The prominence of hockey in Canadian popular culture is well known and metaphors and shorthand about the game abound in everyday Canadian life. Once seemingly immune from that pervasiveness, scholars are now grappling with Canada’s national sport in increasing numbers and from varied disciplines. Jason Blake’s Canadian Hockey Literature is a pioneering and fascinating addition to the field. It is the first sustained analysis of the themes and representations of hockey in Canadian literature and draws the reader into worlds of comradeship, self-discovery and aspiration. The book itself is arranged along thematic lines that bring out the five major themes (and the myriad minor ones) that Blake has identified in his reading of the numerous novels, poems and plays that underpin his research. From nationhood to violence and intra-familial relations these are familiar topics, but, as Blake demonstrates, fiction has generated many different perspectives (p. 12).
Chapters one and four focus on the twin aspects of nationhood and national identity that are never the uncomplicated, unifying forces that popular imagination hopes them to be. Tuning in to the Hockey Night in Canada on the radio in the 1930s or on television in the 2000s was a shared ritual amongst many, though not all, Canadians. ‘Hockey’, Blake writes, ‘is not universally adored in Canada, but it is universally recognized’ (p. 21). Sport does offer a form of cultural integration (and assimilation): ice hockey brings together English and French Canadians and appreciation of the game has eased the passage of migrants into Canadian life and lifestyles. Hockey, for example, rather than music, theatre or literature put French Canadians on a par with their English-speaking counterparts: ‘Anglophones are most familiar with the Quebec Other when that Other is on the Ice’ (p. 137). One minor quibble with the book is that Blake misses the fact that hockey clearly privileges the European dimension in Canada and maintains the marginality of the First Nation’s Other. Whilst noting early on in the book that the foundations of Canada’s development were triangular, it is unfortunate that the third part is neglected (p. 28).
Chapter two considers hockey as ‘escape’. Many highlight the simplicity of the natural game compared with its big-time commercial equivalent, and hockey is no different from association football in that regard. The utopian freedoms of sport contrast heavily with the theme of chapter three that draws our attention to the most enduring problem of hockey in Canada (and elsewhere): violence. The centrality of fighting to Canada’s game clashing with Canada self-imagining as a peaceful, accepting nation is well observed (p. 79). Chapter five brings us to the intimate level of the family. The father-son dimension is prominent in the chapter, as is to be expected, but there is also important light shed on the (absent) role of women and this should serve as the basis of greater engagement with that gendered nature of the game and its cultural representations.
There is much to admire in this book and much to think about as well. Well written and convincing, it will serve as the basis of much future research into the literary representations of national sport and deserves a wide audience inside and outside Canada.