Historicizing Machoism in Swedish Ice Hockey: A Summary


Daniel Alsarve
Department of Health Sciences, Örebro University

Sport is often perceived as something that promotes health. However, some activities, environments, and coaches’ instructions can trigger things inside individuals that may be harmful, dangerous to health, or even deadly. The fine line between health-promoting and harmful measures can thus be difficult to detect. In this article, I put focus on the past of Swedish ice hockey, from 1965 onwards. I argue and explain these dual dimensions as being caused by the ‘machoism’ and ‘macho culture’ of male ice hockey. Machoism, with its possibilities and pressures, is described as institutionalized in the ice hockey culture and due to its comprehensive legitimacy and complexity, it was impossible to problematize, challenge, and ultimately change from within. The appreciated, privileged, and respected masculinity ideals were learned from an early age and interlinked with contextual and commercial forces, as well as the tactical strategies of the game. Likewise, the sport’s promises, guidelines, psyche, and societal contributions were also difficult to problematize, challenge, and change from within, and it was these mechanisms that helped to institutionalize and uphold the so-called machoism in Swedish ice hockey.

The Swedish ice hockey culture has not been analyzed in this way before. The concepts of hegemony and hegemonic masculinities create a theoretical and critical understanding of ice hockey’s institutionalized machoism. The Swedish journal Hockey is the main historical source, but interviews, and excerpts from the media and biographies have also been used. To provide an adequate understanding of Swedish ice hockey’s past, it was put in relation to the dominating, transnational circumstances that influenced Swedish sport and Sweden’s main political, financial, and societal changes during this period. The post-war era and particularly the Cold War, which was played out in politics and sport and emphasized the distinction between a global east and west, thus constitute the article’s contextual setting. Situated between these two entities, the Swedish state and the Swedish Ice Hockey Association carefully navigated, selected, and negotiated the wisest moves to make. In general, politics and hockey tactics from the Soviet bloc had more influence during the 1950s and 1960s, and with time the impact of US neo-liberalism, commercialism, and professional Canadian hockey styles became stronger. Symptomatically, these commercially related processes were intensified in the Swedish context during the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, although more positive attitudes towards professionals were established in the mid-1970s.

The post-war era and particularly the Cold War, which was played out in politics and sport and emphasized the distinction between a global east and west, thus constitute the article’s contextual setting.

The argument of ice hockey’s institutionalized machoism builds on four findings. “The power of Attractiveness: Promises and Dreams of Becoming a Hockey Player” describes young players’ dreams about what a future hockey career could promise, and these were fundamental for the macho culture’s stability and reproduction. “The Guidelines’ Tactical Connotations” captures ideal behaviour and heroism interlinked with the game’s rules and the coaches’ tactics. Such guidelines also helped to stabilize the culture and included financial and broader cultural interests; this dimension of power went beyond the game itself and created a connection between players showing courage (rather than weakness) and the club’s financial interests. In “An Appropriate Psyche” I describe how the ideal player was constantly in a controlled-aggressive mode, prepared to sacrifice himself for the team and/or silently follow the coach’s instructions. Silence is treated as a double-edged force and overall functioned as a stabilizing factor. Criticizing a coach’s instruction was not acceptable and a silent acceptance of those instructions were understood as an expression of a player’s will to win, to never give up or quit, and to fight hard to the bitter end. These and similar ideals were crucial for keeping honour and (perceived) masculinity intact. In other words, losing or a lack of engagement could be regarded as emasculating or effeminate. The final finding, “Ice Hockey’s Societal Contribution,” treats the productive or positive sides of ice hockey’s fostering. Youth hockey taught players to take responsibility, perform in a group, and develop respect for teammates. Ice hockey was a particularly attractive youth activity, in that it was considered

a hard and thrilling sport, never stagnant, always sensational. A sport for boys with fire in the stick and a will that could move mountains. It is often said that ice hockey turns boys into men… In short, this means that ice hockey is without a doubt one of the best ways of fostering young people.1


The article ends with a discussion about the controlling mechanisms and the inclinations to change machoism in ice hockey. With its possibilities and pressures, the institutionalized machoism (or hyper-masculine ideals) involved mental, symbolic, tactical, physical, and financial factors, all of which made it challenging or impossible to problematize and ultimately change. The result was a machoism that included some (those with the right calibre) and excluded others.

Today, the concept of ‘machoism’ has negative connotations. However, it is important to remember that its perceived masculinity-creating ingredients also have and have had beneficial societal traits. It is these ideals that made ice hockey a suitable environment in which to foster young people in the 1960s, 1970s, and onwards. The sacrificial and disciplinary ingredients could both promote and prohibit a player’s career. Change of such cultures do not simply take place by itself, but ‘happens’ through organizing, struggling, and negotiating. For example, changing the rules and banning body checks would threaten ice hockey’s traditional role as a training ground for masculinity, and may ‘risk’ effeminizing and softening ice hockey men. Such transformations are extremely challenging to accomplish and are therefore avoided because they affect the patriarchal structures, not only in ice hockey but also in society in general.

Progression and ‘positive’ masculinity aspects can thus go hand in hand with exploitation and ‘negative’ masculinities via the ice hockey culture. These complex processes are based on external and financial support, dreams, masculinity ideals, and coaching tactics that in the end aim at winning games and trophies; a competitive logic that inevitably also involves losers.

[1] Åke Lundström, ‘Ishockey är en fostrande lek’ [Ice Hockey is a Fostering Play], Hockey, 1969, no 4, 19.
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