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Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dunkirk of Hockey

At a certain angle, you kinda have to squint, Phil Esposito does sort of look like Winston Churchill. Something in the chin I think.

He also noted that he was recently “chatting” with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the game, noting that they come from the two coldest countries on Earth and “not by coincidence, the two best hockey countries.”

Indeed, he reflected on the 1972 series between Canada and Russia, saying that his father told him it was “sort of like the experience of the Allies in the 1940s, feeling as soon as the shots were fired this thing would be over [but then] find we’re scrambling out of Dunkirk. That was very similar.”

“The Canada-Soviet series had an overarching reality of Cold War confrontation as well, which really nothing today can replicate,” he told Mr. Farber.

That was Stephen Harper chatting with Putin's shadow. While the article highlights the Prime Minister's awshucks remark about how he'd rather be playing hockey than politics, which is probably sincere, it kind of glosses over the humdinger above. Dunkirk? Really? There were Canadians, albeit peripherally, at Dunkirk. I kind of get the folksy analogy. You think this is going to be a cakewalk and then, wham, the Wehrmacht finds its way through the Black Forest, or the Central Red Army hockey forwards find their way through whatever defense thing hockey people do. 

Never understood the game myself. Yeap. Don't like Medicare, hockey and can barely stand the smell of Tim Horton's coffee. I'm amazed they haven't deported me yet. Just a note to the CanCon immigration goons, when they show up, please send me to Australia. I have a certain attachment to freedom, warm weather and the monarchy. That and I just like Aussies. Thanks. But seriously. I grew up hearing people telling me, some quite solemnly, that the 1972 Summit Series was Canada's contribution to the Cold War. 

Huh? Now if I'd spent a few years manning CFB Lahr, or guarding the Fulda Gap, I might be a wee pissed at such a suggestion. I think most Canadians realize the Summit Series as Our Bit for the War theory was always a half joke. It's the non-joke half that's always frightened me. The elevation of a single sport as a substitution for a sense of nationality, and by extension eight hockey games in the early seventies as a serious country's contribution to the vital geopolitical struggle of the post war era.

It would all have perplexed the Fathers of Confederation, only one of whom the average Canadian can name. So would the obsession with a mediocre brand of coffee, and a dysfunctional health care system. Somewhere in the woolly nonsense that was the Pearson-Trudeau Era, Canada stopped being a serious country. In response we began clinging to cultural and political trivia. Pierre doing a pirouette was a landmark moment. In any other country then, and in Canada at any other time, that stunt alone would have ended his political career. Imagine George W Bush, assuming he was nimble enough, doing something similar behind the Queen.

But the Canada of the 1970s was not the confident end product of a thousand years of Anglo-French tradition, instead it was a gawky adolescent impressed by a middle aged hipster who actually wasn't afraid of girls. Or I should say the English parts of Canada. Joining the post-war mantra that British is bad, we deliberately effaced our British heritage. It was an act of cultural self-immolation. One which the British are now eagerly undertaking themselves. Robert Menzies, Australia's stout Anglophile PM, used to remark that he was British down to his bootstraps. The British now have done away even with the footwear bit, as seen in spectacle of bobbies handing out plastic sandals to drunken slobs on high streets. What remains? Football hooligans there, and hockey players and waiting lists here. One of the more astute critics of the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis, observed:

Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.

I've got no problemt honouring millionaires, athletes or film stars, depending on how they acquired their position, but you get Lewis' point. Human beings need ideals. Denied something noble they worship the banal, or even the perverse. Being a Christian apologist Lewis' angle was that by junking the Church man had bankrupted his spiritual nature. Not being a Christian I still agree with the end point, but not how we got here. We rejected ideals as such and embraced nihilism. What was, was bad. In Canada it meant rejecting our own history and embracing the trivia of our national life, hockey. In embracing Medicare we gobbled the poison.

Posted by Richard Anderson on February 11, 2010 | Permalink


You've touched on something, Publius, that I haven't quite been able to put my finger on. Hockey seems to have a greater meaning for a lot of people than I think it deserves and it's always puzzled me. I see it as exercise and entertainment and that's it. Others view it as some kind of a great spiritual something or another. There are parents out there who believe that their kid will never steal or get someone pregnant,or get into any serious kind of trouble and will get the perfect job and live happily ever after if all they do is play hockey. There are plenty of examples around that this is not the case, yet lots of people still believe this.

I hadn't given any serious thought to the idea of substitution. But I think you're on to something when you say ,"Denied something noble they worship the banal, or even the perverse."

At the end of the day does it really matter if someone, or one country is better at putting a piece of rubber in a net. No it doesn't, but for all sorts of people that's all that seems matters.

Yes, there are worse things out there than sports to put front and centre in ones life, but that ignores the fact that there are also so many better and more productive things as well.

Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2010-02-11 9:06:06 AM

I like what you've done with the place.

Did you ever wonder how Canadian soldiers occupy their time, in the field? They talk about hockey. It all ties together, as part of our national spirit. It may seem irrational to some, but the average Joe sees it as something that binds us together.

I'm not a hockey fan, either, and I don't drink Tim Hortons, but I understand why other people do. I wise man once told me, don't ask about another man's family, or religion. I think it should be expanded to his pastimes, as well.

Posted by: dp | 2010-02-11 10:22:29 AM

I love hockey and play 2 or 3 times per week. I don't understand the obsession however.

dp is correct in saying that it's something binds people together and hence is a good thing.

Then again, people seem to care more about The Flames or Canadians than they do issues which can have a serious effect on their lives.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-02-11 10:41:22 AM

It can be a good thing when it's done in moderation and kept in proper prospective. There's nothing wrong with a couple of drinks now and then, a bottle of scotch every night that's a bit different.

I've got some friends who are real sports nuts who don't think our soldiers should be over in Afghanistan because it ruins Hockey Night in Canada for them when Don Cherry reads off the names of our fallen men and women. Like Charles said , "people seem to care more about The Flames or Canadians than they do issues which can have a serious effect on their lives."

Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2010-02-11 11:30:58 AM

Was just talking to a buddy about this and he pointed out how misplaced the victory over the soviets in hockey really is. When it comes to the cold war the only victory Canadians achieved was in something that didn't matter one bit.

Posted by: Farmer Joe | 2010-02-11 12:49:29 PM

The hockey victory over the Soviets was not a moral one, yet many hockey fans seem to have an emotional attachment to it that equates with a moral victory.

In a world that at the time was starved of moral victories over totalitarianism, was this a sub-conscious but futile attempt to create one?

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-02-11 4:00:33 PM

This is a retrospective view masquerading as a prospective view. Churchill knew the extent of the challenge.

"Here was decision at last, taken at the worst possible moment and on the least satisfactory ground, which must surely lead to the slaughter of tens of millions of people. Here was the righteous cause deliberately and with a refinement of inverted artistry committed to mortal battle after its assets and advantages had been so improvidently squandered. Still, if you will not fight for the right when you can easily win without bloodshed; if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than live as slaves."

Absence, apparently, makes the heart grow fonder. This was the tale of arrogant, fat, outta shape, overpaid, sanctimonious, mendacious (the NHL and its fealties) condescending bunch of bastards who were forced to eat crow when faced with real athleticism. No doubt Father David Bauer and Lloyd Percival are still smiling.

"Perhaps his most long lasting impact upon Canadian sports remains his publication, The Hockey Handbook. Originally published in 1951, and rejected at the time by one NHL coach as “the product of a three-year-old mind,” Lloyd Percival’s The Hockey Handbook went on to have an international impact. European coaches treated the book as the first analytical assessment of hockey skills, team play and conditioning. In fact, the Soviet hockey powers based their program on the Hockey Handbook. Anatoli Tarasov, the godfather of Soviet hockey once told Percival: “Your wonderful book …introduced us to the mysteries of Canadian hockey, I have read (it) like a schoolboy."

Posted by: Winston | 2010-02-11 4:19:08 PM

One of the primary reasons we cling to hockey is that it's associated with one of the last things we can claim as being truly Canadian.It used to be the RCMP until the symbol was sold to Disney and turbans watered down Canadiana. Our children are tought to embrace multiculture and adults are encouraged to bend over backwards and welcome every social experiment coming into this land.
Hockey and curling. Truly Canadian. Everything else is just the warm glow of memories of long ago.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-02-11 8:58:24 PM

I've been thinking back, and starting to remember some of the sentiment, at the time. There was a lot more to this than national pride. It was amateur vs professional, free enterprise vs socialism, a government machine vs paid individuals.

At the same time, there were calls for Soviet boxers to take on professional boxers. People wanted to see Teo Stevenson(Cuba) fight Muhammad Ali. They wanted their basketball players to take on NBA players, which eventually happened. There was a big controversy going on over which system could create superior athletes, and products.

The Soviet system was eventually proven to be inferior, but it took events like the '72 series to make the point. I believe you may be reading too little into what happened in '72. It was a watershed moment, and not just in the sporting world. It was our system, against their system.

Posted by: dp | 2010-02-11 10:00:10 PM

"It was our system, against their system."

This was just an excuse, propaganda to rally the sheeple back to the NHL fold after Espo's baneful speech in Vancouver. The money merchants of the NHL had taken the great game and destroyed it. The Soviet's were showing the emperor had no clothes.

This, however, is a side show. The decline of the British hegemony in Canada was not suicide but murder by mass migration. Bennett warned of the coming disaster of Laurier's imprudence and so it was that the Anglo became the whipping boy for an ethnic coalition that despised the founding people.

Mill summed it up:

A PORTION of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others — which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves or a portion of themselves exclusively. This feeling of nationality may have been generated by various causes. Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion, greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.

And the polyglot Canada had none of this, even in 1972.

Posted by: Winston | 2010-02-12 12:10:29 AM

And the polyglot Canada had none of this, even in 1972.

Posted by: Winston | 2010-02-12 12:10:29 AM


We do pride ourselves in trying to be every thing to everyone and sacrificing whatever heritage we once had on the altar of multiculturism. By standing for everything, we will eventually associate with nothing and the most radical Canadians will reshape this country. Those radical Canadians will not have a European background. As we are already experiencing with nativity scenes at Christmas , we will see a ever expanding erosion of customs that we took for granted, and in the not too distant future we will become the minority. ( The estimate is 35 years).
At least Quebec tried to hold on to it's heritage. They will fail, but at least they tried. The future will show that Canada never even tried.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-02-12 10:06:11 PM

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