By Michael Adams, Globe and Mail, May 28, 2012
Michael Adams is president of Environics Group.
The first rule of fight club was don’t talk about fight club. The first rule of Canadian hockey seems to be never stop talking about it.
The past few years have produced a huge amount of debate about the nature and value of our national sport. Rule changes, fighting, head shots, concussions, “big hits” – fans, journalists and concerned health professionals have hashed it all out again and again.
Why so much talk? Because there is a tension between the broad trends of social change and the take-no-prisoners machismo we see on the ice. A large proportion of Canadians feel they have a stake in the game of hockey. Eighty-four per cent of us say that hockey is “a key part of what it means to be Canadian.”
That said, the millions of Canadians who feel some ownership over the game of hockey represent a range of constituencies. There are lovers of the sport who want a technically demanding, fast-paced game to watch. There are parents who want their kids to enjoy the camaraderie of a team sport while staying active during our long winters. There are Canadians who perk up around playoff time, feeling a sentimental, vaguely patriotic attachment to the game.
But the group that is understandably most important to the league and its advertisers is a set of hard-core fans, on average anglophone men aged 30 to 49 who feel quite at ease with the violence that makes some of hockey’s other constituencies cringe. Just 18 per cent of serious hockey fans describe themselves as uncomfortable with the violence in hockey, as compared to 32 per cent of occasional fans and half (49 per cent) of those who say they dislike the game.
Old-fashioned masculinity does not have many places to prove its mettle these days. Our information economy prizes creativity and networking over physical strength. Our social mores less often call on men to defend women from rogues in the street, and more often ask them to meet women as equals at work and in social life. Even the military seldom affords opportunities to fight bad guys and scumbags: Historical and cultural understanding in complex places like Afghanistan may now be more important than target practice. For those who long for a venue in which to express their raw testosterone, a rock ’em, sock ’em game – complete with all the traditional etiquette, such as punishing aggressors, defending teammates and upholding manly honour – is a welcome release.
But even as some will wish for hockey to serve as a fight club-like refuge from a culture in which machismo seems outmoded and violence grows ever less acceptable, others will insist that sport does not exist in a vacuum. On a basic level, hockey must conform to society’s ideas about acceptable behaviour. Off the ice, sneaking up behind someone and hitting them so hard they lose consciousness can get you jail time. On the ice, you risk a modest fine and a few games on the bench.
I suspect that hockey will eventually trend toward a compromise between the desire of hard-core fans for a tough, physical game and the belief of more casual fans that whatever happens on the ice should not be so brutal as to debilitate players long after the final buzzer. In short, hockey will have to find a way to remain an arena that stands a little apart from ordinary social norms while at the same time remaining basically aligned with the contemporary Canadian expectation that no job (however rich the pay) should cost you your health or your life.
Some of the off-ice discussions that have emerged around hockey recently (the breaking of the code of silence about sexual abuse by coaches, and Brian Burke’s continuation of his late son’s campaign against homophobia) have revealed that a growing number of hockey stalwarts believe manly heroism in sport does not mean stoic silence in the face of any and all abuse. Might doesn’t automatically make right. Changing the rules – and especially the unwritten codes – of professional hockey means changing our expectations about what it means to be a real man, even a heroic man, in the 21st century. And contrary to some tough guys’ intuitions, it’s men themselves who stand to gain the most from those changes.
Old-fashioned masculinity does not have many places to prove its mettle these days. Our information economy prizes creativity and networking over physical strength. Our social mores less often call on men to defend women from rogues in the street, and more often ask them to meet women as equals at work and in social life. Even the military seldom affords opportunities to fight bad guys and scumbags: Historical and cultural understanding in complex places like Afghanistan may now be more important than target practice. ....
Might doesn’t automatically make right. Changing the rules – and especially the unwritten codes – of professional hockey means changing our expectations about what it means to be a real man, even a heroic man, in the 21st century.
Both of these quotes from the Adams piece are worthy of consideration.
Old fashioned masculinity once meant hard knuckles, and an even harder head. It meant bulging biceps and 6-pack abs, horse-like thighs and calves, even, at one time, "brylcreem hair," black leather and swivelling hips a la Elvis Presley. It also included "Marlboro Man" billboards, cow-poking ranchers and ropers, along with six-shooter sheriffs in frontier towns where power was the law. John Wayne slow-talking bass suggested that nothing ever rattled a real man. Except perhaps anything that smacked of "girlie" attitudes, dress, hair, or even pop music choices. Shortly after these nuanced on the archetype, there were two "Easy Riders" who rode their way across the country, not too long after Jimmy Dean died in a car crash. His "Rebel without a Cause" was a Hollywood version of an unloosed male, among others. And, a little later, there were slightly less "macho" men like Pat Boone who, as an undergraduate student at Columbia seemed to some the antithesis of the Presley "masculinity."
Common to all of these male icons was the throng of females who pursued them...in concerts, on television, and in movies and photo-magazines, not to mention records.
The hockey counter-point to this era included Maurice, The Rocket, Richard (of the Montreal Canadiens), and his nemesis, Leo LaBine (of the Boston Bruins), who was confronted by his then coach, Milt Schmidt, upon his return to the bench in the middle of an NHL game from one of his many slashes on The Rocket, with, "What the hell did you do that for?" Now that you woke him up, he'll kill us! For God's sake, let sleeping dogs lie!"
It was a rare thing, in the fifties and early sixties, to learn that an NHL player was enrolled at university, studying in the off-season at "Summer School." I recall Eric Nesterenko was one of those special players who were attempting to combine "brain and brawn" in his life.
Male singers, including Perry Como, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and comics like the Smothers Brothers demonstrated a more subtle, perhaps even talented masculine public figure, at a time when politicians like John F. Kennedy, never considered effeminate by anyone, were striding the public stage with rhetoric that smacked of Churchill, and even a hint of poetry, without ever compromising his masculinity.
Eisenhower's military history was not enough to block his now famous warning of the "military-industrial complex" in 1961, just before he turned the White House over to Jack and Jackie Kennedy.
Similarly, Richard Burton strode both the Hollywood screen and the front pages of most dailies with both his theatrical rendition of King Arthur in Camelot and his courting of Elizabeth Taylor, another thespian of considerable talent and testosterone, as were all the Kennedy brothers.
Another chapter in the evolution of masculinity came with the invasion of British Rock Groups, especially The Beatles, whose claim to fame seemed to include their lyrics, their rhythms, their 'long hair' and their Liverpudlian origin. These were young men who seemed unlikely to slay any public or private dragons.
And once again, pre-pubescent girls were smitten with their presence.
The Brady Bunch, while a soft spoof on family life, was not about to celebrate a masculinity of either brain or brawn, preferring a white bread version, behind the picket fence, without any potential threat to anyone.
Hockey, meanwhile, was slashing Russian stars out of their careers, (witness the Bobby Clarke incident in the '72 series), and watching Billy Smith slashing anyone and anything that happened into his goal crease, while protecting the cage for the New York Islanders.
The Broad Street Bullies from Philadelphia, under head coach Fred Shero, were the reigning cup champs not so incidentally as a result of their pugilistic power, both public and through "sleight-of-hand" antics that sometimes missed the eyes of the ice police.
It could be argued that Bobby Orr attempted to bridge the gap between the ballet and the alley, through his masterful skating and stick-handling and his willingness to 'mix-it-up' when the occasion required. Modelled on Gordie Howe, Orr seemed to combine the best of both worlds, as did Howe, in a proportion that rendered his public persona both exciting and sufficiently refined to keep him in the top echelon of hockey greats.
And then there was Mario (Lemieux) and Wayne (Gretzky), both exemplars of a kind of masculinity that was defined by intuition, vision, strength and sportsmanship....of the gentleman variety. While they were protected by various "hit-men" so they were mostly left alone to make plays and to score goals, they personified an evolving masculinity that could still be fast, furious, exciting and successful, from a different perspective...
the beginning of the "evolved" man.
Guy Lafleur, Marc Messier, the "French connection line" from the Buffalo Sabres, Dave Keon, and a host of other highly skilled players added considerably to the poster-hallways of hockey greats while also helping to flesh out a new form of masculinity, without fights, without dirty shots, without nasty slashes yet all the while providing excitement and surprise with their brilliance....as did Ken Dryden in the Montreal Canadiens goal.
A former Nader-Raider (as a summer student from his law studies at Cornell) working for consumer advocate Ralsh Nader, Dryden conspicuously combined both brain power and hockey skill and stamina.
Pierre Trudeau, in a parallel universe, demonstrated that martial arts, swimming, constitutional law and dating famous and beautiful women were a Canadian refreshment both in politics and in masculinity.
Let's not dichotomize too deeply, rendering some of the more nuanced models of a varied masculinity to which we have been exposed and through which we have come to understand both ourselves as men, and our national game, as a public tension between various example and tendencies of the masculine, including more recently a new and growing acceptance of both gays and lesbians among men.
It has always been men, and the strict definition of what it means to be male, that has barred gay men from acceptance in the male bastions of sports, the law, medicine and commerce. For a much longer time, they have been accepted among artists, actors, dancers and writers, thereby also rendering those professions as "less than adequate" for many young males to pursue.
Fortunately, that "off-limits" sign is changing, but has still not been taken down, although its letters are very worn and barely readable.
I have left the military out of this piece, for the simple reason that the inner sanctum of that establishment, along with the church, has been moated from society for far too long, and how they view masculinity is not a part of the equation that merits much time or energy, sadly.
However, while Mr. Adams piece provokes some thought and reflection about the nature of evolving masculinity, it must not be permitted to eradicate some basic truths of male hard wiring, nor must it be permitted to cause men to apologize for their manhood, in all of its forms...since such apologies including repression, are far more dangerous than the fullest expression of that manhood, including all of its testosterone.