Game Plan

Reviewed by Christine Job

Karen Wall’s Game Plan: A Social History of Sport in Alberta reads as a labour of love. Wall offers the reader a delightfully detailed narrative that is meticulously researched and accessible to a multitude of audiences. Accumulating such a detailed account is no simple task: the author traversed the province’s local museums and archives to make a meaningful contribution to the cannon of Canadian sport history. Game Plan’s appeal reaches beyond the specialist, however, as historians (both professional and lay) would find the text worthwhile. Wall is particularly skilled in weaving together archival material, primary, and secondary resources to address the vantage points of stakeholders, founders, athletes, and citizens. This synthesis provides a provocative critical evaluation of the processes, power relations, and cultural dynamics of Alberta from a socio-historical perspective.

Game Plan takes the reader beyond the realm of fandom (e.g. scores and championships). Wall uncovers sporting activities rich in cultural heritage from the perspective of a “resident” and critical sports scholar. According to Wall, “stories about sport situate small details of everyday life in the larger sphere of meaning determined by a society’s cultural, social, and economic relations.” Drawing on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Wall highlights the social context in which sporting cultures were developed and addresses how such activities translated into codes of discipline and conduct now represented through rich traditions and organizations within Alberta.

Separated into three distinct sections, Game Play begins by establishing the early beginnings of Alberta’s sporting culture as typifying the pioneering spirit of Western Canada’s early settlers. In this section “Inventing Alberta Sports Culture,” Wall establishes the diversity of activities found in the province and attributes this broad range to the settlement patterns of the land beginning with grassroots participation followed by urbanization. With rich descriptions and accounts, the author emphasizes the roles of indigenous populations and the settlement of British upper-middle-class.

In the second section of the book titled “Writing the Rule Book,” Wall traces the transition from early recreational activities to amateur and professional organizations. This segment showcases old photographs and tributes to organizations and teams from the past. Wall provides detailed accounts of various summer and winter sporting activities for men and women, from lacrosse to curling. Here, she focuses on winning teams, influential stakeholders, and citizens while underscoring their activities in relation to increasing pressures to institutionalize sporting activities for Canadians locally, provincially, and nationally.

“The Social Body” rounds out the tripartite. Wall trends away from hagiography toward a critical approach of the culture and organization of Alberta sports. This section is by far the most critically complex compilation of the research and exemplifies Wall’s training as a sports scholar. At times her writing is poetic as she blends social theory and prose to convey a steeped message about is the meaning of sport and how it is “invented in the same sense that other spheres of culture are, through a process of selection and incremental action. Among all the grains of possibility that gather into patterns of cultural identity, sport is a hardy instance of how passions, more or less rational or irrational, take root and flourish in the imagination.” This section grounds contemporary issues such as gender, sexuality, and aggression in historical context while highlighting topics such as risk, the media, and mass marketing.

Game Plan is an exemplary account of sport and the role it has played in both shaping and identifying what it means to be an Albertan. Wall’s writing is clear, her research is concise, and she weaves together both primary and secondary resources in such a way that the readers may find themselves captivated by athletic accomplishments while remaining aware of the greater message linking sport to culture for her audience. In addition to her writing the notes, index, and bibliography of this text provide useful resources for academics and sport scholars alike.

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