Hockey Night *is* Canada
“Hockey captures the essence of Canadian experience in the New World. In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the chance of life, and an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.” — Stephen Leacock
The National Hockey League entered its third work stoppage in just two decades on September 15, 2012, putting the season on hold as hockey’s doomsday clock struck midnight with no last-minute resolution.
Fans would wait 113 days for the owners and players to reach an agreement. The previous lockout, a mere eight years ago, resulted in the cancellation of the entire season; Lord Stanley’s Cup lingered in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as winter turned to spring. It would be a long wait for Stanley, not to mention hockey fans wishing to see their favourite teams take to the ice.
Canadian fans are renowned for die-hard support and loyalty to their colours — a Toronto Maple Leaf fan would never be caught dead wearing anything rouge. However, if there is one thing Canadian fans are especially good at, it’s taking a punch in the chops — then coming right back for another.
After the NHL tortured the country in 2004 with the longest lockout in sports history, fans responded by shattering attendance records the following season without a second thought. Canadian teams played before nearly full stadiums all season, while Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver sold out every home game. With attendance of 872,193, The Canadiens broke their single-season record, meaning one in every two city-dwelling Montrealers visited Les Habs. Many fans planned to boycott the NHL after the season began; most of them came back. Surely it’s not because Canadian fans are shameless (. . . right?), but it certainly begs the question: why?
It is partly because hockey is etched as a way of life for many Canadians — watching, playing, talking, and dreaming about hockey. Some say it also reflects the essence of being Canadian. But what is that essence exactly, which Stephen Leacock suggested captures our national experience? More importantly: If he speaks the truth when he dramatically claims that hockey affirms we are still alive . . . what are we without hockey?
Canada and Hockey Rise Together
Hockey is certainly engrained in our history. The first organized games took place in the mid-1800s, and Montreal students played the first recorded match in 1875. Meanwhile, Canada was rising as a nation in just its eighth year of independence, having been granted autonomy from Britain with little drama — unlike the United States, which fought for its freedom through the American Revolution. That made for a peaceable atmosphere — but little for 19th-century Canadians to get passionate about.
Except hockey, argues Vancouver Island University History professor Timothy Lewis. “Shortly after confederation, hockey catches on and it begins to evolve into its modern form,” he says. “At the exact same time the nation is beginning to evolve into its modern forms, and the two are growing together. There was not a lot of passion for [Canada], or for what it meant to be Canadian. It’s a large nation, with a lot of regional division, so there’s not much to bring the nation together . . . [hockey] starts to become a commonality across the nation.” Hockey was a perfect match for Canada’s prolonged winters and often frigid climate. Much of the early economy was seasonal, meaning fishermen, farmers, and lumbermen spent months with little work and had spare time to devote to recreational activities. Lewis says hockey was also a remedy for the crisis of masculinity many men endured. “It’s a time period when the Christian church was probably at a height in terms of influence in Canada, and female values of love, patience, and kindness were greatly valued and becoming projected on men too.” Women were originally banned from playing hockey, allowing men the opportunity to display historically masculine values of physical power, strength, and courage. However, it was Lord Stanley’s daughter Isobel who helped convince her father to donate hockey’s most prestigious trophy to Canada.
A Reflection of our Patriotism
Since its creation, hockey has come to serve as a patriotic outlet for many Canadians. Outside the rink, we aren’t known for brazen nationalism and flamboyant cheering, or collectively gregarious behavior of any sort, for that matter. We are “supposed” to be those subdued, sheltered, and agreeable people from above the United States. So where did all this hollering come from?
But Canadians came upon a vital realization during the 1920s, at the dawn of professional leagues: We’re pretty damn good at hockey. We won the sport’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1920 with a resounding 14-1 victory over Sweden, followed by another gold medal in 1924 after outscoring opponents 132-3 in six matches. Newfoundland’s Harry “Moose” Watson led the tournament with 46 points. We’d found something we were uniquely good at, perhaps for the first time ever.
The arrival of “Hockey Night in Canada” (HNIC) on the airwaves in 1931 was as vital to national connectivity as the Canadian Pacific Railway. Few opportunities for entertainment existed during the Depression, but radio was an accessible and affordable option for many. As many as three million Canadians tuned in every Saturday night to an NHL game. Announcer Foster Hewitt was instantly one of the greatest Canadian celebrities of all time, greeting listeners every week with “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”
World War II removed over a million Canadians from their living rooms and placed them on the front lines. HNIC’s impact became clear, says Lewis, when soldiers bemoaned missing the broadcasts. “We had all kinds of officers saying, ‘More than cigarettes, more than packages from home, what really gets the guys excited are the hockey broadcasts. It just reminds them so much of home.’”
The Canadian military shipped recordings of games overseas to raise morale. Even the Germans realized how much our troops loved hockey. “I think in 1944-45, some of their propaganda broadcasts in English to the Canadian troops said, ‘Now boys, wouldn’t you rather be back home listening to the hockey games? Why are you over here fighting in Germany?’”