Whose Masculinity is this Anyway? Identity, Violence, and the Real Crisis in Hockey

(Content warning: post and links discuss harassment, assault, sexual assault, rape, racism, sexism, and homophobia)

Yesterday was both a blemish on major North American sports and an utterly predictable series of events. Within the span of about an hour Thursday morning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers launched “an embarrassingly sexist” program aimed at helping female fans understand the complexity of football with tips about fashion and play clocks. The official Vanderbilt Football twitter account tweeted an offensive and ill-conceived promo for its program claiming, “We are RELENTLESS, TOUGH, AND INTELLIGENT, and WE DON’T NEED YOUR PERMISSION”. The sexual assault overtones are clear; they are made worse when the program’s recent history with sexual violence is known. At about the same time word broke of Chicago superstar Patrick Kane’s involvement in a rape investigation in New York.

There was appropriate concern and pushback against these developments online as well as predictable, disappointing, and harmful support for Kane and dismissal of the Bucs’ and Vanderbilt’s actions. Those content to bury their heads further in the sand sang the familiar and flawed refrain of “this is society’s problem”.

Conventions, rules, and pedagogy in sport did not develop in a vacuum. Rather, sporting traditions have always grown out of the values of and challenges faced by the cultures creating and codifying sports like football or hockey. Hockey is like the internet in that it reflects, not exists separately from, our culture. Consequently, it is the flimsiest of defenses that suggests “hockey doesn’t have a problem with violence against women, society does!”

That’s incorrect.

Violence in sport is socially constructed.

Both hockey and the society which created it, and maintains the sport’s practices, have a serious problem with violence against women. To suggest otherwise is to blatantly ignore the reality that we are presented with on an almost daily basis.
As fans we have a tendency to want to limit the scope of hockey’s domestic violence and sexual assault problem. So we try to limit the discussion to player actions we deem criminal and ignore the everyday sexism we see in the game, in the way teams treat female fans and employees, and jokes on social media that fall flat. We eviscerate the Los Angeles Kings and Dean Lombardi for being terrible, which they are, and we take the Nashville Predators to task for being appalling, which they are, and we’ll add Chicago to the list now, but we will refuse to see this as a league-wide problem. We’ll ignore that it permeates various levels of the game and is endemic to the sport. It makes it easier to keep watching and talking hockey if every team, and by extension, fans, aren’t complicit. It makes it easier to root for your team when you only object to rape culture and violence against women when it’s a player from a rival team in the crosshairs. The team I cheer for is complicit and so is the team you cheer for. No team has a moral high ground here.

We’ll continue to take our cues from the commissioner who says hockey doesn’t need a comprehensive strategy for addressing and dealing with violence against women; that most in the sport are good guys who would never participate in such violent actions. We’ll cross our fingers and believe it, even with all the mounting evidence to the contrary.

Somewhat lost in the shuffle yesterday was another Canadian sports league taking action. The CFL released a comprehensive and victim-centred violence against women policy. Created in partnership with the Ending Violence Association of Canada the program doesn’t relegate victims to the sidelines which happens frequently in other leagues. It’s not perfect but it also illustrates that pro leagues can lead on this issue and change the cultures of their sports if they just make an effort. The more proactive a league is, the harder it becomes for its fans to deny the realities we keep seeing in the games we love.

There are many who want to stop these incidents. But the culture won’t change just by throwing the book at Slava Voynov, Mike Ribeiro, or Patrick Kane. The culture won’t change if we continue to refuse to centre the victim in discussions of violence and rape. The culture won’t change if we don’t take sports media to task for writing bullshit, reputation repairing pieces. So far, sports fans, and hockey fans in particular, have been unwilling to examine their own complicity in the culture of the game which permits such treatment of women. Further, we are collectively unwilling to look at the ways in which hockey itself promotes and relies on a masculinity rooted in rape culture.

Earlier this spring comedian Amy Schumer’s sketch “Football Night Lights” made waves and was widely celebrated not just for its stance on rape culture in sports but for clearly articulating the fictional community’s complicity in that culture and how football itself speaks the language of rape. The coach, played by Josh Charles, tells his team football isn’t about rape; rather that “It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want! You gotta get yourself into the mindset that you are gods, and you are entitled to this!” The message is clear: victory on the field requires both physical prowess and domination; players must force the opposition into submission. In this landscape, women are treated as trophies, the spoils of victory, and subject to a similar domination.

Yet there’s been a failure to apply what’s articulated in “Football Night Lights” to hockey. Hockey players are encouraged to play hard, dominate in the corners, and beat their opponents into submission. In hockey, players and teams are frequently reward for using violence during the course of a game. Typically mocked as simple sports clichés, we hear the language of domination from players, coaches, and analysts as well as read it in newspapers and blogs. We don’t bat an eye when this language crosses over into more explicitly sexual language. How often have you heard Jim Hughson or Gord Miller talk about penetration when describing a player like Kyle Turris or Henrik Sedin enter the opposing zone? Objections to this word and similar phrases in hockey are usually met with dismissal; “this is hockey,” the refrain goes, not sex or rape (the distinction between the two remains murky to many). To paraphrase Pitch Perfect, a zone entry is not a good enough reason to use the word penetrate. As hockey fans we’re aware of how suggestive the language of the game can be, but rather than question what’s at stake when using sexual language to describe a sporting event, we treat it as a joke and use hashtags like #hockeyporn to keep the laughs going. But we rarely reflect on the homophobic nature of the humour or how it naturalizes the pairing of violence and sex.

We talk about hockey this way and use such sexual language because of the type of masculinity we celebrate in the game. Hockey praises a masculinity that is still based on conservative notions of toughness and dependent on strength and aggression. The game’s ubiquity and popularity in Canada means it’s the dominant expression of masculinity in this country. It’s typified by people like Nick Kypreos and current players like Chris Neil, and celebrated by personalities like Don Cherry. Steeped in whiteness, it uses subtle, racially-motivated language to police behaviour and maintain the status quo. Players like Evander Kane, P.K. Subban, and Josh Ho Sang are considered controversial because they have “personality,” confidence,” and are “outspoken”; coded language highlighting how uncomfortable hockey’s traditional, white masculinity is with difference.

Hockey has a code which also maintains and rewards this kind of conventional tough masculinity. Hitting and fighting are acceptable performances of aggressive masculinity (despite the physical dangers and the fact that fighting is always penalized) while more benign transgressions, like diving (which generally injuries no one), are treated as stains on the game. Those who dive are described in feminized language as soft and delicate. European players are often described this way in contrast to the proper masculinity of celebrated Canadian boys who play the game the “right” way. I’ve always found the consternation surrounding diving in sports like hockey and soccer to be over the top, but that it’s characterized so vehemently as duplicitous is important. Cross-checking is cheating, hitting from behind is cheating, and sucker punching a player is cheating, yet diving, more than any other infraction in hockey, causes the toughness crowd to lose their composure. It’s because diving is seen as lying, cheating, and fraudulent and those who dive are feminized. Think about that. Think about the language used and the response from hockey fans when players embellish or are perceived as faking an injury to gain an advantage like a power play.

It can’t be surprising then, that the majority response to women who have been raped or physically abused by hockey players is to disbelieve and discredit victims, to slander and shame women. It’s the same language.

I’ve been thinking about my masculinity a lot lately. It’s a component of my trans identity and I can’t dismiss it simply because of the numerous examples of toxic masculinity around me. Yet I’m a product of a patriarchal society and I can see how a masculinity based in toughness is appealing. Following convention when it comes to identity can provide someone like me with security and safety and that’s desperately needed for trans lives. But for me, the cost of inclusion is simply too high, namely increased complicity in the toxic masculinity and rape culture of sports like hockey.

One of the things you become acutely aware of if you’re trans is how much of gender is performance. The same is true of masculinity. We often evaluate masculinity in terms of crisis and fragility. The emergence of organized and codified sports like hockey at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries are sometimes discussed as a response to the feminization of men in the late Victorian period. Similarly, we talk about the fragility of modern masculinity in the face of the erosion of traditional gender roles and the loss of breadwinner status and therefore embrace contemporary examples of tough, aggressive masculinity, like hockey, football, and MMA. But the real crisis is not masculine identity but the violence against women which continues to plague the North American sports landscape.

I don’t see the panicked actions of a fragile identity. I see a deliberate digging in. It’s a limiting mindset for men and sidelines all who don’t fit this particular expression of identity. What I see in the masculinity typified by hockey, in its players and many of its supporters, is dangerous. It is a concerted effort to maintain the hierarchical power they have always enjoyed and abused. It extends to the stands and bars and pubs where fans watch this performance of tough, aggressive masculinity. It continues off ice for players and team personnel.

That women continue to bear the brunt of this assertion of power remains tragically predictable.

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15 thoughts on “Whose Masculinity is this Anyway? Identity, Violence, and the Real Crisis in Hockey

  1. Andrew / Artist Formerly Known as A, I’m a long time reader of your work… both at Silver Seven Sens and now here. While I don’t always agree with your opinions, I find you to be a talented writer who generally produces interesting, thoughtful pieces.

    I’m sorry to say that, for me at least, this particular blog entry completely misses the mark and simply comes across as lazy musings / rants. I understand that societal views can be slow to change and that improvements can be made to make the world a better place for everyone; this is known. I get that you’re trying to point out the bad to enlighten your readers in an effort to affect change but the way that you are choosing to address the issue here seems tired. Might I suggest that maybe the best way to bring attention to issues and to affect positive change is not to lecture your readers and paint such broad negative strokes across such large groups? Not many people enjoy being stereotyped. More often than not, good breeds good and bad breeds bad. Education can be a fine line.

    From a Sens-centric standpoint, I really don’t understand your negative portrayal of Chris Neil. Yes he is white, yes he is Canadian, yes he comes across as a rough and tumble type of guy. When did these qualities become inherently bad? He’s a chippy player but from most accounts, he is a warm caring person who is heavily involved in giving back to the community. Sounds like a decent guy. As a non-white individual, I ask that you please stop lending credence to the argument that certain outspoken NHL players are criticized simply because they are not white. It’s extremely frustrating and seems to lead to more racism. Does race play a part? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to outspoken NHL players, it is my observation that over the last 10-15 years, it is the individual and not their racial background who creates or does not create the controversy.

    • While I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of colour involved in hockey (either as a player or fan), I do know that white players are given a lot of latitude when it comes to being outspoken. Players like Adam Burrish, Dan Carcillo, Paul Bissonnette, Chris Pronger, Sean Avery, and older players like Brett Hull, Patrick Roy, and Jeremy Roenick, who are still connected to the game, are all known for providing usable sound bites and humorous zingers. It’s not that everything these guys say is ok, far from it actually, but they’re rarely held to a high standard or called out in the mainstream media for what they say. Instead they’re often celebrated for injecting some personality into the game. It’s true that raising the issue of racism in the NHL and sports more generally can lead to more racism and that’s absolute crap. The same holds true for issues of sexism and homophobia. But I don’t necessarily agree that it’s more productive to simply not talk about it. The status quo isn’t acceptable and change requires many things including discussion.
      There’s nothing inherently wrong with Chris Neil as a dude/individual, more that his aggressive, physical, and punishing style of play is problematic more generally for the reasons outlined above.

      • I would argue that the press has not given any of the players mentioned above a pass from heavy controversy. Sure, in retirement, some of their past controversies have been glossed over but I can guarantee that each of those guys has faced quite a lot of negative attention from the mainstream media. Some still do. In this case it’s who they are, what they do, what they say that generates the controversy and not the colour of their skin. I agree that discrimination is an issue that deserves attention, I just don’t think that something should be blamed on racism when there are so many other, more prevalent factors at play.

        As for aggressive, physical play in hockey that is not malicious and falls within the rules of the sport, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I won’t get into your broader thesis here but as a sensitive, non-main breadwinner male who is comfortable with both his masculinity and femininity, I don’t see aggressive play as a problem. Outside of sport, people can and do channel their energy in positive ways. Like you, I have a problem when athletes, or anyone for that matter, channel their energy into negative/malicous/harmful behaviour. Should the NHL be outspoken against violence against women and violence in general? Probably. Is it their responsibility? No but I’m willing to bet there some good programs in place and that the league and its players are doing a lot behind the scenes that don’t make the headlines.

        All that said, I commend you for speaking out and trying to shed some light on some issues that might otherwise be overlooked or brushed off. Good luck to you in your battle to overcome adversity.

      • Sean Avery wasn’t criticized in the media? Really? Talk about twisting the facts to fit your predetermined narrative.

        I feel like every other post on this blog these days is about how terrible we all must be by default if we’re white, straight and like physical hockey.

  2. I only have two problems with this article.

    One. There is nothing wrong with using the word penetrate. Penetrate was a word in the english language long before it was used to describe rape. If you are penetrating the opponent’s zone it means that you are skilfully forcing your way into the zone under pressure. Oh wait, is it okay to say “forcing”? Oh wait, is it okay to say “pressure”? See what I mean, you are the one giving negative meaning to the word. Penetrate is an awesome descriptive three syllable word, and I think you are being unfair to it.

    Two. I also don’t buy the race card. I live in the Caribbean and most of my friend’s are “not white”. If anything I am racist against “white” people because of all the damn idiotic tourists. Patrick Kane waving around stacks of money, and P.K. Subban’s gloating, diving, slashing and whining has nothing to do with either of them being “black”, and for you to imply so makes you the racist (;) see what I did there?)

    In conclusion, I agree that there is plenty of racism and sexism in professional sports, and awareness as well as solutions are needed, but please pick examples that are well-founded and real, Such as Voynov. Raising false flags over words in the english language, and “non-white” player’s who actually deserve their reputations, is counter-productive and just removes attention from the real issues at hand.

  3. penetrate
    Spell Syllables
    Synonyms Examples Word Origin
    verb (used with object), penetrated, penetrating.
    to pierce or pass into or through:
    The bullet penetrated the wall. The fog lights penetrated the mist.
    to enter the interior of:
    to penetrate a forest.
    to enter and diffuse itself through; permeate.
    to arrive at the truth or meaning of; understand; comprehend:
    to penetrate a mystery.
    to obtain a share of (a market):
    to penetrate the Canadian coffee market.
    to affect or impress (the mind or feelings) deeply.
    to extend influence, usually peacefully, into the affairs of (another country).
    verb (used without object), penetrated, penetrating.
    to enter, reach, or pass through something, as by piercing:
    We penetrated to the interior of the Kasbah.
    to be diffused through something.
    to understand or read the meaning of something.
    to have a deep effect or impact on someone.

  4. Andrew, this is a powerful post and this discussion is going to happen whether people like it or not because of articulate, intelligent people with a perspective that allows them to speak on these things with authority. People like you. Excellent points backed up with credible sources and examples. Can your critics do the same please? There isn’t a single reason why the enjoyment of hockey’s aggressive, physical play should have to coincide with language – blatant, coded or otherwise – that demeans anyone.

    • In full agreement with you there beerguy and am guessing that you’re not calling me out for my comments above but if you are, can you be more specific?

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