MONTEREY PARK, CA — Here in the United States, especially for those of us who did not grow up in the Northeast, or in states like Minnesota, where kids have the opportunity to play hockey on a frozen pond, or where road hockey games have been popular for many, many years, that innocent and pure part of the game remains a mystery.
Author and scholar Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., a native of Montreal, an Associate Professor of English at Pasadena City College, and a freelance hockey writer who covers the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks for Inside Hockey, previously wrote two books, Growing Up Hockey: The Life and Times of Everyone Who Ever Loved The Game, and Living The Hockey Dream: Interviews and Personal Stories From NHL Superstars and Other Lovers of The Game, in which he gave readers a good look into how hockey is so deeply rooted in Canadian culture and in the psyche of Canadians.
But in his new book, My Country Is Hockey: How Hockey Explains Canadian Culture, History, Politics, Heroes, French-English Rivalry and Who We Are As Canadians, Kennedy goes for the jugular in that regard, taking great pains to point out how hockey is inextricably intertwined with just about all things Canadian, heavily influencing Canadian thought, behavior, politics, and so much more, while also looking at how the purity and simple joy of the game is being lost.
“For Canadians, this game is so much their identity, and so closely tied to who they are, you really can’t think much about anything—Canadian politics, regionalism, the French-English issue, violence, identity—without hockey being at the center,” he stressed.
Although the book is written for readers beyond the borders of the Great White North, it will resonate strongest with Canadians.
Indeed, Kennedy’s words about his days playing road hockey after moving to Ontario from Quebec will certainly resonate with Canadians, not to mention others who grew up in cold climates.
“When I moved to Ontario I was [the new kid on the block],” said Kennedy, who moved to the United States twenty years ago, and has lived in the Los Angeles area for the last 15 years. “I moved there in the Summer, or late in the Spring, so the on-ice season was over. I remember—kids do this—bragging about growing up in Quebec and Montreal, and how good the hockey was there. There were a few other, little, weird things about the way these guys played road hockey, like one of them used a lacrosse stick for a goalie stick.”
“I thought that was really funny, and I was feeling really superior, coming from Montreal,” added Kennedy. “But when the on-ice season started the next Fall, I realized that the house league there was a lot better than the one back in Quebec. Every team had a game and a practice every week. Back in Quebec, we often didn’t have practices, because there was so much demand for ice time. I sure got my comeuppance quickly.”
“Now, my father lives in another city altogether from where I lived in Ontario. When I go home, and take a jog around the neighborhood, I see all the kids, with their games going on. If I had a stick, I could walk into any game, and no one would be asking, ‘who’s this grown-up?’ That’s the feeling I get. It’s just what we do.”
Playing on a frozen pond as a child is something that sets most Canadians, and those living in other cold climates, apart from those who live in areas where ice hockey can only be played on indoor rinks, something Kennedy illustrates so well that readers can almost experience it for themselves.
“The difference is that in those moments on the frozen pond, you’ve got nature, the elements [to deal with],” said Kennedy. “I’ve got a line in there somewhere about skating alone on a frozen pond, the snow swirling around you, with the puck magically attached to your stick.”
“When you’re doing that, it’s the sound, it’s the cold, it’s the fact that it’s you against nature, which could kill you if you weren’t careful,” added Kennedy. “But there’s also the fantasy element. When I’m alone on a pond, skating around, I’m untouchable. I’m going to win the Stanley Cup. You’re the king when you’ve got the puck on your stick. There’s no one who can stop you. When you’re doing that, it’s hard not to say to yourself, ‘this is who I am.’”
During his childhood in Montreal, the National Hockey League moved into Vancouver. In this book, Kennedy wrote of the cultural shift that occurred in Canada as a result, something many may not realize or understand.
“In the 70’s, the perception of the ‘old league’ people, the Original Six, was that the expansion to twelve teams [in 1967], with two teams in California, was strange, but that was just the Americanization of the game,” Kennedy noted. “But moving into Vancouver was another thing altogether. It was, ‘wow. So we’re big enough for more hockey? It’s not that teams should just go to the States?’”
“Yet there was some resentment from the east, particularly in Montreal and Toronto,” Kennedy added. “I remember, as a kid, thinking, ‘this team is the worst. They’re awful. Why are they putting a team there?’ That was ‘kid prejudice,’ in a way. But if you look at the history, the psyche of Canada changed when the game expanded [into Vancouver]. The mental map of Canada expanded on that day. Suddenly, the west was no longer just this frontier.”
The Purity And Joy Of The Game
In today’s NHL, virtually all of the players have moved away from the traditional wooden sticks, opting instead for the composite sticks that break far too easily.
Kennedy blasted the use of these sticks, asserting that hockey has lost one of its best traditions.
“The stick has a tradition that goes back to native culture, the Mi’kmaq culture [one of Canada’s First Nations], so it’s really important,” he emphasized. It’s also important to me because all the iconic images of the heroes I had in hockey had a wooden stick. There’s also a bit of resentment that the [composite sticks] are an over-complication of the game. I just don’t see the point.”
“We’ve lost an element of the game,” he added. “The sound, like the crack of the [baseball] bat, is still the purest sound in sports. Hockey has lost that.”
But even more has been lost from the move to composite sticks.
“It also goes back to how the game is played in childhood,” Kennedy lamented. “$200.00 for a hockey stick for an eight-year-old? C’mon. Where’s the purity of this game?”
Even before the composite sticks became all the rage, Canadian kids were already losing a lot of the purity and joy that was once a huge part of hockey.
“The unstructured game, kids just playing for fun, a lot of that’s gone,” Kennedy noted. “A lot of their ice time is consumed with drills, and much of that is a reaction.”
“When Canada lost the World Junior Championships a bunch of times in the 1990’s, our people began saying that our players aren’t as well tutored,” Kennedy added. “Hockey Canada, a government agency, got involved. They set up guidelines for coaching, and that sort of thing. But it does take the purity and the pleasure out of the game.”
“Being a kid was stick, puck, and skate around, pretending you were an NHL star. But a lot of kids today don’t get to do that. Just the idea that, after school, you grab your skates and your stick, and you go down to the corner, much of that has been lost, and I think that’s a shame.”
The Pivotal Moment For Canada
Kennedy points out that the 1972 Summit Series, featuring a team of Canadian all-stars from the NHL against the Soviet Red Army team, led by forward Valeri Kharlamov and goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, was a pivotal moment in Canada’s history and culture.
Prior to the eight-game, “friendly” series that was played in September 1972, prior to the start of the 1972-73 NHL season, the Soviets made themselves out to be vastly inferior to the Canadians.
Indeed, Canada was not only supposed to win the series, blowing out the Soviets in every game, but they believed the Soviets did not even belong on the same sheet of ice.
“They were fit, they had trained all summer, and the Canadians hadn’t [NHL players were accustomed to using training camps to get into shape back then],” Kennedy noted. “They were scientific in their approach. They never gave the puck away, and the Canadians did.”
“The Canadians were completely fooled by the messages from the Soviets, which were, ‘we’re here to learn, we know you’re the best, our equipment is terrible, we really don’t know how to practice, and we’re just hoping to admire how you play,’” Kennedy added. “None of that was true. “They were fit, smart, tough, and they could play hockey.”
Boy, could they.
The Soviets skated circles around the Canadians in the first game, winning it, 7-3. At that point, the Canadians knew they were in a tremendous dogfight.
“The way the [Canadian] players described it, they got better as they went along, and they bonded as a unit because of adversity,” Kennedy noted.
The series was tied entering the eighth game, and only a win was acceptable for Canada.
“[Goaltender] Ken Dryden said that while sitting in the locker room in Game 8, with the series tied, 3-3-1, and that game being the deciding one—they were between periods two and three, down 5-3, he knew they would win,” Kennedy explained.
Canada won the game when Paul Henderson scored at 19:26 of the third period, beating the legendary Tretiak, giving Canada a 6-5 win.
But did the better team win?
“You’ve asked the Canadian the ultimate question, and I find it very hard to admit that [the Soviets] were the better team, but the Canadians had the better superstars,” Kennedy admitted. “That’s what it boiled down to.”
“The Russians were a good team,” Kennedy added. “Every guy knew what he was supposed to do, and they had their superstars. Kharlamov was probably the best player in the world at that time, and Tretiak was spectacular. They had a deep team, their defensemen were big and tough, and they played a different game than we did.”
“That is the moment. It’s like the Apollo moon landing, or John F. Kennedy being shot. That series encapsulated the ‘us versus them’ thinking, the Cold War, maybe a little of Canadians coming of age in the world. We knew the Americans were fighting communism, and, in this series, the communists suddenly had a face. They were right there in our building.”
But for Canada, the 1972 Summit Series brought forth a more humbling reality.
“[Hockey is] not Canada’s, and even in Canada, it’s not Canada’s, in a way,” said Kennedy. “Since September 2, 1972, when they dropped the puck in Montreal, Phil Esposito grabbed it, went down to the other end, and scored on Tretiak. The Canadians ended up losing that game, 7-3. But that was the night, and it took years for Canadians to admit it, but that was the moment where we had to admit that other people could play the game, too, and it’s only continued.”
“There is this feeling that Canadians want to believe this game is theirs, and they want to preserve it, so there are times when I talk about that kind of stuff,” added Kennedy. “What I’m trying to do is plug into a debate that matters a lot to Canadians, along with some paranoia. For example, our retail used to be different from [in the United States]. Now, it’s the same. One example is the Zeller’s franchise, which was kind of a Target-type store. Target bought them so now they’re going to be Target stores, and Target is, actually, a lot better, and a lot of the things the United States gives Canada are a lot better than what Canadians might’ve had, or, at least, more. But it’s not Canadian.”
“If there’s one thing we always believed is ours, it’s this game, so if I try to jealously guard it, I guess I’m just defaulting to the Canadian way of thinking. But I also critique that idea [throughout] the book. The introduction has some of that in it, but, near the end, I flip the whole thing on its head, and that’s a very Canadian strategy, to poke fun at ourselves, to show that the thing we thought we were so right about, we’re really not right about at all.”
Americans Will Get More Out My Country Is Hockey Than Canadians
Kennedy displays the tremendous sense of pride that Canadians have for what they feel is their game. In fact, throughout most of the book, he practically hits you over the head with the claim that hockey belongs to Canada, and no one else, even though he later turns that claim upside down.
So what if you’re an American, or from another country? Don’t we have our own thoughts about that?
My advice: you might feel a bit put off as you read the book, but, if you read on to the end, you will find that it was worth it.
“American hockey fans [especially those close enough to the Canadian border to receive Canadian television and radio broadcasts], should have enough familiarity with the stuff I’m talking about,” Kennedy noted. “But even if I’m not talking about their issues, they might still be curious enough to want to know more.”
“I open the family closet, and let the strangers next door have a look at what we say to each other when we don’t think anyone’s listening, the kinds of things that motivate us, and that we’re passionate about,” Kennedy added. “For an American hockey fan, this makes sense of some things that didn’t make sense before, and maybe it reminds them of some things they knew only a shadow about.”
“Maybe it gives them a look into ‘those people up there,’ who they know are massed along the border—ninety percent of Canadians live within fifty miles of the border. You guys know they’re up there, and you know they’re doing something. Now you’ll know a little bit more about what they’re doing.”
On a more rudimentary level, My Country Is Hockey was written to show how much more there is to hockey than what we all see on NHL ice.
“I mention the different eras because older readers will enjoy remembering,” said Kennedy. “But it’s also to educate younger readers. ‘My country is hockey’ seems like an easy formula with all these binaries in Canada—East-West, French-English. This book is full of me complicating that simple way of life. [Canadians] think we have this thing figured out, but we don’t. Let’s figure out why.”
“When it comes to the history of the game, part of what I’m trying to say is, if you think this game is the same game that you’ve watched before, it’s not,” added Kennedy. “When the inevitable next re-invention comes—maybe we’re having one now, trying to get the hits to the head out of the game, and all that—I guess I’m making the argument that hockey has changed more than we think it has.”
As mentioned earlier, Kennedy is an academic, and some of that is apparent in the book. But do not let that fool you, as the book is not dry and boring. Rather, it was written in a comfortable, entertaining style that grabs you, and pulls you in, while still teaching the lessons the author wants the reader to learn.
“Any professor who is doing his or her job well isn’t just delivering material so that students can just regurgitate it on a test,” he stressed. “You want them to be passionate about it, think about it at night when they go to bed, or when they’re driving. [Good] teachers distill the message in forms they think really matter, and that students will get and keep, not just forget the day the test is over.”
“I’m trying to do that here,” he added. “These are ideas that are important to me, and I’m convinced should be important to hockey fans. What I want a fan to do, when they go to a Los Angeles Kings game, is to know that there were only twelve NHL teams once, and before that, only six, and that [the Kings] are one of the twelve. That matters, because [the Kings] have a history that’s long, deep, and important. It’s not just the history of the Gretzky Era.”
But Kennedy’s objectives were even more basic.
“I hope I can turn them on to some of the magic in the game, and some of the elements that surround the game,” he beamed. “To me, every game means the world, and that’s what I’m trying to convey. It’s almost an anxiety of how important that is.”
“I’m desperate for people to understand hockey, the history of the game, and to understand Canada,” he added. “I’m desperate for them to feel the passion that Canadians feel for the game. Hopefully, people will read the book, and then, the next time they go to a game, it resonates much bigger with them than before. Everything they hand you when you go into the arena—you don’t just toss it on the ground or under your seat when the game ends. You take it home and keep it forever, because you saw a game in the National Hockey League.”
In the end, Kennedy opens the door and invites those of us outside of Canada, especially Americans, to get a magnificent view of what hockey truly means to Canadians, and how deeply it impacts all aspects of life north of the border.
“Why would I, as an American, want to read that,” he asked. “Partly because a lot of it is about Americans, but also because it’s about another place, a place you know a little bit about, and I’m trying to say, ‘there’s a lot of interesting stuff to think about, when you think about that border on the 49th parallel, and realize that there’s a lot that happens up there that’s hockey-related, but that’s also not hockey-related.”
“I’m hoping readers will think something like, ‘thanks for opening the door on a family argument, because I’ve been wondering what all the yelling was about over there, and now I know, and I guess I won’t call the cops after all.’”
Kennedy, Brian. My Country Is Hockey: How Hockey Explains Canadian Culture, History, Politics, Heroes, French-English Rivalry and Who We Are As Canadians. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Argenta Press, 2011. ISBN (10-digit): 0-9866546-1-2. ISBN (13-digit): 978-0-9866546-1-9.
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