Review of The Cinema of Hockey

Cermak, Iri. The Cinema of Hockey: Four Decades of the Game on Screen. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2017. Pps. 333. Filmography, bibliography, and index. $39.95 paperback.

Review by Nick Sacco

Professional hockey’s popularity has grown immensely over the past thirty years, evolving from a fringe sport to one of the “big four” sports of North America. Once played almost exclusively by white male Canadians and Northern-born Americans, the game is now embraced throughout the world by people of many different gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds who play it for fun and competitively. These changes took place as the National Hockey League expanded and relocated teams to new parts of the United States in the 1990s, television companies offered lucrative contracts to broadcast the game to new audiences, and star players like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull captivated audiences with their skillful goals and brilliant play. Any explanation for hockey’s rise, however, must also account for another important factor: popular depictions of the game on film. As media studies scholar Iri Cermak argues in her fascinating analysis of more than fifty hockey-related films released since the 1970s, cinematic depictions of the game have simultaneously exposed viewers to the culture of hockey while also sending messages about hockey’s relationship to broader social beliefs about violence, sportsmanship, gender roles, and nationalism.

Cinema of Hockey

McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017

The central thesis of Cermak’s analysis is that hockey films reinforce a strongly defined image of exemplary hockey players who use toughness, physicality, violence, and offensive skill to express their masculinity on and off the ice. These values are mythic and often represent a simplified version of the way “real” hockey players should play the game, according to Cermak, but they appeal to viewers eager to identify with an idealized figure who “does not hesitate to engage in fisticuffs” to establish justice and a sense of right and wrong. Hockey cinema portrays the game as a creed defined by a “moral code that transcends the limits of time and space” and celebrates the idea of “men venerating the game because it affords them the opportunity to be men” (p. 3). Employing a close textual analysis of hockey film scripts and a wide range of scholarly sources that include media, film, and literature studies, The Cinema of Hockey offers itself as the first cultural analysis and history of hockey on film.

Chapters one and two of The Cinema of Hockey explore portrayals of “aggressive muscularity” in hockey films. Cermak argues that as the NHL doubled in size to twelve teams in 1967 and loosened its rules on checking to make the game more physical, numerous films emerged in the 1970s to critique these developments. Films like Paperback Hero and The Last Season highlight excessive physicality as “incompatible with the project of citizenry and nation” while others focused on the ways the game’s rougher edges physically and mentally abused players on and off the ice (p. 25). Still others in later years like Happy Gilmore spoofed what Cermak calls the “bully clown,” an archetypically befuddled hockey player who struggles to keep his emotions in check and uses physical violence and mental outbursts to assert control over others.

Chapters three and four assess the role of business and capitalism in hockey. She analyzes films like Net Worth, which portrays hockey players in the 1950s struggling to earn livable wages and establish a players’ union, and Sudden Death, whose high-octane hero Jean-Claude Van Damme intervenes in a hostage situation at game seven of the Stanley Cup finals in what Cermak says “allegorizes the fallout from the potential destruction of small market teams in Canada and historic U.S. franchises like the Pittsburg Penguins” as teams relocated to the U.S. South and West for new markets and expanded profits (p. 89). Likewise, she explores Disney’s entrance into hockey cinema through the famous Mighty Ducks film series, which portrays the game as a middle-class family affair rather than a game dominated by low-class drunken buffoons and “bully clowns.” These thematic goals, of course, fit within Disney’s effort to promote its investment in the newly-minted Mighty Ducks NHL franchise in 1993.

In perhaps the most fascinating section of the book, Cermak dedicates chapters five and six to investigating nationalist themes in Quebec, Canadian, and American cinema. Chapter five explores the Les Boys film series and two portrayals of the life of Maurice Richard, one of the most famous French-Canadian players in NHL history. Cermak argues that as French-Canadian citizens balance dual identities as Canadians but also French-Canadians, Quebec hockey cinema has worked to “express a distinct cultural identity in a vast North American continent where Anglophone culture [presides],” portraying Quebec as “a stateless nation within a nation struggling to endure despite a history of colonization and disenfranchisement” (p. 130). Chapter six, meanwhile, explores hockey biopics like Miracle on Ice, Disney’s Miracle, and Canada Russia ’72 to demonstrate how sports films rely on character-driven narratives to show how training, physical sacrifice, and teamwork represent a larger idealized nation of engaged citizens to viewers.

Chapters seven and eight explore race, sexuality, and gender in hockey films. Cermak asserts that portrayals of racial minorities, people who identify as LGBT, and women in film are sparse because filmmakers seek unifying themes, particularly masculinity and nationalism, to smooth over social differences. Films that portray the former identities—Love Guru, Breakaway/The Speedy Singhs, The Sheldon Kennedy Story, and Hockey Night, for example—explore larger questions of social inclusion, immigrant cultural assimilation, and femininity as inferior to masculinity in the sports realm. A final chapter explores cinematography, editing, and production techniques in hockey cinema. Cermak analyzes the fine details of hockey cinema, including fighting scene visuals, the language that hockey characters use, and the use of archival footage in hockey cinema. Film studies professors and students will find much of interest in this chapter.

While Cermak’s analysis of masculinity, gender, sexuality, and nationalism in hockey films is exhaustive, her treatment of race takes up only seven pages in chapter seven and leaves much to be desired. The omission of First Nations people from hockey cinema is hardly discussed, nor is there a serious treatment of the relationship between changing racial dynamics in hockey and similar changes in hockey cinema. Cermak, for example, looks at the Mighty Ducks series through the lens of Disney’s corporate business interests, but doesn’t examine why the team—particularly in D2: The Mighty Ducks—uncharacteristically had two African Americans, one Asian American, and one Cuban American playing on the squad, or why the team was portrayed playing non-hockey countries like Trinidad and Tobago in the Goodwill Games and a group of black street hockey players in Los Angeles.

A further examination on this point might have argued that Disney’s portrayal of the Mighty Ducks as a racially diverse team was an attempt to portray hockey as a family-friendly, trendy, and racially inclusive game to racial minorities in cities where the NHL relocated and created new franchises, particularly in Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, and Anaheim. Even more, Justin Morrison, one of the young African American teens on the Los Angeles street hockey team in D2, was cast in the film partly because he was an emerging hockey talent in California and was later drafted by the Vancouver Canucks. Today there are more than 30 black hockey players in the NHL, including African Americans Dustin Byfuglien, Seth Jones, and Kyle Okposo. While the connection between hockey cinema and the changing racial dynamics of hockey needs further research, the Mighty Ducks series, among others, challenges the notion that hockey is a “white man’s game.”

Cermak’s dense language and turgid prose will make The Cinema of Hockey’s audience a largely academic one, but its analysis is worth inclusion in a film or Americans studies syllabus, especially if the professor were to select one or two thematic chapters to complement other resources. Sports historians may find a more limited use for the book in their syllabi since it focuses almost exclusively on film critique and only skims the history of hockey over the past forty years. Overall, however, The Cinema of Hockey succeeds in presenting a well-structured analysis with new research on hockey cinema and the many interpretive themes these films present to viewers.

Nick Sacco is a public historian and writer. He blogs about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past, and is an avid St. Louis sports fan. He can be followed on Twitter at @NickSacco55.

2 thoughts on “Review of The Cinema of Hockey

  1. It’s been a very long time since I saw Sudden Death, but can it really support the weight of her analysis? The hockey game is just a “Die Hard in a…” setting, not a political statement. Or am I forgetting some key detail?

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  2. Pingback: Weekly Links: US Women’s National Team on strike; Maple Leafs fighting toxic masculinity; NHL going to China, Sweden; and more | Hockey in Society

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