Tuesday, 1 July 2014

In-Depth Review: L'histoire du hockey au Québec, Part 1

I've done a few book reviews in the past, but I'm going to try something a bit different this time. Last week I had to look something up in a book that's been sitting in my hockey history library for some time. In doing so, I realized I had never actually read the book in its entirety, only ever really using it for reference. So I decided it was time to read the thing, and when going through the first chapter I realized there was probably a lot of meat for some blog posts in there. So this will be a series of posts, making up an in-depth, chapter-by-chapter review of the book from my analytical perspective. The book is quite dense and scholarly, and intentionally so, and as such I think it's appropriate to devote some time to it.

The book is L'histoire du hockey au Québec: Origine et développement d'un phénomène culturel avant 1917 ("The History of Hockey in Quebec: The origin and development of a cultural phenomenon before 1917"), published in 1990. It was written by Donald Guay (b.1934), a Quebec historian who has published well over a dozen works, mostly on the subject of Quebec sports history. As you may have surmised, it's written in French. As such, any time I quote from the book, I will provide both the original passage in bold italics, followed by my translation in regular italics.

The book is made up of five chapters, and I intend to cover each one in some detail. I'm not going to read ahead, I'm going to review each chapter as I go through it. Some chapters, at least, will be broken up into multiple parts (I know this because chapter three is about four times as long as any other chapter in the book, and besides that, as you'll see I won't even get through chapter one in this fairly large post).

So let's introduce the series, naturally enough, by addressing the introduction.


In the introduction, Guay posits that despite the enormous role hockey plays in Canadian society, historians and sociologists have not (at least as of 1990) devoted a great deal of attention to it. I think this is largely a fair comment; there was certainly nothing like The Hockey Conference at the time this book was written. As such, Guay suggests that he will be examining a number of important questions about the history of hockey in Canada, and specifically addressing them from a French-Canadian sociocultural perspective. I won't be spending too much time commenting on the French-Canadian perspective, since I cannot claim to have much insight in that regard. I will, however, be commenting on the information and arguments in the book having to do with hockey history specifically.

Some of the questions Guay intends to ask (and hopefully answer) are:
  • When were the matches played in the sport of hockey?
  • Who organized these first matches?
  • How, when and by who were the first hockey clubs and leagues formed?
  • What part did French Canadians play in the development of hockey in Canada?
So we can see that Guy does not intend to focus solely on the French-Canadian perspective; he's asking some very basic questions about Canadian hockey history here, which should give us a lot to discuss. Chapter one focuses on the origins of hockey; chapter two discusses the evolution of various component parts of the game (such as the puck and stick); chapter three examines the organization of the sport at various levels; chapter four studies the growth in popularity of hockey; and chapter five discusses some of the problematic aspects of the game, such as violence. With that in mind, let's get started with chapter one.

Chapter One: Les origines du hockey ("the origins of hockey")

You may have noticed that in the first question above, I used the term "sport of hockey" when referring to the first hockey matches. This is not my distinction, but Guay's. The first part of chapter one is spent discussing the difference between «des jeux» ("games") and «le sport» ("sport".) Guay suggests that it is important to differentiate between a sport and other forms of physical activity, and to do so he suggests six observable criteria resulting from an «étude empirique» ("empirical study") of sport and games. I'm not entirely sure it's proper to use the term empirical here, as we'll see when we discuss the criteria below, some of which seem rather subjective to me.

Guay summarizes these six criteria into a definition of sport (as opposed to a game) as follows:

«Le sport est donc une activité physique compétitve et amusante pratiquée en vue d'un enjeu selon des règles écrites et un esprit particulier, l'esprit sportif.» (Guay p.19)

"Sport is therefore a competitive, but fun, physical activity played with something at stake, using written rules and according to a spirit of sportsmanship."

The last part of this definition strikes me as possibly circular; sport is something played according to a spirit of sportsmanship. Okay, what is a sporting spirit then? Guay expands on this here:

«L'esprit sportif, la mentalité sportive comprend des valeurs qui orientent, guident les attitudes et les conduites des sportives et des sportifs. C'est une éthique fondée sur l'équité, le désir de vaincre et la loyauté. L'esprit sportif, c'est cette volunté de vaincre, mais de vaincre loyalement sure un adversaire de calibre.» (Guay p.19)

"Sportsmanship, or the sporting mindset, is defined by the values that guide the attitudes and actions of sportswomen and sportsmen. It's an ethic based on fairness, the desire to win and honour. Sportsmanship is this will to win, but to win honourably against a quality opponent."

You will notice that this is arguably results in quite a narrow definition, and my fear when reading it is that it will be later used by the author to exclude professional hockey from the definition of sport, or indeed whatever version of the activity that he wishes to exclude. Guay seems to be using a more old-fashioned, olde-tyme elitist definition of sport and sportsman, from the days when such activities were undertaken solely by gentlemen and gentlewomen, without the sweaty lower classes being involved. The implication seems to be one of praise for the mythic virtues of amateur sport above all else.

The reference to fun is also a bit odd. One might think that fun or enjoyment is more characteristic of a game than a sport, as a sport can often be far more competitive that a casual game. But Guay suggests that while opponents on a sporting playing field may be the greatest of rivals, for his purposes something is not a sport unless the participants take pleasure in the playing, because «le sport n'est qu'un jeu.» ("sport is nothing but a game.") I trust I'm not the only one confused by this bit; most of the criteria seem to be showing how much a sport is the same as a game, rather than differentiating them.

One also worries that this definition is established in order to later enshrine Montreal as the birthplace of hockey. It's too early so say, but I'm seeing signs of it going in that direction.For example, it refers to written rules. But why must the rules be written in order for something to be a sport, or sporting rather? Are unwritten rules insufficient for sporting gentlemen to engage in sport?

With respect to the «enjeu» ("stake"), Guay does not in fact mean that there must be some tangible prize, or else much of amateur sporting would be excluded by this. By the stake, he suggests that sportsmen are seeking victory «qui confère satisfaction, honneurs, gloire, argent, etc.» ("which provides satisfaction, honour, glory, money, etc."). So the stake can be anything (tangible or otherwise) that the participant values. This is fine, but I can't see how it serves any purpose to differentiate a sport from a game. Does anyone play a game without getting anything out of it? If satisfaction from participating in the activity is sufficient, then that's broad enough to cover pretty much every game ever played by anyone, be it a physical activity or not.

Indeed, since Guay is attempting to differentiate between two types of physical activity, one which he calls a game and one which he calls a sport, I don't think his definition accomplishes this goal. A sport is a physical activity; but in this context so is a game, since Guay refers only to non-sport physical activities and does not mean board games or anything similar by the term. A sport is competitive; but games can clearly be competitive as well. Most games are, I would suggest. A sport is fun, but so is a game, I think you'd agree (otherwise, why play it?) A sport has something at stake, but Guay's definition of stake is so broad that it cannot exclude someone playing a game because he or she simply enjoys doing so. A sport has written rules, but many games do as well, so that draws no distinction. This leaves only the final criteria, sportsmanship, to tell the difference between sports and games.

This distinction may actually be clearer in English than in French. The English term sportsmanship is recognized as a positive thing, while the similar term gamesmanship has a negative connotation. The former suggests being straightforward and honest, playing a game honourably as Guay would suggest, while the latter suggests underhandedness, doing whatever it takes to win, exploiting loopholes in the rules, that sort of thing. But I question whether this is a valid distinction between sports and games, since it has to do only with the mindset of the participants rather than the activity itself. It's surely possible to play a game in a sportsmanlike manner, and to use gamesmanship in a sport (using more everyday meanings of sport and game). Moreover, this means that a specific instance of an activity can be considered both a sport and a game at the same time, depending on which player's perspective you are examining. One player could be in it for honourable victory, while another may be thinking he would kill someone's grandmother just to score an extra point. Since Guay purports to be looking at the origins of hockey as a sport in Canada, the first time the sport of hockey was played in Canada, I suggest that he cannot rely on the mindset of individual participants to make such a determination. How could he know, for example, that of the 18 men who played in the March 3, 1875 hockey match in Montreal (which we will discuss), they all had honourable victory as their goal? No, it would be far better for the criteria to be solely about the nature of the activity itself, not dependant on what the participants may or may not have been thinking.

But even if Guay is drawing a valid distinction with the criteria of sportsmanship, I daresay this does not line up with what most people understand as the difference between sport and game. For example, compare modern shinny and hockey. The former can be called a game, and the latter a sport. Shinny is much more informal than hockey, often played on a pick-up basis with minimal rules, no referee, that sort of thing. Meanwhile hockey typically implies a scheduled match between organized teams. I suggest the modern understanding of games versus sports has much more to do with the level of organization in the activity, while Guay is putting forward something of an archaic distinction, based on ideals that (in my opinion) never really existed. Even at the time when amateur sports were placed on a pedestal above professional sports, these ideals were mythical. Amateur hockey, for example, had lots of gamesmanship and shenanigans, betraying the fact that the participants were often more interested in victory than making sure the victory was honourable.

As such, I find Guay's definition of sport to be unconvincing, incomplete, and ultimately unnecessary. Why do we even need to distinguish between a game and a sport? Why are the origins of the game of hockey not interesting, but the origins of the sport of hockey are? At any rate, let's move on. We'll keep this attempted distinction in mind if it becomes relevant later.

Actually, it becomes relevant almost immediately - this is what you get when I write a review as I read the book. Guay proceeds to discuss the idea that hockey had its origins in ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks or Persians. He's obviously now referring to hockey in the general sense of hitting a thing with a stick, rather than a specific form of such activity such as ice hockey. It's notable at this point that while Guay has tried to define what a sport is, he has made no attempt to define what hockey is. This is an unfortunate tendency in hockey historical writing, to jump around between meanings of hockey without noting that you are discussing different things.

Indeed, Guay criticizes others for seemingly attempting to push the history of hockey as far back as possible. He apparently fails to recognize the distinction between the modern meaning of hockey and the older, more general meaning. Of course, this may not be entirely his fault, since the authors he refers to may not have explicitly made that distinction themselves; as I said, that's a common problem. Guay states (p.23) that while these games «...aient une certaine ressemblance avec le hockey comtemporain, on ne peut affirmer que ce soit du hockey...» ("...have a certain resemblance to modern hockey, we cannot confirm that they are hockey...) I'm seeing more worrying signs here. This sounds like Guay is going to argue that while earlier, pre-Canadian versions of the game are not really hockey because they do not sufficiently resemble what we now call hockey. Of course, the first hockey matches played in Montreal in the 1870s also suffer from this issue, in that they were very different from the modern version of the game, but that is often glossed over by proponents of the Montreal birthplace idea. It's too early to judge, but I've seen this before so we'll keep out eyes open for it. It would help, of course, if Guay would define what he means by hockey, but unfortunately he does not.

Guay takes a different tack, referring to these ancient activities as games, not sports, thus illustrating why he built up a distinction in the first place. He says that since we cannot directly connect these "games" with the "sport" of hockey played in Canada since the late 19th century, they cannot be called hockey. Moreover, since as discussed above the distinction between game and sport that Guay makes seems predicated solely on "sportsmanship", he seems to be saying that sportsmanship is a recent invention, that ancient peoples could not have possessed it. A cynic might be inclined to say that the definition of sport is therefore written to exclude all forms of games from before the last couple of hundred years from the discussion. We'll see how it goes.

Next time, we'll look at Guay's discussion of a few "birthplace" claims for ice hockey, and his own statements about the birth of that sport.


  1. When he writes that "sport is nothing but a game", Guay refers specifically to the "sporting mindset" part of his definition. What he means by that (which you can get in more detail from another of his books, "La culture sportive" from 1993), is that to be a sport, an activity must not be "for real". The best example is in boxing: the boxers don't actually hate each other, and stop as soon as the referee tells them to. I can live with that part of the definition, though honestly, I don't think it is terribly relevant in most sports, except those involving fighting, running and perhaps swimming.

    Other than that, I would say that the "something at stake" element is the most important aspect of his definition of sport, not the sportsmanship one. For example, if you play a game of soccer with your children, you don't care who wins, in fact there's a good chance you'll let them win. If you play ball hockey to raise funds to fight cancer, sure you'll try to win, but once the game is over, most players won't even remember who won, or at least what the score was. And if a player on the other team seems particularly weak, you may go out of your way to not make him/her look bad.

    I agree with you that rules should not need to be written, if they are clear to the participants. Especially since some sports are so simple (running, long jump, shot put, swimming, etc.).

    You write: "A cynic might be inclined to say that the definition of sport is therefore written to exclude all forms of games from before the last couple of hundred years from the discussion."

    Absolutely. That's the whole point of the other book (La culture sportive) I mentioned earlier. For him, sport (in the sense he gives it) is an invention of the English aristocracy. He claims, in particular, that the ancient Olympic Games did not feature sports but were rather religious events. A decade ago, I was convinced that this particular argument had little value, as ancient athletes had pretty much the same motivations as the current ones to win at their sport. So, like you, I'm not buying that part of his argument.

    1. For the "something at stake", it seems to me that public recognition may be an important part of it. Per Guay's definition, something as simply as bragging rights can be an adequate stake for something to be a sport, but you can get bragging rights for winning a game as well. So it may be the public recognition of those bragging rights that are important for the sporting definition.


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