Gunnar Benediktsson

Richard Harrison, Hero of the Play, Wolsak & Wynn, reissued, 2004

[Review Guidelines]

In 1994, 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:

stickhandling around
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 beautiful.