hockey in the bleak midwinter: sean fitz-gerald looks to the future of a sport in crisis

A version of this interview appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, November 26, 2019.

Hockey may be religion in Canada, but is the faith fading?

Warnings of impending crisis are nothing new to the game that Canadians have, so fiercelyand for so long, claimed as their own. With another season well underway across the nation’s ice, the symptoms might be as serious as they’ve ever been. The fact that enrolment in youth hockey has been stagnating for years has to do with how expensive the game is to play and the concussive ways in which can harm your health; it also reflects how hockey has failed to figure out exactly how to explain its appeal to new Canadians. If, as Sean Fitz-Gerald points out in his new book, the game just doesn’t seem as essential as it once did, it also can seem that hockey, in the make-up of its players, fans, passions, and priorities, doesn’t always reflect modern-day Canada.     

 Fitz-Gerald lives in Toronto with his wife and two young (and hockey-playing) children. A veteran sportswriter who’s now a senior writer for The Athletic, he has played and loved the game for as long as he can remember. InBefore The Lights Go Out: A Season Inside A Game Worth Saving (McClelland & Stewart), he embeds himself in the hockey heartland of Peterborough, Ontario, using the local OHL team, the Petes, as a looking-glass into the game and how it’s strayed and faltered on its way into the 21stcentury — and where the way forward might lie.     

 Fitz-Gerald was on the phone in early October to answer the questions I was asking, not long after Before The Lights Go Out hit bookstore shelves across Canada, and then again when I called back for an update in November.

How was writing the book different from the day-to-day, game-by-game kind of reporting and writing you’re used to doing?

This felt more immersive. Day-to-day, if you’re at a game or a practice, you’re always looking for the news of the day. Then you have to turn around and interview and then immediately transcribe and often there’s a deadline. With the book, it took me a little while to get used to it: I could go to a practice, I could go to a game, take notes, lots of notes, interview people — but then I could just also sit back in a corner and observe things as they unfolded. Or sit in a coach’s office and just have a wide-ranging conversation that may or may not have had anything to do with the game that night, but there may be something bigger picture. It was a very different experience.

Was there a particular book that inspired you along the way, or informed the way you went about writing this one? 

I re-read and re-read, and thumbed through, and tried to reverse-engineer parts of Friday Night Lights. I mean, obviously, there’s no way that that’s going to be duplicated, one because Buzz Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas, uprooted his entire life and his family, and lived there, and it was fully immersive. Whereas mine was kind of part-time, because I did have a day job and we do have the family here in Toronto. I got to Peterborough a lot — 15,000 kilometers on the car. But that was definitely a book that I re-read, and it was an inspiration.

How did you balance it all, the research and writing, the commuting, the demands of home?

I’m not sure. The short answer is that my wife, Caroline, is superhuman, and so much of this is impossible without her. She carried so much of the burden. This project was definitely a team effort, and she’s the captain of that team.

Sean Fitz-Gerald

Day-by-day, what I’d regularly do, I’d go up to Peterborough first thing in the morning. So get the kids to school, then drive straight to Peterborough, park myself in the Lansdowne Place Mall food court, because it had free Wi-Fi. And by nine o’clock in the morning, nine-thirty, I’d be set up, doing e-mails, transcribing. I’d go out to the car in the parking lot if I had to conduct interviews. So I’d finish my day-work and squeeze the book stuff in between. On the weekend, our son had his house league hockey team, of which I was the head coach; he had his select hockey team (I was the assistant coach); in the spring, he played house league ball hockey (I was the head coach), he played all-star ball hockey (I was the assistant coach); and over the summer, he played soccer and I was the head coach.

All that stuff I was balancing. For three years, it was immersive. It really helped the project. My day job is in sports, so I was dealing with the high-level stuff, the NHL, the end-product. And then on the weekends, I got to see how some of the ideas being floated up top are being implemented on the grassroots level.

So, going in, you well understood the challenges that hockey faces. As you delved deeper, did the detail you were discovering about the state of the game give you cause to be optimistic or fear for the worst?

I’m still wrestling with it — it was a bit of both. There were days where I’d have interviews, and I’d be, Oh my God, this game might be irreparable, the challenges are just so daunting, all these factors are working against it. And then I’d have other days where I’d say, Oh wait, no, there’s a lot of hope here, the game, it can do so many wonderful things for us as Canadians.

The people at the top, the decision-makers, are also well aware of the challenges and are actively trying to address them. And that was one of the more surprising things. I expected a lot of resistance — like a lot— when I went to minor hockey associations or boards or executives. I expected them to say, your whole premise is out to lunch, you’re out to lunch, this is a waste of time, hockey’s fine. But everybody — from [CEO] Tom Renney at Hockey Canada on down — said, yeah, we know we have challenges, what are the solutions, and what could possibly be the implementation protocol for a game that’s so widespread over a country so geographically diverse?

On one hand, the book you’re written follows a conventional, diary-of-a-season format. But it’s also very much about the city of Peterborough, its past, and the changing demographics that are shaping its future. Was there a sense that what you were working on here was as much about social forces that hockey exerts in Canada as much as those having to do with sports?

I like hockey. That’s not a hot take. And my wife and I have stumbled into creating a hockey family here. Our son, who’s eight, plays. Our daughter, who’s four, is a future all-time penalty minutes leader for the Canadian Olympic women’s team — she starts hockey school in a couple of weeks. We’ve found what hockey can do. We go to the rink now and we’ve met the literal butcher, the baker, candlestick-maker in our neighbourhood, that we might not otherwise have met. Our kids have made friends and they might not otherwise have made.

So on top of keeping them physically active, it really does sort of serve as a tether for the community. And as I talked to people, I learned how this was repeating itself over and over again, in towns and cities across Canada. It really did worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate what hockey has done for us as Canadians. And what are we at risk of losing if that tether does fray.

What’s your outlook for the game at this point? Are you optimistic that it can be redeemed?

The book aims to chart Canada’s evolving relationship with hockey. Canada is changing. And to be clear, that’s a good thing. For years and years, hockey, at the grassroots level, didn’t change. You know, hey, it’s cold, we’re opening the arena doors, come on in play hockey, because that’s what you always do — that doesn’t exist anymore. There are far more options for Canadian families, for Canadian children. And hockey has allowed a lot of barriers to grow up around it, to prevent access. It also makes it really challenging for children to stay in the game because it does demand so much. Hockey is a great game and it’s done wonderful things for Canada, but both in terms of accessibility and for the kids who are already in it — it needs desperately to make itself fun again.

With Don Cherry’s departure from Hockey Night in Canada and the soul-searching that has ensued in his wake, I wonder what you’d say has been revealed about and hockey and its diversity, or lack thereof?

It’s a really interesting question. Last weekend I was at a summit organized by the Greater Toronto Hockey League for volunteers and stakeholders. The numbers they put up were staggering. Generally speaking, more Canadian kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are dropping out of hockey than are signing up. Retention is an issue — it’s not just getting them in the door, it’s keeping them in. And among communities of new Canadians, hockey’s popularity among the top 25 activities for kids — it’s something like 22nd.

It’s not just the hard economic cost, it’s a whole bunch of different barriers. But when you’re looking to have more people in the tent, you don’t want to close the door and say, well, no, you can’t come in. And I think that when Don Cherry is othering people, you’re not keeping that tent door open. And if you go back over it, he did this over and over for years and years. Whether it’s the Swedes or the Finns, or whether women belong in a professional capacity in the hockey dressing room … Every time you do that, symbolically, from the biggest pulpit you have, you’re othering people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.