The author of the most thoroughly researched analysis of hockey literature you’ll ever have the delight of reading hasn’t seen a full NHL game in about 10 years. Needing a topic for his Ph.D thesis, Jason Blake recognized a lack of commentary on a subject that is ubiquitous in Canadian culture. Plus, “I had a hell of a lot of time on my hands in Slovenia and figured what the heck.”
So, from that tiny Eastern European country that has produced just one elite player, came “Canadian Hockey Literature,” a smart compilation of Blake’s observations about the game’s meaning to writers, readers and everyone else in Canada. For what has to be one of the coolest Ph.D theses ever, Blake read more than two-dozen hockey novels for adults — including “50 Mission Cap” — and “perhaps a hundred short stories.”
Published last year, “Canadian Hockey Literature” (University of Toronto Press) reveals how deeply ingrained the game is in our collective consciousness.
“It’s everywhere. Hockey shows up effortlessly, or seemingly effortlessly, in all kinds of literature. It’s something that resonates with every Canadian. Even those who don’t like hockey, or have never played it, can relate to its importance,” Blake told me during a Skype conversation the other day.
The Torontonian also noticed that the mythic moments of the game — those scenes where hockey helps bring about epiphany and meditative introspection for its characters — occur in the pastoral setting of a public rink or private frozen pond.
“You couldn’t really have those moments in organized hockey. It would just be too hard to sell to readers,” Blake said, noting the cynicism that surrounds all sports, where greed and corruption spoil any attempts to romanticize the feathering of a puck toward twine or the ardor you feel when muscle ripples down the back of your leg upon the letting go of a shot that has a chance.
Blake points out Mark Anthony Jarman’s fine “Salvage King Ya” (Anvil Press) as one of his favourite hockey books. He taught it at a university in Maine this summer before returning to Slovenia, where he has lived for 15 years after visiting Europe and falling in love. At the University of Ljubljana, he teaches English and Canadian Studies, where he’s happy to discover how outsiders view his home country.
“They wonder why we whine so much about our identity,” Blake said while managing to laugh at about 6 a.m. his time. The teacher, it turns out, also learns a lot about Canadian pop culture through his course. “The first time I heard of Russell Peters was from one of my students.”
Aside from “Canadian Hockey Literature,” Blake has also published the “Slovenia — Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture,” which is another labour of love.
“I’m blown away by how pretty it is here. Anywhere you go it’s beautiful. There’s the Italian-looking coastline and the capital city and a lot of places that are more remote,” he said, sounding genuinely awed by his adopted home. “It’s great if you’re travelling with kids, too. You have to go only a half hour in any direction to find something to entertain a six-year-old.”
Blake lives outside of Ljubljana with his wife and daughter and makes it back to Canada once or twice a year. He said being a Canadian in a foreign country has given him some unique opportunities and odd experiences. For instance, he has never glimpsed a star player on the streets of his hometown but once caught sight of Anze Kopitar, the Slovenian sniper for the L.A. Kings, walking through Ljubljana. “I never once saw an NHL player when I was in Toronto so it was bizarre to see one here.” Blake plays in a league once a week and laments that the Slovenian rink rats who join in have finally improved their skating enough to keep pace with him (apparently, on the ice, you wouldn’t confuse Blake and his namesake who used to play for the Leafs). During this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, he was asked by a Slovenian broadcaster to appear on air because “they wanted a Canadian who could speak some Slovenian and talk about hockey, so they came to me.”
The time difference, though, makes it difficult for him to keep up with the game. Being a Torontonian, he naturally is a Montreal Canadiens fan, but admits he couldn’t name more than one or two players on the Habs’ roster and isn’t all that excited as the new NHL season approaches. When he returns to Canada, Blake notices how hockey is being exploited and is concerned by that fact.
“It’s omnipresent everywhere as an empty symbol,” he said. “Whenever the prime minister is in trouble, he puts on a hockey shirt.”
Add corporate tie-ins, sentimental scenes on the rink in Canadian-made TV and film, and attempts by communities to use the game to get attention and/or money from government and sponsors, and it’s easy to be turned off by the jingoism that constantly surrounds the sport. Yet, as Blake’s book points out, hockey defines us in so many ways and we’re relentlessly searching for ourselves in the game.
Up to this point, what we seem to have found in our literature is how insecure we are about the sport’s command over us. Look through the list of finalists for the Giller Prize in recent years and you’re not likely to find a title from Blake’s bibliography, even though the game has been a pivotal component to some very good books, including “King Leary” (Anchor) by Paul Quarrington. We love hockey, we just may think the showcasing of that love belies a boorishness we would rather keep out of intellectual discourse. Boxing and baseball have inspired compelling novels that have won wide acclaim. No doubt our literature will get there — this country has a wealth of talented writers — and when it does you can be sure we will not only enjoy a great novel about our national obsession but perhaps a piece of prose that further defines us and helps Blake’s students understand why we are the way we are. Hockey, and all it encompasses and attracts, represents the best and worst of Canada. Grappling with that dichotomy is a challenge, one that’s fertile ground for cultural critics and creative thinkers.
Plus, as Blake said, if you’re going to muse long about a topic, hockey’s a pretty sweet choice to have occupy your mind.