Hockey may be religion in Canada, but is the faith fading?
Warnings of impending crisis are nothing new to the game that Canadians have, so fiercely and for so long, claimed as their own. With another season well underway across the nation’s ice, the symptoms might be as serious as they’ve ever been. The fact that enrolment in youth hockey has been stagnating for years has to do with how expensive the game is to play and the concussive ways in which it can harm your health; it also reflects how hockey has failed to figure out exactly how to explain its appeal to new Canadians. If, as Sean Fitz-Gerald points out in his new book, the game just doesn’t seem as essential as it once did, it also can seem that hockey, in the make-up of its players, fans, passions, and priorities, doesn’t always reflect modern-day Canada.
Fitz-Gerald lives in Toronto with his wife and two young (and hockey-playing) children. A veteran sportswriter who’s now a senior writer for The Athletic, he has played and loved the game for as long as he can remember. In Before The Lights Go Out: A Season Inside A Game Worth Saving (McClelland & Stewart), he embeds himself in the hockey heartland of Peterborough, Ont., using the local OHL team, the Petes, as a looking-glass into the game and how it’s strayed and faltered on its way into the 21st century – and where the way forward might lie.
Was there a particular book that inspired you along the way, or informed the way you went about writing this one?
I re-read and re-read, and thumbed through, and tried to reverse-engineer parts of Friday Night Lights. I mean, obviously, there’s no way that that’s going to be duplicated, one because Buzz Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas, uprooted his entire life and his family, and lived there, and it was fully immersive. Whereas mine was kind of part-time, because I did have a day job and we do have the family here in Toronto. I got to Peterborough a lot – 15,000 kilometers on the car. But that was definitely a book that I re-read, and it was an inspiration.
So, going in, you well understood the challenges that hockey faces. As you delved deeper, did the detail you were discovering about the state of the game give you cause to be optimistic or fear for the worst?
I’m still wrestling with it – it was a bit of both. There were days where I’d have interviews, and I’d be, oh my God, this game might be irreparable, the challenges are just so daunting, all these factors are working against it. And then I’d have other days where I’d say, oh wait, no, there’s a lot of hope here, the game, it can do so many wonderful things for us as Canadians.
The people at the top, the decision-makers, are also well aware of the challenges and are actively trying to address them. And that was one of the more surprising things. I expected a lot of resistance – like a lot – when I went to minor hockey associations or boards or executives. I expected them to say, your whole premise is out to lunch, you’re out to lunch, this is a waste of time, hockey’s fine. But everybody – from [CEO] Tom Renney at Hockey Canada on down – said, yeah, we know we have challenges, what are the solutions, and what could possibly be the implementation protocol for a game that’s so widespread over a country so geographically diverse?
On one hand, the book you’ve written follows a conventional, diary-of-a-season format. But it’s also very much about the city of Peterborough, its past, and the changing demographics that are shaping its future. How much were you thinking, as you went along, beyond how hockey operates as a sport to the ways in which it shapes Canadian society?
I like hockey. That’s not a hot take. And my wife and I have stumbled into creating a hockey family here. Our son, who’s eight, plays. Our daughter, who’s four, is a future all-time penalty minutes leader for the Canadian Olympic women’s team – she starts hockey school in a couple of weeks. We’ve found what hockey can do. We go to the rink now and we’ve met the literal butcher, the baker, candlestick-maker in our neighbourhood, that we might not otherwise have met. Our kids have made friends that they might not otherwise have made.
So on top of keeping them physically active, it really does sort of serve as a tether for the community. And as I talked to people, I learned how this was repeating itself over and over again, in towns and cities across Canada. It really is worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate what hockey has done for us as Canadians. And what are we at risk of losing if that tether does fray.
What’s your outlook for the game at this point? Are you optimistic that it can be redeemed?
The book aims to chart Canada’s evolving relationship with hockey. Canada is changing. And to be clear, that’s a good thing. For years and years, hockey, at the grassroots level, didn’t change. You know, hey, it’s cold, we’re opening the arena doors, come on in play hockey, because that’s what you always do – that doesn’t exist anymore. There are far more options for Canadian families, for Canadian children. And hockey has allowed a lot of barriers to grow up around it, to prevent access. It also makes it really challenging for children to stay in the game because it does demand so much. Hockey is a great game and it’s done wonderful things for Canada, but both in terms of accessibility and for the kids who are already in it – it needs desperately to make itself fun again.
With Don Cherry’s departure from Hockey Night in Canada and the soul-searching that has ensued, I wonder what you’d say has been revealed about hockey and its diversity, or lack thereof?
It’s a really interesting question. Last weekend I was at a summit organized by the Greater Toronto Hockey League for volunteers and stakeholders. The numbers they put up were staggering. Generally speaking, more Canadian kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are dropping out of hockey than are signing up. Retention is an issue – it’s not just getting them in the door, it’s keeping them in. And among communities of new Canadians, hockey’s popularity among the top 25 activities for kids – it’s something like 22nd.
It’s not just the hard economic cost, it’s a whole bunch of different barriers. But when you’re looking to have more people in the tent, you don’t want to close the door and say, well, no, you can’t come in. And I think that when Don Cherry is othering people, you’re not keeping that tent door open. And if you go back over it, he did this over and over for years and years. Whether it’s the Swedes or the Finns, or whether women belong in a professional capacity in the hockey dressing room ... Every time you do that, symbolically, from the biggest pulpit you have, you’re othering people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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