Wednesday, 24 October 2012

"Archetypal Dreams": Anne Wilkinson's 'TV Hockey' and the Canadian Obsession

I took this picture in 2009, at the World Hockey Championships in Bern, Switzerland. It was during the gold medal game between Canada and Russia, one of the most classic rivalries in hockey history. Canada lost, but it was still a great game (said the Canadian, graciously.)

It is not really possible to describe to people of most nationalities - except for the Finns, the Swedes, the Russians, the Czechs, and a handful of other nations - what hockey represents to Canadians. For one thing, in most countries you have to call it "ice hockey", and if you're Canadian, that just doesn't seem right. What the English call "hockey" is not hockey, for one thing - it is grass hockey or field hockey.

Most of the teams of the NHL (the confusingly named National Hockey League, the world's number one professional ice hockey league) are now in the United States, with a relatively small number left in Canada, but most Canadians are of the opinion that Americans just do not get it. Some years ago, American TV channels trialled a way to get the tiny black puck to show up better: every time a player shot it at speed down the ice, it left a little fiery trail on the screen, like a miniature comet. It was absolutely ridiculous and Canadians were amused no end. But I've been told by the English as well that they find the play (and the puck) very hard to follow. I was completely bewildered by this when I first heard it. I think that the eye muscles of a Canadian simply develop in such a way that you have no problem following play in the average game, although occasionally the action moves so fast that you don't quite know what is happening - but that's all part of the excitement.

I believe that every single Canadian grows up with hockey at least to a certain extent and it seeps into your personality whether you are aware of it or not. I have very early memories of our old black and white TV, with a rotary channel dial that had to be held in place by (appropriately) black hockey stick tape. The jumpy, joyous theme music for Hockey Night In Canada sometimes races through my head unbidden - I must have heard it played thousands of times. My brother, Lucas Aykroyd, played hockey for several years like most Canadian boys do. He didn't go on to become a hockey player, but he is now a sports journalist and a leading world expert on hockey. Something like it was bound to happen.

I realised after I moved away that I was more Canadian than I previously thought. Given that I have one European parent and grew up going to Europe regularly - and also perhaps because I was the kind of child who doubted her own ability to "fit in" - I always felt at least semi-European while growing up. Having now lived in England and previously Ireland for many years (well, it's sort of Europe...) I feel more Canadian than I did before. I suppose this is all inevitable. But I certainly have a rosy nostalgia around hockey that I never thought I would have. I love the rare opportunities I get to watch the game, especially when my brother has given me tickets to see the Worlds. I thrilled to the gold medal game from the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, where a lightning-fast goal from the Canadian star Sidney Crosby sealed the game in overtime against the Americans. (Apparently the entire country exploded at that moment, particularly in Vancouver.) Perceptively, an English commentator said: "To understand what this game means to Canadians, you have to imagine the World Cup final, with England as one of the teams, at Wembley Stadium." I don't think he could have put it much better.

Hockey poetry seems like an unlikely concept, but it is out there and some of it is quite good. In his poem 'Hockey Players', the great Canadian poet Al Purdy called it 'this combination of ballet and murder'. Michael Ondaatje and other poets have also explored the area.

TV HOCKEY (Anne Wilkinson)

I wasn't too familiar with Anne Wilkinson, although her name is ranked alongside that of Dorothy Livesay and P K Page, both Canadian legends. However, this poem really captured me. I realised that there was something about its sensory details and the shape of its movements that struck very deep. This is what I mean about hockey seeping into the personality of every Canadian; it's there even if you hardly think of it. The players do indeed "brood in boxes" and "stumble from their cages", and then they become birds - it is one of the fastest team sports in the world and I find football (soccer!) slow and hard to watch in comparison.

This poem, with its multitude of natural images including the "little black moon" of the puck, seems to invoke a primal spiritual ceremony or the movements of animals in the wild. And yet, if you are familiar with the sport, it is very recognizably about hockey. I love the way that it is familiar, but still casts a new and strange light on something that we Canadians think we know so well.


  1. An excellent and thought provoking analysis for which many thanks - and what a beautiful poem. I've been hockey mad since I taught English to engineers in Finland many years ago and the only thing they wanted to 'converse' about was the finer points of hockey. Then, they would happily talk for hours. Now I've written a Scottish/Canadian hockey novel. But the poem is just perfect.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I thought the poem was fantastic too - it could appeal even to someone who hardly knows or understands hockey. I enjoyed the review of your book over on Vulpes Libris and I hope to read it at some point!

      In fact - as I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog - my mother is from Finland so I guess hockey is in the blood. (Although she's not really a fan!). My brother speaks far better Finnish than I do, and it has been very useful for him in recent years when he interviews Finnish hockey players...

  2. Glad to see hockey is getting into all kinds of cultural forms. My own contribution is a stageplay (well, best on an icerink really!) You can check it out at It's called POWERPLAY We hockey nuts need to stick together!

    1. Thanks for stopping in! I'm quite curious to check out your play, but I don't currently have a Kindle. (I may rectify that in the near future though). Let me know if it's available in hard copy anywhere.