Canadians and Hockey

It’s spring and a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of The Stanley Cup.

Is it possible to be Canadian and not understand hockey? The question is not whether or not you like hockey. There are myriad numbers of Canadians who are neither here nor there on our national sport. No, the question is about the deeply ingrained cultural commitment to a puck and a stick, a game, a defining characteristic of our northern nation.

Hockey has not always been a part of Canada. The origins of hockey find their footing at almost exactly the same point in history as the origins of the Canadian nation, some time in the mid to late 19th century. There are competing stories about the origins of hockey, but the most likely is that it came to this continent as a field sport, not as an ice sport, in the form of the Irish game of “hurley”.

Since hurley was a field sport, playing it in the winter could be problematic in a place where snow covered a frozen field for 5 or more months per year. So the option was to play hurley on frozen ground. If you’ve ever tried to play a field sport on a snowy field, you know how tough that can be. And think of how tough it would be to clear a snow covered field by hand.

This left one option – clearing a smooth ice sheet such as a local pond and playing hurley on ice. Playing on ice added a new dimension, a dimension requiring a lot more physical skill and control. It is not a great leap to see the conversion from hurley to hockey, especially if you understand the frozen winter landscape of most of Canada.

But not all Canadians love hockey. In fact many of us are only interested in the game during the last few weeks of the hockey season, and only if our home team is still playing. There are even a few of us who go through the whole of fall, winter and spring and fail completely to notice the powerful rituals of our national pastime.

I grew up in one of those moderate hockey homes. My Dad was not a fanatic and my Mother probably didn’t even notice when the season began or ended. But we did watch playoff games, and Hockey Night in Canada was the only thing on the CBC in our small home well outside of Vancouver. But I really saw little of the real game.

So why is it that when a hockey game shows up on TV, no matter where in the world, I can explain the ebb and flow of play, understand the referee signals and even quibble with some of the calls. Why is it that I know icing from offside and a major from a minor. Why is it, even though I ignore this national treasure of a game most of the time, that I can still tell you who is hot and who is not, who is winning and who is losing, who is play-off bound and who is headed for the golf course.

There are several reasons why Canadians who know nothing about Parliament and who think the French question has something to do with poutine can tell you all about a game they have never played, not even on the street in front of their house. The first of these is the CBC.

When I was a child, there was only the CBC. This meant that no matter what we did, we watched Hockey Night in Canada. Or we watched nothing. There were plenty of days when we watched nothing. But there were enough where we were so desperate that we would even watch a Montreal/Toronto regular season game even though we knew nothing counted until the playoffs.

The CBC has a lot to answer for in this modern era. Left-leaning, feather bedded, over funded – all kinds of slurs and slights have been hurtled at the CBC. But it has always given us a good dose of our national sport. And when you have no other choice, you watch it and learn.

Our national media adds to the cacophony that is the coverage of hockey in Canada. It is impossible in this country to listen to any newscast, any time, anywhere and not hear a hockey report. From September to June the reporters talk about games and results. From June to September they talk hirings, firings, drafts and trades.

This media saturation is almost unnatural in its consistency. It is ubiquitous, pervasive and subversive. It undermines all other sports coverage. In the middle of the CFL football season, when critical Canadian football games are in the midst of play, our media outlets will lead with a hockey story whenever it is available, no matter how insignificant or pallid.

Our media is not fascinated with hockey because it is our national sport. They are trapped by it because it gets ratings. Canadians want to hear about hockey, no matter if it is July or January. Rich Canadians, poor Canadians, eastern Canadians, western Canadians, immigrants and long time Canadian families all want to hear about their team and its happenings.

So in this saturation of the airwaves even those who don’t watch the game see enough in snippets to know it. Even those who are not interested in the game catch enough in the highlights to know it. And even those poor benighted souls seeking freedom from our national obsession hear enough in their news to know it.

There is a plus side to hockey saturation. No matter where they are from, no matter where they meet on the planet, no matter what their heritage or culture, all Canadians have something to talk about besides the weather. And since it is winter for more than five months of the year in much of Canada, even talk of weather leads to snow and ice, and that takes us back to hockey.

In other words, it really is not possible to be Canadian and not understand hockey. And if you live in this country and don’t understand the game, then perhaps you need to ask yourself…”Am I truly a Canadian?”


  1. Hey Rick, I enjoyed your summary of hockey's hold on Canadians. College football in the SEC has a similar position in the minds of southerners.

    Several years ago when the Canucks were I the finals I found myself in B.C. and following the games. This was unusual because we don't get hockey on tv or in the news down here. As the Canucks started strong and then gave up the ghost in game seven I found myself terribly upset about a game ans a team I had not cared about forever 15 years. I was surprised at my own reaction; seems the heritage is still there!

    Now if only LSU and Coach Miles can get it together and trump Alabama and Sabin, all will be well in the South.