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Transgressing “The Good Old Hockey Game”: NonConformist Players in the Conformist Arenas of Ice Hockey
Women’s and Gender Studies Student Colloquium Presentation Kevin Schachter April 4, 2009
Hello out there! We're on the air, it's 'Hockey Night' tonight. Tension grows, the whistle blows, and the puck goes down the ice. The goalie jumps, and the players bump, and the fans all go insane. Someone roars, "Bobby scores!" at the good old hockey game. — Stompin’ Tom Connors, “The Hockey Song” In the above verse from his legendary “Hockey Song,” Stompin’ Tom Connors narrates an iconic expression of Canadian cultural identity: a nighttime hockey game, in which a player named “Bobby” scores a goal (Connors 1973). Vividly captured in this verse are a few major qualities that lead to the allure of the hockey game: the tension of competition, the utilization of skill, the expression of physicality, and a sense of community. Yet just as striking about the hockey game is a prominent characteristic that is not depicted in this verse: the structural and cultural barriers that effectively limit participation in ice hockey to select groups of people. Ice hockey is governed by a masculine, heteronormative, ‘able-bodied,’ middle and upper class hegemony that privileges the participation of players who conform to this norm. A set of social structures and cultural constructs serves to support the participation of these ‘normal’ players and to impede the participation of players who do not conform to this norm. Recent sociological research has uncovered several of the barriers faced by non-conformist players, including: patriarchal processes by which access to ice time and other resources are allocated; the unreimbursed financial costs of hockey equipment, playing fees, and practice time; pressures to conform to traditional gender roles; and the construction of women’s hockey and sledge hockey —a version of the sport accessible to players with lower-body disabilities—as lesser alternatives to the ‘real’ game of ‘able-bodied’ men’s hockey. Conversely, these studies portray how, in spite of the formidable barriers, non-conformist hockey players have gained access to ice hockey and to the corresponding positive experiences of skill development, competition, physical exertion, and community-building. The literature thus reveals a tension between the hegemony governing
participation in ice hockey and the potential for positive transgression of this hegemony posed by the play of non-conformist hockey players. In the initial sections of the research paper from which I have adapted this presentation, I analyze this base of literature through an intersectional feminist disability lens. Such a lens facilitates a sharp understanding of the socially constructed cultural and structural barriers that reinforce the hegemony over ice hockey and of the potential for the transformation of the sport posed by the participation of non-conformist players. As my analysis reveals, non-conformist hockey players have succeeded in gaining access to the positive experiences of playing the sport through adapting to or slightly transgressing the barriers that they have faced. However, this analysis also suggests that non-conformist ice hockey players’ participation may only serve to diversify the demographics of hockey players without effectively challenging the hegemonic culture and structures of the sport. In the third section of this paper, which I present today, I attempt to contribute to this discussion through a case-study examination of my own position on the No Regretzkys, a mixed-gender non-conformist team playing in a normatively male division of a recreational hockey league. Through this examination, I identify how the No Regretzkys’ enrollment in a recreational hockey league transgresses the hegemony over ice hockey, while cautioning that moments in the team’s experience indicate the limits of this transgression. Comprised of five women and eleven men, the No Regretzkys registered to play in Winnipeg’s Adult Safe Hockey League (ASHL) for the 2008-09 season; the majority of the players on the team had not played organized hockey in over a decade, if ever. After starting in the league’s third lowest male division, the team moved to the lowest division for the final 27 games. Several statistics illustrate the extent to which the No Regretzkys are a non-conformist hockey team: the team’s limited experience and skill is reflected in a 0-33 win-loss record, and in
an absurd 34-337 goals for-goals against ratio; the team’s non-aggressive playing style is reflected in the team total of 48 penalty minutes, miniscule compared to the average of 184 called upon other teams in the division (Adult Safe Hockey Network 2009). This situation, juxtaposed with the team’s superlative enjoyment of the game throughout a statistically dreadful season, has led the No Regretzkys to be a compelling story. Features on the No Regretzkys run in The Hot Dog Hockey Post, written by CBC reporter Mike Beauregard (Beauregard 2008, 14), an interview on CBC Radio One (2009), a forthcoming documentary about the team, and the disproportionately high fan attendance at games illustrate this popular interest in the nonconformity of the No Regretzkys.
The No Regretzkys’ Positive Experiences
As this research only draws upon my own participant-observation and therefore does not represent the viewpoints of other members of the team, I cannot reliably analyze the benefits that team members associate with their ice hockey participation. Nevertheless, based upon my own observations, and upon casual conversations with teammates, I suggest that the No Regretzkys’ experience corroborates with the literature concerning the positive experiences encountered by non-conformist hockey players. I observe that No Regretzkys players have found the experiences of developing team camaraderie and hockey skills, of socially acceptable physical exertion, of rigorous exercise, and of rising to meet individual and collective goals to be highly rewarding. Through transgressing barriers that limit participation in the sport, I contend that No Regretzkys’ players have benefited from these positive experiences related to playing ice hockey.
Challenges Raised by the No Regretzkys
The No Regretzkys’ limited hockey experience and low skill level, distinctive attitude, nonaggressive style of play, and gender-inclusive membership signify a few of the ways that the
team transgresses the hegemonic norms of ice hockey play. While the team plays in the lowest skill division of Winnipeg’s predominant adult recreational hockey league, the No Regretzkys have far less experience and skill than every opposing team. As such, the No Regretzkys have lowered the bar defining the minimum skill and experience needed to participate in organized adult hockey. The impact of this transgression may be furthered next season, when a group of likeminded and similarly skilled friends of the No Regretzkys register a second team in this division; the games between these two teams will provide opportunities for over 30 players to play organized hockey with and against players who have similar skill levels and attitudes. The collective attitude espoused by the No Regretzkys constitutes a second way in which the team transgresses hegemonic hockey culture. Contrary to the dominant mind-set of competitive sport—captured in the adage “winning is everything”—the No Regretzkys vie to achieve fluctuating goals that include the staples of having fun and trying hard. Examples of goals towards which the team strives include “real scoreboard” (since the scorekeepers cease to mark opposing team’s goals in lopsided games), and “no mercy rule” (since in games with a goal differential of greater than four, the game clock runs instead of stopping within the final five minutes). Furthermore, the team’s distinctive attitude leads to an ethic of refusing to be upset in the many moments when the team does not meet its goals. This ethic surfaces in the team name, an amalgam of the motto “No Regrets!” and of hockey’s most famous surname, Gretzky. A second transgressive element of the No Regretzkys’ collective attitude is the team’s conscious rejection of “jock” culture. As many team members attempt to practice radically egalitarian ways of living, and as some members felt uneasy playing in the sexist, homophobic, high-pressure atmospheres of hegemonic hockey in their adolescent years, the No Regretzkys actively work to cultivate an egalitarian attitude. Such an attitude manifests in the team’s
collective model of organizing, in teammates’ support for one another after good and bad plays alike, in the team ritual of high-fiving one another after the post-game handshake with the other team, and in the rule agreed to by team members prior to the season: “No Assholes!” Due to these transgressive facets of the team’s collective attitude, opposing teams have often adjusted to the No Regretzkys’ ethic. In my estimation, No Regretzkys’ games feature fewer penalties and far less “trash talk” than is typical in men’s hockey games. Moreover, opposing teams’ appreciation of the No Regretzkys’ unique attitude is reflected in the multiple occasions in which an opposing player, after a lopsided victory, has come to the No Regretzkys’ dressing room to commend the team for playing hockey “the way it should be played.” A final characteristic that differentiates the No Regretzkys as a non-conformist hockey club is the team’s gender-inclusive membership. While the ASHL implicitly allows women to play on nominally men’s division teams (Adult Safe Hockey League 2008, 10) a couple factors suggest that gender-inclusive teams are the exception rather than an anticipated variation on the norm. For one, the Winnipeg ASHL does not currently run a co-ed ice hockey division. Secondly, the method by which dressing rooms at the arena are allocated allots only one dressing room per presumably single-gender team, and only one shared shower area per two presumably same-gendered teams. As such, gender-inclusive teams must share a single dressing room, and share a shower area with an unknown team, a setup that may be a barrier to the participation of players who are uncomfortable with this lack of privacy. Conversely, such a setup may facilitate transgression through challenging the reification of the gender binary in the built environment, and counteracting the hegemonic definition of the hockey dressing room as a “male-dominated public space” (Pelak 2002, 98). In either case, the No Regretzkys’ status as a gender-inclusive club within this milieu differentiates the team from single-gender hockey clubs.
While the above factors imply that the No Regretzkys’ play transgresses hegemonic hockey culture, other moments in the team experience indicate the limits of this transgression. Though the team has worked to cultivate a distinctive attitude and to practice an alternative model of organizing, at times the No Regretzkys have reverted to practices of hegemonic hockey culture. Contrary to the team motto of having “No Regrets,” on a few occasions players have expressed regrets concerning their own play, or the team’s play more generally. Moreover, while the team has succeeded for the most part in organizing collectively, this communication structure has broken down at times and the team has regressed to implicit hierarchies; at these times, some team members may have exerted an inordinate influence over line combinations, shift changes, and off-ice decisions. Finally, though the team customarily takes up a safe, non-aggressive style of play following what Nancy Theberge (1997, 85) describes as an “ethic of care,” players have occasionally shifted to practices that reflect what Theberge dubs an “ethic of endangerment” (Theberge 1997, 84). Through playing more aggressively, and through subjecting their bodies to potentially injurious practices including playing through pain and attempting to block shots to prevent goals against, No Regretzkys players have embodied an ethic that is closer to that of mainstream hockey culture. At these moments, the No Regretzkys, while continuing to have a non-conformist membership, compromise their transgression of hegemonic hockey culture. Other moments in the No Regretzkys’ experience suggest that the team’s transgression of hegemonic hockey norms is facilitated by the team’s marginal skill level. In two of the three games in which the No Regretzkys played competitively enough to have had a chance at victory, the opposing team responded by playing an aggressively physical style and by drawing on elements of “jock” culture that typically lay dormant. In one such game, two minor fights occurred, at least one opposing team member was ejected from the game, and a No Regretzkys
player was sent to the hospital for stitches after being hit in the mouth with an inadvertent highstick from an opposing player. While these events are commonplace in competitive, and even in recreational men’s hockey, they have been absent from most No Regretzkys games. This phenomenon leads me to question whether the No Regretzkys’ transgression of hegemonic hockey culture would persist if the team posed a greater challenge to opposing teams. Finally, the No Regretzkys’ transgression of the hegemony over ice hockey is mitigated by a weakness that limits other instances of non-conformist hockey practice as well: the team’s relative invisibility. While the surprisingly considerable coverage of the team may help to draw awareness to the potential for non-conformist players to participate in ice hockey, to thoroughly enjoy doing so, and to challenge some of the deleterious aspects of hockey culture, the No Regretzkys and other non-conformist teams are largely invisible in the public imagination. When an average Canadian imagines a hockey player, the image that come to mind is not likely to be one of a non-conformist player, but rather of the ‘able-bodied,’ male gladiators shown Saturday nights on the CBC. In this context, the No Regretzkys’ transgression of ice hockey hegemony is limited to the local level, and a deeper transformation of ice hockey may require broader structural and cultural changes in addition to such localized transgressions.
Overtime: The Limits of Transgression
This review of the sociological literature and analysis of the No Regretzkys, undertaken through an intersectional feminist disability lens, suggests that non-conformist hockey players pose a limited challenge to the hegemony governing participation in ice hockey and defining the culture of the sport. While non-conformist hockey players have succeeded in transgressing or adapting to barriers that limit participation in the sport and have encountered positive experiences through doing so, they have been less successful in transforming the discriminatory structural practices
and cultural constructs that hegemonize ice hockey. An effective challenge to this hegemony will also require concerted efforts to transform the structures that organize ice hockey, perhaps including social movement activism, human rights commission cases, and equity in sports legislation; efforts to critique the problematic culture of mainstream/‘malestream’ hockey; and efforts to showcase non-conformist hockey players. Without such a challenge, “the good old hockey game” will unfortunately continue to privilege “good old boys” over all other players.
Adult Safe Hockey League. 2008. Official rulebook: 2008-2009 season. http://www.canlanicesports.com/PDF/ASHL%20Rule%20Book/ASHL%20English %20Rule_2009.pdf (accessed April 2, 2009). Adult Safe Hockey Network. 2009. Winnipeg ASHL Mens (Fall/Winter 2008/09): Division E2Grp.C: Team Standings. http://ashl-winimens.stats.pointstreak.com/players-divisionstandings.html?divisionid=22595&seasonid=3275 (accessed April 2, 2009). Beauregard, Mike. 2008. Rink rats and lounge lizards: Guys and gals play for the love of the game - and beer. The Hot Dog Hockey Post (December 2008): 14. CBC Radio One. 2009. Weekend morning show. February 7, 2009. Winnipeg, MB: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Connors, Stompin’ Tom. 1973. Stompin’ Tom and the hockey song. Toronto: Boot Records. BOS 7112. Pelak, Cynthia Fabrizio. 2002. Women's collective identity formation in sports: A case study from women's ice hockey. Gender & Society. 16 (1): 93-114. Theberge, Nancy. 1997. “It's part of the game”: Physicality and the production of gender in women's hockey. Gender & Society. 11 (1): 69.
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