During the nine years that I played hockey, from the age of eight to 17, my parents frequently told me the unlikely story of how I first got into it — how the child of Polish immigrants started playing a sport that has never really been on Poland’s radar.
The story is simple enough — my dad was convinced to register me by our French-Canadian neighbours. However, he neglected to tell my mom that he was going to do so. When my mom found out, she was livid, certain that I would either hurt or embarrass myself.
Though they were harsh, my mom’s fears weren’t exactly wrong. Like any kid starting a new sport, I was awful. I didn’t know how to skate, I had no coordination, and I don’t think my coaches really knew what to do with me. I was bounced around from position to position, even playing a one-game stint as a goalie, during which the opposing team scored almost 10 goals.
Despite my mom’s dire prophecies and some of my worst experiences, I stuck with hockey and eventually ended up as a pretty decent house league defenseman. I never tried out for rep league hockey, but it still became a large part of my identity, despite the fact that it wasn’t a part of my family history like soccer was.
The history of hockey in Canada is an adopted one, as is much of Canadian identity. Hockey is so associated with Canada that many even assume it was invented here. In fact, it’s descended from a much older branch of sports that experts unironically call “stick-and-ball games.” Even organized hockey — which, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, started in Montréal in 1875 — can trace its roots back to England in the mid-1800s.
However, the majority of hockey’s most recognizable rules were first established in Canada and then implemented in other countries, giving Canada a rare opportunity to be a trendsetter in the sport. In many ways, Canada made the sport what it is today, regulating everything from the material and size of the puck to offside rules.
From there on, Canada dominated the sport, establishing the first professional league and winning most international tournaments until the Olympics implemented its amateur rule, which allowed the European Eastern Bloc to win for many years by unofficially training public workers to play professionally.
The Canadian hockey tradition seems like a microcosm for so much of Canadian culture, which distinguishes itself by modifying the cultures of its various early inhabitants, such as the English. And for immigrants like my parents, hockey also seems like an easy starting point for integrating into Canadian culture. Though I no longer watch hockey, my parents follow the Toronto Maple Leafs religiously. Hockey has created a common cultural ground for them and their friends, both Polish and not, as they organize viewing parties at our house and attend games at the local rink. When they came to Canada, my parents learned another language in addition to English — hockey.
As a first-generation Canadian, I interpret hockey’s legacy a little differently. On one hand, I’m more prone to see the shadows that lurk behind the friendly visage of Canadian unity. Along with hockey, Canada has also adopted and modified the British Empire’s racism, conservatism, and homophobia. I felt all of that in hockey culture, which has always made me feel like an outsider, even when I tried my best to fit in.
In addition to its violent reputation, hockey demonstrates a variety of less physical violence that I deem to be even worse. While the sport tries to convince us that it represents and unites Canadians, it remains rather white, elitist, and inaccessible, just like the country’s politics. When watching hockey with my parents, I am often reminded of these facts by the insistent patriotism I see in every game.
However, it is hard for me to overstate how much I love playing the sport itself. Stepping onto the ice, gliding on my skates, figuring out the smartest plays are things that make me feel truly free.
And that, in turn, represents another part of Canada that my parents and I appreciate — it has provided me with the freedom to think and act the way I do. I could never be the person I am today if I grew up in Poland, and the freedom that Canada has provided me is something I will never take for granted.