Footprints: Canadian Sports Stories: Summer. McArthur & Company Publishing
Sport in Canada: A History. Oxford University Press and
Saskatchewan Sports: Lives Past and Present. Canadian Plains Research Center
Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman. TSAR Publications
Now is the Winter: Thinking about Hockey. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. and
Canadian Hockey Literature: A Thematic Study. University of Toronto Press
Over the past decade, many books on Canadian sports have appeared. Some, such as Dave Toms’ Footprints: Canadian Sports Stories: Summer (2004), alert us, albeit with tabloid brevity and breathlessness, to the un-noted, the ones we too easily forget: Arnie Boldt, pioneer Paralympics high jumper, or, though he has more of a literary heritage to conjure with, Tom Longboat. Biographical dictionaries, such as Saskatchewan Sports: Lives Past and Present (2007) edited by Holden Stoffel, provide a glimpse of more neglected Canadian sport stories: Phil Lederhouse (1915-91), “one of the greatest blind golfers in the world.” Stoffel’s book also pays some attention to writers who make athletes’ reputations: for example, David Dryburgh, sports writer for the Regina Leader-Post. CanLit fans might like to see David Carpenter or Steve Shriver in such a catalogue. In partial contrast, a basic textbook Sport in Canada: A History (2005) by Don Morrow and Kevin B. Wamsley, historians at the University of Western Ontario, turns more than occasionally to folk poetry to demonstrate popular images of Canadian sport. In one set of enthusiastic rhyming couplets, Barbara Ann Scott is “Canada’s Valentine,” granted license “to skate school figures in our heart.” This extremely limited bit of context establishes some dimensions of this review. One is to notice the neglected and overlooked. Another is, appropriately for this journal, to reflect on how sport is written, and to wonder how literature contributes to and questions a dominant cultural trope.
Hockey is hardly overlooked in this country. But academic (or near-academic) studies of hockey have been scarce. This neglect makes Jason Blake’s Canadian Hockey Literature indispensable. Its Notes and Bibliography provide a surprising sense of the range and variety of little-known hockey writing, even to those who are convinced the topic is ubiquitous in Canada. Blake’s study is primarily a survey: it is confined with few exceptions to English Canada and to fiction. Fiction, Blake asserts, “offers a nuanced, literary view of the game.” But, given this early rationale, the focus on fiction and on thematic approach means the nuance—both in story, and equally in poetry (think of Shriver on the lexicon of the dressing room)—often eludes. But, the plot and character descriptions and summaries are clear and helpful indices to ideas of nation, violence, and the freedom that inhere in skating on ice. Stylistic analyses are rare, but I was continually impressed by the range of allusion (Richard Ford to Johan Huizinga to Don DeLillo and Rick Mercer), and this enthusiast’s comments on Carrier’s hockey sweater transcending the language divide, or his nice analogy (hockey is a sonnet—shinny is free verse) are some of the genuine delights of this book.
Kelly Hewson’s “You Said You Didn’t Give a Fuck about Hockey” is the final essay in Now is the Winter: Thinking about Hockey (2009), a collection of twelve pieces originating in a 2007 conference. Hewson tells how she became “a citizen of the hockey nation” during the Calgary Flames’ 2007 Stanley Cup run, and then complicates that story with a shrewd tongue-in-cheek unpacking of three terms: National, Hockey, and League. A deft and irreverent “close reading” of the word “hockey” culminates in a celebration of “non-normative” hockey texts, including opera, film, songs (her title comes from The Tragically Hip), erotica, and the game imagined in the Ivory Coast, Antarctica, and the South Asian diaspora. Hewson’s critical alertness to complications of the normative national identity echoes in much of the rest of the collection, which includes Anne Hartman on the trickster dimension of women’s shinny, Brian Kennedy on “scripting” the NHL game according to Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, David McNeil’s affectionate speculations about hockey photos as text, Sam McKegney on sports writing and racialization of the Jonathan Cheechoo story, and E. W. Mason on story-telling techniques in New Zealand sports writing. The collection is supplemented by a rich bibliography and a helpful index. Along with the Jamie Dopp and Richard Harrison collection, students of hockey writing must pay close attention to these works.
In the discussion period at the end of the fourth of Adam Gopnik’s 2011 Massey Lectures, the first question concerned why he hadnot said anything about women’s hockey. “I left that part out,” he apologized, “to fit the speaking time allowed, but it’s the best demonstration of my argument that hockey can be compelling without the goonery.” Sheema Khan’s Of Hockey and Hijab relates the stunning beauty of an un-violent (almost) women’s game to the violence—actual and virtual—of a society uncomfortable with Mohammed. These short essays shift topics and connections readily, modestly advocating for intercultural dialogue in every compact paragraph. Many of these pieces do not focus on hockey, but hockey is the most persistent cultural touchstone. Take for example, “Funny,” whose topic is the “cartoon fiasco of 2006.” Khan opens wondering why bruiser Dave Semenko played on the same line as the elegant Wayne Gretzky. She finds an answer from Don Cherry. But then she reflects on the enforcer explanation—both for the Oilers, and for those outraged by cartoons in a Danish newspaper. “The strong man is not the one with physical prowess, cautioned Muhammad, but the one who controls oneself when angry.” From this alert—pitched at both non-Muslim and Muslim readers—she turns to doctrine and history on the treatment of prisoners. Prisoners could win their freedom by teaching ten children how to read. “Imagine,” she notes in a characteristic wry turn to the interrogative, bartering literacy for freedom. “Shouldn’t this be somewhere in the Geneva Conventions?” The essay moves then from the Bush White House, to Canadian troops in Afghanistan, to an affirmation of common values of dialogue, hope and respect. These are nicely summed up in a personal recall of her son building Islamic calligraphy using Lego (a Danish toy) and urging Canadian Muslims not to boycott Danish food products, but buy Lego with its potential to build possibilities for their kids.
Khan’s advocacy for “strength in diversity” is the more persuasive for her constant inclination to “address tensions within her own tradition first.” She provides helpful summaries of Koranic tenets and of the five principles of Sharia, while turning repeatedly to an attentive reading of the Koran and what the Prophet says. Readers of this journal will also be pleased by her steady attention to language, semantic nuance, etymology, and the subtleties of translation.
Khan’s musing on intercultural reciprocity is an accumulating essay on Canadian identity in the world. That it turns so often to hockey is a cliche? that works. “No game is more stirring,” Kahn writes. And whether she is telling about the awkwardness of Muslim women amidst the “casual nudity of the locker room,” starting an intramural hockey team for women at Harvard, taking her son to a Habs game, or tearing up at the playing of “O Canada,” this is a testament to what she claims is the alternate Canadian trait—dialogue. Hockey is talking to the hijab. Stirring.
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