Hockey, Violence and War: Context of Canada


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Since the latter years of the nineteenth century, hockey remains to be the most dominant sporting activity in Canada. The national sports of Canada Act lists hockey alongside lacrosse to be the national sports. Hockey is thus a preferred sporting activity to a majority of Canadians as evidenced by the large number of people who either play, participate, or watch the domestic hockey league. The significance of hockey to the Canadian people is further exemplified by the decision to include images of ice hockey at the back of the 5 dollar bank note. But as we even continue to relish the entertainment, “gentleman-ship” and “fair-play” of the game, it is practically impossible to ignore the “dark” history of the game where, at the very best, it was associated with elements of aggressiveness, violence, and war. In an article to the New York Times, Stephen Smith writes, “In Canada, the kinship between hockey and war is implicit. Both (of course) stoke patriotic pride, and there’s the recognition (maybe) that the vivid game that remains closest to the national heart reflects the confusion and desperate violence of the battlefield, while also (somehow) naturally honoring warrior values of bravery and perseverance”. This paper examines the hockey culture at its formative stage, which includes foundational principles and practices, and the link between the game and World War.

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Hockey is a sport that was once known for its violence and aggression. In early 1900’s, hockey played a significant role in the social construction of masculinity. “Depictions of ‘brutal butchery’ combined outrage and fascination; accounts of ‘strenuous spectacle’ portrayed violence as part of an absorbing, masculine display”. Violence in hockey trained young men to be in good physical shape to prepare, and provide an insight of the brutality in World War. Cold weather conditions, injuries, and teamwork were all prominent factors encompassed in both Canadian hockey and World War. The sport enabled and empowered young men in Canadian society to embrace their masculinity and reach optimal strength. In the wake of Canadian Confederation, the need for Canada’s military positioning became very critical. The ‘manly’ and often aggressive game of hockey was at this point in time regarded as the “reliable and necessary guardian of masculinity and military preparedness”. Hockey players underwent intense training on issues surrounding to ‘manliness’, ‘duty to the nation’, and, of course, loyalty to one’s teammates. By the time the call on people to enlist to Canadian Expeditionary Forces came, a majority of hockey players formed the ideal candidates to assume positions in the military forces.

Elements of aggression that at times turned brutal were deeply entrenched in the culture of Canadian ice hockey. As community based hockey clubs became popular, the pressure to identify with respective communities and defend community pride became so intense. Players felt a deeper sense of duty to their communities and would therefore do whatever action necessary to earn victory. Players were always required to check their opponent’s sticks heavily, as a gentle stroke, and easy check, had seldom any effect. Losing became a mark of the weak-willed which none of the hockey teams wanted to associate with. J.J. Wilson observes that “winning gradually replaced character building and fraternization as the primary goals of many organizations”. As it would have been expected, this sporting activity turned out to be more of a battle field. Some historians have attempted to make sense of how Canadian hockey players lost touch with “fair-play” that was a defining quality of British sports. Arthur Farrell, who played for Montreal Shamrocks back in 1899 indicated in his book that ‘hockey is a game for men, strong, full-blooded men. Weaklings cannot play in it.’ The mention of strength and full-blooded men all signify the intensity that was expected in these hockey games.

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The brutal murder of 24-year-old Alvide Laurin by Allan Loney offers the best illustration of the violence that characterized ice hockey in the early 20th century. Laurin was the team captain of Alexandria Crescents. He was killed deliberately by a stick wielded by Loney, a 19-year old point man playing for Maxville team. The sequence of events leading to this brutal murder all point at how violence thrived in the game. The game between Alexandria Crescents and Maxville team was described as being “fast, furious and rough”… with sticks “flying round lively”. Contention between Loney and Laurin led to a broken stick and a fist fight that left Loney with a broken nose. Loney retaliated by swerving his stick and knocking Laurin on his head. Laurin collapsed and was later pronounced dead. The case caught public scrutiny as even the charges on Loney were later reduced to manslaughter, and ultimately acquitted. Despite the tragic ending of the game and the outcome of the trials, one of the major media narratives presented the whole issue as a “tragic accident”. In other words, this particular narrative presented the death as an “unfortunate incidence”, and which should be tolerated in the context of hockey culture where such incidents are common.

Hockey has a history of tolerating violence in a way that is otherwise a reserve for sports such as boxing and martial arts. In other sports that include football, basketball, and baseball, intentionally hitting another players, either by hand or object, would result to severe penalties, including dismissal from the game and prosecution as a criminal offence. The world of soccer has particularly set its bar of fair play at a bar so high and any person found guilty of violating faces strictest of punishment. The situations remains to be opposite in hockey. Both players and coaches tend to advocates for fighting, in spite of the fact that it goes against the rules of the game.  Horrow (1980) puts this matter in perspective when he wrote that: “No hockey player enters onto the ice of the National Hockey League without consenting to and without knowledge of the possibility that he is going to be hit in one of many ways once he is on the ice… this is an ordinary happening in a hockey game and that players really think nothing of it. If you go behind the net of a defenseman, particularly one who is trying to defend his zone, and you are struck in the face by that player’s glove, a penalty might be called against him, but you do not really think anything of it; it is one of the types of risks one assumesˮ. Hockey fans also bear a greater degree of blame for the violence that has often characterized hockey as a sporting activity. In Canada, the community based competitions were very competitive with the thirst for victory being the driving force. In the wake of physical confrontation, fans would at times cheer their teams into aggression. For instance, the case of Laurin and Lorey already discussed above exemplify the role of fans into hockey violence. According to observers, the crowd erupted when Laurin and Loney engaged in physical fight. Shouts of “go for him” could also be hear from young kids. And as even Loney retaliated by delivering a swift blow to Laurin using his stick, the crowd momentarily appeared to be celebrating the violence that was taking place.

The Case of ‘One-Eyed’ Frank McGee on the other hand illustrates the extent to which hockey inspired military service. McGee served as an example to the young men because he had lost one eye to the aggressive sport of hockey. McGee scoring prowess had made him a top target for the opponent’s sticks. This is certainly a probable explanation of how he ended up losing one of his eyes. As it would have naturally been expected, McGee should have quit hockey after the incidents. Surprisingly, just as a majority of Canadian hockey players at this point in time, the thrill of hockey and the fighting spirit within them could not allow them to hang the boots. Despite the injuries that hockey players had sustained in the course of the games, a good number of them did not shy away from the call of duty to enlist to the military. McGee is one perfect case in point. And while serving in the military, he lost one of his limbs but did not call it quits. McGee enlisted in motorcycle dispatching and later died on duty.  His participation in World War I was revered by many Canadians; McGee demonstrated masculinity and helped endorse hockey. All in all, the admiration of rugged and physical hockey articulated within the Canadian society to promote masculinity in both hockey and war.

Enlistment of legendary veterans such as McGee encouraged participation in war. He promoted both sport and recruitment in war by serving to the nation despite his ‘losses’. Unlike One-Eyed Frank there were other who joined the war for another reason. The Winnipeg Falcons joined the war to gain respect. They encouraged the Icelandic community to come together to fight in the war. Before the war, the Falcons were not even allowed to play in the Manitoba league, but after the war had resided, they had gained enough respect to play. The Falcons then won the Manitoba league, then led to winning the Allan Cup and the eventually winning Canada their first Olympic gold medal in hockey. Then there were individuals who came from the same street, community or team to enroll in the war. This group came to be known as Pals Battalions. The Battalions came from Newfoundland and since there were so many of them enrolling they weren’t turned down. This was because all these men knew each other, so the idea was that they would have great chemistry and great things would come from that. The results were not what they were expecting, since many of them did not return from the war the population of Newfoundland drastically dropped. After this incident a large quantity of individuals from the same area were not allowed to enroll.

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The association of hockey with war continued far into the twentieth century. Jokisipilä, a sports editor and author, observed that “in terms of intensity and its use as a metaphor for battling Cold War enemies, no other sports could compete with hockey”. The game continues to be celebrated as macho and the occasional violent expression of manliness. The defining characteristics of the game including physicality, constant body checks, and regular fist fights gave it the qualities of a battel field. And to further underscore the connection of the game with war, terminology such as offense and defense, neutral zone, shooting and firing, charging, and sudden death all point to war. The Canadian team stood out as the defenders of the Western hockey honors against the Soviets who were equally consolidating their position as strong forces in the hockey field. All these happened during the Cold War further aggravating the undertones of violence that characterized the game. Jokisipila further notes that the Canadians “kept on fuelling these bellicose associations with their physical and violent play; their continuous hits and checks; and their propensity to brawling, stick slashing, and even deliberate injuring of opponents”.

Looking at the above historical perspective of Canadian hockey as well as the case studies reviewed, it is easy to see why the culture of violence and war became so much entrenched into hockey as a sport. First, it is worth appreciating the significance of hockey in the Canadian context. Most of the Canadians perceive hockey as the source of their national pride and strength and would therefore do anything to defend this legacy. In the initial years of hockey development in Canada in the nineteenth century, competition was inter-community. The game was revered in the wake of Canada Confederation since it was closely linked to the manly character that was highly desirable at this point in time. The masculinity that defined the game, aggressiveness, and team work were the qualities which were equally desirable in the Canadian military force. The passion to serve in the military thus drove many used into hockey from where they got their gateway into the ranks of army men. The acts of valor and sacrifice exhibited by McGee and his counterparts has remained deeply ingrained in the hearts of most Canadian hockey players. It is from the understanding that hockey built strong character necessary in the military engaged that acts of violence were tolerated in the game. Even as other sports imposed strict penalties to violence of official game rules, the hockey association in Canada played safe not to kill the battle-field culture.

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