As I settled on to my couch to watch CBC's Hockey Day in Canada on 7 January 2006, I couldn't help but be a little wary. It's all Naomi Klein's fault. I'm finally getting around to reading No Logo, her anti-corporate movement bible, and it has left me uneasy about the state of my sporting world. On top of that, in a Globe and Mail article that I read during the commercials (holding the paper up to block the screen so I couldn't see the ads, of course), Jill Mahoney told me how teenagers are-gasp!-downloading TV shows and watching them whenever they want instead of sticking to the network's schedule; a schedule which of course includes commercials. The real purpose of television-indeed, all forms of entertainment-was laid bare: TV, radio and live entertainment events (even hockey) are simply vehicles for advertising. What a revelation, you say with a sneer. But while it's true that only a naive greenhorn wouldn't have noticed this, it's also true that only a cynic would let it go unchallenged.
Rothmans and auto racing can go hand-in-hand, as far as I'm concerned-let the smokers and the race-car junkies asphyxiate themselves-but can't my hockey, especially Hockey Day in Canada, remain pure? Stephenville, Newfoundland is about as far from a target market as you can get, and yet on Hockey Day in Canada, we see a young Newfie proudly declaring Mats Sundin (of the Toronto Maple Leafs brand ... thank you Naomi) his favourite player, while wearing a nifty CBC jersey provided by Reebok. Cute kid.
Another of Hockey Day's stops was in Florenceville, New Brunswick. Despite the use of what was obviously a fourth-string reporter to interview the young players (he asked the exact same sequence of questions of one girl twice, in the same interview), this was a flashy bit of corporate branding at its most insidious. No attempt was made to hide the fact that McCain Foods pretty much owns the town, and the entire New Brunswick segment was essentially an ad for potatoes. These small communities are the kind of company towns where, if you want to put food on the table, you've got to punch the clock-the luxury of anti-corporate protest is simply not available. After a fall flood and paper-mill closing in December, Stephenville would love for some corporate giant to buy up their place. Fair enough. But it still made me think: Et tu, hockey?
While the focus of the day was meant to be on the "grassroots" of the game and the quality of parent-child relationship it can foster, the real star was the NHL brand. For all the platitudes about just having fun and not putting pressure on anyone, most parents interviewed expressed the same cryptic sentiment: they wanted "the best" for their child. And each young player, when asked for a hero, promptly named an NHLer-even the girl whose goal was not to play in the NHL, but to make the Olympic team (where the branding opportunities exist for women in hockey, you see). It was as if they were told "Don't say that you want to play in the NHL," but you could see in their faces that this was exactly what each and every one of them wanted; it was why they were playing the game. So much for grassroots. So much for fun.
Why get up at 6 a.m. to drive to Whitby for a game? Why drag a kid out of bed on a Saturday morning, strap them into body armour, arm them with a stick and throw them out onto a sheet of ice? Is this the kind of sacrifice you make for love? Ok, a little rich coming from a guy who runs eleven miles uphill in a snowstorm, but surely there must be a better way to have fun at hockey?
To be fair, a feature on an annual holiday pond hockey game in the Eastern Townships came closest to finding that hockey "ideal" while avoiding the branding. Like teenagers downloading TV shows to watch them whenever they like, this kind of hockey-no ice rentals, no admission fees, no uniforms-skirts the brand bullies.
I played a bit of shinny myself over Christmas. My uncle Joe and his three boys, along with a bunch of their friends, took to the holiday ice in Toronto. I only fell on my ass once and I scored a goal, knocking the puck out of mid-air in a surprising display of hand-eye co-ordination. I made a beautiful, blind, between-the-legs, drop-pass to Aunt Jan who, faced with a wide-open net, found she had a hole in her stick. My littlest cousin Tom-easily the best player on the ice, pound for pound-just didn't slow down. Ever. Tom was even kind enough to set up his lumbering, ankle-burning older cousin on a few occasions. The parents were on the ice, being made to look foolish by their own kids, so there certainly wasn't any pressure or criticism. We didn't keep score-we played until we were tired-and no one got hurt. Well, one fellow got sent flying by a suspiciously moving net (while skating backwards) and Mike went ass-over-tea-kettle (he does look a bit like a tea kettle). It was quite a sight, but he only bruised his elbow.
The post-game party was catered by Jan (she made her fabulous lasagne). I have no idea what brand of noodles she used. And old uncle Al, when he asked, asked for a beer-not a Bud, or a Canadian. That's the way things really are in Canada, I hope. CBC has created a day-long hockey-fest to try to sell us back a game we already own. No thanks, Molson. No thanks, Reebok. We've already got one.
John Lofranco takes breaks from rigorous training to push the limits of sports writing for Maisonneuve. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by John Lofranco.