Twilight of a National Game


Sean Fitz-Gerald
Before the Lights Go Out: Inside a Game on the Brink.
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2019

Review by Anthony Wilson-Smith

Few Canadian symbols pack more power than hockey. Its influence is everywhere, ranging from classic fiction (Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater) to art (Ken Danby’s At the Crease) to music (the Tragically Hip’s ‘50 Mission Cap’ and Tom Connor’s ‘The Good Old Hockey Game’).  Or consider politics, where participants include a retired star (Ken Dryden) who became a cabinet minister; at least two players (Red Kelly and Howie Meeker) who served as MPs while still players); and the Senate, where members have included another retired star (Frank Mahovlich); a Stanley-Cup winning coach (Jacques Demers); and even the owner of an NHL team – Hartland Molson of the Montreal Canadiens. Not to mention Jean Béliveau – who turned down an offer from Jean Chrétien to become Governor-General — and a former prime minister (Stephen Harper) who wrote a learned book about hockey while in office.

But while the game’s hold on the Canadian psyche seems indisputable, it is increasingly tenuous. As noted sportswriter Sean Fitz-Gerald (of the website The Athletic) observes in his timely, meticulously-reported new book, Before the Lights Go Out, support at the minor hockey level is melting as surely as, well, ice on outdoor rinks in this era of climate change. For years, the number of participants in programs across Canada has been declining, while enrolment in soccer and basketball soars. The reasons include changing demographics, prohibitive equipment and enrolment costs, and concern over the game’s physical hazards (especially concussions).  

The book’s narrative is driven by a season in the life of the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, one of the most iconic junior franchises in Canada. The descriptions and anecdotes will resonate with everyone who has ever spent endless hours in countless rinks, as player, coach, or parent (all three in my case).  The book is notable for its sometimes elegiac tone, evidence of the author’s love for the game and people within. Sean, inevitably known as ‘Fitzy”, is a beer league player, hockey dad, and coach of his young son. (Full disclosure: I read his manuscript pre-publication and consider him a friend). His descriptions of conditions on an overnight bus full of sweaty, noisy, amped-up 18 and 19-year-olds en route to or from road games will bring nods of recognition, chuckles, and involuntary shudders.

The author chose Peterborough as his focus because of its stature as a hockey town. It is also, he notes, a famously average “Canadian test market for consumer goods and political policy.” As such, the challenges faced by the Petes — and the game — are replicated in countless communities, large and small.

Hockey, as author Roch Carrier observes in an interview in the book, is now so expensive that it “has cut itself from the people who could bring something.” A year of Triple A — the highest caliber of minor hockey — can easily cost $10,000. The game is thus increasingly reserved for middle-to-high-income families. Even at lower levels, as Sean writes: “An all-day camp on a PA day can cost $100 (and) a March break camp can cost about as much as a round-trip plane ticket to somewhere warm.”

Many families abandon the sport early, or don’t start at all. At a school of 400 students less than a kilometre from the Petes rink, minor hockey officials asked one day how many youngsters were playing competitively. The answer: none. To welcome Peterborough’s many new Canadians, the Petes offer 50-100 free tickets to games. Many go unused. The most loyal attendees are longtime residents over age 50, and resistant to change. On-ice, there is little evidence of the multicultural society Canada has become; the overwhelming majority of players are white.

Then there is a newish contender for the title of coolest sport: basketball. The Toronto Raptors’ NBA title win last season united Canadians on a scale and scope that, as many observers noted, a Stanley Cup win by any of the country’s seven NHL teams would not have done.  

What does that say about the future? Overall, as Sean writes: “That bond (with hockey) is loosening, and that is not a bad thing.’’ With the rise of the Raptors, he adds, “there is a basketball net in our backyard, but for now, hockey will be what crams us together in the car for midwinter drives across town.”

That is one of the unchanging rituals of the game that participants complain about but also cherish. Step into a minor hockey rink, and you feel that time has fallen away, and an enduring memory of your youth lives on. For many people, the game’s unchanging qualities are among its greatest charms. But they are also, amid the fast-changing country that surrounds it, among its’ greatest challenges.  

Contributing Writer Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, is a former editor-chief- of Maclean’s.