A landmark account of the global history of the coolest game on earth

Tobias Stark
Dept. of Sport Sciences, Linnaeus University, Växjö Sweden

Stephen Hardy & Andrew C. Holman
Hockey: A Global History
582 pages, paperback, ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2018 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08397-6

The last few decades have seen a rapidly growing academic interest in ice hockey as a social phenomenon. The result has been a veritable explosion of detailed and thought-provoking accounts on various aspects of the cultural history of the game, regarding everything from the development of the National Hockey League (NHL), and the organization of women’s ice hockey, to violence on and off the ice, as well as the staging of the sport as a cold war battleground.

Yet, one central aspect of the cultural history of ice hockey has remained largely unexplored: the globalization of the game at large. Although numerous insightful deliberations have been issued on the formation of ice hockey as a cultural artifact in different parts of the world, there has been a dearth of wide-ranging considerations on how the sport has spread over the globe, and what the globalization has actually meant to the game in general, and for managers, players and fans in particular. Up until now, that is, as historians Stephen Hardy and Andrew C. Holman have just published a pioneering take on the matter, Hockey: A Global History.

The book is divided into four major parts. Part one, “Early games to 1877”, chronicles the folk versions of ice hockey that existed in Europe and North America prior to the formal organization of the modern sport, the so-called “Montreal game”, in eastern Canada in the second half of the 1870s. The second part, “A Game becomes the Game, 1877–1920”, deals with the development of ice hockey from the late 1870s to the beginning of the inter war era, when the “Montreal version” gradually became the dominant form of the game in North America. Part three, “The Diverging World of Canada’s Game, 1920–1971”, focuses the centrifugal pattern of development of ice hockey that occurred in the footsteps of the accelerating international expansion of the game, from the end of World War I to the beginning of the 1970s. According to Hardy and Holman, this process was

akin to the splintering of a religion. The founding creed was subject to interpretation and attempts to find or retain the ‘true’ path. In hockey’s case, one sees clear cleaving among a few core denominations: professional leagues in North America; American schools and colleges; and international-amateur groups. The NHL may have secured the Chalice of the founders (the Stanley Cup), but other groups believed that they were equal guardians of the true faith. This was seen in multiple sets of playing rules, protective eligibility regulations, and bitter controversies. All of these sources are to some degree like interpretations of sacred text. If the game itself went global, its practice was divided among fiefdoms. This was, in short, a period of distinct divergence and brand building. (p. 12–13)

The final part, “The Rise of Corporate Hockey, 1972–2010”, accounts for the turbulent decades following the legendary 1972 Summit Series, between Team Canada and the Soviet Nationals, which has seen the NHL’s corporate version of the game more or less become the blueprint for the ice hockey world as a whole. Or to use Hardy’s and Holman’s own words:

by the 1980s, both the American collegiate and the Soviet international brands were cracking apart and yielding to the NHL brand. This could be seen in rules changes, coaching tactics, and officiating that tolerated or encouraged greater levels of violence. It could be seen in heightened levels of commercialism and bigger arenas. It could be seen in league structure. And most tellingly, it could be seen in the slowly building stream of Swedish, Finnish, and Czech players leaving their national teams to play in the NHL; in the growth of minor leagues in the American Midwest and south; and most visibly in the 1989 move of the NHL headquarters from Montreal to New York City. International television broadcasts of new “summit” competitions like the Canada Cup focused increased attention on the NHL and its highly paid stars. (p. 13)

Consequently, Hardy’s and Holman’s basic argument concerns innovation, standardization, divergence, and convergence. However, it is important to note that the authors do not perceive the historical process at hand as either natural nor inevitable, but rather as the result of a complex interchange between various forces, interests and people. That is to say:

[h]ockey grew in particular ways, through the efforts and struggles of entrepreneurs, reformers, bureaucrats, players, reporters, and everyday fans, who clashed over rules, technologies, representations, and meanings. (p. 11)

Hardy and Holman stress that ice hockey may have provided a sense of freedom for many people throughout the years, although that must not be allowed to overshadow the troubling fact that it traditionally has been a white man’s game, and that women and ethnic minorities have had to venture into hostile territory.

Still, Hardy and Holman do not claim to have written an all-embracing justification of the total history of the globalization of ice hockey. Rather, the aim has been to “offer more detailed glimpses of exemplary case studies” (p. 15).

Hardy and Holman are two of the foremost researchers of the game, and they have played integral parts in making ice hockey studies into the vibrant and multifaceted academic discipline that it is today. Hence, that it is their names on the cover of Hockey: A Global History is a guarantee for a seminal treatise. Hardy and Holman write a gracious prose, that draws upon essential scholarly works as well as popular and contemporary first hand sources from different parts of the world, which makes for a seamless and engaging account for academics and avid hockey fans alike.

The only real complaint I have is that I wish that the book would have been sprinkled with pictures from various epochs and parts of the ice hockey world in order to help further the understanding of the global history of the game. Then again, I am sure that was never an option because of economical necessities.

All in all, Hockey: A Global History is a congenial read, that will go down as a landmark account of the global history of the coolest game on earth.

Copyright © Tobias Stark 2019

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