A true pleasure for historians and hockey lovers, less so for critical sociologists

Bo Carlsson
Department of Sport Science, Linnæus University, Sweden

Bruce Berglund
The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the globalization of sports
329 pages, paperback, ill
Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2021 (Sport in World History)
ISBN 978-0-520-30373-7

Ice hockey is definitely my favorite sport – I actually have teams that I root for, teams that have had a fair bit of success in recent years. Thus, cheer the Bandy Club – the best green-and-white team and Europe’s best team – and Toronto Maple Leafs, the home of Salming and Sundin for many years. Despite my interest and passion for ice hockey – or possibly because of – I have read very few academic books and articles about ice hockey. On the other hand, I have – lo and behold – written some articles about ice hockey myself, albeit in collaboration with colleagues Tobias Stark and/or Jyri Backman. My academic ice hockey education consists largely of having read Tobias’ various texts and of having, together with Torbjörn Andersson, supervised Jyri Backman for his different theses, including a PhD. Oh yes, I was also the editor, along with Jyri and Tobias, for a special issue in Sport in Society 2020 (23:3) about ice hockey, with the very informative title “The Progress of Elite Ice Hockey, Beyond NHL: A Focus on (G)local Culture(s), Migration, Entrepreneurship, Americanization and Oligarchism”.  I read and assessed all the special issue articles.

Given this, I am highly motivated to read and review the book in question, about “the fastest game in the world”, not least to further my education in the field. I wonder, though, if bandy is not a faster team sport, while ice hockey is much more intense, which means that it can perhaps be perceived as faster? Of course, there are also eSports that are faster… for example, eHockey. But let’s ignore these thoughts and remarks on the title and instead focus of the content of the book.

The author is Bruce Berglund, who teaches history at the University of Kansas and has previously published Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague.  The new book is part of a series, “Sport in World History”, with five other titles, e.g.,Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing and Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil. I suspect that all these books are written by historians who are interested – even passionately – in sports, in addition to their academic profession as historians.

“Introduction” is an 18-page review of Berglund’s personal relationship with ice hockey, starting with his and his father’s experience of the “Miracle on Ice”, and his dream at the age of eleven to participate in the Olympics. The dream came true when he as a spectator got to experience the 2018 games on site in Pyeongchang, where he followed South Korean ice hockey, and its progress and effort at the Olympic Games, rather than the fiery showdowns between the Russian, American and Canadian national teams. Out of this soil grew the idea to describe the game of ice hockey and its local, national, and global character. Berglund contextualizes his idea by pointing out that there are a lot of studies on the globalization of sport, including football and baseball, but that it is largely lacking when it comes to ice hockey, even though it is an international sport. According to Berglund, ice hockey has not only expanded on the map, including NHL teams in California and Florida as well as a league in South Africa, but also in the calendar since ice hockey is played all year round as a result of the “indoorification” of the game.

Is the discipline social science of sport required for the academic understanding of sports? It’s a question I usually ask myself when I read books about sports written by academics outside the social sciences.

Chapter 1, “Up from the Ice” is, as it should be, a description of the historical roots of ice hockey, and we learn that today’s game is very different from the original. Berglund has, among other things, studied a variety of photographs that show these differences and its development. Some of what is described would roday be defined as bandy. Berglund also gives a description of how the sport came to be dominant in Canada, as an “imperial game” and “the realization of a Greater Canada”, from having originally been a British game. In addition to the organizational development on the North American continent, and more specifically in Canada, we get a small glimpse of the developments in Central Europe in particular, for instance Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Already at that time (the 1910s) there were Canadian hockey missionaries, but they were quite few.

Chapter 2, “Into the Arena” begins by describing the huge queues hours before the Olympic semi-final at the Palais de Glace in Antwerp in 1920 between Canada and the United States. We get an insight into the rapidly growing popularity of ice hockey and its entry into indoor halls. In the years that follow, Europe is visited by Canadian hockey teams, which seems to be very attractive to the organizers as ticket sales accelerate. Some European cities, like Davos, become virtual hockey cities. At the same time, the sport is beginning to gain an international character and status, with its own international federation. In parallel, ice hockey in Canada is spreading to a number of American cities, e.g., Boston, Chicago and New York, and, as Berglund points out, we are seeing the beginning of the “Americanization of ice hockey”.

Chapter 3, “Out of the Storm” begins by briefly describing ice hockey during the war years, whereupon we learn that both Hitler and Goebbels watched hockey. There are photographs! Berglund also describes how ice hockey developed in the German Reich, with top clubs in Berlin. With the end of the war, interest in ice hockey really took off and the NHL strengthened its position, while Russian ice hockey began its coming rampage during the Cold War. The country was both severely bombed and characterized by the sweetness of victory, which made hockey a welcome and positive driving force for the people. The focus of Berglund’s story is on Tarasov and his founding of a specific Russian hockey, which later developed in the formation of a successful national team, known as the “The Red Machine”. The chapter also deals with the development of ice hockey in Czechoslovakia, in the wake of the Communist Party and the Iron Curtain.

Chapters 4, “Toward New Directions”, and 5, “On the Brink”, describe, among other things, how North American ice hockey is becoming increasingly influenced by European hockey when it comes to the game itself, while the “culture” around the events, including in Europe, is becoming increasingly Americanized. European players are starting to assert themselves even in the NHL (which had been quite closed), and not just as curiosities. One example that is highlighted is that Mats Sundin becomes captain in hockey’s Mecca, Toronto, for the Maple Leafs. In this section we also, and quite suddenly, get a little insight into the development of Swedish and Finnish ice hockey in terms of local support and style – here, Berglund in addition to the Nordic sports model lifts an initial “Viking spirit” – and international influences from both east and west, which makes Berglund establish Nordic hockey as a third way, in between the NHL and Russian ice hockey.

In chapter 6 “In the Money”, media enters the story as a major driver in the commercialization of ice hockey and how the media can utilize, expand, and embellish individual events like the “Miracle on Ice”, like a “Rocky Balboa story”, a battle between David and Goliath. The use of Wayne Gretsky as a peddler of the NHL is another example that Berglund highlights. The chapter concludes, paradoxically considering the title “In the Money”, with a reflection on the fact that more and more women have started playing hockey. Or rather, Berglund’s reflection was wedged in, because the chapter ends with the effects of Perestroika, which among other things facilitated a veritable invasion of Russian players to the NHL for a period of time. In recent years this has slowed down after the start of the Kontinental Hockey League, KHL.

“Around the World” is the final chapter, and it deals with the migration of hockey players across a global market, as well as the trend of fashionable hockey arenas where the experience, in addition to ice hockey, includes restaurant visits and shopping. This chapter also highlights the creation of the KHL and Putin’s ambitions, but relatively summatively. Even Title IX gets a small space, unclear why.

For a historian – and hockey lover – the book is most likely a true pleasure. It is quite full of anecdotes and variouscuriosities, all of it certainly quite interesting. Berglund has definitely done a good archival work. The book is also well written. But for me as a sociologist, there is a lack of in-depth analyses of social processes and their impact on ice hockey, nationally as well as internationally, in addition to the historical chronology with, among other things, the British Empire, world wars, iron curtain and Perestroika.

Is the discipline social science of sport required for the academic understanding of sports? It’s a question I usually ask myself when I read books about sports written by academics outside the social sciences. Many of these books are great, with Fraser’s Cricket and the Law and Connor’s Philosophy of Sport as my favorites, both far more interesting and rewarding than much of the large amount of texts written by sports evangelists in sports science. However, I do not think Berglund’s contribution gives more nourishment to my critical thoughts and problematizations, largely because his clear passion for ice hockey takes over. (This is also a great risk for any sports sociology scholar!) Passion can certainly be pleasant and engaging but may also risk missing out on seeing and lifting problems. In this context, I think Berglund fails to lift and problematize the entire development of ice hockey, whereby phenomena like the Americanization of culture, masculinity culture and the KHL’s oligarchic structure and imperialism go rather without notice.

Globalization has the character of various stories from different corners of the world rather than being an analytical tool. Scandinavian ice hockey is also more or less set in brackets. For idrottsforum.org’s Scandinavian-speaking readership, I recommend Jyri Backman’s and/or Tobias Stark’s theses instead.

Copyright © Bo Carlsson 2022



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