Farewell the White Settler Imagination of Hometown Hockey

Hosts Ron McLean and Tara Slone with logos of Hometown Hockey, Rogers, Hyundai, and Desjardins.
The 2020-21 press photo for Hometown Hockey

This week, Rogers cancelled Hometown Hockey, a weekly broadcast from a different Canadian “hometown” each week. While this is unfortunate because of a loss of jobs and the continuing austerity measures Rogers brings to hockey broadcasting, it is not a show I am sad to see go. Last November, I published an article “The White Settler Imagination of Hometown Hockey” in Canadian Ethnic Studies 53(3) (paywalled). In the paper, I analyzed the broadcasts from four locations during the 2018-2019 season: a “small town” (Dieppe, NB), a large suburb (Mississauga, ON), a military base (CFB Esquimalt), and a Reserve (Enoch Cree Nation 135) to argue the show displayed a very narrow view of Canada. I present here an abbreviated version of my article, plus a few new thoughts on what could work.

The communities were all represented by feel good portraits where the values of hockey – following authority, respecting tradition, and working hard – became simultaneously the values of the town and the nation. While the values were conservative, Hometown Hockey was constantly improving in terms of representation. The show made an effort to include women’s hockey players as guests and emphasized local girl’s hockey. In events around the Vancouver area, Hometown Hockey highlighted the broadcasts of Hockey Night Punjabi. In the vision of Canada on the show, anyone can play hockey, but the very act of playing hockey is presented as proof that the white settler state is heart warmingly “good” at its core because it has created a meritocratic game where hard work wins conditional acceptance.

Most viewers were probably tuning in specifically for the featured game, and were met with a broadcast suggesting not just how to interpret hockey, but their country. This was I how first encountered Hometown Hockey. Why does a hockey program spend so much time trying to inculcate “life lessons”? It is easy to imagine a program that celebrates the sport and the people within it without having to also serve as a message about what Canada should be. Hockey does not have to be the nation, but could be just a game that provides enjoyment to many, but not even most, Canadians.

The answer returns to the need for Canada to have an origin myth. As a settler colonial state designed largely to extract value from the land’s natural resources and a nation whose independence was slowly negotiated from Great Britain, the concept of “Canada” has been shakier than most imagined communities. That the question has to be asked so often and the story re-told on a weekly basis during the hockey season represents the fragility the myth rests on. As hockey is presumably important to the show’s viewers, the attributes associated with hockey become linked and an emotional investment in hockey could also strengthen an emotional investment in this mythic past. Discussions about decolonization often lead to negative emotional reactions in many settlers (Schick 2012). The “race to innocence” (Razack 1998), where settlers defend the past, is given substantial re-enforcement by sticking hockey with nostalgic nationalism. Their inter-relatedness encourages a defense of this nostalgic nationalism because it is also a defense of hockey. Severing the emotional connection people feel to settler colonialism through hockey, while emphasizing this would not effect hockey, is an important aspect for Canadians to actually push back against.

On the episode which most directly dealt with settler colonialism, the visit to Enoch Cree Nation 135, the on-air broadcast primarily focused on hockey as a venue for resilience. Co-host Ron MacLean opined “hockey is a wonderful way to do things together. We’ve come through truth and reconciliation”, as if the process is over and Canada is starting from a clean slate.

Chief Billy Morin discussed how it was important for him to bring minor hockey back to Enoch Cree Nation 135 after 30 years without a team. Morin said “our kids have something real to look up to” and that “you get out what you put in”. Actress Ashley Callingbull talked about traveling across the world working with underprivileged children, saying “I came from really nothing and was able to make something of myself and can share that with other people”. These are good messages on their own, but when the episode only focuses on resilience and hard work, two traits linked to founding settler colonial myth, it is comforting to the settler viewer. The need for resilience severs ties between settler action on decolonization and shifts all responsibility for resurgence to Indigenous communities themselves without any consideration of on-going structural failures to support Indigenous reserves.

However, to me the most interesting video on Hometown Hockey‘s Facebook page was not on the broadcast, but only uploaded to the Facebook page. During the live portion of the event, co-host Tara Slone took the stage to explain how Hometown Hockey came to Enoch Cree Nation 135.

it’s easy to live in a bubble… as soon as you start travelling Canada, you are like ‘holy crap’, I have been woefully undereducated my entire life. And so I think it struck us all at the same time that these are stories that needed to be told. It especially struck when Canada was celebrating its 150th birthday that, you know, not everybody was celebrating Canada 150 and for very good reasons. A lot of things clicked for us. We started to do land acknowledgements at the beginning of every broadcast. And realized that if we could provide the platform for Indigenous voices to be heard that is a way we can show our allyship and we can continue to learn along the way cause we still have a long way to go

Slone here deployed an entirely different vocabulary than what was said on the broadcast, which points towards what made it on-air is a meticulously crafted view of nationhood rather than dealing with the complexity of what the legal entity of Canada has been and is. The idea that there were people in Canada who may have had “very good reasons” for not celebrating Canada 150 is antithetical to the core idea of Hometown Hockey. Slone hopefully will still be working in hockey broadcasting, as she is one of the best voices in mainstream media at pushing for hockey to change for the better. She used her platform on Hometown Hockey last season to address that “anybody who thinks that this [the NHL’s] culture is not deeply broken is wrong,” which was a welcome departure from the program’s usual stance on hockey culture.

A RCMP playing road hockey at Hometown Hockey in Surrey, BC. He has a RCMP jersey on, but is also in dress pants and has a gun in his holster.
An RCMP officer playing road hockey at the Hometown Hockey stop in Surrey BC (Photo by Brett Pardy)

There was something cool about a broadcast in theory celebrating all of Canada and not just the NHL cities. What would have made it actually cool is if it dealt more with communities as whole and not just the hockey aspect. I have a limited sample size, as I only went to one of the Hometown Hockey celebrations in person (Surrey, BC) in 2017. Canada’s small towns are generally not the enclaves of picturesque ponds and cottages as presented in Canadian imaginary, but more often strip malls and cul-de-sacs full of pick up trucks. A suitable setting to broadcast from often has to be created to resemble the nostalgic image of a community town square. The broadcast was set up in a constructed square, featuring at one end the mobile studio where MacLean and Slone broadcast from behind glass and a stage at the other, which hosted live music and hockey trivia games. A large screen was set up for a community outdoor viewing of the game. There were also autograph sessions with local NHL alumni and a ball hockey rink, where I saw an RCMP officer playing hockey with a kid while still wearing his gun. The event drawing people to the set cultivates the image of an organically hockey-enthused community and actively produces the “hometown” for audience consumption. Other than the music, there was nothing there for someone who was not already hockey enthused to enjoy. Hockey is not as hegemonic to the Canadian experience as Hometown Hockey suggests. Less than one in four kids play hockey and only about one in three Canadians follow the NHL. The in-person event was not growing the game.

Additionally, the on-TV features which did not focus on hockey, often celebrated in police, military, business, even oil work, and occasionally rock and country music, all domains of traditional masculinity. That local residents went on to success in these fields is proof that the communities are doing the “right” thing, and that the settler colonial masculine values which shaped the nation in the mythic past continue to operate. Meanwhile dozens of other forms of success, fields which celebrate values like creativity (other than music) and care were rarely ever represented. It would have been great to link the community’s hockey world with other aspects of the community, but that would have complicated the image of hockey as synonymous with the community.

It’s time to imagine what hockey broadcasting which reflects all people living in Canada, rather than endorsing a a limited vision of being Canadian, would look like.

References:

Razack, Sherene. 1998. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Schick, Carol. 2012. “White Resentment in Settler Society.” Race, Ethnicity, and Education 18, no. 1: 88-102. DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2012.733688.

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