Richard Harrison, Hero of the Play, Wolsak
& Wynn, reissued, 2004
on the eve of what is now known as the first NHL lockout, the publisher
Wolsak and Wynn released a book of poetry called Hero of the Play.
The author was Richard Harrison, and the book, a series of lyric sketches
about hockey, was soon flying off bookshelves across Canada. It may therefore
have seemed fitting to re-issue Hero of the Play (in a dressed-up
second edition, complete with new poems and an introduction by the author)
in 2004—at the start of the 2004-2005 lockout, in which the NHL
lost an entire season to a labor dispute, becoming the first major sport
in North America to do so.
As of this writing, the NHL is back in
business, and all indications are that the season of 2005-2006 will see
a return to normal in hockey arenas across the continent. And in case
you're wondering—that gust of wind isn't the Alberta Clipper, it's
the collective sigh of relief heaved by millions of Canadian hockey fans
as our sport comes back to life after a hiatus of more than one year.
After all, Canada's relationship to hockey is fraught and complex—and
the lockout, while standing as a reminder that the game we love is above
all a business, also served to remind us that hockey stands for traits
that Canadians value in themselves—endurance, courage, belligerence
(sometimes), and grace. In a way, it is not hockey itself that is the
subject of Hero of the Play. Rather, Harrison uses hockey as
an introductory fillip into a series of short meditations on diverse subjects
from masculinity, fatherhood and love. The result is an almost belligerent
assertion of national identity—as if to say "this is still
our sport," even if its expansion into American markets has led to
the dilution of the product and the evacuation of its originary meaning
from the game itself, which Harrison reminds us was played by the members
of the Franklin Expedition "in one of their ill-fated attempts to
find the Northwest Passage" (18).
Harrison's introduction contains a kind
of primer on metaphor—perhaps logical in a book that has managed
to reach such an immense market in Canada. And as is nearly always the
case when poets explicate themselves, his definitions are telling. Harrison
tells us that "metaphor isn't one thing used to describe, to shape
our perception of the other, or one thing mistaken for the other: it is
two things brought into a relationship that illuminates them both"
(23). Harrison doesn't give us metaphors about hockey—instead, he
explores hockey as metaphor, as a stand-in for the abject, indescribable
aspect of life, that part that exists beyond linguistic comprehension.
In "Language," Harrison reminds us that some part of hockey
exists outside and above linguistic communication: "Did you see Jagr
score in the game that eliminated Chicago?" his narrator asks, in
a tone of wonder:
three men then slipping the puck past Belfour like
a surprise confession. They asked him how he did it,
but he couldn't explain; lacking the language to
describe his own body, he is only more beautiful. (63)
Hockey and language
are metaphors, Harrison reminds us, and the relationship between them
is uneasy at best. If the description of Jagr as "only more beautiful"
seems not to live up to the carefully choreographed dance Harrison describes,
it is because this is a deliberate anti-climax, a tool Harrison uses to
great effect. In the end, hockey is a language of the body, untranslatable
outside of its own context.
Harrison is at his best when he backs off
from the obvious epiphany, and allows the curious juxtapositions his poetry
makes to speak for themselves. He brings hockey into conversation with
masculinity, and masculinity into conversation with love—but in
the end, all these relations exceed linguistic boundaries. Hockey is a
feeling. Like "good hands" or "offensive instinct,"
a love of hockey cannot be taught—it can only be known in the way
that young Canadian men know it from coast to coast.
The labor dispute of this past year is
another metaphor—one in which the millionaire players now represent
themselves as the soldier/laborers of hockey's historical origins. This
irony is not lost on hockey fandom, which tends to wax nostalgic about
a time when hockey players were Whitmanesque "roughs," expressing
their love through and with the body while being exploited by a team ownership
that stood in for the upper-class colonial magistrates of times past.
Now, the dispute is between rich players and richer owners, over amounts
of money unthinkable to the hockey fan, poised gingerly before a twenty-inch
television screen, his half-finished eight-pack of Molson Canadian sweating
next to the La-Z-Boy. In a way, what is created is a crisis of identity.
Harrison's book hearkens back to better days, when hockey players were
people who could be placed in an intimate identity with their fans. The
proletarian hockey player shared a grim but loving connection with the
proletarian railway worker—both served the state with their bodies
and shared the bond of Canada's pastime as a way to palliate their exploitation.
It is against the background of this identity
crisis that Harrison's book is set—after all, as Harrison writes
in his introduction to the new edition, hockey is ultimately a staged
conflict between "Canadian light and Canadian darkness," a kind
of moral drama-on-ice which recuperates the better angels of our nature
into the colonial warriors we know ourselves to be.
The historical problems of this argument
are manifold: the syllogism between Americanization and commercialization
reflects the kind of bland, clichéd jingoism that is the crux of
passive-aggressive Canadian nationalism—never mind the fact that
the "Americanization" of the game seems to have been well under
way at the NHL's outset (4 of the original 6 teams were American). One
easy objection is that not all hockey fans are Canadian, and (as I have
learned to my horror) not all Canadians are hockey fans. To grant hockey
the status that Harrison does, as an originary Canadian activity, is at
best to muffle the sound of Canada's diverse cultural mosaic, in which
there are many people who were raised on different pastimes: soccer, cricket,
baseball, to name a few.
Nevertheless, Harrison's book is a wonderful
elegy to a national identity and a pastime that perhaps only exists in
the imagination of contemporary fans. After all, if anything is clear
from the carefully crafted lyric beauty of his poetry, it doesn't really
matter if the historical truth, the referent, is real. Harrison
has his finger on the pulse of Canadian hockey fandom. He writes: "this
may be art's advice to sport: for all that we say we love winning, we
love drama more" (24). In the end, this applies equally to the problem
of hockey's history, and of the way it inflects male love. Whether this
history is accurate or not matters less than the fact that many Canadians
believe it to be so—and Harrison describes Canada's love
of the game in a way that is at once intelligent and touching. And if,
like a hockey player, he sometimes "lacks the language to describe
his own body," it only makes this book more Canadian—and more