Hockey in political context

Oct 03, 2002, vol. 25, no. 3
By Julie Ovenell-Carter

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When the puck drops on the start of the National Hockey League's regular season Oct. 9, Irwin Shubert's Canadian studies 390 students - past and present - are sure to be watching the annual ice drama with new eyes.

Shubert's long-running course, Hockey in Canadian Popular Culture, fills up fast. In the last decade, more than 1,500 SFU students from across the disciplines have enrolled in the class to examine hockey's impact on Canadian society at all levels.

“No matter what their major is, the students usually fall into three categories,” says Shubert (above). “I get the ones who come because they're curious; the ones who are died-in-the-wool hockey fans; and the ones who want to know why you can't watch the six o'clock news at six o'clock between April and June.”

Shubert says the hardcore fans often have a difficult time with the course because they “lack the patience with arguments and ideas that range beyond discussion of the game itself. In the first class, I tell people: if you're looking to show off your hockey trivia, you're in the wrong place.”

Shubert, himself a hockey player since the age of six, differentiates between the game of hockey (“those sepia-toned images of little kids skating around some frozen pond”) and the sport of hockey (“the business that tries to disguise itself as a cultural institution”). Using interdisciplinary readings, he challenges his students “to begin thinking about hockey in its broad historical, political, cultural, and economic contexts.”

For example, once the rules of the game were standardized in the late 1800s, hockey became just another commodity, says Shubert. “Here was something that could be packaged and sold across the country.” When the National Hockey League was created in 1914, a few entrepreneurs realized the masses would pay to watch skilled hockey in their leisure time. With the advent of cross-country radio broadcasts in 1925, the competition between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens suddenly became a national obsession. Today, says Shubert, “hockey is as much a machine for selling beer and trucks as it is a cultural icon.”

Shubert dismisses concerns by the media - and his students - that “Canada's national sport” is in danger of being swallowed up by the U.S. “It's a form of cultural blackmail,” he says.

“Hockey, the game, is not going to go away. Let's face it: hockey is about making your own fun in the winter. Try as it might, a hockey tradition is never going to get deeply rooted in the sunbelt.”

And to the pessimists who assert that Canadian hockey stars are losing ground to Russian, Swedish and U.S. players, Shubert offers this simple math formula: “Canadians represent 55 per cent of NHL players. At first, that looks bad because we used to represent 95 per cent of the players - but that was when the NHL only had six teams. Now we have 30 teams. So our 55 per cent looks pretty good when you consider that we're drawing from a pool of 28 million people, and those other countries - with a combined population over a billion - supply only 35 per cent of the NHL players. Everybody should just relax. Canada still knows how to play hockey.”

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