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What does hockey mean to Canadians?

More than an ice sport, not yet a cult

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I should start by saying that I am not Canadian. I arrived in Canada in 2012 with a mind full of stereotypes: Canadians are all friendly, it’s going to be cold as hell, and everyone is going to play hockey. Having first landed in Fredericton, New Brunswick, a small Maritimes city, my experience was that these stereotypes fit the picture.
I had strangers in Fredericton saying, “Hello, how are you?” as I was walking down the street. It was so cold at times (the temperature went as low as -35C that winter), that my professors accepted my excuse of “it was simply too cold for me to leave my house” as valid when I didn’t make it to class. I also attended university games on a regular basis, and some weekends I went to see my friends’ siblings play in their Timbits league.
As I travelled more and more around the country — PEI, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and eventually British Columbia — those stereotypes slowly deteriorated. Not everyone was nice, not everywhere was cold, and as it turns out, not everyone loves hockey.
Hence, when I am faced with the question: “What does hockey mean to Canadians?” I have to say, “Well, it depends; what Canadian are we talking about here?” As I investigated and asked experts about the issue, I discovered there are some things about hockey that unite Canadians, for better or for worse.

Dolla dolla bills y’all

First, playing hockey is going to cost you. This is something I hadn’t considered much before now. I hadn’t realized the large amounts of money that go into playing hockey. I come from a country where all you need is a ball to play the sport everybody loves. But here, in Canada, the pastime requires skates, equipment, sticks, renting the ice, and even getting a coach.
As SFU’s hockey coach Mark Coletta explains, “The expense starts coming into play as the kids get better. And the development and the practices and the extra stuff you have to do now to become better is where the money starts to come into play.”
As an investigation by Spectator revealed, players who make it to the Ontario Hockey League are usually from “suburban neighbourhoods where most people are well-educated, earn high incomes, and live in expensive homes.” So it would seem hockey is not as inclusive as Canadians like to think because you need a certain amount of income to play the sport.
Still, there are programs being implemented to bridge this gap. We don’t have to go further than our own community to discover programs like the First Shift Program at the Burnaby Minor Hockey Association. Here, 45 spots are saved for girls and boys ages 6–10, where they are provided with the equipment in order to get involved.
This being said, the registration fee is $199, which could be a little high for families who live under the poverty line. As communication professor Courtney Szot explains, “There are programs in place. How effective they are is a whole other question.”

No ice time guaranteed

Once you’ve tried out for a team, paid the fees, and invested in the equipment, it’s not for sure you’ll get the ice time you want or need. There are factors that are in place when you play hockey, including race, gender, and class that can affect your experience with the game.
“You look at the Canadian national team and it does not represent Canada. It’s not representative necessarily of the people, of the citizens, of our nation”, asserts Szot.
This shakes Canadian values of inclusivity. Nonetheless, the sport is changing and it’s slowly transforming. “I think hockey has no colour. I think it’s changed over the years and I think that’s more or less a Canadian philosophy. There are no colours in anything that we do,” Coletta tells me.
While some advocate that hockey comes with a colour and a class, that hasn’t been true for all professional players. Talents like Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter, or PK Subban have all started successful careers. As coach Coletta says, “It’s my personal philosophy. I mean, at the end of the day, if you can skate and you can play, I don’t care if you are black, red, green, or blue — you are going to play on our team.”

A changing culture?

Starting from the little leagues, “minor hockey, grassroots hockey, is becoming more diverse than it has ever been because of new Canadians,” says Szot. This makes sense, considering the multicultural background the country is based on, and the influx of immigrants and refugees that land in the big white north every day.
Likewise, the sport in itself is also changing. “I would argue that the game is definitely faster and more fluent than it use to be,” clarifies Coletta. This is primarily due to a number of things including equipment, skill development, player talent, and rules.
Yet living in Vancouver, people might not see this because hockey doesn’t have to be present in people’s lives if they don’t want it to be. After all, in urban areas the amount of activities that could replace hockey as a sport or as entertainment are immense.
When you direct yourself to other parts of Canada where winter can last up to six months, “you are forced. Hockey is right there in front of you all the time. Where here, it’s not,” says Coletta. I remember my life in Fredericton, and have to agree with this sentiment.
“In big cities in Canada, it’s different from rural Canada. You grow up in Vancouver and hockey is cool, it’s something you do. But when you go to a small town rural Canada in the prairies or something [like that], that is all there is,” says Szto.
As I look back to my life in the Maritimes, I realize how different it was to my life here in Vancouver. Hockey played a significant role when it came to my assimilation into Canadian culture. By attending hockey games, I learned that regardless of my background, I was welcomed in Canada.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that people were allowed to fight. I loved it; growing up with a sport where acting was at times necessary to call a foul and score a goal, I was shocked to discover that there was a game where the rules allowed players to hit each other.

The Canada paradoxic

On the one side, you’ve got this idea of Canada being friendly and welcoming. But on the other, your winter national sport is one of the most aggressive games played at a professional level.
As former Prime Minister Stephen Harper explains, “Hockey is a fast, aggressive, tough sport and that’s an important part of the Canadian psychology and history. It’s sometimes forgotten because Canadians are thought of as peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant — which I think we are — but that’s not inconsistent with tough and aggressive and ambitious, which is also part of the national character.”
Which, according to Szto, is another way of saying, “We are the peace-loving country. We are not supposed to go to war, but at the same time, don’t push our buttons. Hockey is the one thing that we can use to assert a sort of dominance on the world stage.”
After all, nobody can deny the historical importance it had during the Cold War summit series of 1972 between Canada and the USSR. “It was your symbolic war on ice,” says Szot. The winner not only decided the outcome of the game, but also, in a way, the winning values and ideologies.
What I ultimately learned was that hockey means many different things. “Hockey can do whatever you want it to do,” professor Szot explains. “It is [a] very malleable tool. You can use it for whatever your purposes are. For good and for evil and everything in between.”

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