the intangiblest game

A version of this post appeared at thewalrus.ca, over here, on April 19, 2017.

Winter has had it in for hockey for a couple of years now, with all the willful warming it’s been doing. And while we’ve tried our best not to take the surge of planetary temperatures personally, it does kind of feel like an attack bullseyed directly on our identity as much as our backyard rinks.

Can you blame Canadians for feeling persecuted? Nature’s punitive thaw is only part of the existential crisis that hockey — our game — finds itself facing. Across the country, simpler, safer, come-from-away sports like soccer and basketball are luring our kids from the ice. And why wouldn’t their parents let them leave? Armouring up for hockey is expensive, plus why risk the concussions?

Over at the NHL, the men who run the low-scoring, high-gloss league are still disputing the link between hockey head traumas and the cumulative damages it’s doing to brains. Collecting franchise fees from new teams in the Nevada desert rather than returning hockey to Quebec City isn’t, of course, a symbol of just how far the game is straying out of our national interest, it just seems like one.

We can’t even claim, as we’ve done in other beleaguered eras, that the players are still mostly ours. It’s no longer so: last season, for the first time in a century of NHL hockey, the league’s content of Canadian-born skaters fell below 50 per cent.

Another traditional curative of ours in times of hockey crisis involves whomping foreigners on international ice. We’re having trouble with that, too: sure we won the World Cup, but Canadian juniors and women were both bettered by U.S. rivals in recent world championships. The news last week that the NHL has put a nix on going to the 2018 Olympics is an international shame—but somehow doesn’t it feel like it’s us, Canadians, who are being singled out for punishment?

It wasn’t long ago that Ken Dryden, the game’s resident conscience and better angel, was raising his voice to warn that hockey was in danger of drifting out of the mainstream. The game’s indifference to its own wanton violence, he argued, was steering it into outright irrelevance.

Now, even with fighting on the fade, does hockey seem like it’s corrected that course? Even as the games go on, there are days when it feels like the game is diminishing so fast that its only future might be as a fairytale that our grandchildren will tell to theirs.

Once, maybe, we might have thought about fixing it for ourselves, restoring its glory via a Royal Commission whose report we could look forward to disregarding. Too late for that — it’s a matter now of stabilizing the patient.

I don’t think it has to be a made-in-Canada solution, necessarily. Is it time, for instance, that we followed the lead of Shrimp Fishing on Horseback in Belgium?

Never having seen this cavalry with my own eyes, I’m going on what the United Nations tells me. According to the UN’s cultural arm, the fishermen who once so abundantly rode their horses into the North Sea at Oostduinkerke were a dying breed. The horses, I guess, wade through the tide towing nets, and there’s some kind of chain dragging along that causes the sand to quiver, whereupon the shrimps leap into the nets.

And yet the fishery was being maintained by a mere 12 families. It’s not that Belgian coastal shrimps wouldn’t get to market without the horses to quake the sand: what was at stake here was the tradition, the history, the way of life. Like Canadian Hockey, Shrimp Fishing on Horseback was under threat of vanishing into the mists of nostalgia. The Belgians didn’t want that, and nor did UNESCO, which is where their Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage comes in.

Since 2008, the Convention has been doing the noble work of identifying cultural “elements” from around the world deemed to be “under threat of deterioration, disappearance, and/or destruction.” Joining the mounted shrimpers of Oostduinkerke on the list are the beleaguered practitioners of Silbo Gomero (the Whistled Language of the Spanish island of La Gomera) and those dedicated Mongolians who practice their Coaxing Ritual for Camels.

Can we get hockey added? We can try. The Convention isn’t going to save the game, or return its lost glory. Think of this, instead, as a first step — or maybe a second: what comes next after the CBC has convened all the earnest panels and emergency call-in shows it can possibly organize.

I’m still trying to work out just what actual benefits hockey might reap. Ireland was recently thinking of trying to designate hurling, a hockey knock-off, and they thought that the attendant publicity might be a boon to the country’s tourism. So I guess there’s that. Otherwise, I think much of the value is in the designation itself, and showing our confidence as a country in roping off our national sport and slapping a big FRAGILE sticker on its side.

Right now the register runs to 391 Intangibles, from 108 countries. It’s not a competition between nations, obviously, but if it were, we’d be losing. China has seen some 38 of its cultural practices recognized, China, including the Watertight-Bulkhead Technology of Junks. Spain is in for 13, including Flamenco, the Mediterranean Diet, and Falconry. Peru’s Scissor Dance is on there, and Uzbekistan has Askiya, The Art of Wit.

Canada? Nothing. In this, the 150th of our confederation, it’s time.

Maybe the game isn’t in a death-stagger towards its demise. Possibly, like Jaromir Jagr, there’s life in it for a few more seasons — or ten. But is it worth the risk? Without hockey, what is Canada but a vast archipelago of Tim Hortons drive-thrus set amid a loose tangle of pipelines awaiting approval?

The deadline for 2017 is coming up, but I’ve already downloaded the forms, so I can get things going, on the national behalf. Seems straightforward. Is there anything more intangible, after all, than the allure of our beautiful brutal game that embodies so much of our joy and proud triumphant past even as it harbours so many of our worst instincts and self-delusions? Hockey still, on the good days, reflects the vivid best of us: our spirit-of-’72 get-it-doneness, our hand-eye coordination, our haircuts? It distills our — I would have said Canadian values if Kellie Leitch hadn’t corrupted the whole notion so entirely.

We’ve got some defining to do. Is hockey an “oral tradition or expression” as opposed to a “performing art”? Or maybe a “social practice, ritual and festive event?” And what’s the best way to frame it for UNESCO? Hockey, What Else Were We Supposed To Do With All This Ice?

Prospective protectees do have to “be not incompatible with existing human rights instruments as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals.” Just noticed that. Could be a snag. Might UNESCO have something to say about hockey’s whole rich heritage of stopping the game so that men can punch one another in the head? We can probably convince them that this is an essential part of the game, still. It is, after all, the line the NHL has been selling us for years.

(Image: Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada)