This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted over the summer.
Today marks 150 years since the nation-state of Canada was formally created, with the implementation of the British North America Act. Although this is a cause for celebration by many Canadians, others – notably many Indigenous Canadians – are critical of what the anniversary marks.
Although claims of hockey’s place in Canadian culture are often exaggerated or mythologized, the sport has doubtlessly been an important part of Canadian culture for almost the entire existence of the country. To mark Canada’s sesquicentennial, this three-part post briefly reflects on 150 significant events, people, and institutions in the history of Canadian hockey. Unlike many such reflections, this post includes not only the “good,” but also the “bad” and the “ugly.”
Some of the items on this list are ubiquitous in their association with Canadian hockey, oft for good reason. However, much of this list focuses on aspects of the sport that are not mythologized in dominant narratives, media coverage, beer commercials, and fan memories. But, just as Paul Henderson’s goal or the Stanley Cup are part of the story of Canadian hockey, so too are Graham James’ sexual assault of boys under his charge and the use of sport to assimilate Indigenous boys at residential schools. As such, this post attempts to highlight the diversity of stories that, collectively, represent the cultural significance of hockey at the 150th anniversary of Canada.
I have chosen items that are of particular significance to Canada, and thus exclude many other notable hockey events. Items are not presented in any particular order, and are discussed only briefly. Where possible, links are provided to additional reading or videos. I am confident that this is a woefully incomplete list, so please add your own suggestions in the comments.
150 Stories of Hockey in Canada, Part 1: #1-50
#1 – Hockey Night in Canada: The television program has been running on the CBC since 1952, and is considered a Canadian cultural institution. So significant is the program, that some scholars have advocated for it to be protected under legislation as a form of “cultural citizenship” so that is accessible on public broadcasting for all Canadians to enjoy.
#2 – Indian Residential Schools: These schools, which attempted to destroy the culture and language of Indigenous children, used hockey as a way to assimilate boys into the dominant Euro-Canadian culture. As Canada grapples with the legacy of these schools, so too is an understanding developing of the conflicting meaning that hockey held for some victims of the Residential School system.
#3 – Herb Carnegie: One of the first Black hockey stars, notably with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, Carnegie tried out for the NHL multiple times in the late-1940s, but never made it into the league. He faced racism during (and after) his career, and was allegedly told by Conn Smythe that he would be a Maple Leaf were it not for his skin colour.
#4 – 1990 Women’s World Championships – For the first time, women competed in an international tournament to decide the world champion. Canada won the first tournament, beating the US 5-2 in the final. The tournament is controversial due to Hockey Canada’s decision to dress the women in pink jerseys, seemingly trivializing their athletic performance; today, the pink jerseys are remembered nostalgically.
#5 – Paul Henderson and the 1972 Summit Series: In 1972, the best Canadian NHL players faced off against the Soviet Red Army in an eight-game series. With the series tied at 3-3-1, Game 8 in Moscow was pivotal. Paul Henderson broke the tie in the final minute, in arguably the most iconic Canadian sports moment of all-time. The Summit Series has been mythologized heavily, and for many Canadians is part of their collective memory.
#6 – The National Hockey League: The dominant global force in hockey (alongside the International Ice Hockey Federation), the NHL is a 31-team North American league that features seven Canadian franchises. It was founded in 1917 with four Canadian teams (two in Montreal and one each in Toronto and Ottawa), but quickly expanded to the US. The NHL is the most popular and profitable league in the world, and has millions of fans in Canada.
#7 – Shinny: An iconic winter image: children sorting out a pile of sticks jumbled in the middle of an outdoor rink, thus making teams for a game of pickup hockey. Shinny, which is played informally without officials or (usually) goalies, is considered by many Canadians to be a quintessential winter pastime.
#8 – The Stanley Cup: This trophy was donated in 1893 by Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General of Canada, as a reward for the top amateur club in Canada. Trusteeship of the Cup later passed to the NHL, who awards it to the champion each season. The Stanley Cup is considered symbol of hockey, and is known worldwide and heavily mythologized (and marketed) in popular culture.
#9 – The Montreal Canadiens: The most successful NHL team, with 24 Stanley Cup championships, les Habitants are a legendary sports franchise. Founded in 1909, the team quickly became popular in Quebec and eventually gained symbolic status as a representation of Quebecois culture and ambitions.
#10 The Tragically Hip: This Canadian rock band, from Kingston, ON, has weaved hockey into many of its most popular songs, such as “Fireworks” and “50 Mission Cap.”
#11 – The Hockey Hall of Fame: The HHOF is both a bricks-and-mortar museum in downtown Toronto, a society for honoured members, and an arbiter of hockey legacy. The Hall also houses the NHL trophies, including the Stanley Cup.
#12 & 13 – 1998 Nagano Olympics Men’s and Women’s Tournaments: These Olympics featured two firsts, and two disappointments for Canada. Nagano was the first time that women’s ice hockey was included in the Olympic program and that professional NHL players could compete. Canada’s women lost a heartbreaking game to archrivals Team USA and finished with a silver medal; the men’s team lost in a shootout in the semifinals, and lost the bronze medal game to finish a disappointing fourth place.
#14 – The 1928 Cree and Ojibway Hockey Tour: Cree and Ojibway hockey players traveled Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US on a barnstorming tour. The tour had multiple, complex meanings as the players both faced and played into racist cultural expectations of White audiences, yet demonstrated agency within the limited social opportunities available to them.
#15 – Willie O’Ree: The first Black man to play in the NHL, O’Ree played 45 games over two seasons with the Boston Bruins in the 1950s—a small piece of a long career that spanned numerous leagues. More recently, O’Ree has been an ambassador for the NHL’s Hockey is For Everyone program.
#16 – Gordie Howe: Nicknamed “Mr. Hockey,” Howe was one of the NHL’s first superstars. He played 32 seasons professionally and, before Wayne Gretzky, held numerous NHL scoring records. Howe’s combination of rough and skilled play was emulated by numerous future players, and resulted in the term “Gordie Howe hat trick” (scoring a goal and an assist, and getting in a fight, in the same game). Howe is a member of the Order of Canada and will have a bridge between Windsor and Detroit, due to open in 2020, named after him.
#17 – Foster Hewitt: The original radio and television commentator for CBC, Hewitt gained nationwide fame as the “voice of hockey” in English Canada. Hewitt has been honoured by the Hockey Hall of Fame, which gives an award in his name to media personnel, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose media gondola is named after him.
#18 – 2002 Salt Lake City Men’s Olympic Gold Medal: After disappointment in Nagano, the men’s national team – led by Mario Lemieux – captured the Gold Medal with a victory over the US. It was the first ice hockey gold for Canada since 1952.
#19 – The Original 6: The heavily mythologized era of NHL hockey between 1942-1967, during which the same six teams competed. Two of these teams, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, were based in Canada. Although remembered as a golden era of hockey by many fans, the quarter century was also stable because the six owners colluded to keep salaries deflated and player rights minimized, thus maximizing their profits. This arrangement would only be strongly challenged with NHL expansion to 12 teams in 1967.
#20 – The Canadian Women’s Hockey League: The CWHL was founded in 2007 to offer elite women players a league in which to play. The league currently has four teams in Canada (Montreal, Toronto, Brampton, Calgary), one in the US, and one planned expansion team in China. Although a top women’s league (alongside the NWHL), the CWHL has faced struggles around its inability to pay players a salary.
#21 – Sidney Crosby’s “Golden Goal” – Crosby capped off a gold medal performance for Canada’s men’s team at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, ending an epic game in overtime.
#22 – The Zamboni: An ice-resurface that has gained pop culture notoriety, the Zamboni is a ubiquitous feature at ice rinks across the country and during intermissions at live matches.
#23 – Don Cherry: One of Canada’s most beloved and reviled media figures, Cherry has starred in his Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada since the mid-1980s. Cherry gained popularity for his nostalgic Canadian pride, blue-collar mannerisms, flamboyant outfits, and celebration of rough and violent play. He also drew flak for xenophobic views on European players, derogatory statements about Aboriginal Peoples and French Canadians, and strong support for fighting and retaliatory violence.
#24 – Graham James: A respected and successful coach in the Western Hockey League, James was sentenced in 1999 to three-and-a-half years in prison for committing 350 acts of sexual assault against teenaged boys on his teams between 1984-1995. He was sentenced again in 2012 to two years, after new revelations emerged about his abuse NHL star Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt.
#25 – Ken Dryden: Dryden has had an exceptional and unusual career. He was the Montreal Canadiens goaltender during their dynasty of the 1970s, during which time he took a year off to finish law school, and later in life was a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party. He also wrote The Game, widely considered one of the greatest sports books ever written. In recent years, he has also been an outspoken advocate for improving safety in the sport.
#26 – Stephen Harper: As Canadian Prime Minister from 2006-2015, Harper made strategic use of hockey to bolster his popularity and gain support for his party’s efforts to shift Canadian society toward conservative values. Harper also appears to be a genuine fan of the game, and wrote a historical (and not overtly political) book about early professional hockey.
#27 – Hockey Night In Canada Punjabi: Starting in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, the CBC experimented with Punjabi language broadcasts that were available through online streaming. After an on-again, off-again start, HNIC Punjabi gained traction and popularity within the Punjabi-Canadian community and has been a regular staple since 2013. The show is credited with bringing generations of immigrants together and drawing new fans to the game, but it has also been treated with suspicion and even hostility by some Canadian fans. The broadcast gained international attention during the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Harnaryan Singh’s colourful call of a Nick Bonino goal went viral.
#28 – The Preson Rivulettes: A dominant women’s hockey team in the 1930s, the Rivulettes lost just two games out of approximately 350 from 1930-1940 and were Ontario champions every year during this time. The team was led by star player Hilda Ranscombe. The Rivulettes folded as a result of the Second World War.
#29 – You Can Play Project: Started in 2012, this organization fights against homophobia in sports. You Can Play has a major hockey connection, as it was co-founded by NHL scout Patrick Burke in honour of his brother Brendan, an equipment manager in the NCAA who died in a car accident. You Can Play has partnered with the NHL to host Pride Nights at games, and has been endorsed by numerous NHL players.
#30 – Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics: Although not widely known outside academic circles, this scholarly book published in 1994 was the first to thoroughly and seriously treat hockey as a significant form of Canadian culture that is intimately connected with topics such as gender politics, myths about national identity, the labour market, and globalization. As such, it has been extremely influential for the sociological and cultural study of hockey, and sport more broadly, and has been cited over 450 times in academic publications.
#31 – The 1955 Richard Riot: Anger at the suspension of beloved Canadiens star Maurice Richard by NHL President Clarence Campbell boiled over, when Campbell was harassed by fans in the Montreal Forum the following game. The aggression spilled on to the streets outside the arena and led to a riot that saw property destruction, dozens of injuries, and 100 arrests. The incident came to symbolize French Canadian frustrations at English Canada during a turbulent time of social transformation in Quebec.
#32 – Lance et compte: A French Canadian soap opera centred on hockey, Lance et compte (“He Shoots, He Scores”) aired from 1986-1989 before being brought back from 2001 until 2015. The show mixed drama, provocative behaviour (swearing, violence, and sex) and hockey action, and was a massively popular cultural product in Quebec.
#33 – Larry Kwong: Kwong, who is of Chinese heritage, became the first person of colour to play in the NHL, when he played one minute for the New York Rangers in 1948. Although he never played again in the NHL, Kwong’s career continued for another decade in various leagues in North America and the UK.
#34 – 2002 Salt Lake City Women’s Olympic Gold Medal: Team Canada avenged its loss to the US in 1998 by capturing its first ever women’s gold medal at the 2002 Games.
#35 – Hockey and Literature: Hockey has served as the backdrop or main subject for numerous pieces of Canadian literature. Hockey literature has connected with major social issues found in hockey, and often asserted a conservative vision of hockey’s place in Canadian society and identity.
#36 and 37 – Departure of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques: In the mid-1990s, with the Canadian dollar suffering and the NHL increasingly eyeing potentially-lucarative US markets, the small-market Canadian cities of Quebec City and Winnipeg became victims of relocation. The Nordiques, a team deeply connected with Quebecois identity and separatist ambitions, left for Denver in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche. The Jets left to become the Phoenix Coyotes the following year, despite a community drive to try to save the team. This brought the number of Canadian NHL teams down to six, and sparked a crisis about Canada’s ability to compete against American pro sports.
#38 – Hilda Ranscombe: One of the first women’s hockey stars, Ranscombe captained the Preston Rivulettes during their glory decade of the 1930s. In 1999, she was inducted to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
#39 – The World Junior Championships: It is considered a holiday tradition by many Canadians: the day after Christmas, Canada’s U-20 men’s team kicks off the World Junior Championships, and families across the country tune in to the game. Outside of Canada, this is a relatively minor tournament that draws a few thousand fans to games; yet in Canada, matches at NHL arenas regularly sell out and millions watch on TV. The tournament is a manufactured media spectacle, majorly hyped by broadcaster TSN using nationalistic themes and appeals to the youthful potential of the young players. Critics see the tournament as bringing out a possessive entitlement on the part of Canadians, who are liable to conflate hockey and national identity.
#40 – Sheldon Kennedy: Kennedy played over 300 games in the NHL, but is better known for courageously being the first victim of Graham James to speak publicly about the abuse he suffered, spurring the criminal investigation that led to James’ conviction. He has become a prominent advocate for child victims of sexual abuse.
#41 – Concussions: Long before the word “concussion” was whispered in hockey circles, players regularly took blows to the head and euphemistically talked about “getting their bell rung.” Today, we know that concussions are a serious medical – and cultural/subcultural– issue in contact sports such as hockey. Prominent players such as Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya, and Pat Lafontaine had their careers cut short due to concussions, while contemporary stars such as Sidney Crosby have dealt with multiple concussions. Today, critics call for the sport to be more proactive about minimizing the risk of concussions, and some youth and amateur leagues have taken steps to remove bodychecking.
#42 – The Hamilton Tigers Strike of 1925: The Hamilton Tigers competed in the NHL from 1920-1925. In the 1924-25 season, the players went on strike for the playoffs, arguing that they should receive additional compensation because the regular season schedule had been expanded from 24 to 30 games while salaries stayed flat. The Tigers’ management and the NHL disagreed, and the Tigers did not play in the playoffs. Following the season, the rights of Tigers’ players were bought by a New York businessman who was looking to acquire an NHL team, and the Tigers folded; most of the team went to New York to play for the fledgling New York Americans. This was an early, and notable, moment of labour strife in the history of the NHL, and one that deserves much greater attention.
#43 – Stompin’ Tom Connors: This Canadian singer-songwriter penned “The Hockey Song,” an iconic and culturally resonant song that is played in arenas across the country.
#44 – Parental Rink Rage: A disturbing phenomenon of overzealous hockey parents has emerged, with countless examples of parents screaming at children and officials, fighting in the stands, or assaulting referees—this has been labeled “rink rage.” Youth leagues are trying to solve the problem by punishing parents who demonstrate rink rage, but the excessive costs and high pressure on children to excel in the sport may be helping to spur this trend.
#45 – Maurice “The Rocket” Richard: Richard was a legendary player, who is considered among the best NHL players of all time. He was also a poignant symbol to French Canadians in Quebec, at a time that the province was undergoing significant social upheaval and developing an independence movement. Richard’s significance to Quebeckers was evidenced after his death in 2000: he was given a state funeral, making him the first non-politician to receive this honour in Quebec, and his open casket at the Molson Centre received roughly 115,000 visitors. The NHL also honoured Richard, naming its annual award for most goals in a season after the Canadiens legend.
#46 – EA Sports’ NHL Series: In 1991, EA waded into the growing sports video game market with the release of NHL Hockey for Sega Genesis. The next edition followed in 1993, and since then, the company has released a new edition annually. The game has gathered a large following of hockey fans and gamers, with NHL ’94 gaining cult pop culture status.
#47 – Road Hockey Bans: Road hockey may be considered a quintessential childhood pastime for many Canadians, but for some municipalities it was a nuisance or liability, resulting in it being banned in places like Toronto, Kingston, Hamilton, and Halifax. Criticism of these bans and government advocacy have helped see the bans lifted in Toronto and Kingston, but it remains to be seen whether this will be a nationwide trend.
#48 – The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs have won the second most Stanley Cups, with 13 .However, as long-suffering fans know all-too-well, none of these have come since NHL expansion beyond the Original 6 in 1967. Nonetheless, the Leafs remain one of the most profitable and popular NHL teams in the world, with a valuation of $1.1. billion in 2016. So significant is the team, that some argue it can be considered as a public institution within Toronto.
#49 – Sledge Hockey: An adapted version of ice hockey, for athletes with lower body disabilities, sledge hockey has been a Paralympic sport since 1994. Since 2004, Hockey Canada has had jurisdiction over Canadian sledge hockey. The Canadian team (technically open to men and women, but comprised only of males) won gold in 2006 at Turin, and also medaled at the 1994 Lillehammer, 1998 Nagano, and 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games.
#50 – 2004-05 NHL Lockout – The NHL locked out its players in 1994, but the labour dispute was resolved in time for a shortened season to be played. In 2004-05, no such deal was struck, and the NHL cancelled a season for the first time in its history. When the NHL returned, it did so with significant changes, including a salary cap, a shootout, and other rule modifications.
2 thoughts on “#Canada150: 150 Good, Bad, and Ugly Stories of Hockey in Canada (Part 1)”
Fascinating! Thanks for the book links, I have some new summer reading to do.
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