When I was growing up in Vancouver, there were two groups of people in every hockey dressing room: there were the “White Kids” and the “Brown/Asian Kids”, and there was me. Nobody ever spoke about these groups and yet, they existed. I didn’t have this experience in my neighbourhood or my school and although I never recall anyone saying “hey, you don’t belong here”, I always noticed it in the hockey dressing room. The “Brown/Asian Kids” were either immigrants themselves or kids with two immigrant parents who were obviously, visibly culturally different from the “White Kids”. That cultural difference could have represented in any number of ways: it might have been something obvious, like an accent or a patka or turban; it could have been something as innocuous as the “wrong” type of equipment or an under-developed hockey skill. Regardless of the true reason, the perception was that of racial difference: “they” just don’t get hockey the same way that “we” do. As a bi-racial child born and raised in Vancouver, with a visibly “Brown” father and a White mother, neither of whom had any previous experience in ice hockey, you can probably guess with which group I hoped to be identified. I was not an immigrant, I did not have a shared cultural experience with the “Brown/Asian Kids”, and I desperately wanted to make sure that I was not lumped in with them.
It is this dichotomy that Dr. Courtney Szto addresses in her new book, Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians. The project aims to discuss the cultural space of hockey in Canada, how immigrants use hockey to “belong”, and to what degree that can ever be successful. Dr. Szto argues that by interrogating the role of racial discrimination in hockey, we uncover other issues that lay at the heart of the Canadian mythology around hockey.
The book opens with an exploration of how hockey is tied into particular myths about Canadian identity; the idea that hockey is an intrinsic part of Canadian identity, as well as the notion that Canada is a multi-cultural heaven. This prepares the reader for discussions of representations of racialized individuals in physical, as well as on-screen, hockey spaces. Even as Szto centres racialized experiences in hockey, her response, as well as those of her subjects, consistently refers back to whiteness (or “Canadian-ness”) as their point of reference. The overwhelming conclusion from the first three chapters is that one cannot even begin to consider the culture of hockey without discussing the experiences of White individuals, pointing to the default whiteness of the sport and the surrounding culture.
From there, Szto moves onto the actual playing of hockey and the ties between racist taunts (or chirping, depending on your perspective) and the complex conceptions of masculinity and femininity for racialized individuals. The sport of hockey is heavily gendered and the performative nature of gender in hockey is easily identifiable. Szto takes previous scholarship on gender in hockey and combines that with her fieldwork, as well as established scholarship racialized masculinities and femininity to produce an intersectional view of Canadian hockey. Szto’s interviewees make it clear that racialized hockey participants are experiencing racist taunts and gendered stereotypes to such an extent that they “learn [it is] an inevitable part of sports” (89). If they weren’t able to brush off these slights and attacks, they would never have stuck with the hockey long enough to be interviewed as part of this project.
Finally, Szto dives into an issue that is a hot topic in hockey today, which is the rapidly-rising cost of hockey and how issues of money and other forms of capital might affect racialized participation. As Szto identifies, hockey has always demanded extensive familial commitment; the exorbitant costs of elite hockey are a relatively new phenomenon. In order to “fully” participate in hockey, a player must have parents who understand the culture and are able to commit the time necessary to fulfill the expectations of the game. Szto also addresses the well-documented phenomenon racialized success, financial or otherwise, creating resentment amongst White participants and observers. This is true not only in communities but at the professional level as well and is likely to be a growing problem for hockey as the costs continue to rise, meaning that the only racialized individuals who are likely to visibly succeed are those with a specific level of wealth that allows them to do so.
I would consider myself to be well-versed in the issues of discrimination in hockey, broadly speaking. My experience as a recreational and competitive hockey player, as well as an elite referee and now coach of both male and female athletes, combined with my academic studies and my professional role as a teacher, provide me with a strong frame of reference. However, this book pushed me to look back on experiences in my own life that I had never fully interrogated. I have no problem discussing gender discrimination in sport with anyone who will listen but race feels like a different conversation. As with many of Szto’s interviewees, I continue to be involved in hockey and so I am reluctant to pull at the threads that might lead to difficult questions about the culture of the game that might challenge my own place therein. Why was it so difficult for my dad to find information about signing me up for hockey in the first place? In a year where I scored 62 goals in 37 games in a recreational division, why did nobody suggest to me or my dad that I play in a competitive division the next year? When there was a shortage of ice time in Vancouver and our minor hockey association purchased practice ice at a rink in Delta, why was it assumed that everyone on a recreational team would be able to drive forty-five minutes or more each way just to practice every week? Why would my White teammates so derisively dismiss “those Brown guys who have the best equipment but don’t know sh-t about hockey” and why didn’t I ever challenge that statement? Most glaringly, why would I become so defensive, even angry, whenever anyone referred to me as “Brown” or Indian, particularly in a hockey setting? These are all questions that I have been asking myself recently and particularly in the wake of reading this book because I was too young, too inexperienced, or simply too close to the issue to fully interrogate it at the time.
This project is grounded by Szto’s fieldwork in the Greater Vancouver area, which consisted of interviews with twenty-six South Asian hockey participants, ranging in age from their teens to mid-fifties, who have participated at recreational and elite levels. Perhaps the most important aspect of this project is the way that Szto centres the lived experiences of South Asian hockey participants while also applying a level of academic analysis that situates their responses in context. In the era of the personal essay and the micro-blog, the value of rigorous scholarship on socio-cultural issues cannot be overstated. Moreover, Szto writes in accessible language that allows the reader to follow easily without sacrificing the complexity or precision that the nature of her work and scholarly training demands. In academic circles, I find this to be relatively uncommon and Szto’s skill as a writer brings a level of conversationality to her work that might not otherwise be possible.
During her online book launch event on November 23rd, Dr. Szto spoke about the “politics of evidence” and the challenge that this presents to her work. Much of the discussion centred around the plethora of evidence that illustrates the effects of racial discrimination in hockey, as well as our society at large. This naturally led to the question of why, in the face of so much evidence, culture change in sports feels far away. Szto shared a passage from her book, which carefully articulates how evidence is not meaningful if individuals and organizations are not prepared to accept the evidence and engage in change-making behaviour (88). Even as research and advocacy work continues, the wheels of change turn slowly.
Over the course of the hour, hosted by Dr. Shobhana Xavier, Dr. Szto and Dr. Kristi Allain shared various anecdotes in which their research, as well as that of their contemporaries, has been downplayed or ignored by individuals in positions of power within the game of hockey, illustrating exactly why this project is necessary. The conversation ranged from the history of hockey, to the notion of what constitutes “real” hockey and what types of success are celebrated, to the social movements of 2020 and how allyship is working (and not) in hockey spaces. The pièce de résistance was their discussion of how the Ontario Hockey Federation had recently informed a group of scholars that their unpaid labour in developing diversity and inclusion training material would no longer be required. The OHF, Canada’s largest provincial hockey governing body, with approximately 250,000 members, indicated that despite the gratis nature of these scholars’ labour, their work represented a distraction and would need to be paused. This was just one example of how evidence-based research is politicized in order to maintain the status quo and uphold patriarchy and white supremacy in Canadian hockey.
A consistent through-line in these conversations is that it is easy to dismiss issues of racial discrimination as one-off, regrettable incidents, or less important because sport is presumed to be a voluntary activity. This is even true in some of the responses by Szto’s interviewees, who were often reluctant to say that racism played any role in their experiences. However, as Szto takes great pains to outline, and her subjects eventually admit, whiteness is so central to hockey that it is difficult to even acknowledge the existence of racism, let alone how it affects you as an individual. In speaking to the purpose of her project, Szto acknowledged that this book was not going to be a “silver bullet” for the issue of racism in hockey. Rather, she hopes that this would be an opportunity to place a “brick in the wall” because while labeling is not sufficient to overcome racism, it allows the possibility of something to be done.
This is a fascinating and informative project that openly and honestly interrogates the culture of hockey from a place of love. Szto is very open both in the book and on her social media about her love for hockey and her desire to see the sport change for the better. Although this book is academic in nature and won’t be to everyone’s liking, it is an informative and important read for anyone who considers diversity and inclusion to be important for the growth of hockey and the community around the sport. As the culture of hockey continues to develop and grow, Dr. Szto’s work will be foundational for understanding the diversity and cultural complexity that has always existed, even when unacknowledged, in Canadian hockey culture. Pick up your copy of Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians through UBC Press (Canada) or Rutger’s University Press (USA) and join the conversation.
 My father is visibly identifiable as being “Brown” or Indian but was born in Trinidad, as were both of his parents. His great-grandparents immigrated from India as indentured labourers in the late 19th century. Both my father’s parents attended university in Canada in the 1950s and they immigrated and settled permanently in rural New Brunswick in 1962.