Our Violent National Game: The Great Hockey Debate Continues

Article excerpt

UNLESS YOU DON'T OWN A TELEvision, you will be altogether familiar with the Tim Hortons ad featuring Sidney Crosby on screen and in voiceover. Cue the slow plinking of the piano and the home movies of kids and old timers, sticks in hand:

"Hockey?" asks the Next One. "Hockey's our game. But really it's much more than just a game. It's a passion that brings us all together. On frozen ponds. At the community rink. And in our living rooms. It's the feeling you got the first time you stepped on the ice. The feeling you had when you scored your first goal. Hockey is in our driveways. It's in our dreams. In every post-game celebration. It's in the streets every time your friend yells 'Car!' In every rink across the country. It's in our hearts. Hockey is that thought inside your head saying: Wouldn't it be amazing, getting up every day and playing, doing something that you love to do?"

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And there you have it in a 60-second nutshell. We, the people, certainly know how to marshal hockey as a national cultural identifier, a feel-good bond of commonality, a means to make ourselves feel simultaneously special, proud and sentimental. Not to mention a pretext to market maple-dipped doughnuts and double-doubles.

In the United States, they would call this patriotism. In the Canadian political lexicon, we really have no such word. So we call it citizenship instead.

To be a Canadian, you do not have to have played hockey, or love hockey, or follow hockey. You don't even have to know how to skate. But you do have to be able to appreciate the place of hockey in the national imagination such that the Tim Hortons ad is not only intelligible but effective. You may not know Veronica Tennant from Veronica Mars; you can care not for the Saskatchewan Roughriders; you can have no idea who Margaret Atwood is. But the resident of Canada who is oblivious to hockey is either newly arrived or worrisomely estranged from the culture. Show me a Canadian who could not understand what all the nail-biting fuss was about in the last event of the Vancouver Olympics, and I'll show you someone with a forged passport.

Other countries have their sports, of course, and have exported them to the world. But it is difficult to imagine any other country so vividly identified--or identifying itself--with a single game. Cricket may be a distinctively English pastime that became a passion from Kingston, Jamaica, to Islamabad, but it is hardly crucial to the sense of self of the British Isles. They sure don't play it in Glasgow, let me tell you.

And since no one except antipodean head cases plays Australian Rules Football, the sporting blueprint for the Mad Max movies, "footy" is not essential to the Australian character such that the latter could not exist without the former. Truth be told, although Aussie Rules is played from Brisbane to Freemantle, it's really a Melbourne game, not an Australian one.

Even the United States has no single sport that speaks its national character. Sure, baseball is America writ large, but so is football, so is basketball, so is NASCAR and nitro drag racing and WWE wrestling for that matter. In the U. S. of A., where everything has to be bigger and better, they have a whole clutch of sporting competitions that say America to the world.

And yes, Spain has bullfighting and Japan has sumo wrestling, but these are cultural practices that are merely particular to Spain and Japan, respectively. They are not their national cultures in and of themselves.

But Canada? Canada is hockey, to the world and to ourselves.

It is not the only thing by which the world knows us, certainly. There is our wildlife--the fauna of the boreal forests, the beaver and moose, along with the polar bears of the tundra. Nothing unusual about that. All sorts of countries are identified through their indigenous species. Qantas paints kangaroos on the tail fins of its aircraft. …