Academic interest in Canada’s national game has been increasing for several years. Following the pioneering sociological interest of David Whitson and Richard Gruneau, the Putting it on Ice series edited by Colin D. Howell, and John Wong’s own recent study of the formation of the NHL, this collection examines the development of hockey in a national framework from the ice of Cape Breton to the rich excesses of Vancouver. Explicit in this collection are questions of class, of gender and masculinity, and the old rural-urban dichotomy exemplifying the variety of directions in which sports history is expanding in the hands of a new generation of scholars represented in this book.
Coast to Coast is at once a deeply fascinating but troubling book. It lacks, as the editor acknowledges, a truly national focus. ‘Readers will find’, the editor explains, ‘that certain regions of Canada and certain people’s experiences are missing, most regrettably those of the French-speaking and the indigenous populations’ (p. ix). This is, alas, an understatement. The chapter on Cape Breton is so narrowly focused that it misses a good opportunity to explore hockey in the Maritimes context or even to place the Cape Breton material, which is certainly interesting, into that broader contextual framework. Such things are, it seems, to be expected from publications that aim to be all-encompassing but end up stuck in their Central Canadian milieu. A consequence of this centralism is that the ‘fringe’ chapters (on Cape Breton, rural Alberta and Vancouver) fit uncomfortably with their Central Canadian comrades. They do, though, form a good foundation for further explorations of the regional/national dialectic in Canadian history.
The best chapters are those Central ones. Carly Adams’s chapter on the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association does a wonderful job of challenging the enduring (masculine) myths of hockey and provides insights into a world beyond. ‘Sport’, she reminds us, ‘has always been a powerful medium for disseminating social meanings’ (p. 149). This is a more resolute assertion of the gender perspective that can also be found in Kossuth’s chapter on Alberta. In a similarly challenging vein, John Barlow’s weaving together of class, gender, ethnoreligious and post-colonial issues in his chapter on the Montreal Shamrocks is the highlight of the collection and a truly stimulating piece that demonstrates how sport helped to mould discussions of identity and was itself moulded by other forces.
The continuation of professional hockey during the Second World War, the subject of Andrew Ross’s chapter, is surely the basis of a fascinating comparative study. Resistance to the planned economies of the 1940s seen through the lens of hockey neatly combines with Adams’s and Barlow’s chapters to show that hockey as entertainment and hockey as identity has always been contested.
All in all, a stimulating read though it falls a little short of its aim of being truly national in scope. Despite that, there are elements of the book that do challenge our thoughts about hockey and a host of other national sports in Canada and beyond, and for that reason it deserves to be read, digested and challenged.