When Sport Defines a Nation

The shifting relationship of sport as a cultural signifier.
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The Luzhniki Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium as it appears today. (Photo: A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons)

The Luzhniki Palace of Sports of the Central Lenin Stadium as it appears today. (Photo: A.Savin/Wikimedia Commons)

On September 28, 1972, steps from the winding edge of the Moscow River, and inside the Luzhniki Palace of Sports, a touchstone of Canadian culture was forged.

That night the deciding game of the Summit Series between Canada and what was then the U.S.S.R. was played. At stake was the title of the world’s most preeminent hockey nation, but the significance resonated far beyond sport. It was Canadian hockey, headstrong and laborious, against Russian hockey, balletic and lithe. It was free-market capitalism against communism. West against East. Framed for the Canadian audience as “us” against them.

The Soviet team was more than a mere opponent in a hockey game, it was a visible other, and that distinction, that otherness, gave Canadians the opportunity to construct their own identity, built, in part, around hockey as a unifying symbol.

There is still the thrill of spectatorship in hockey, of Canadians organizing around the game—using a cultural activity to help whittle out a collective identity—but hockey can no longer speak to the concept of a unified, singular Canadian.

This was a showcase of the two best hockey-playing nations in the world but it was also sport detente, rife with geopolitics, and carrying enough weight that the resulting aftermath would shape Canadian culture and the future of the National Hockey League.

Canada won the game, on a rebound batted into the net by Paul Henderson in the final minute of play, and afterwards, on the ice, the Canadian players, their hair tousled, their smiles a mix of broken teeth and fleshy gaps, their faces stitched and scarred, their skin looking more like matted burlap than human flesh, raised their arms overhead as their eyes welled up. It was, and continues to be, one of Canada’s most recognized and re-lived cultural moments.

Last Monday, Canada played Russia again. This time for gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship. The stakes in this game were inarguably of less significance, but the pursuit, to once again lay claim to hockey supremacy, still captured the attention of the nation.

CULTURAL SYMBOLS ARE CONSTANTLY being re-invented, their meaning and interpretations anything but static; in Canada, hockey, a game once so closely tied to the everyman, steeped heavily in blue-collar, working-class ideals, has become something else. It is now modern, commercial, a sport of privilege because of the costs associated with playing it, and, increasingly, a game that has limited historical and cultural significance for new generations of Canadians.

In most respects, this may actually be a good thing. There’s room for re-definition. That’s why Canada’s World Junior teams are important. The players are young, under 20, their skill levels are high and their potential—to be both great hockey players and, consequently, signifiers of Canadian culture—is vast.

In Canada, more than any other sport, hockey relies on mythology, and the game’s modernization ­is at odds with the aura of its past. But it’s also necessary for the sport to grow, both in Canada and abroad.

On Monday night, more than seven million Canadians, nearly a quarter of the population, watched the action unfold; in the pre-game broadcast, images from the Summit Series and other epochs of Canadian hockey lore flashed across the screen. Those historic players, who evolved from the crackle of radio, to the early grain of television and now live on through myth, both visual and oratory, were presented once again, pulled out of the past, and dangled in front of the viewer, their presence a reminder of what’s at stake—that hockey is, after all, “our game.”

IT WAS IN THE years immediately following the Summit Series that professional hockey began to attract European players in significant waves. During that same period, Canada was pushing back against British cultural hegemony and evolving into a more diverse nation. As Michael Buma notes in Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels, it was a nation that was now without a “state-sanctioned culture” or preference for one ethnic group over another. The definition of Canadianness was undergoing a period of revision, and, at the same time, the influx of European players was regarded as a further attack on “Canada’s game.” Its heritage was preserved through its presentation.

In Canada, hockey, a game once so closely tied to the everyman, steeped heavily in blue-collar, working-class ideals, has become something else. It is now modern, commercial, a sport of privilege.

Hockey owes much of its cultural significance to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC), in particular, which made its television debut in 1952 but existed for 20 years prior on radio. These platforms disseminate the images and sounds of hockey, celebrating a puritanical Canadian style and helped build players into celebrities, worshiped at the altar of Canadian culture.

Now, HNIC has changed hands. It’s currently licensed to Rogers Communications, which finds itself wrestling a duality: modernizing the game while championing its past. A key figurehead in this equation is Don Cherry, the incendiary 80-year-old, who continues to keep up his weekly appearances.

Throughout his career as a broadcaster, Cherry has been targeted for his xenophobic rants against European and French Canadian players. Often getting himself into hot water for his politically and racially charged dialogue. So much so, in fact, that his live segments are now delivered with a seven second delay, leaving just enough room to cut the transmission if needed. He preaches of playing the game the “right way,” championing an aggressive style and highlighting the importance of fighting, of the game remaining “true north, strong and free.”

Cherry is a master of building up the oft-told Canadian narratives, though he remains a divisive public figure. Canadian punk rock group Propagandhi criticized his often-overbearing nationalism in song, while in the viewer-voted CBC program The Greatest Canadian he finished seventh overall. (He remains the only member of the top 10 yet to be awarded an Order of Canada.) His following, in other words, is both loyal and loud. He also takes his job, as a purveyor of true Canadian hockey—a gatekeeper of sorts—very seriously. His mindset is perhaps best captured by this quote, found in Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey: “I'm trying to keep this country together. I'm the fucking glue that holds it together.”

And indeed, in recent years, it’s grown increasingly difficult for Cherry to preach without interference. There is both a greater push-back from hockey’s changing audience, and a more bureaucratic direction for HNIC under its new ownership. Cherry’s time on screen has been reduced, something he routinely complains about, while the popular and chic George Stroumboulopoulos, who is half Cherry’s age, has joined the broadcasting booth.

While the national dissemination of the game changes, the sports landscape of Canada is also transforming. Other sports like soccer and basketball, which are more affordable to play, and come without the same cultural baggage, are quickly building their own significance into the lives of Canadians.

As often is the case for sports, hockey has become a bastion of nationalism. There is still the thrill of spectatorship in hockey, of Canadians organizing around the game—using a cultural activity to help whittle out a collective identity—but hockey can no longer speak to the concept of a unified, singular Canadian. To be effective, it must speak to us all.

Other sports like soccer and basketball, which are more affordable to play, and come without the same cultural baggage, are quickly building their own significance into the lives of Canadians.

That means recognizing Canada’s demographic shift, from the white middle class to a more diverse and multicultural state, and connecting, on a much broader scale, with hockey’s female audience, wherein their participation in the sport and surrounding culture is viewed as an equal partnership rather than a threat to hockey’s overtly stated masculinity.

I WATCHED MONDAY NIGHT’S gold medal game in a small pub in downtown Toronto. The space mostly filled, the patron’s eyes drifting in equal measure between the game and their drinks.

Tickets for the game were sold at prices upwards of $6,000 each, set not by the International Ice Hockey Federation but by Hockey Canada, the host organizer. In Montreal, the other host city, none of the games sold out due, it seems, at least in part, to the exorbitant prices.

Canada jumped out to an early lead with two goals on two shots and by the second period, with Canada up 5-1, people began, albeit somewhat anxiously, to celebrate. In the stands, the camera panned to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on his feet, clapping robotically. At the bar, a women dressed in a vintage Team Canada jersey, which flowed loosely from her frame, began belting out the iconic HNIC jingle, and the men on each side of her quickly joined in.

Then the Russians responded. Suddenly it was 5-4. As the stress grew and the clock seemed to freeze, people began to flood into the room from the street, standing in a jagged row, criss-crossing across the bar’s wooden floors. The final minutes ticked by in increasingly dramatic suspense, and strangers suddenly leaned on one another—their anonymity bridged by shared interest in the nation’s game.

The myth of hockey as a signifier of Canadian culture is that it’s absorbed as an autonomous expression, that every Canadian lives off a diet of machismo, endurance, and hardship. This is demonstrably false, of course, but hockey, culturally speaking, still remains at the top of Canada’s sports totem. To stay, it must adapt and connect with a changing and diverse audience. Hockey can’t turn back the churn of modernity but it can approach the game—and its consumption—holistically, making it broader and coloring it with varying aspects of modern Canadian culture, not just the myths we already know.

In the end, Canada held on for the win, their first gold medal in the tournament in five years. After an excessive round of cheering filled the bar, the camera panned to a Russian player, who, crushed in defeat, braced his body heavily against the boards. Then from the back of the room: “Poor kid!” Similar refrains followed and soon enough a chorus of niceties, framed with an affable aw-shucks empathy, made their way across the bar. Another facet of Canadianness, another cultural connotation of the game, even in the heat of battle, echoing around the small space, alive and—in that moment—fully well.

The Sports Lens is a new running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

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