Hockey as Canadian Popular Culture: Team Canada 1972, Television and the Canadian Identity

Article excerpt

For too long students and writers concerned about a distinctive Canadian cultural style have drawn upon the insights of the "high culture" of literature, art and history. In a time when popular culture, especially the culture of the electronic media, is beginning to be studied more systematically in Canada, it is time to ask whether the focus of study shouldn't be shifted to include the popular. This is especially true with regard to one of Canada's most distinctive gifts to the world, the game of ice hockey, which -- warts and all -- is considered to be one of the most telling things about us.

A la recherche d'un style canadien bien particulier, plusieurs etudiants et ecrivains se sont, pendant trop longtemps, interesses uniquement a une culture litteraire, artistique et historique "savant." A l'epoque ou l'on commence a etudier de facon plus systematique la culture populaire du Canada, et plus specifiquement la culture des medias electroniques, il est temps de se demander si il ne faudrait pas elargir le sujet d'etude pour y ajouter la culture populaire; surtout si l'on considere, avec ou sans raison, que l'une des plus belles contributions que le Canada ait offerte au monde, le hockey sur glace, est percue comme l'une des elements les plus representatifs du Canada.

It is commonplace to assert that ice hockey signifies something about Canadian popular culture, indeed, about Canadian culture as a whole. Yet what it might signify has not been explored at any length by scholars. The 1972 Canada-Soviet series can serve as a useful model to probe certain questions. How does electronic technology impact upon a mass audience? Is there a bardic function for television? Only recently has popular culture theory become advanced enough to attempt an analysis of these questions. In Canada Learns to Play: The Emergence of Organized Sport, 1807-1914, Alan Metcalfe tells us that G.M. Trevelyan wrote the social history of 19th-century Great Britain without once mentioning the most famous Englishman of his time, the cricket champion W.G. Grace.(f.1) If Canada were substituted for England, Donald Creighton for Trevelyan, and Foster Hewitt or Wayne Gretzky for W. G. Grace, we would be going some distance towards framing the theme of this study, namely ice hockey in Canadian culture as perceived through the codes and aesthetics of electronic technology.

Hockey and television still seem inseparably linked in the popular imagination. On 7 October 1992, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) presented a televised documentary of the 1972 international hockey series between Team Canada and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a program that explored the lyricism and the menace that suffuses hockey at most levels. Later that winter hockey announcer Danny Gallivan, for years the eloquent and elegant voice of the Montreal Canadiens, died. On 28 February 1993, hockey's dark side was further probed by another CBC "hybrid drama" involving the career of former Toronto Maple Leaf Brian "Spinner" Spencer. The theme was a "life cursed by violence" both on and off the ice.(f.2) But it is the Canada-Soviet Series of September 1972 that offers an especially useful paradigm for a study of "our game" on two levels: first, the series occasions reflection on the cultural nexus of the great national pastime; and second, electronic technology was sufficiently developed by 1972 to allow a fairly sustained probe into some of its codes and structures. Especially interesting is mass technology's capacity to transform play into a form of collective drama.

Popular culture theory provides the methodological tools to study systematically the game that -- for good or for ill -- has helped define Canadians.(f.3) While no irrefutable thesis has yet come to light as to why hockey looms so large in the Canadian popular imagination, Americans have long known what we were about. "Canadians value hockey so highly," wrote the authors of The Social Significance of Sport: An Introduction to the Sociology of Sport, that "it has been called Canada's culture. …