Longtime New York Rangers announcer Jack Filman was once asked the origins of the word "hockey." He replied that it was from an aboriginal word, hoghee, that meant, "it hurts!" Hockey history is full of such myths, and the purpose of this blog is to take a closer look at them and discuss the surrounding historical issues. (BTW hockey probably originates with the French word, hoquet, which referred to the hooked shape of the sticks used to play similar stick-and-ball games.)

The Arena as Political Puck

I don't think this team will be winning any Stanley Cups

I am reading with interest the discussion over federal financing of a proposed new Quebec City hockey arena. At the announcement, several Conservative Party MPs showed up in old Quebec Nordiques sweaters, which connected the subsidy to NHL and thus raised controversy in a way that money to rinks in Sainte-Rita QC, St Georges QC, Normandin QC, Bedford NS, Burlington ON, and 440 other projects of Canada’s Economic Action Plan did not.

Though the main issue is being framed as one of fairness to all Canadian regions with sports facilities that serve professional sport franchises (mainly National Hockey League and Canadian Football League, cities (see here for an editorial overview), I would argue there is a more deep-seated historical antipathy at work as well. In 2000, John Manley, then Minister of Industry, learned that, despite Canadians’ love for the national game, they do not want to use their tax money to support NHL hockey. Gary Bettman learned it too, when he came to Parliament to promote government subsidy of highway interchange for the Ottawa Senators and pointed out that American states and municipal governments would fall over themselves to do that, and much more. (I see that his comments now are suitably circumspect.) The lesson was that Canada is not the United States, and that the Canadian relationship to sports, especially the professional-commercial brand, is different, and a little bit complicated.

Since after the Second World War, Canadian governments have supported rink building at the “community” level without much controversy. But “community” is a category that apparently excludes big cities, unless the community is a national one, such as hosting an Olympic Games (see the Big Owe). Even then, the support tends to be municipal and provincial. Where governments are reluctant to contribute is when the facility is mainly for the benefit of a professional sports team. And here I mean “professional” – a characteristic of the players – and not “commercial” – a characteristic of the clubs. Support for facilities associated with junior hockey clubs in Canada do not seem to be subject to the same criticism (that I can think of), nor are the Olympics, even though they are both commercial entities (even not always in name), who employ nominal “amateurs”. It also helps that junior hockey is almost entirely Canadian in nature, and an Olympic team is. In contrast, an NHL team is a different species, with players (mostly Canadian but not all) who are paid enormous salaries to play a game for a league that has an identity divided between Canada and its economic and cultural nemesis, the United States.

The lack of Canadian support for this aspect of the hockey business seems paradoxical given the general sense that Canadian government is more interventionist than American, and more willing to directly support business. (This is a big generalization, but no time to discuss here.) In sports, this is not the case. In my work, I have argued that the Canadian support for sport is mitigated by an ambivalent relationship with business in general, and this is reproduced in attitudes to the hockey business. The NHL is at once respected and reviled, a symbol of Canadian national athletic superiority but also an institution under domination by Americans, so I think we should consider the existence of an underlying association between anti-commercial sentiment and anti-Americanism that manifests itself in a reluctance to fund NHL teams in particular.

Whenever state funding for arenas comes up, I think of my favourite character from the NHL’s history, Conn Smythe, who was the guiding force behind the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961 and the builder of Canada’s most famous arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. Smythe was a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative (Stephen Harper, take note) who could have been said to have been in favour of “small government” (in our current parlance) and was immensely proud that the Gardens had been built without any kind of state support whatsoever. (However, Smythe’s son and successor, Stafford, and his partner Harold Ballard followed the new American trend and tried to get municipal support for an Arena in Vancouver, but failed.)

It says something about political change when the current Conservative prime minister, who is noted for his neo-conservative small government ideology, seems to be considering such support. Of course, times have changed. Beginning during the Second World War (as I illustrated in a chapter of this book), and accelerating in the 1950s and 1960s as Canada started losing in the international arena to state-supported soviet republic teams, the welfare state increasingly understood it to be its responsibility to address what was essentially a private sector failure. There were other issues as well, including sport and youth development, but we can’t underestimate the role of criticism of the NHL’s influence over Canadian amateur hockey development (and national team performance) in the 1960s as drivers for government initiatives such as the Report on Amateur Hockey in Canada by the Hockey Study Committee of the National Advisory Council on Fitness and Amateur Sport (1967), which led to the creation of Hockey Canada. With this, and the 1967 NHL expansion that had excluded Vancouver, the Canadian state became more consistently interested in NHL activities, if indirectly. The relationship between the Canadian state and the NHL has also been an ambivalent one, and this is most evident in the behaviour of state agencies like the CBC, which is at once proud of its flagship Hockey Night in Canada program (the NHL’s main advertising vehicle in Canada), but also keen to make it clear that no public funds go to subsidize it (see Richard Stursberg’s comments here).

On a personal level, since Lester Pearson’s criticism of the NHL’s practices in the 1960s (House of Commons Debates, 15 March 1965, page 12336), prime ministers have usually been more content to appear at games than comment on the league’s business (see my post). The present prime minister has been more willing to both promote his fandom (here, and here), his historical interests in the sport, and his support for NHL expansion. The Quebec rink debate has shown there is a threshold to be aware of. He can give money to a team in return for a ticket, but giving money that will be used to attract a team may be a threshold he doesn’t want to cross. Even the main argument, that a new arena might be an engine of economic growth, is highly contested by economists (see the debate over Darryl Katz’ Edmonton proposal), but the main barrier is a historical Canadian reluctance to give money to an arena that will house an NHL team.
In other news: More evidence of the circularity of history. With talk of the resurrection of the Nordiques comes criticism of les Habitants as the federalist team.

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