing the most obnoxious USA hat I could find in the clutter shops of Kensington Market. Zach Parise scores in the closing seconds of the third period to tie the score. I jump and yell while the City of Toronto sinks two feet. Part of me feels bad (I’m not a psychopath, there were 13 broken-hearted Canucks in the room with me) but not that bad. I grew up with this game too.

Crosby gets it back of course, and the city goes nuts. The most polite riot in history shuts down Younge Street damn near from the lake to Eglington. I still wear the hat, but the taunts are fairly mild. These fans are more excited about a Canadian win than they are an American loss. My guys did well, as did my gals, and both proved they’ll belong on that stage for the foreseeable future (although only the guys had anything left to prove). But it’s hard to imagine New York, or Chicago, or even Minneapolis, going nuts the way Toronto was over a gold medal win. Hockey’s gone global, and it will probably, slowly, continue to grow in America. But Canada, like the Molson ad says, it will always be your game. No need to be defensive about it. You might even get your Nordiques back too. Here’s hoping you do.

Works Cited

Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston: 2009.

-Hyatt, C. and Stevens, J. “Are Americans Really Hockey’s Villains? A New Perspective on the American Influence on Canada’s National Game.” pp. 26-43.

-Harrison, Richard. “Between a Puck and a Showpiece: Spectator Sport and the Differing Responses to Hockey (and Its Absence) in Canada and the United States–a Canadian Poet Looks at the Fate of the Game.” pp. 151-160.

Lee, Dennis. “Cadence, Country, Silence.” Body Music. House of Anansi Press, Toronto, ON: 1998. pp. 3-26.

Rosen, Dan. “USA Hockey Took Off After ‘Miracle,’ Gretzky to L.A.” NHL.com. Published 2.16.2012.

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4 thoughts on “The Yanks are Coming! Hockey Weekend in America and the Threat to Canadian Culture

  1. Good stuff Ted, especially given your placement as a hockey loving American. The link between hockey and Canadian identity is fascinating, and something I have explored in my academic research. This link is simultaneously socially constructed by Canadians, manufactured by corporations, and grounded in increasingly mythologized understandings of historical events… and yet it IS true that for a great deal of Canadians hockey holds deep cultural meaning and that the consuming the sport, in various forms, CAN make people feel more Canadian.

    I have about a million more books and articles I could recommend to you that relate to this topic if you’re interested!

  2. Oh, and hockey as a manifestation of Canadian anti-Americanism is certainly an interesting topic. This was a big issue when Gretzky got traded to LA, with the political context of NAFTA – and its attendant reduction in Canadian sovereignty in economic affairs – both stoking anti-US feelings and being metaphorically captured by the departure of Gretzky from Canada to the US.

  3. Very nice, Ted. The few minutes of Hockey Weekend in America that I saw also reminded of similar questions about the role hockey plays as a site of national and regional identity. Having Americans like Matt Cullen extol the virtues of pond hockey, for example, certainly makes us think about how the growing population of American hockey players (especially those from northern states) understand hockey in relation to Canada’s “ownership” of the game.
    Your comments bring to mind ideas around how we conceptualize space and how hockey’s most cherished myths are very much dependent on cultural constructions of “the North;” constructions that are shaped by imagined boundaries that really have very little to do with physical geography or weather patterns…

  4. Pingback: Weekly Links: Stephen Harper’s hockey book nears completion; Trade deadline reaction; The tragedy of sexual abuse in hockey « Hockey in Society

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