Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Hockey as the Invisible Hand of Canadian Compromise

By Michael J Morris

I took a course in twentieth century European history from Dr Jacques Goutor more than 40 years ago now, and the first thing I learned from him was that hockey kept Canada together. Well, he didn't actually come out and say that exactly, but on the first day of class he told us about his arrival in Canada from France.

Dr Goutor told us that upon arriving in Toronto, he went out and bought the newspapers and the headlines were LEAFS WIN STANLEY CUP! It was 1967, our Centennial year as a nation, and the Toronto Maple Leafs had defeated their arch rivals the Montreal Canadiens in six games. It was to be the last time the Leafs would win Lord Stanley's mug. 

As an aside Dr Goutor was one of the best professors I ever had and went from Wilfrid Laurier University to the University of Western Ontario. He died recently.

All so typically Canadian for our Centennial year in 1967-- a team from the heart of English Canada wins the Stanley Cup but the focus for the celebrations of the centennial is on Montreal, the major French Canadian city which hosted Expo '67, and the cup is named after an Englishman who was Governor General at one time. 

Trust me on this one! It is such as this that has contributed  to keeping the country together and safe-- the invisible hand of Canadian compromise!

Dr Goutor, who at the time had little knowledge of hockey and its importance to Canadians, said he decided to stay here because it had to be a safe place if the headlines were about a sporting event. He was raised in France and lived through the horrors of World War II and its aftermath.

To this day, I watch the headlines of Canadian daily newspapers, and headline writers are ecstatic on those days they can proclaim victory for their local hockey team when it wins a title, and are beside themselves with joy when Canada wins internationally. 

But they know their audience. Hockey has kept it all together in this vast and magnificent land where fans travel great distances for a hockey game, and complain about that other great Canadian unifier, the weather.

Our passion for hockey begins at the local level. I was raised in the northern Ontario town of Chapleau, where the Chapleau Huskies, in various incarnations were the pride and joy for much longer than I have been around. 

When I first visited Cranbrook in 1988 to see if I would move here, while chatting with Karin Penner, the now retired Cranbrook Chamber of Commerce manager, she told me the city had two major teams and both were in the playoffs. While here, I went to the Memorial Arena to watch the Colts and the Royals, the Junior and senior teams respectively play. Little good I did them -- both lost.

And so, from local unheated hockey rinks, many of them called barns, much like the memorial arena in Cranbrook (before renovations) where rivalries among communities brought people together to cheer on their own team, to national and international championship series, Dr Goutor was right. It was a safe country in which to live.

But it seems to me, the times they are a changing, and although hockey certainly remains very popular, somehow it just doesn't seem the same.  I wasn't a very good hockey player but became a referee (and many would say I wasn't very good at that role either), and later I coached and managed Midget and Intermediate "A" teams.

The arrival of the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League In Cranbrook and the construction of what is now Western Financial Place was to herald a new era for hockey here. In the beginning I think it did, but it seems attendance has been shrinking the past few years.

However, because I go to the aquatic centre daily for my swim, I am there when minor hockey tournaments are being held and quite often I will watch a game.

Notwithstanding the tremendous work that minor hockey volunteers do each year, their tournaments  are assuredly one of Cranbrook's best kept secrets. Other than family and friends the 4000 plus seat arena is empty. Minor hockey gets very little publicity in the community, despite the fact that it must be a major economic generator in the Winter months. Maybe somebody should do an economic impact study.

In those days to which Dr Goutor was referring, the "barns" were full for minor hockey tournaments too, and I think we were much closer as citizens of a community.

When I wrote a similar piece a while back for another publication,referring to Dr Goutor's observations, Lorne Riley, the head of corporate communications at Dubai Airports, who studied Journalism and Law at Carleton University, and was a student of mine at Chapleau High School responded. Lorne's father, Lorne Sr. was one of the best hockey coaches in Northern Ontario years ago.

Although Lorne agreed that hockey is one of the ties that binds this great nation, recalling games huddled under the heaters, or jammed against the glass of the press of the crowd, and an "electric" atmosphere existed especially in the playoffs, he fears the tie is fraying.

He mentioned the decline in local enrolments for minor hockey, especially in Ontario, but across the country and interestingly, at least to me -- "new age diversions like the internet, video games, satellite TV .. things that we never had to contend with" are contributing.

And Lorne added: "Another contributor to minor hockey's gradual downfall is the staggering cost. Equipment, rink rental, club fees and travelling costs have gone through the roof. Even the most passionate hockey Moms and Dads think twice about footing the bill. A changing demographic, with cultural roots more closely tied to cheaper sports like soccer, is also eroding interest and participation in Canada's national pastime.Is Canadian hockey in danger of extinction? Not at all. Is it at risk?"

He concluded that that we need to recall those days when we jammed into the local barn -- "not only to enshrine them in our memory but to use them to encourage parents and children, in small towns and big cities across Canada not to lose touch with our roots and by extension our national identity."

Once again in our history we need the invisible hand of Canadian compromise that hockey provided, and seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. Despite intense rivalries, players shook hands at the end of each game, a sign of mutual respect for a game well played, no matter who won.  A safer place too! My email is

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