OPINION: Taylor McKee discusses Canadian hockey allegiances and national identity

This article written by Taylor McKee, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Brock University, was originally published in The Conversation. 

It’s been 30 years since a Canadian NHL team has won the Stanley Cup. The last team to bring home the trophy was the Montréal Canadiens in 1993, but the long drought might finally be over with two Canadian teams in the second round of the NHL playoffs: the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Canadian hockey fans are left with the familiar, yet fascinating, decision regarding whether or not to temporarily suspend their regular season allegiances and support one of these two franchises, strictly on the basis of their national residency.

It’s a familiar debate among many Canadian hockey fans: if one’s team is no longer in contention for the Stanley Cup, does their allegiance switch to any remaining Canadian team — even one they usually hate? A sizeable sector of Canadians yearn for a Stanley Cup parade in a country with postal, and not zip, codes.

Hockey allegiance

The sentiment to support a Canadian team, or more accurately any Canadian team, doesn’t appear to be a recent creation.

It’s plausible that fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Montréal Maroons were relieved when the 1930 Stanley Cup was won by the Montréal Canadiens over the heavily-favoured Boston Bruins.

In fact, W.A. Hewitt, Sporting Editor of the Toronto Daily Star noted in 1930: “Montréal’s Canadiens today returned the Stanley Cup to Canada, birthplace of hockey … the Stanley Cup is returned home after a two-year sojourn in the United States.”

So while it might seem natural for Canadian fans to seek an oasis in a time of drought by rooting for any Canadian team, the question remains: Why do many Canadian hockey fans feel the urge to support teams they would ordinarily delight in rooting against?

Perhaps the answer lies within the connection between Canadian national identity and the National Hockey League itself.

Hockey and nationhood

While hockey is undoubtedly one of Canada’s national pastimes and passions, the NHL occupies an outsized presence in our collective cultural imagination.

Although the league is a business that straddles the Canadian-American border and draws from an international talent pool, the NHL’s seven Canadian teams loom large over the landscape of Canadian culture, dwarfing almost any other institution.

Canada is not the only country with a keen interest in its teams, but our shared investment in the performance of our teams throughout Canadian history — despite the existence of other leagues, sports and other cultural touchstones that represent us on the national and global stages — sets us apart.

This unusual dynamic led author Ryan Edwardson to argue the following in his book Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood:

“Canada provides a fascinating case study in which to explore how nationhood has been defined and pursued through culture.”

While sport plays a role in many nations’ cultural identities, Canada’s symbolic identification with hockey culture, and chiefly the performance and reputation of our NHL representatives, leaves our sense of nationhood vulnerable.

When our self-conception becomes too closely tied to the fate of our NHL teams, their performance is a direct reflection of our own national quality and character.

Americanization of hockey

As the NHL has expanded beyond six, 12, 14, 16, 18, 22 and eventually 32 teams, a new encroachment emerged in the minds of some Canadian hockey fans: Americanization.

Throughout the mid- to late-20th century, an influx of American popular culture into Canada caused genuine concern about hockey being subsumed by the voracious economic appetite of America after the Second World War.

For many Canadians, national identity was found by clinging to our NHL teams.

Sports management professors Craig Hyatt and Julie Stevens note: “Canadian hockey fans view Americans as villains whose aggressive changes to ‘our’ game show that they care little for the importance and meaning of hockey within Canadian culture.”

This undoubtedly contributed to Canadian sensitivity around the absence of the Stanley Cup during the 21st century and has been exacerbated by the recent drought of Canadian teams failing to win the Stanley Cup.

With aggressive and repeated American expansion, hockey itself has changed with it. Rules, playing styles and equipment all changed as the number of NHL franchises expanded. With it grew the sense that the game was becoming less and less Canadian.

Canadian rivalries

Regardless of this perceived American encroachment into hockey, there are still Canadian fans unwilling to let go of their rivalries — even if it means rooting for another Canadian team.

Canadian national hockey includes many historical, geographic and even linguistic rivalries against other Canadian teams. An example of this is seen in Roch Carrier’s renowned story The Hockey Sweater.

The story recounts an incident from Carrier’s childhood where a department store mistakenly sent him a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead of a Montréal Canadiens jersey. The residents of his town don’t react well to him wearing the sweater of the Canadien’s biggest rival, and the experience nearly ruined hockey for him.

The story doesn’t end with the protagonist accepting his Toronto Maple Leafs sweater and fearlessly adopting Leafs fandom in the heart of French Canada. It ends with a desperate prayer for insects to devour his sweater.

The sentiment expressed by The Hockey Sweater’s main character is familiar to many segments of Canadian hockey fans as well. For every desperate fan looking to align themselves with neighbouring Canadian teams, there are still those who would prefer that the moths win instead.

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