A New Hot Take on the Coolest Game on Earth

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Tobias Stark
Department of Sport Sciences, Linnæus University


Courtney Szto
Changing on the Fly: Hockey through the voices of South Asian Canadians
225 pages, paperback, ill
New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2021 (Critical Issues in Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-1-9788-0793-8

Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”, the notable cultural theorist Raymond Williams (1921–1988) famously asserted in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1983:87). Williams made no explicit reference to what the other one or two complicated words might be, but it is safe to say he was on to something. For one thing, Williams dedicated an illustrious academic career to the examination of culture and played an important part in establishing cultural studies as a vibrant scientific field of study. He, if anyone, should know, one would assume. Right!?

Furthermore, to this point, the anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber’s and Clyde Kluckhohn’s book Culture: A Critical review of Concepts and Definitions, published in 1950, listed over 150 definitions of culture that were in circulation at the end of World War II. Numerous attempts to pinpoint “what culture is” have been launched since then; but no standard, generally accepted definition has emerged, quite the contrary, as it has “now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought” (Williams, 1983:87). Subsequently, towards the end of his life, Williams is said to have become increasingly incensed on the notion of “culture”, even stating: “You know the number of times I’ve wished that I had never heard of the damned word. I have become more aware of its difficulties, not less, as I have gone on” (Marx, 2022).

The application of the term “culture” with respect to ice hockey is a telling example of the said problem(s). Broadly speaking, one may discern at least four different notions of culture in ice hockey. First, for people within the game, the concept of ice hockey culture is habitually applied to denote teams, organizations, and nations with long-standing traditions, a great supporter following and/or discernible on ice success (championships won, distinguished players and venerated coaches etc.). Second, and almost as common as the abovementioned definition, “insiders” and “outsiders” alike oftentimes talk about ice hockey culture with regards to “the darker side of the game”, referring to issues such as violence, bullying, misogyny, homophobia, and abuse. Third, but closely related to the second notion, ice hockey has also been said to be lacking culture altogether, as the game has been equated with commercialism, violence, and vulgar, Americanized mass-entertainment; a perspective grounded in the more highbrow conceptualization of the term “culture” concerning among others traditional education and the fine arts. Fourth, lately issues of race, ethnicity and multiculturalism has come more and more into focus in the discussions on ice hockey, as the impetus to highlight pluralistic narratives of cultural belonging in the game has increased.

As an in-depth and thought provoking analysis of one of ice hockey’s most pressing issues in the 21st century, Szto’s book offers greater clarity on the culture of the game not by exposing it, but by complicating it further than perhaps ever before.

One of the scholars spearheading the discussion on ice hockey and multiculturalism today is Courtney Szto, assistant professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In her book, Changing on the Fly: Hockey Through The Voices of South Asian Canadians, Szto “seek to recover some of the diversity missing from the [Canadian] national winter pastime narrative by analyzing South Asian experiences in and around the game” (Szto, 2021:3). Szto points out that:

It is with these voices in mind that this project examines the growth of both South Asian hockey fandom and community hockey participation in Canada as a form of cultural citizenship. More specifically, I explore the intriguing relationship to hockey that has developed in South Asian communities in Canada, and particularly on Canada’s west coast, since the 1960s. I shall also discuss challenges that South Asian Canadians face in hockey and how these challenges may be connected to broader racial discrimination in early twenty-first century Canada. … More than ever, in my view, questions of who is Canadian, who is present or underrepresented, and who is enabled or discouraged in Canadian culture are negotiated on the ice, within the confines of Canada’s national pastime. I contend popular cultural practices, such as hockey, are sites where personal and group identities as well as claims to equality of citizenship can be exercised and contested. Hockey has particular relevance because of the widely acknowledged iconic place it occupies in Canada’s national culture (p. 3–4).

The analysis is based on empirical data gleaned from a combination of a review of literature, ethnographical investigations, and qualitative interviews, undertaken over a period of 15 months, from the beginning of 2016 to the spring 2017. The research participants ranged from teenagers to people in their mid-50’s, and their level of hockey participation spanned from recreational house ice hockey to the elite levels. The recruitment was restricted to the Lower Mainland of British Colombia.

Changing on the Fly opens with an “Introduction” which is followed by eight thematically arranged empirical chapters, and a concluding remark, addressed as a commitment to the future. The first chapter, “Myth Busting: Hockey, Multiculturalism, and Canada”, is laying out the groundwork for the subsequent intersectional analysis by unpacking two dominant myths: 1) the idea that hockey is Canada, and 2) that Canada values multiculturalism. Szto also contextualizes the South Asian demographic in Canada, and racial tensions in the geographical area of investigation, the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

In chapter 2, “Narratives from the Screen: Media and Cultural Citizenship”, Szto applies media narratives and interviews with member of the Hockey Night in Punjab TV broadcast to examine cultural citizenship. Szto’s discussion draws on Boele van Hensbroek’s notion that the essence of cultural citizenship is “’to be co-producer, or co-author, of the cultural context (webs of meaning) in which one participates’”, i.e. not merely being allowed to participate. The analysis underlines that:

The influential presence of Hockey Night Punjabi stands as a symbol of potentiality because the lives, politics, and work of Canadian “others” hold the prospect of helping us understand “both the refined and crude constructions of ‘white power’ behind ‘Canada’s’ national imagery. They serve to remind us of the Canada that could exist” (p. 54).

The third chapter, “White Spaces, Different Faces: Policing Membership at the rink and in the Nation”, examines how the ice rink mediates membership in the hockey community, as well as relating to broader issues of national belonging. Szto argues that, as racialized bodies are constantly being controlled, both externally and internally, racialized participants are forced into a state of perpetual unease or lack of certainty about their claims to space in hockey culture.

The author, Dr. Courtney Szto (ˈsiːtəʊ). (Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Chapter 4, “Racist Taunts or Just Chirping?”, investigates discursive (re)productions of racism as well as its dismissal, while chapter 5 (“South Asian Masculinities and Femininities”), probes the gendered experiences and distinctions in ice hockey. The sixth chapter, “Hockey Hurdles and Resilient Subjects: Unpacking Forms of Capital”, contemplates the institutional nature of discrimination through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu’s forms of capital, shedding light on how racialized players traditionally have been disadvantaged in a purportedly meritocratic system.

Chapter 7, “Racialized Money and White Fragility: Class and Resentment in Hockey” is a discussion on class mobility as a cause of racial tension in the game, while chapter 8, “Taking Stock: Public Memory and the Retelling of Hockey in Canada” takes a closer look on the role played by the media in negotiating public memory. Szto states:

I challenge institutions of public memory, such as the Hockey Hall of Fame, and its influence in the erasure of racialized contributions and experiences from the larger story of hockey in Canada. I call for a more inclusive and collective retelling of the history of hockey and Canada as one method to exercise cultural citizenship and achieve anti-racism. If hockey is Canada then its history should reflect the various multicultural contributions that have made the game what it is today (p. 13).

As stated above, the conclusion of Changing on the Fly is framed as “a commitment to the future”. Szto states that:

hockey needs all of the people it has historically relegated to the sidelines: racialized people, Indigenous Peoples, queer communities, women, and disabled participants. Embracing the “diversity explosion” will do nothing to address issues of power, privilege, and access—the pillars required for racial justice. Fostering anti-racism means that power can no longer be hoarded amongst “old school” gatekeepers.  This is not just a grassroots, entry-level issue; top-level management must change itself to reflect the participants hockey thinks it deserves. The privilege of having white male contributions stand in as the universal national (or sporting) narrative must be challenged. And, handing out free equipment and holding learn-to-play sessions to enhance access, while an important part of the process, should be recognized as the least we can do. We should not be patting ourselves on the back for incorporating more minoritized youth into a culture that has demonstrated it-self to be sexist, homonegative, racist, and elitist unless we are ready and willing to overturn the people, practices, and policies that made it that way (p. 165).

Also:

Hockey is the only sport where players change on the fly, which means that players can be substituted without a stoppage in play. This is one of the aspects of the game that makes hockey extremely dynamic because players must constantly adjust to new teammates, opponents, and conditions. Ironically, even though the game expects adaptability from its players, the institution seems to have a hard time adjusting to all the new players entering the game and letting go of the previous generations. History does not stop time for us to gather ourselves and re-assess; consequently, this anti-racism work must be done on the fly (p. 168).

Changing on the Fly is a new hot take on “the coolest game on earth”, to use a phrase from the NHL.

Stzo is an excellent writer with an obvious talent for cross-fertilizing empirical investigations with far-reaching theoretical considerations. As an in-depth and thought provoking analysis of one of ice hockey’s most pressing issues in the 21st century, Szto’s book offers greater clarity on the culture of the game not by exposing it, but by complicating it further than perhaps ever before. In doing that, Szto has succeeded in presenting a new take on the difficulties of the notion of culture that surely even Raymond William’s would have been keen to welcome with open arms. That’s a true game winner for most cultural theorist’s with the slightest interest in ice hockey.

Copyright © Tobias Stark 2023

References

Kroeber, Alfred L & Clyde Kluckhohn (1950), Culture: A Critical review of Concepts and Definitions, Harvard University: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Marx, W. David (2022), “What is Culture? Part One: The Word”, Culture: An Owner’s Manuel, Link:https://culture.ghost.io/what-do-we-even-mean-by-culture/, published: Feb 22, 2022.
Williams, Raymond (1983), Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society, Oxford University Press: New York.

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