Hockey, particularly when played competitively by boys and men, seems to produce social conditions ripe for this kind of conduct. And it starts young. Sport sociologists like Cheryl MacDonald have documented the proliferation of homonegative and sexist locker room language in Midget AAA hockey, concluding that “the dressing room is not yet a fully inclusive space.”
Queen’s University kinesiology professor Courtney Szto has interviewed South Asian hockey players, coaches and parents in British Columbia, and found that many people understand Canada’s national game as belonging to white people. Through the stories of South Asian hockey players, she shows how white players, staff and fans treat non-white players with open hostility and racism.
A different kind of league
In spite of this, not all leagues are created equal. And as this very strange NHL season is finally reaching its conclusion and youth hockey is just restarting, there is something to be learned by looking at how the sport is played by old men.
The Silver Skaters, a hockey league in a mid-sized Ontario city noted for its aging population, caters to men in later life, with more than 300 hundred men playing in three different age divisions: over 55, over 63 and over 70. Their hockey belies the violence and abuse associated with young men’s hockey and can teach us important lessons about hockey’s potential.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown, I spent several weeks with the Silver Skaters, conducting research on the experiences of athletes in later life. (For the purpose of my research, I have kept the names of the players anonymous, as well as the exact location of the league.) I was interested in the meanings that older men brought to their participation in sport. And how playing sports influenced their understandings of aging, their bodies and gender.
I watched their games twice a week. I spent time chatting informally with players and sometimes family members during the games, arranging more formal interviews with players afterwards. As I conducted this research, I was struck by the incredible care and respect that players have for one another. Players regularly spoke of the game’s importance to their lives, their identities and to understanding the aging process.
Not only does the game fully stop whenever a player falls to the ice, but almost every player celebrated those who continued to play despite health issues. These included cancer treatments, heart surgery, broken bones and joint replacements. But most players said it was their teammates who bring them back.
Fred, a 70-year hockey veteran — and at 81 years old, one of the best players in the league — told the story of Tony, who played with Parkinson’s disease. “He played … and we took care of him and made sure he got home alright. On the ice no one went near him because he was very unsteady on his skates, but he loved the game.” When Tony became too unstable on the ice, he carried on as a team coach.
Another player, Thomas, took the season off while he received cancer treatments, unsure if hockey was in his future. But in the midst of a break in chemotherapy treatments, he visited the rink to say hello to his former teammates. Many of the players filed out from behind the bench in order to warmly receive him — most with a big hug.
The freedom from conventional sports practices allows some players to play with disabilities and enables everyone to develop different kinds of skills. The Silver Skaters don’t keep score during the games. The end of year banquet presents no awards for the best team, most goals or best player. Several men explained that it was better to help a weaker player score goals than to score them yourself.
Wendel commented: “I know what my skill set is and I try to play within that and I get the pleasure of passing and backchecking and stopping a goal.”
A unique culture
Everyone wanted good competitive hockey. They lauded the team selection process that worked to keep parity throughout the league. Players who were too fast and too aggressive were gently coached to understand the league’s unique culture. If the players couldn’t get on board with this way of playing, they were politely asked to go elsewhere.
Fred explained: “We have kicked a couple of players right out of the league for their aggressiveness. … Nobody wants to get hurt out there.”
This culture fostered a sense of awe and celebration of the oldest players in the league. Participants would often point out the players with new joints. They expressed joy at how others were moving, despite mobility issues.
Wendel, for example, pointed to a goalie, explaining that the man had a reconstructed hip and had returned to hockey after a lengthy absence. He told me that it was better to shoot wide on the goalie, valuing player safety over personal achievement.
Mrs. Smith, the wife of a player recently diagnosed with dementia, spoke warmly of the importance of the Silver Skaters to both her and her husband, especially after his diagnosis. She explained that the players provided care for him. They made sure he got to the ice with all of his equipment and watched out for him during the games.
Being around players he’d known for years made her husband comfortable. Lauding the importance of physical activity, she explained that hockey provided them with a bit of break both from each other and from the stress of coping with a relatively new diagnosis.
The story of men’s team sports is so rarely a story of care or a celebration of different abilities. The Silver Skaters, on the other hand, provide a window into how men’s sports, like hockey, can be (in some ways at least) inclusive and compassionate environments, open to players who differ in important ways from the athletes we’ve idealized in the past.