Guest Post By Kristi Allain
Kristi, born and raised in Nogojiwanong, inherited a love of hockey from her mother – a passionate Peterborough Petes fan who frequently boasts that she missed only one game with birth of her two daughters. Kristi’s love of hockey has fuelled her research program, where she’s investigated hockey and national identity, transnational labour migration in the CHL, the experiences of women in young men’s hockey, and most recently the intersections of aging, masculinity, the body, and old-timers hockey. She is currently an associate professor of sociology at St. Thomas University, on unceded Wolastoqiyik territory. You can find out more about her work at kristi-allain.com.
A promotional video for a new Canadian men’s health initiative, called Hockey Fans in Training (Hockey FIT), features the announcer for the London Knights hockey club. In a booming voice, he argues that in 20 years of doing play-by-play, “The one thing I’ve learned is how passionate men are about hockey.” The video teems with sports fans. Clad in their favorite team jerseys, they grin madly at the camera, flash hockey pucks, and wave team scarves. These images are interspersed with those of defeated overweight men, periodically holding greasy food and enormous glasses of beer. Some are represented only as large bellies, devoid of faces and identities. With concern, the announcer explains that many male hockey fans are overweight and out of shape. Listing off a myriad of health conditions (and perhaps channeling his inner men’s rights activist), he argues that health initiatives need to target men in a “man-friendly way.”
A research team at Western University launched Hockey FIT, highly lauded, multi-million-dollar health initiative. The program focuses on overweight men (defined as those having a BMI greater than 28) between the ages of 35 and 65. Having already completed preliminary studies, this program is launching in 18 OHL cities with a participant base of 750 men.
Hockey FIT promises a fitness and health program specifically in line with the needs of overweight men. Men, the research team argues, are under-represented in fitness and lifestyle training programs. They claim that men often understand these programs as feminine. Issues of weight, apparently, are the domain of women. With this in mind, Hockey FIT attempts to target men where they live (so to speak): in the hockey arena, where they are the “natural” fans of men’s hockey.
The program’s principal investigator, Dr. Rob Petrella, boasts, “Hockey FIT is a game changer since it plays to what men want, where and how they want to address overweight [sic] and obesity; through the power of being a sports fan.”
A program that addresses the very real health concerns of a hard-to-target population sounds pretty good. And at first glance, this program seems to be premised on sound logic. After all, it was funded generously by several organizations, including the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). For this funding, Hockey FIT would have had to withstand a rigorous peer review process. In spite of this, however, I believe there are several critical questions raised by the very premise of this project.
The research team argues that men are uncomfortable participating in traditional weight loss schemes. They state that men view these programs as feminine and out of step with expressions of masculinity. However, a quick look at Statistics Canada data from 2016 and 2017 paints a very different picture. Their statistics show that men and boys are more physically active than women and girls at every stage of the life course.
The researchers also take for granted the fact that men love hockey. In one promotional video, Petrella asserts, “Hockey is central to what we do in Canada.” The truth is that hockey is linked to a sense of Canadian national identity, but this identity is often quite exclusive. Although Canadians of all backgrounds and genders love hockey, Canadian hockey heroes are overwhelmingly straight white men. The Hockey FIT program reflects this bias, as the research team reports that during an earlier incarnation of the project, 95% of their participants were white.
Canadian men have diverse interests beyond hockey. While many first or second-generation Canadians have embraced the sport, others may not have inherited a love or knowledge of the game. Its overwhelming whiteness at the highest levels may have signaled to these men that this wasn’t a place where they were welcome.
Further, racism in the sport (well documented by sociologists of sport like Courtney Szto and Robert Pitter) may have driven young people of colour from the game. Experiences of racism no doubt would seriously impact one’s capacity to be a hockey fan. It was in London, ON, the home of the Hockey FIT project, where a spectator threw a banana at Philadelphia Flyer Wayne Simmonds, who is Black, during an exhibition game in 2012. Likewise, gay and queer men, who have been actively excluded from hockey’s strict gender policing, might not feel particularly inspired to participate in a program like this.
Hockey, and perhaps with it hockey fandom, is also out of reach for many working-class men and boys. Young working-class families are often unable to enroll their children in recreational hockey because of the high costs (see Teri Pecoskie’s “Pay to Play” series in the Hamilton Spectator). The average ticket price in the OHL is approximately $20 (this excludes a program, parking, and snacks). Therefore, many working-class people cannot afford to attend OHL games.
As health researchers are generally well aware of the relationship between poverty and obesity, it’s curious that this project focuses its energies on middle-class men, overlooking those who might not have access to exercise training and good nutrition. And the assumption that having a high BMI automatically means that one is unhealthy is frequently debated by fat activists and health researchers alike.
Although Hockey FIT claims to engage so-called regular men, it’s easy to see how this project works to exclude all sorts of men, as well as non-binary folk and women. Many of those excluded by this publicly funded research are actually those who might have the hardest time paying for sports or feeling comfortable in sporting spaces. Instead of targeting these hard-to-reach populations, the research team focuses on middle-class, straight, white men, who may rightfully benefit from this program, but who are also in the best position to go out and get it themselves.