So you like hockey, eh?

Since I know a good amount of history and culture surrounding American football, and because the postseason will soon be coming to a close, I decided to change my sport of study to ice hockey. Growing up in the Bay Area, I always felt a strong sense of pride resonate from fan bases of all major sports teams. As the only major professional sports team to reside in the South Bay Area, the San Jose Sharks have had an extremely faithful and dedicated fan base through the good seasons and the bad seasons for as long as I can remember. Despite the fact that they compete for attention with two NFL teams, two MLB teams, one minor league baseball team, one NBA team, three Division I football schools, one MLS team, and one other (newly formed) NHL team, their fans are still extremely loyal. Coming into the league as an expansion team, having yet to win the Stanley Cup, and being in a country where ice hockey is considered to be the fourth major professional sport (after football, baseball, and basketball) begs the question as to why and how the Sharks have such a supportive fandom.

Given the Sharks’ status as a prominent Bay Area team, despite the relative lack of nationwide popularity of ice hockey compared with football or baseball, I had many friends who religiously watched the game so I was often exposed to the culture and the stereotypes that were associated with it. The three most significantly prevalent beliefs that I noticed were that players are predominantly white Canadian males, the more interesting games are those that involve some sort of brawl between players of opposing teams, and, because of those intense fights and the sheer physicality of the sport, players often have missing teeth. Researching these stereotypes has proven to be quite revealing because of the degree to which there is veracity in some of them.

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It is not entirely surprising that because ice hockey and the National Hockey League originated in Canada, the majority of the players are Canadian. The sport itself enjoys greater visibility and prominence in Canada than it does in the United States. While ice hockey has spread southward from Canada since its inception, it is still more popular in northern American states than in cities like Phoenix, Dallas, and Tampa. The first American team to join the NHL team was the Boston Bruins. Now, the League is mostly comprised of American teams (23) and there are only 7 teams that represent Canadian cities. While the popularity of the sport has definitely spread throughout the United States, as shown by the sheer volume of teams that now exist here, ice hockey culture in Canada is still much more intense than in America. The “type” of player is usually white, and the representation of people of color in the NHL is extremely small. The sexuality of these “types” of players is most often straight. Because of the backlash of LGBT athletes in major professional sports, there are also leagues geared specifically toward the inclusion of players regardless of sexual orientation. (See: http://www.gayhockey.org)

The other two stereotypes deal directly with ice hockey as a contact sport in which players engage in extremely physical encounters that often result in lasting injury. As an integral part of ice hockey, fighting has not been banned by the NHL but rules have been set forth to keep the number and severity of injuries at bay. Some of these rules state that players must drop their sticks and their gloves, hence the phrase “drop the gloves”, in order to fight bare-knuckled. The leather and plastic of hockey gloves would significantly increase the impact of blows delivered by players. Failure to abide by these rules, as well as failure to separate when physically parted by officials can result in a five-minute penalty, hence the phrase “five for fighting”. The need for the NHL, as well as other leagues, to address fighting in hockey games to such a technical extent is evidence that it is not just another stereotype or misconception that people have about the sport.

Furthermore, because ice hockey is a contact sport with no protection for the face, many players have lost their teeth throughout their careers. Some see their lack of teeth as a badge of honor for being tough and embracing their roles as enforcers, while others are mere victims of high flying sticks and errant pucks. In two separate years, and written by two different authors, Bleacher Report published photo articles about hockey players with missing teeth.

The 20 Best Missing Teeth Photos in NHL History: http://www.bleacherreport.com/articles/1446508-the-20-best-missing-teeth-photos-in-nhl-history

22 Players with the Worst Teeth in Hockey History: http://www.bleacherreport.com/articles/908235-22-players-with-the-worst-teeth-in-hockey-history

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One Response to So you like hockey, eh?

  1. Sarah McCullough says:

    Your attention to the specificity of the subject position of hockey players is good. Consider coupling this with your attention to the violence prevalent in the sport and you have a good starting point to argue for a particular version of masculinity perpetuated by hockey. Given your opening questions about the loyal following in San Jose, it might be worth thinking about how this version of masculinity differs from the “big three.” What is the role of the sanctioned violence/fighting of hockey? How does this contribute to/detract from its popularity? Also, what is the role of women in hockey? Their absence is wholly unremarkable, as it is so expected. And yet, is there something else that can be said about it?

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