FYI

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Provocative overview of hockey mythology in novels

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AS another endless NHL hockey playoff season slouches into June, yet again with no Canadian team in contention -- and as, therefore, Canadian fans quietly resign themselves, yet again, to the sad certainty that at least one more year will pass before we have any chance at the Stanley Cup (our last one, chez les Canadiens, was in 1993) -- this academic tome, with its striking analysis of our hockey fiction's mythologizing predilections, might ease our angst -- or not.

In University of Western Ontario professor Michael Buma's painstakingly and persuasively argued view -- this book is the distillation of his PhD thesis, and unfortunately still bears some of the stigmata of that laboured genre -- the great majority of Canadian hockey novels (and there are many more than one would think) do some quite suspect but revealing "cultural work." Typically, these novels misrepresent our proprietary passion for hockey as a crucial foundation of our national identity.

That forced misalignment, Buma argues convincingly, distorts and "referees" our national identity and history in several deceptive ways.

Novels in which hockey players and hockey figure as the major characters and theme, Buma shows, typically perpetuate misperceptions of (predominantly masculine) Canadian identity as grounded in romantic fantasies about the pristine innocence of our small towns as the true homes of future pro hockey players in the corrupt big city (American or Canadian).

And Canadian nature and landscape are likewise mythologized: in hockey novels, our winters are typically rendered as pure pastoral settings, our frozen rivers and ponds and outdoor rinks as idealized Edens where the true Canadian (male) spirit finds its noblest, freest expression.

Buma rehearses his thesis through six carefully argued chapters, each addressing an aspect of these distortions, as in Unity through Hockey?, Myths of Masculinity, or The Myth in Crisis.

Each chapter shows a facet of the prevailing mythologizing of hockey, which obscures the myriad ways in which Canadian politics and history, natural landscape, culture and society are far more complex, conflicted and ambiguous realities than these novels allow.

There is much to learn here about Canadian writers' fictionalization of hockey, as well as about the reasons for this mythmaking.

Buma's detailed analysis makes a major contribution to our understanding of this often overlooked part of our literature. Unfortunately the book suffers from its too-hasty conversion from its original purpose; the style is clunky, a bit pedantic and repetitious, and an alert editor should have quickly expunged classically mixed metaphors such as this one:

"While curling may be a significant cultural institution in Canada, The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon makes it clear that it isn't a homegrown game like hockey and is therefore more difficult to saddle with the same nationalist freight."

Problems with style aside, Refereeing Identity provides the most complete -- and provocative -- overview of Canadian novels about hockey to date. If Ken Dryden's wonderful account, The Game (1983), remains the best book about hockey that we have, Buma's gives us the most challenging and comprehensive interpretation. Two minutes, though, for verbal interference.

 

Canadian literature scholar Neil Besner is vice-president, research and international, at the University of Winnipeg. A former Montrealer, he grew up cheering for les Canadiens.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J9

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