On “NHL Bloodlines” and Social and Cultural Capital: Why Do NHL Fathers Produce NHL Sons? (Repost)

Editor’s Note: This piece was first published on June 26, 2014 ahead of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. With the 2015 draft approaching this Friday, it was decided to repost the article given its continuing relevance. 

In its preview of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, The Hockey News features a Matt Larkin article entitled “Rising Son,” the subtitle of which reads: “Former NHLers’ sons, other relatives are on the radar as top prospects.” Larkin’s piece highlights no fewer than 22 draft eligible players with fathers, uncles, or brothers who used to or currently play in the NHL, including the sons of notable ex-NHLers such as Pierre Turgeon, Claude Lemieux, Al MacInnis, and Glen Wesley. Furthermore, three sons of former NHL regulars are expected to be drafted in the top 10: Sam Reinhart (son of Paul Reinhart and brother of NHL draftees Max and Griffin), Kasperi Kapanen (son of Sami Kapanen), and William Nylander (son of Michael Nylander).

Meanwhile, there are numerous current and past NHLers whose fathers enjoyed successful careers. The Howe family may be the most famous of these, with father Gordie playing along his sons Marty and Mark for the New England/Hartford Whalers of the World Hockey Association in the 1970s. Bobby and Brett Hull are another well-known father/son duo. Current NHLers whose fathers also played in the league include Paul Stastny (son of Peter), Nick Foligno (son of Mike), Brandon Sutter (son of Brent), Alexander Steen (son of Thomas), and Jarred Tinordi (son of Mark). And more players of famous lineage may never become regulars in the NHL, despite their hockey pedigree: Ray Bourque and Patrick Roy, for example, both have sons toiling in the KHL and AHL respectively.

The intergenerational success of these hockey families is often explained in popular discourse as a product of genetics or “bloodlines.” Larkin’s Hockey News article, for example, begins with the following statement: “The 2014 draft class is a geneticists dream.” I am no expert on biology, but I am certainly willing to concede that one’s biological attributes contribute to one’s ability to excel in particular sports, given how these have been arbitrarily constructed to prize certain virtues over others. For example, because professional North American hockey allows a high level of legal physical contact and typically tolerates quite a large amount of non-legal physicality, very few small NHL players enjoy long or successful careers – though players such as Martin St. Louis, Theoren Fleury, and Cliff Ronning certainly disprove the myth that smaller players can’t be successful in the NHL (one also wonders whether NHL scouts and management contribute to a self-fulfilling prophecy by rarely drafting or giving opportunities to smaller players).

However, attributing a male players’ successful advancement through the elite hockey system purely to biology is to miss a whole host of social factors that are arguably more significant to his development into an NHL player. Being the son of an NHL player gives players cultural and social capital that increases their access to resources and connections to help them reach the top levels in the sport. Cultural capital refers to the ways in which a person gains access to higher levels of advancement through factors such as education, physical appearance, style/dress, etc. Many private schools, for example, not only provide students with a privileged education, but also train them to comport themselves in particular ways that often translate well into business or political settings. Meanwhile social capital refers to the connections made between people that allow one to get ahead. Again using private schools as an example, alumni may be able to get land an interview for a job or gain quicker promotion through connections made through the school’s Old Boy network.

In the case of hockey players, being the son of an NHL star means that you are immersed in hockey culture from a young age and can learn what is expected of professional players to advance in their careers; coupled with the reputation that is attached to “good bloodlines,” this can provide a young player with high levels of cultural capital. Similarly, the connections a player can make through or because of his father can earn him cultural capital within the hockey subculture—this is particularly significant given that so many former players end up in management or coaching positions. For an example of both these concepts in action, consider this quotation from Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning, who played with Paul Reinhart during his NHL career and recently interviewed Sam Reinhart ahead of the entry draft:

He’s a real smart guy and he had these measured answers. . . . Halfway through the interview, I said: “It’s just like talking to your dad.”

Of course, a player cannot land an NHL job simply through cultural and social capital—he needs to have the skill and work ethic to be able to play at that level, and that is certainly not a given simply based on parentage. However, being the son of a former NHL star does facilitate one’s ability to build these skills at a young age. Hockey is an extremely expensive sport to play, with costly equipment and ice time and, for teenagers looking to make it to juniors, touring team costs that can run into the thousands of dollars each year. As the Toronto Star reported last year:

The cost of playing hockey in Toronto remains high, ranging from a few hundred dollars for House League, to more than $8,000 for some AAA teams. On top of that there is the cost of equipment (which can reach $4,000 for top-of-the-line gear), tournament costs for parents, gate fees (players and parents pay $6), and the cost of driving to games (an inner-city parent could log 4,000 kilometres in a season, driving to Vaughan, Mississauga, Markham etc.).

Personal trainers are a necessity at the elite level, and the cost of a good trainer and the ice time ranges from $240 to $425 an hour. Often they are in groups of four, though some parents spring for private classes. There are summer camps, spring leagues, dry land training, power-skating camps, off-season tournaments in Boston or Michigan.

The annual cost for a AAA player is between $10,000 and $15,000, not much less than the tuition for the University of Toronto medical school ($19,546).

The parents of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star, estimated their investment in his minor-league career, which he spent in the U.S., to be $250,000.

Clearly the high cost of the sport will prevent many young males from pursuing an elite career, with those from wealthy backgrounds being by far the most likely to succeed in the sport (though there some notable are exceptions). Hockey players who enjoyed lengthy careers, particularly those whose career included time in the 1990s, when NHL salaries began to rise significantly, are very likely to be able to afford these costs for their children—including those, such as personal coaching or training, that will help give them an edge over their peers. This financial capital, coupled with their high levels of social and cultural capital within the hockey world, opens numerous doors for the sons of NHL players—doors that are not as easily passed through by others who are poorer in these forms of capital.

I must add that the “bloodlines” explanation for hockey success is made further problematic because it smacks of social Darwinism and creates a dangerous lens through which to understand success or failure in pro hockey – particularly for men from those racial or ethnic groups who are significantly underrepresented in NHL hockey. By suggesting that there is something “natural” about the success of certain hockey players, the argument obscures the power dynamics and unequal access to resources that enable success in the profession. This is a complex discussion that I cannot do justice to in this post, but it is a relevant point to at least briefly highlight here.

We will no doubt hear countless examples of the reductionist “bloodlines” argument during the NHL Draft on Friday. I hope, however, that there will be some recognition amongst fans and media of the other ways in which the sons of former NHL stars, through their privileged positions in hockey culture, have had access to the opportunities and resources necessary to achieve such an elite level in the sport.


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