Hockey Margins

  • Michael Robidoux
    Stickhandling through the Margins: First Nations Hockey in Canada. University of Toronto Press
  • Nicolas Moreau (Editor) and Audrey Laurin-Lamothe (Editor)
    Le Canadien de Montréal : Une légende repensée. Presses de l'Université de Montréal
  • Michael Buma
    Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels. McGill-Queen's University Press
Reviewed by Jason Blake

Michael Buma’s fine Refereeing Identity is the only one of these three recent hockey books to focus on literature. Buma’s own shorthand rendering of the book’s broader argument is: “[Canadian hockey] novels . . . typically work in the service of homogenizing nationalism and traditional masculinity.” If that sounds both grandiosely programmatic and simplistic—as if novelists worry more about national unity than language or plot—Buma builds a solid case in showing how, collectively, hockey fiction often does tend to champion a Don Cherryesque image of Canada.

The freshest part of Refereeing Identity explores masculinity. Yes, there is intelligent discussion of the usual hockey fights and “ol’ time hockey” here, but even more captivating are the fuzzy on-ice cases Buma highlights. He insightfully points out where, and how, violence, traditional masculinity, and gender issues converge. Among the boys, he quotes Mark Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! Bleeding and in need of help, the rough-and-tumble Drinkwater is nevertheless choosy about the first aid product: “A tampon? You put a tampon on my face?” “Sure,” replies the referee, “they’re efficient at soaking up blood.” Among the girls, there’s Hal in Cara Hedley’s Twenty Miles, who grew up playing contact hockey with boys. At her first university women’s team try-out, she forgets the no-contact rule and coolly bodychecks a future teammate. The victim recovers and declares, “I was just laid out by a fucking Barbie doll.” At such moments, traditional “masculine toughness is interrupted or diminished by the intrusion of unexpected items or thoughts associated with femininity.”

Buma is a clever reader and there are plenty of enjoyable interpretations in Refereeing Identity. Sometimes, however, he under-emphasizes the mixed textual messages being sent. When discussing Robert Sedlack’s Horn of a Lamb, he quotes a jingoistic anti-America rant by a feisty old fellow nicknamed Badger (pesterer?). The pensioner’s slippery slope argument is that losing an unnamed Manitoba-based NHL team means that soon “we’ll be stuffing our faces with Big Macs and singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” Buma writes that the “speech goes on for almost a full page and is intended to be taken at face value (i.e., Badger isn’t offered as a caricature or satire), and lays the groundwork for what will later become a campaign to save the team.” No reason is given for why the reader “is intended” to take the cliché-ridden speech “at face value.” More significantly, Buma does not mention that Badger, like so many fervent anti-Americans, is American—a fact that adds an ironic edge to this blade of anti-Americanization.

Nit-picking aside, Refereeing Identity is an excellent book. Exactly 300 pages of text and endnotes, Refereeing Identity flows well and smoothly. The index and endnotes are thorough, and page 297 rewards the reader with a very funny Leafs joke. Buma neatly and helpfully divides his ample bibliography into primary and secondary sources, and the only hockey novel neglected is John Geddes’ crystalline The Sundog Season.

Stylistically speaking, Robidoux’s Stickhandling through the Margins is a potpourri. Highly theoretical in some chapters, Robidoux uses ideas about the “colonial imaginary” to inform his discussions of First Nations hockey. As Robidoux relates his hockey journeys to tournaments in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and Alkali Lake, BC (among other places), he moves from a traditionally academic tone to a more anecdotal style of argument. Chapter 1 is redolent with “dialectics of cultural formation” and “epistemic paradigms.” In chapter 3, he provides immediacy by quoting his “field book”: “It’s a good thing this tournament is not body contact, otherwise these guys would get killed.” If this shift in voice is surprising in an academic study, it reflects a scholar who is truly and bodily involved in his work. After all, Robidoux’s field research took him to many a First Nations tournament, many a post-game social affair, a sweat lodge, and of course the odd game of shinny.

Robidoux is extremely careful not to appropriate First Nations hockey by stamping a clear, singular meaning on what he calls “other ways of being through sport.” For example, he describes a fight involving former NHL enforcer Gino Odjick at a First Nations tournament and notes cautiously that his “Euro-Canadian” outsider’s view “of the event made little sense to the [First Nations] people, . . . exposing the cracks within my own Western imaginary.” Often, Robidoux is a neutral recording angel. He quotes frequently from (often funny) interviewees to provide a sense of other brands of hockey being played in Canada. Every reader of this book will learn something about First Nations hockey cultures.

The collection Le Canadien de Montréal : Une légende repensée primarily reconsiders the social history of the fabled red, white, and blue. Though there is no weak essay in this volume, a few stand out because they show the long cultural reach of the Montreal Canadiens. Olivier Bauer provides an overview of hockey reverence—“entre la foi et l’idolâtrie”—between those who (misguidedly) pray for the Habs to win and those who (very misguidedly) make a religion out of their beloved Habs. Jonathan Cha’s “‘La ville est hockey’ : Au-delà du slogan, une quête d’identité urbaine” examines how North American cities compete to be hockier than thou by designating particular streets to ice hockey. Not content just to dominate the airwaves, hockey takes over cities in geographical terms.

Le Canadien could have benefitted from cross-referencing of essays. At least three times one is re-informed about the famous Richard Riot of 1955—a topic capably covered in Suzanne Laberge’s lead-off “L’affaire Richard/Campbell : Le hockey comme vecteur de l’affirmation francophone québécoise.” In one chapter, Howie Morenz, “né à Mitchell en Ontario,” has his 1937 funeral “devant 50 000 personnes”; in another, he becomes a “vedette[] locale[] anglophone[]” whose funeral was attended by “25 000 personnes” at the Montreal Forum. But what’s a mythical few thousand among fans?

Happily, all three of these volumes contain recent hockey-themed artwork on their cover, a sure indication that hockey is finally fueling traditional culture; even if one of these artworks is a massive graffiti-homage to le Canadien.

This review “Hockey Margins” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 154-56.

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