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Hockey News: Canadian National Junior Hockey Team Defeats Russia

This week’s hockey news tells us a great deal about Canada.  It may be that only in Canada could the accomplishment of a group of teenaged Canadian hockey players capture the undivided attention and become the biggest sports news for an entire country.  That’s what happened as the Canadian National Junior team moved inexorably through all opposition toward another confrontation with the junior team from Russia.  This past Monday, 5 January, the Canadian Junior team defeated the Russian Juniors 5-4 to win the International Juniors Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Why Hockey?

The sport called hockey, so inseparable from Canada, actually originated in Europe.  However, its enormous growth in popularity occurred in Canada.  Canadian hockey has long been played on frozen lakes and rivers and in flooded backyard rinks during the long, cold Canadian winter.  From the first indoor game in 1875 in Montreal it grew so fast that by the early 1890’s there were more than 100 teams in Montreal alone.  These teams eventually formed federations or leagues to organize competition.  The game spread throughout Canada quickly. 

Many hockey leagues, both amateur and professional, sprang up.  The National Hockey League (NHL) at one time had only six teams (only Toronto and Montreal were from Canada).  All other professional leagues were considered minor leagues from which the few top players aspired to reach the NHL.  For several generations there were no U.S. players in the NHL and hockey was considered a Canadian sports monopoly.  In the 1950’s the Soviet Union adopted hockey as a school sport.  Russian hockey soon was seen as competitive with Canadian hockey.  Today, the NHL boasts players from many European countries.  Their presence has made hockey faster and more exciting than ever.

Although the NHL is the epitome of hockey excellence, most Canadian boys and men just play hockey for fun.   It might seem incongruous to think that a game as inherently violent as hockey could be played for fun but hockey is a major part of Canadian culture.

The Stanley Cup

No other team sport in the world has an award that so thoroughly symbolizes team achievement as does the Stanley Cup to the NHL champion.  The NHL playoffs are called the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The cup was donated to the best team in hockey in 1893 by a former Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston.  The original cup was only a few inches high but it has been added to many times over the years because the name of every player from every Stanley Cup Champion is engraved on the Cup.  Today, the Cup weighs more than 15 kilograms.

Each player on the winning championship team is allowed to “host” the Cup for a few days between seasons, so the Cup has been all around North America and Europe.

Hockey has Undergone Changes

As with any sport, hockey has changed and continues to evolve.  The biggest change is that players are much bigger than ever.  Despite this, the game is faster than it was a single generation ago.  At a height of 194 cm, Jean Beliveau, the beloved center of the Montreal Canadians who passed away last month, was considered a giant in his day.  Today, he would be considered almost average in size.  The day of the short, super-fast player is almost over.

One reason the game is so much faster than it used to be is the advent of protective headgear and face masks for players and goalies.  Players simply feel safer than they did in the past and the game has speeded up as a result.

Another reason is the influx of European players.  It was a bit of a conceit when Canadians thought that only they knew how to really play hockey.  The North American professional leagues and college hockey programs are stocked with European players.  The pool of available players is now far greater than it was in the past.  An additional element is that European rinks are larger than North American rinks so the Europeans learn to play a fast version of hockey.

Finally, the game has speeded up because the professional leagues finally decided to minimize fighting.  Whereas fighting was once a major element in most games played in North America, today fighting is not common.  The era of greatest fighting saw the use of “goons” by every team.  These were players who should not have been in the league.  Their role was to intimidate and fight.  Today, great teams intimidate by skating, passing, and shooting.

Hockey for Kids

There are many leagues organized specifically for kids.  Many young players, hopeful of a professional career, leave their homes to play in one of these leagues, usually in Ontario or Quebec.  They live with a family, called the billet family, which tries to provide the young players with all the amenities of true family life.  The culture that surrounds billet families runs deep in Canada.  Many players maintain ties to their billet families long after the player’s hockey days are over.  To the player’s family back home, the term “hockey news” means: How did our son and his team do?”

Hockey Night in Canada

Every week during the NHL season, one game is televised throughout Canada.  For Canadians in far-flung towns Hockey Night is something of a weekly national evening of unity as a large percentage of television sets are tuned to the game.  In the United States, Monday Night Football has something of the same draw but it doesn’t have the full, national sense of Hockey Night in Canada.