Anthropology night in Canada

Men At Play: A Working Understanding Of Professional Hockey

By William Brown

A review of Men At Play: A Working Understanding Of Professional Hockey by Michael A. Robidoux

Published on April 1, 2001

Men At Play: A Working Understanding Of Professional Hockey
Michael A. Robidoux

McGill-Queen’s University Press
$22.95
paperback
218pp
0-7735-2169-0

In February 2000, during a National Hockey League game in Vancouver, Marty McSorley of the Boston Bruins swung his stick and hit Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks on the side of the head. Brashear crashed to the ice with blood trickling from his nose and mouth. McSorley was later found guilty of assault but was released on probation. Brashear suffered the ill effects of a severe concussion for months.

The attack itself was not unusual – hockey players batter each other all the time. But McSorley’s explanation was a telling insight into the code of the professional hockey player. He had lost a fight to Brashear earlier in the game and swung at him to provoke a rematch. He had meant to hit him in the shoulder, he said, not the head. He seemed baffled when his explanation failed to win him much sympathy.

More recently, Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy flew into a rage while arguing with his wife and ripped two bedroom doors off their hinges. His wife called the police and Roy was arrested for “criminal mischief.” The charges were dropped, and his wife downplayed the incident, but the player’s reaction was another peek behind the curtain. Roy, in essence, told reporters that the publicity surrounding the incident was distracting him from a more important matter: winning hockey games.

It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that professional hockey players, like other professional athletes, live in their own little world. And it’s easy to speculate about what makes them different – money, fame, adulation. Perhaps playing a kid’s game prevents them from growing up. But Michael A. Robidoux, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Lethbridge, has found that it’s a lot more complicated than that. In his book he looks at the game through the rigorous eyes of a social scientist. Robidoux spent the 1996-1997 hockey season observing a minor professional team in the American Hockey League, much like an anthropologist might study an indigenous tribe in a remote corner of the world.

Robidoux covers a lot of ground: homophobia, misogyny, racial attitudes, violence, and the degrading initiations new players must endure (consuming drinks laced with urine; being stripped and stuffed into the washroom of the team bus with several other naked rookies).“The professional hockey community is deliberately segregated from the larger society,” he concludes. And the result seems to be an us-versus-them mentality. Even though Robidoux played hockey at the junior and university levels, the players he observed for his study considered him to be an outsider and called him “the spy.”

Men at Play is not aimed at the general reader. The book probably can’t be fully appreciated without some knowledge of sociology, anthropology, ethnography, or some of the other disciplines Robidoux draws upon. But there are some insights for the layman, especially in the conversations Robidoux has with players. One exchange, for example, shows how the athletes learn to accept injuries. One player, while listing the various fractures and dislocations he has endured, casually mentions that he once had a testicle split in half by a slapshot. “So I was out for a couple of games,” he adds, laughing.

The players seem to realize that their world doesn’t make sense to outsiders, but they don’t care. As Robidoux says, “The game of hockey in Canada far exceeds the realm of pastime or sport; it has come to symbolize a way of life in this nation.” So what’s a little urine in your drink, or a split testicle, if the reward is the NHL – the realization of a childhood dream? mRb

William Brown is author of the Doug Harvey biography "Doug".

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