Hockey and manhood: candid insights from male authors

At the risk of gender stereotyping, let take a moment to pity the hockey widows, the hockey moms, the women left behind as the NHL season begins anew.

They are about to be sidelined by a force so powerful as to drive them into the pages of Ian Brown’s forthcoming anthology What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men (Thomas Allen Publishers).

The host of CBC Radio One’s Talking Books edited the collection, featuring essays by 28 of Canada’s most candid male writers.

A lot of men seem to have some kind of obsession with hockey. And I know what it’s like to play hockey. It’s fun. But I don’t understand the obsession. What’s that all about?

I think there are two parts to it. One is physical and one is, for lack of a better or for lack of a stupider word, intellectual. The physical side is very much a kind of muscle memory. Things you can do that remind you of what it was like to be like that, when you were nine years old or eleven years old, are important.

That’s why so many guys who should never be playing hockey, middle aged men, play hockey three times a week. Even I, and I can barely skate, do occasionally play hockey, very very badly. And I get in there in the corners with my elbows and my rear end and my hips. And I shouldn’t be doing that. Anybody could slap me down on my skates.

The other part of it, of course, is intellectual. Bruce Grierson has written an essay (in What I Meant to Say) about what he calls gratuitous precision, being very precise about a lot of details that are absolutely useless. It’s made everybody want hockey to come back for a year.

This is why men become obsessed by the assist average of the right side of the third line of the Toronto Maple Leafs. You don’t have to be a hockey fan. You could be talking about a Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle and the guy who invented it. You could be talking about record collectors, you could be talking about a kayak that was invented by a guy in the 18th century. It could be anything. But Grierson says:

“What has happened here is that the culture of precision born with the Scientific Revolution has fallen into the hands, 450 years down the line, of guys with no actual expertise in anything, but with high-speed Internet hookups. And so we immerse ourselves in the minutiae of the few subjects we know a little about and feel comfortable discussing. (Generally these are the same subjects we were interested in, and felt comfortable discussing, when we were nine.) There’s a psychological payoff in being able to claim a mastery of something; and since it long ago became obvious that we haven’t the will or acquired the skills that were once, and may still be, the sine qua non of being a man – things like celestial navigation and boatbuilding and animal husbandry – we settle for a comprehensive knowledge of The Simpsons.” Or I would add, hockey.

Do you have a comprehensive knowledge of hockey yourself?

I have a comprehensive knowledge of other things, for instance the skiing history of the Rocky Mountains. I know when the first lift went up. It’s…it’s sad.

But as a Canadian writer, as somebody who immerses yourself in the CBC culture, the Globe and Mail culture and all that, do you get a heart stopping sense of excitement when you think of hockey as a Canadian thing, part of your Canadian manhood?

What you grow up with is what you become. You don’t have to be a hockey lunatic, a gratuitously precise hockey lunatic ŕ la Grierson, to still feel the pull of it or be interested in it. If I meet a hockey fan, if he’s deeply into something, I can get deeply into it as well because I understand the impulse to know.

OK so do you know how to tape a hockey still properly?

Yes. I think you can’t really call yourself a man if you don’t know how to, you know…or a woman probably…a Canadian. You can’t call yourself a Canadian is you don’t know how to tape a hockey stick.

How do you do it then?

(He demonstrates.) But you use black tape. I remember using white tape one year. And that wasn’t good for my reputation on the rink.

Is that like your version of The Hockey Sweater? Wearing the wrong colours, Toronto Maple Leafs versus the Canadiens?

I think it’s worse than that. It’s like showing up to a poker game in a pair of high heels, myself, as a guy. White tape, (SFX nasal buzzer). I thought I was making some sort of fashion statement. But fashion doesn’t enter into this, this desire to codify.

I think maybe there might be a certain mindlessness. They say people repeat things over and over again. All kinds of people say that if you repeat something enough, you repeat your mantra, you pass into some sort of epiphanic stream that is supposed to be great.

I think to some degree being a man is kind of an intense experience. It’s driven by testosterone. You don’t really know what the purpose is. You are supposed to guard and protect maybe, I don’t know. So it’s pretty intense. And what you want to do is you want to get through to something where your mind can hummmm, whether its nothinnnnnnng. This repeated exercising of the mind or the body that doesn’t have to have a point. If it had a point it would cause all manner of consequences and chaos. But if you could repeat, just do it again and again, you get to a kind of stillness. It sounds asinine but I bet that might be part of the obsession.

It didn’t feel still to me, as a little girl, listening to the men who were gathered around the tv set for a great hockey final, the Canada-Russia series, and screaming with such wall shaking ferocity as if they could change things on the ice. And that doesn’t seem very still to me. It just doesn’t seem all that zen. So what are you really getting out of watching it on TV?

I think that’s more the physical memory that’s called up. That’s a real revenge piece. These enemies are hurting your tribe. They are double crossing you. And it’s nasty to double cross, you have to fight back. That’s what causes the guy to, “Oh you idiot!” To be angry to throw his back out to imagine he’s involved in a fight with a member of the opposite team. It’s like golf. If you play golf in a foursome of guys, the foursome ahead of you – they’re jackasses. Whatever they do is wrong. They’re slow. They’re hitting it all over. The guys behind you, they’re jackasses too. The only foursome that  is the good foursome is the foursome you are in. It is the tribe.

Even when you can’t stand the people you’re playing with?

Even if they’re really good golfers and you really hate them. I suspect it might be tribal, a kind of collective. You don’t want to be too serious about these things because … it’s like licensed masterbation. It’s play, so it’s meaningless. Better than taking your shillelagh or your cudgel and going and, you know…actually whacking someone, yeah. Or doing something dangerous. Or making war on an unsuspecting nation, which happens plenty, still.

So hockey is back and we are back, too.

And so is world peace as a result, yeah. Hockey is back, yeah. Many things are back, many national institutions are back. And I think things will be slightly righter with the world.

Ian Brown is the host CBC Radio One’s Talking Books. He is also a feature writer for The Globe and Mail, the host of TVO’s documentary series Human Edge and The View From Here.

WHAT I MEAN TO SAY: The Private Lives of Men, edited by Ian Brown, will be published by Thomas Allen on October 15, 2005 ($26.95).  You can read excerpts in Focus section of The Globe and Mail October 1st and 8th.

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