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.

 

no corner for old coach

Former Hockey Night in Canada pundit Don Cherry decided this week that the time had come to transition from broad- to podcast.

“You people,” Cherry, who’s 85, ranted 11 days ago, towards the end of another of his weekly between-periods Sportsnet rambles. He didn’t apologize, but Sportsnet did. “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network,” Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said ten days ago. “We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks.”

The NHL said Cherry’s comments were “offensive and contrary to the values we believe in.”

“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat-out wrong,” Ron MacLean said. “I want to sincerely apologize to our viewers and Canadians. During last night’s broadcast, Don made comments that were hurtful and prejudiced and I wish I had handled myself differently. It was a divisive moment and I am truly upset with myself for allowing it.”

Nine days ago, 34 years after he first settled into his Coach’s Corner, Cherry lost his job — “for a last straw no one could fit into the overstuffed barn that holds all the previous last straws,” as Roy MacGregor put it in the Globe and Mail two days ago.

“Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down,” was what Sportsnet’s Bart Yabsley was saying at this point. “During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.”

Making for what some might have termed a mixed message, Yabsley also went on to assert that “Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years.” Thank you, Yabsley said.

“I know what I said and I meant it,” Cherry himself made clear.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council said that it had received so many complaints about Cherry’s Hockey Night message that their system had been overwhelmed. “Accordingly, while the CBSC will be dealing with this broadcast under its normal process, it is not able to accept any further complaints.”

The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly, eight days ago: “As a Canadian, you felt embarrassed watching his Coach’s Corner segment with foreigners. This wasn’t TV. It was vaudeville. It was two guys chasing a hat.”

Don Cherry never changed, even as the world did, was a gist of Bruce Arthur’s in Toronto’s Star.

“The game Cherry was hired to analyze and comment on in 1982 is a game he has not recognized for years,” was an assessment of Roy MacGregor’s. “He is hardly the only senior citizen in that condition — is that absurd drop-pass power-play rush actually supposed to catch the other side off-guard? — but he was the only one with a weekly forum and national audience.”

Other opinions and analyses welled up and out, all over, hour by hour, including seven, six, five, four, three, and two days ago. Yesterday: more still.

Today, here, above, that’s “De-saturated Cherry,” a 2013 acrylic painting by the award-winning Vancouver Island artist Brandy Saturley. Hockey is a subject she returns to again and again on her canvasses. For more of her arresting work, puck-oriented and otherwise, visit http://www.brandysaturley.com. On Twitter, she’s @artofbrandys.

under review: our game, and everybody else’s

A version of this review first appeared, here, at H-Net Reviews.

Hockey: A Global History
Stephen Hardy, Andrew C. Holman
University of Illinois Press, 2018
600 pp. (paper), US$29.95/C$35

By the end of May, the winter had mostly receded from the upper third of the North American map, if not yet the nation’s appetite for hockey. While on Canada’s east coast the national junior championships were wrapping up, fans of the international game settled in across the country to see whether the plucky national team could grab gold at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Slovakia. Off the ice, the sudden springtime demise of the nation’s women’s professional league continued to reverberate.

Meanwhile, at the center of the hockey world, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman convened a press conference to deliver his annual state-of-the-game address. The fact that he was doing so from Boston, and that (once again) no Canadian-based team would be playing for hockey’s most coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, isn’t enough anymore to faze the country that thinks of hockey as a proprietary natural resource indivisible from the national soul, never mind how far the Cup might wander away from home.

Bettman spent much of his time on the podium lauding the successes of the corporation he guides. “While there are things that are always debatable in our game,” he said, “let’s first focus on some indisputable facts that detail why the NHL is in the strongest position in our history.” [1]

Bettman went on to extol hockey as the “greatest spectacle in sports” and the “remarkable” season the NHL had seen on ice. He cited soaring TV ratings, expansion to Seattle, exciting future ventures into Europe and China, and technological innovations that will bring player and puck-tracking into play as soon as next season. He spoke about the prevailing turbulence in women’s hockey, but only in passing. His assertion that the NHL features “the best pace of play in sports” may or may not have been primarily directed at those with both doubts and attention deficits. “We have the most and fastest action in the shortest period of time,” Bettman boasted. [2]

Speedy as it is, the NHL has also become in its one hundred years of existence such a mighty mass that at times it can seem to displace all other forms of the game that don’t quite mesh with the massive workings of the league’s corporate machinery. For all the excitement that the league generates with its hockey, despite its many good-faith efforts to grow and diversify the game, the NHL hockey is not — and should never be — the only game in town.

Authors Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman don’t command TV cameras the way Gary Bettman can, and their important new book, Hockey: A Global History, won’t be broadcast as widely as the commissioner’s messaging. It’s too bad: their expansive and very detailed study of hockey’s evolution, structures, and culture is required reading, the new standard text when it comes to understanding how the sport got from the far-off historical there to where it is today.

The library of the sport’s literature is an extensive one, but there’s nothing in it like their Hockey: A Global History. Hardy is an emeritus professor of kinesiology and history at the University of New Hampshire; Holman is a professor of history at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. It’s not that the game hasn’t been studied with serious and scholarly intent before. A stack of the most interesting and edifying books on the game’s rise and development would necessarily include, for example, On The Origin of Hockey (2014) by Carl Gidén, Patrick Houda, and Jean-Patrice Martel; Craig Bowlsby’s 1913: The Year They Invented The Future of Hockey (2013); and Deceptions and Doublecross: How The NHL Conquered Hockey (2002), by Morey Holzman and Joseph Nieforth.

For insight into hockey’s character and culture (including its many deficiencies and outright failings) you’d add Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics (1993), by Richard Gruneau and David Whitson; The Death of Hockey (1972) by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane; and the 2018 scholarly anthology, Hockey: Challenging Canada’s Game, edited by Jenny Ellison and Jennifer Anderson.

As for general histories, books like Michael McKinley’s Putting A Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport Spectacle (2000) stick close to hockey’s perceived home ice, which is to say Canada and the northeastern United States. No previous single-volume study has ranged so broadly as Hockey: A Global History nor dug so deeply into the details, and I don’t know of a precedent, either, for the quality of Hardy and Holman’s analysis as they make their way through hockey history, cracking open orthodoxies as they go, and briskly reordering many of what we have come to think of as the game’s immutable verities. It all makes for a brisk and fluid narrative, too: on top of everything else, Hardy and Holman unpack an awfully good story.

The crux of it all is in the title, three words in. Referencing Gruneau and Whitson, Hardy and Holman acknowledge that Canada and the Canadian experience is at the center of any discussion of hockey. “The problem,” the former pair wrote in Hockey Night in Canada, “arises when Canadians’ appreciation for hockey is mistaken for ‘nature’ rather than something that is socially and culturally produced.”

“We try,” note Hardy and Holman, “to move hockey history beyond the limits of one national bias.” Unbounded, they also succeed in their effort to transcend “dimensions beyond nationhood, particularly along lines of class, gender, and race.”

They also make a key shift in considering the game’s early evolutionary momentum. The emphasis of much previous historiographical debate has been fixed on determining hockey’s “birthplace” rather than on discussing migration patterns. As Hardy and Holman write, “birth details would matter little (beyond antiquarian interest) if the game and its followers, players, and promoters had never grown, if they had never become fruitful and multiplied.”

If there is a consistent tone to the narrative here, it’s set early on as the authors remind readers (while discouraging any romanticists who might have strayed by) that there was never a golden age of hockey, a prelapsarian frozen garden where once the game was purely, innocently yet to be spoiled. Hockey, like most human endeavours, is an imperfect, in-process, not always entirely progressive affair that its various stakeholders — players, coaches, owners, members of the media, fans — continue to make up as they go along.

And it was ever thus. The game, to start, was many games, and they proliferated spontaneously wherever people picked up sticks to knock balls—or bungs or, eventually, pucks. They note that the first skates were fashioned, probably, from animal bone, with practical purpose: in northern climes, they were developed for travel and transport before they were put to use in fun and game. Many of the proto-hockeys that were played in the wintry past were, of course, informal, without consistent rules or equipment or chroniclers. That they went largely unrecorded isn’t so surprising — as historian Craig Bowlsby has pointed out, 200 years ago, nobody was assiduously annotating the history of snowball fights, either. Continue reading

hoopla: woo-hoo the north

The Canadian Game: The Stanley Cup will be raised in Boston on Wednesday, but tonight it’s all about Toronto and the NBA championship that the local Raptors will be trying to wrap up. Above, an exhibition — because: why not? — of ice basketball played as between periods at an NHL game at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1940. There was, believe it or don’t, a bit of craze for the game in the 1930s and ’40s. “Basketball rules prevail in the main,” one explainer from those years outlined, “though altered to allow the ‘double-dribble,’ and players may advance with the ball during a rapid count of five before being called for ‘traveling.’ Fouls are penalized, as in hockey, by suspension from the game … for one minute or two, depending on the flagrancy of the violation. No free throws are awarded. Costumes of players include football shoulder harness and knee pads, long-sleeved jerseys, long stockings, basketball trunks and, naturally, skates.”