By Rosemary Gray Snelgrove
There is more to hockey than many of us think.
I married into a hockey family. This has been positive, for the most part. The few times I’ve watched my husband play, I’ve been in awe of the beauty of his movement across the ice. He glides, in a wonderful balanced movement; the assurance of his stride reminds me of how I continue to enjoy the difference between the genders. (I skate reasonably well, and I would hope he’d enjoy my stride too.)
I love that he played regularly, for decades, with friends with whom he shared a camaraderie and sense of fun that carried over into life away from the rink. So on a personal level, playing the game was a happy thing that I could also take pleasure in.
Beyond the personal, the fact of hockey on television or at the occasional big league game has been neutral for me, but again, enjoyed on Dave’s behalf.
But the larger place of hockey as a cultural phenomenon occasionally strikes me as worth taking seriously.
The Canada Russia Series, 1972
The impact of the first Canada Russian hockey series, in 1972, meant more than the entertainment value of the televised games.
For the first time, our hockey heroes – and the rest of us who chose to pay attention – met more than their match. There was no preparation for the fact of how good the Russians were. Our blinkered sense of superiority on this one dimension – that of hockey – was crushed. We had to wake up and see the reality. They were as good as and maybe better than we were.
Expand this to the wider realization that our widely held sense of superiority to people we saw as less able, perhaps more primitive than ourselves, was likely WRONG. The totality of the shock reverberating across the country makes sense. It wasn’t just a hockey team. It was a whole sense of identity. National identity.
And it didn’t stop there. If we weren’t the best at hockey, were there a whole lot of other things up for grabs? Might we have some other things wrong?
The entire Canadian populace likely didn’t see things in this way, but the door had been opened to having to lose the smugness, the arrogance, that had come of assuming that we were simply – the Best! Second to the Americans in lots of things, but Hockey???
In losing this assurance, we had to grow up!
As The Series Progressed…
I remember feeling great ambivalence. I was so much more identified with hockey than I would have guessed. I really wanted Canada to win the series.
But as the games became more rough, and “our” team began to look more like street toughs, I was embarrassed. When Bobby Clarke broke the ankle of Kharlamov with a slashing stick, he took out one of the best of the Soviet players. That was awful. But it didn’t stop me from jumping up and down when Henderson’s goal won the final game in the final seconds. That’s still one of the most thrilling moments of sports history in my life. But. The unease about how we won – that has remained.
The Return Bout
Two years later, my husband reminds me that the Red Army team came back to North America, to play some of the NHL teams. The game with the Canadiens in Montreal was apparently a wonderful hockey game, showing skill and spirit.
The next game was with the Philadelphia Flyers. They were a tough team, known as the Broadstreet Bullies. And bully they did. They lay into the Soviets with physical moves that many would call assault.
The CBC Olympic coverage has repeated an excellent short piece on the reflections of three of the Soviet players of the time, including Boris Mikhailov. He describes how the team was so unprepared for this kind of game behaviour that they feared for their lives. The Soviets actually determined that there was serious risk to the players and after the second period, they left the game. Just walked out.
I find this very interesting. To win in 1972, Canadian players were so fired up to win, so shocked when realizing how hard it was going to be, that they used tactics that had nothing to do with skill and sportsmanship. Was it perhaps a little bit like war? They won. We won!! We were happy. We still celebrate it occasionally. But did it tell us something about ourselves that we need to be aware of? We’re not bullies when we don’t have to be but if we have to…? But did we have to? Who knows?
And then in 1974, the pleasure of well-played hockey was restored between the two countries and a fine game took place in Montreal. Perhaps there was less riding on this series for Canadians because we’d absorbed the wonderful myth that we were the best. Was winning perhaps not as critical?
But did the Flyers feel they had more to lose? In Philadelphia there was clearly some motivation to assault the Russian team and they went out and did it. Was it a matter of the stakes seeming higher? The Cold War was still a reality. So perhaps, war it was.
Winning, Losing, Identity, Pride
This all suggests that we hardly know ourselves. Winning at times seems to matter more than honour. Losing embodies shame almost beyond enduring. Who we are is bound up in being closer to winning than losing. Pride can blind us.
Is this just the way of the world? Are we making any progress toward more inclusive thinking and less need to be victors? Or, when push comes to shove, are we always going to shove as hard as we can?