What ‘national pastime’ novels say about Canada

“Hello, out there! We’re on the air!
It’s hockey night tonight.
Tension grows, the whistle blows,
And the puck goes down the ice…”

If you’re Canadian, chances are you know, maybe even want to finish, the rest.

That ‘good old hockey game’ is, without a doubt, ingrained in the Canadian identity and landscape. Hockey culture is omnipresent in Canada, prevalent in music, literature and art. The sport is packaged and marketed for mass consumption and, for better or worse, hockey, in a lot of ways, defines our nation.

But is the traditional mythologizing of hockey in Canada a good thing?


Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels
By Michael Buma, English Department and School of Kinesiology
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012

Western’s Michael Buma, who recently published Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels, a book discussing the hockey myth as presented in Canadian literature, doesn’t think so.

Hockey, as a cultural myth, is quintessentially Canadian, explained Buma, who teaches in the English Department and School of Kinesiology.

“In its most basic version, hockey is distinctly Canadian. It says something about us; it has ties to winter and a rugged, pastoral, settler mentality. It’s played traditionally, nostalgically, out on the pond. There’s a spiritual purity to it; it’s ‘Canada’s game.’ And it has a gender component; hockey is a rugged, white man’s game. These are familiar ideas,” he said.

“Hockey novels are very, very concerned with playing up this national mythology and with establishing certain icons of Canadian-ness and trying to put forward a national community.”

Buma’s book is the first comprehensive study of Canadian hockey novels, a flourishing sub-genre comprising of at least 30 adult-oriented works, largely produced since 1980. Its aim is to encourage hockey novels to move beyond what Buma calls a regressive, “relatively limited vision of hockey in Canada.”

Children’s hockey literature is staring to come around, but it’s not the case with adult novels, Buma said.

“Right around 1980, when adult-oriented hockey novels began to be produced, children’s hockey novels grew up. You start to see protagonists and cultural work making room for women in the game and encouraging young girls to take on the game and break down gender assumptions. At the same time, adult hockey novels aren’t going along for the ride. You would be surprised at how many adult hockey novels make fun of the idea that women might want to play hockey, or they might excel or dare to compete with men,” he explained.

“To be fair, the most, most recent novels have started to challenge this myth and to take on these new ideas of gender, and this is the direction I want to see hockey novels go in.”

The Canadian hockey myth falsely posits an image of the sport as a unifying force in Canada, Buma added.

“To say that hockey unites is to ignore a long, long history of hockey’s potential and ability to divide in this country. Canadian novels are largely interested in glossing over this,” he said.

Noting the divide between French and English hockey fans in the country, the ever-present divide that comes with an obligation to cheer for the ‘Canadian option’ during the playoffs and the hostility toward ‘America stealing our game’ and players, hockey is not the unifying force many would think it is, Buma explained.

Given Canada’s big win at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and the recent repatriation of the Winnipeg Jets, we are at an interesting moment in terms of hockey nationalism in this country, he said.

“We’ve also reached a pivotal moment in the game in terms of willingness to talk about concussions, violence and fighting. What I’d like my book to do is to participate in this larger discussion about moving the game beyond the outdated assumptions that have imprisoned it and imprisoned its players in this violent paradigm.”

The cultural work the hockey novel participates in has the potential to impact the real world, Buma added.

“We have this myth that hockey is Canadian. That hockey is masculine. And I would say that the reality is that it’s neither of those things, naturally or inevitably, and that in order to be honest with ourselves about the game and the role it plays in our society, we have to look beyond this limited vision.”