The sport that unites us in a time of division
Author asks Canadians from across the political spectrum how they feel about hockey
By ROY MACGREGOR
Saturday, February 16, 2019 Print Edition, Page S2
OTTAWA -- In this surly time when the centre no longer holds and wedge politics have taken control, it is a shock to find conservatives and liberals walking hand in hand.
Or perhaps we should say skating hand in hand.
Eric Kaufmann, Hong Kongborn, Vancouver-raised and currently a professor in the politics department of the University of London's Birkbeck College, set out to compare feelings about the country among Canadians who define themselves as Conservative and those who see themselves as Liberal.
Kaufmann was researching his newly released book, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, and while his obvious interest lay in white Canadians, he constructed an online survey that included nonwhite, as well.
Ask Conservatives and Liberals how Canadian they feel when thinking of, say, the CBC or Margaret Atwood, and the splits are clear in the Great White North.
Liberals love the public broadcaster and the bestselling author, Conservatives not so much. The two political solitudes, not surprisingly, also have decidedly different feelings toward such matters as medicare and resource communities.
Ask if hockey makes them feel Canadian, on the other hand, and both sides soar toward the 80per-cent mark, their scores virtually identical. As for the nonwhite Canadians in the survey, they felt even stronger about the national game and its hold on their self-identification.
"The stats are from a relatively small sample," Kaufmann writes in an e-mail, "so it's always possible there is a small difference based on party support."
Proof of his findings were on open display in the new House of Commons late last month when politicians from all sides stood to cheer and serenade Paul Henderson on his 76th birthday, then unanimously passed a motion calling for Henderson's induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the basis of a goal scored nearly a half century earlier.
A few weeks before that, a complaint in an Ottawa suburb about an outdoor hockey rink with boards led to online rage as bylaw officers demanded the boards be taken down. Yahoo Sports called the complainant, a 92-year-old neighbour disturbed by the noise, an "anonymous scumbag."
"We are a hockey nation," Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said, stating the by now all-too obvious.
Whether tuning in on NHL games or buying tickets for this week's rivalry series between the Canadian and U.S. women's teams, the game is truly national.
"In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold," it has been written, "hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive."
Some web sources like to say the writer was Stephen Leacock.
It was actually two writers, John Macfarlane and Bruce Kidd, in a book called The Death of Hockey.
The book came out in 1972, shortly before Henderson scored his iconic goal in Moscow, allowing hockey to state that "reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Eric Kaufmann was two years old in 1972. He grew up a passionate Vancouver Canucks fan and still plays beer-league hockey in England. He follows the game closely and is fascinated by its hold on the country.
Hockey, he says, is different in Canada because "it chimes with the weather and pervades the culture" - in fact, he would go so far as to call it a "monoculture."
Kaufmann lived in Boston while attending Harvard and considers the home of the Bruins and college hockey's Beanpot Tournament "the U.S. epicentre of hockey ... but it just wasn't the same" as it is here.
Proof of the Canadian sports monoculture is everywhere this week of cross-country snow blowing. There is a nationwide hunger for spring, and with spring comes the playoffs. This coming week is the countdown to the Feb. 25 NHL trading deadline, which leads to the stretch drive leading into the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, by far the most compelling part of hockey's overly long season, the actual Cup final far more denouement than climax.
Those Canadian teams with playoff hopes - the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, perhaps Vancouver Canucks - are rabid with speculation as to what might happen as this deadline looms. But so, too, are those teams without a postseason prayer.
Friday's front-page headline on the Ottawa Citizen shouts "Senators urge calm, Reconciliation will go on" and thousands of readers are disappointed to turn to a story about the demotion and taking down of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, not a story about what the Ottawa Senators hockey franchise might do this week to reconcile angry fans who have turned their back on the dysfunctional franchise.
So desperate are Ottawans to see their team return to some respectability that remaining fans paid far more attention to Thursday evening's game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Colorado Avalanche than they did to the Senators match in Detroit against the Red Wings.
The reason? Simple: word came that Ottawa's general manager, Pierre Dorion, his assistant general manager and his head scout were all attending the game in Winnipeg, leading to wild social-media guessing that perhaps the Senators are no longer hoping to sign their two key coming unrestricted free agents, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, and are now looking to trade them before the deadline.
The mere presence of these Ottawa executives - and with the Senators headed for town to play the Jets on Saturday evening - led to galloping gossip in Winnipeg, as well, with fans wondering if Winnipeg native Stone might just be the last piece of the puzzle that takes them to the Stanley Cup, something no Canadian team has claimed since 1993.
Such mad passion would seem to confirm Kaufmann's findings.
It also suggests that Bruce Hutchison had it right way back in 1942, when he published The Unknown Country - a book aimed at the U.S.
market to explain Canada to Americans.
"I would be the last to disparage the genius of the politicians who make our laws," Hutchison wrote, "the writers who make our books, the artists who make our pictures, but in gauging the true culture of the nation and reckoning its tensile strength, let the student not neglect hockey."
The true culture, Hutchison believed.
Or as Kaufmann calls hockey 77 years later - "monoculture."
Senators players stand as a large Canadian flag makes its way through the crowd during a 2014 game in Ottawa. As Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson recently, and perhaps rather obviously, observed, 'We are a hockey nation.'
JANA CHYTILOVA/FREESTYLE PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES