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Hammer, Sickle, Puck, and Stick

I have long had a fascination with the Soviet Union and, in particular, Soviet sport.  As a child of the late Cold War period, I was certainly aware of the dominance of many Soviet teams and athletes.  They appeared disciplined, focused, and absolutely invincible.  As a Canadian and a dedicated hockey fan, I was made very aware – and, I believe, at a very young age – about the glorious Canadian victory over the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. My knowledge of the Miracle on Ice came later, but by that time I knew that a victory over the Soviets was both very difficult and exceedingly rare. While the political and ideological aspects of Soviet versus US/Canada rivalries escaped me until much later, there was always something different about matches against the Soviet Union.  There have been few times I have been as nervous watching a sporting event as I did in 1987, as the NHL All Stars narrowly defeated the Soviets in a three game series, and any competition against the Soviets was something “special” – and, not always in the most pleasant of ways.

Still, there was always a deep respect for the Soviet teams and players that accompanied the fear of them. Many friends and family would tell me about the skill and abilities of Soviet players, even as they passionately rooted against them. As a goalie, I knew about Vladislav Tretiak even though, by the time he retired in 1984, I had only seen him play on a handful of occasions.  When I was a teenager, in fact, I got to attend a goaltending camp in Edmonton with Tretiak and, later as an undergraduate exchange student in Moscow in 1997, I got to meet with him for nearly two hours – which, to this day, is one of my most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life.

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However, as much as there was an admiration of Soviet teams and players, they always seemed to be dismissed when it came to recognizing their impact, accomplishments, and legacy.  Only a handful of Soviet players and coaches are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, for example, with some commentators – particularly in the Canadian sports media – dismissing the accomplishments of Soviet teams.  However, it appears that Soviet hockey is being looked at again, in large part because of two recent documentaries.

Both Red Army and Of Miracles and Men re-examine the development of Soviet hockey, looking at the players and people who made the Soviet team nearly invincible (For the record, I have not seen Red Army. Hopefully, it will be available here in South Carolina sometime later this year).  Of Miracles and Men, one of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, does a magnificent job of humanizing Soviet players and understanding the major challenges they faced as individuals and as a team.  Perhaps more than that, it makes the viewer realize both how remarkable those Soviet teams were, but just how awful it was at times playing in the environment that many of them did – with unrelenting coaches, administrators, and political pressure.  From my vantage point, it is one of the best of the 30 for 30 series – and, it appears that it is available to watch on line for free for a limited time (seriously, it is fantastic!).

Perhaps one of the questions to ask, particularly from a heritage perspective, is why there is a renewed interest in Soviet hockey at this time?  Some of it may simply be that the passage of time has made revisiting this past contextually interesting, and that the archival material – not to mention the players – are more available than they were in the past.  We are nearly a quarter century since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (has it really been that long?), and there may also be a sense of nostalgia for the team and the rivalries – and, perhaps even for the geopolitical certainty of a defined “enemy.” Perhaps some of it may be tied to material culture – seems that Soviet kitsch never goes out of style.  Maybe globalization plays a role, in that places like the Hockey Hall of Fame are welcoming more and more international visitors who wish to see their heritage represented. However, I think more than anything, there is a realization that hockey’s heritage narrative was simply incomplete; that, perhaps like talking about baseball’s history without mentioning the Negro Leagues, the Cold War era narrative in hockey was, at best, reductionist and, at worst, reviled.  We are a little more attuned (I hope) to jingoistic nationalism (certainly re-watching the 1972 Summit Series, I realized just what jackasses many of the Canadian player were) and that understanding the “enemy,” not as a faceless robot, but as a human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations might be a mark of our maturity.  In any event, it is wonderful to see that the Soviet hockey story is starting to be revealed, as the recognition of it is long overdue.

Me, Lee, and Stories as Sport Heritage

Sport heritage, like most any form of heritage, has many ingredients.  One of the more important aspects are personal memories, where we contextualize our own recollections in terms of broader contexts.  Sometimes this takes the role of a “where were you?” during an important event or moment, but often it is on a much smaller scale, where the heritage is much more at the family or community level.

In any event, a few months back the folks at the Edmonton City as Museum Project (ECAMP) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada asked me to contribute a submission to their website. ECAMP’s role, at present, is to act as a repository for the city’s intangible heritage – the histories, stories, memories, and lore that tell the city’s story – from the infamous to the intimate. I was born and raised in Edmonton and, as such, they felt I might be able to add something sport-based to their collection, particularly as I have been away from the city for a number of years.  Edmonton’s sporting heritage is vast, covering many different sports, athletes, and events throughout its history.  Some of this history, particularly those from the late 1970s through early 2000s are a part of my own story and heritage as well.  And, though I thought about doing a “where were you?” piece – or even a more objective heritage “moment” (such as recapping and recalling particularly famous sporting moments or events), I elected to go with the more community level heritage, and perhaps capture a time when the gulf between professional athletes and working class families wasn’t great at all.

My story, called Me and Lee, is unabashedly sentimental and, as a few former classmates have reminded me, may have happened differently or perhaps not even at all.  I have a strong memory of this particular piece of community lore and my reaction to it and, as a good friend reminded me, memory isn’t subject to facts (nor, often, is heritage).

If you would like to have a read (ECAMP’s website is open access and does not require subscription), please click the link here.

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New Research – “Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event”

I am pleased to announce the publication of a research note in the journal Events Management titled “Too Much Nostalgia? A Decennial Reflection on the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event.”

From the abstract:

This research note explores the legacy of the Heritage Classic, an outdoor ice hockey event held in Edmonton, Canada in November 2003. The event explicitly and successfully evoked nostalgia for former players, past teams, rural environments, and the egalitarian nature of childhood games, becoming a major international media and tourism event as well as the template for numerous outdoor ice hockey events held around the world. It also provided the Edmonton Oilers hockey club and the event’s organizers with both emotional and economic capital at a time when the franchise required support. However, the success of the Heritage Classic meant that the National Hockey League (NHL) and other hockey leagues would organize subsequent outdoor hockey events, thereby minimizing the ability for individual franchises to benefit from their heritage as the Oilers did. Furthermore, little was done locally to build on the success of the Heritage Classic, while the proliferation of similar events globally may have minimized both the media and tourism impacts of subsequent outdoor hockey games.

This research note is a follow-up to my 2006 article “Place Identity and Sport Tourism: The Case of the Heritage Classic Ice Hockey Event” (co-authored with Dr. Tom Hinch of the University of Alberta) published in Current Issues in Tourism.  Given the proliferation of outdoor ice hockey events, both in North America and Europe, it seemed time to reflect on the legacy of the event that started it all.

Should you not have access to Event Management through an institutional subscription, please drop me a line and I would be happy to share a copy of this research note with you.  Feel free to contact me by email, on Twitter, or by direct message on Facebook.

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Philadelphia

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time.  The reason for my visit was a brief get-together with my older brother, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  We don’t get a chance to see each other very often these days, and Philadelphia was a short, non-stop flight for both of us to meet up, have a couple of beers, and watch a sporting event or two.

Before I get to the sport heritage part of the trip, I have to say that Philadelphia is a great city!  I was only there for a few days, mind you, and I was staying at a VRBO in the “old city” about three blocks from the Independence Hall World Heritage Site.  That said, I found it a very walkable city with some some really neat neighbourhoods, great museums (I wish I could have visited more of them), and good food and drink.  The people we met there were “authentic” – as convoluted as that word is.  They didn’t put on airs, I guess, and I imagine had we pissed them off, they’d tell us so.  In general, when we told people we were from out of town, they were glad we visited, gave us a bit of friendly advice (like – if you’re going to an Eagles game, cheer for the Eagles…even if you like the other team), and generally let us be.  Was rather refreshing, actually.

However, one cannot partake in a sports trip to Philadelphia without noticing that city’s sport heritage is very prominent.  Even in the city centre, steps away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was an advertisement for a recent baseball exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History:

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Of course, I wrote recently about the tension that (appears) to exist between the city’s “real” sport heritage and its fictionalized portrayals.  However, one cannot escape that the sporting past plays a huge role in the city’s current identity.

The city has a quasi-“arena district” just outside of the city centre that houses the baseball stadium, football stadium, and hockey/basketball arena, with a kind-of bar/entertainment facility called Xfinity Live.  Now, the arena district is, basically, the three venues, the bar facility, and parking lots.  However, it is the city’s sport heritage that gives the district a sense of place.  Xfinity Live, for example, is on the one-time site of the Spectrum, long-time home of the NHL Flyers and NBA 76ers. Inside the venue, the Spectrum is remembered…in bar form:

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The heyday of the Philadelphia Flyers are also recalled at Xfinity Live (and, also in bar form).  The Flyers were known as the “Broad Street Bullies” during the 1970s, as the team was known for their aggressive style of play, and so fans can now soak-in the nostalgia at a Flyers-themed pub:

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Around Xfinity Live are statues of ex-players, such as 76ers player “Dr. J” – Julius Erving.  Perhaps most interesting was the statue of long-time anthem singer at the Spectrum, Kate Smith:

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Smith’s rendition of God Bless America was a bit of a talisman for Philadelphia teams, particularly the Flyers.  Whenever she sang, the Flyers almost always won.  After she passed away, the Flyers used to show a video of her singing, particularly if they really needed a victory:

We managed to go to a Flyers game and Eagles game during our stay.  The Flyers arena, the Wells Fargo Center, is about 20 years old, so it doesn’t have a lengthy history.  That said, there were a few reminders of the Flyers glorious past, as well as some displays honouring past players – including the late, great Pelle Lindbergh, who was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in the mid 1980s until he died in a car crash at age 26:

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The Flyers game itself was fantastic, with the home team holding on for a 4-3 victory versus the Colorado Avalanche:

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The Eagles game was played on the day before Veterans Day, so the patriotism was particularly prominent before game time:

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The game itself was a bit of a laugher, as the Eagles beat the visiting Carolina Panthers 45-21.  While I’m a Panthers fan, I did root for the Eagles – I think I may have only spotted one other Panthers fan, and I imagine he might have received his fair share of abuse during the game.  Eagles fans REALLY love the Eagles:20141110_205158

Great trip, all in all, but it did also got me thinking about a couple of heritage/sport heritage items and issues:

  • Legitimacy and commodification: The city has a remarkable sport heritage – in part, perhaps, because they have a notable and lengthy sport history.  The breadth and depth of the city’s sporting past gave the heritage markers legitimacy and, I suppose, made them more more apt to be commodified (in bar form and otherwise).  In other words, the city’s sport history made its sport heritage more recognizable, gave it greater resonance, and made it easier to sell to a broad-base of fans.
  • Different sports generating more/fewer sport heritage markers: It seemed that, at least to my eye, that the Flyers seem to have cornered the market on sport heritage markers in Philadelphia – or, at least in the arena district.  Despite the presence of the Phillies and Eagles stadiums – and the likelihood that both the baseball and football teams have more support than the hockey team – most of the heritage, from the bars to the displays to the statues, were hockey-based.  Not sure if it is down to ownership of places like Xfinity Live, or if the Flyers have just done a better job of using heritage in marketing, or if fans are just more nostalgic about the Flyers than the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers.
  • Heritage retail: As far as I know, there hasn’t been much done on heritage retail.  That is to say, either retail stores that sell heritage products (in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin is a commodity), or shopping districts, stores, or eateries that are meant to look “olde timey.”  Philadelphia has heritage retail in spades, and I wonder whether it might be a good case study.
  • Public/private heritage spaces: Not sport heritage, but the Independence Mall area of Philadelphia has a curious blend of public and private run heritage attractions/retail, etc.  That is to say, it is somewhat unclear at times whether a space is public (that is to say, publicly operated through the National Parks Service) or Private (either as a CVB, museum, gift shop, or other heritage attraction).  At times, the aesthetic of the attractions and employees are so similar (and, at times, the spaces are so intermingled) that it is not always clear who runs what, and to what end.

Mementos in the the Digital Age

I love ticket stubs.

I love ticket stubs so much that I have a collage of them in my office.

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(Not sure how many ticket stubs are on the Stub Wall, but I seem to add to a new addition every month or two. It is also, admittedly, a childish collection…but I don’t care.)

As a kid, I would collect them – not just my tickets from, say, a hockey or football game, but ticket stubs discarded by others at those games as well (I’m sure my parents were thrilled that their son brought home dozens…literally dozens…of ketchup-stained football tickets). Seems old habits die hard, as I have ticket stubs on my wall, in various scrap books, etc, while also finding that they make wonderful bookmarks (and make for a bit of a wonderful discovery when finding them between the pages again years later). Ticket stubs were, and still are, a physical, tangible reminder of an event – whether it was the result that was memorable (I had ticket stubs from the two times I saw the Stanley Cup presented in Edmonton…now, sadly, lost or at the bottom of a forgotten box in some storage unit somewhere), or that the game was part of a vacation or while living abroad, or wanting to remember who I went to the game with, or if the ticket was particularly aesthetically pleasing (cricket tickets, in particular, are lovely). Some bring back great memories, while others (such as a ticket from the last Atlanta Thrashers hockey game) are bittersweet. Nowadays, I don’t save every ticket from every event I attend, but it is more about having a representative sample of different events for my Stub Wall. Perhaps the only exception are tickets from games when I have taken my son. I have a separate book for those tickets, though I have put a few memorable ticket stubs from father-son games on the Stub Wall:

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(Note the ticket at the top, Greenville Road Warriors v. Gwinett Gladiators. Not a particularly memorable ECHL minor league hockey game, mind you, but my son chewed on the upper left corner of the ticket throughout the first period. As a parent, you get sentimental about the silliest things.)

In any event, there has been some discussion – such as this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past summer – that the paper ticket, and the instant souvenir that comes with it, is rapidly on its way out in sport. The vast majority of tickets sold now are digital, and it makes sense. Digital tickets are more convenient, they can be sold or transferred easily, they are somewhat more secure, and they have all-but-eliminated tickets being lost or misplaced. The question is whether there is still a place for the physical ticket in the digital age. From the Post-Gazette article:

The ticket stubs are physical representations of memories, of games won and lost, of records set and time spent with friends and family, and like many other objects — photographs, books, compact discs and, yes, even newspapers — they are starting to disappear in the digital age.

Sports franchises are rapidly moving to digital ticketing as a means of gathering data about customers and generating revenue by collecting fees every time a digital ticket is resold, something not possible with hard-copy tickets, but the movement has the unintended consequence of eliminating a cheap memento for fans and a collector’s item for others.

The article goes on to argue that ticket stubs also become mementos when the unexpected occurs, such as a no-hitter in baseball, and that teams have responded by issuing physical tickets retroactively. However, this suggests that value of a ticket stub is only related to the events on the field. Of the tickets on the Stub Wall, only a handful of them are there because of a particularly important moment that happened on the pitch/field/ice. Most are triggers for other memories, and that the outcome of the events are in the background. For example, I have a ticket from the Fourth Day of an England v. New Zealand test match at Lord’s in 2013. Yes, I remember that 14 wickets fell that day with England winning the test, but it was more about taking my son to the game and having him charm the people around us, or talking cricket with my mother and father who attended with my wife, son, and I, or the fact that I was watching a test match at Lord’s! Point is, there is value in these object that go beyond either the result itself or the utilitarian value of allowing one passage through a stadium gate.

As such, I wonder if there might be a market for fans like me who want the physical ticket because of a kind-of anticipatory nostalgia. I would be willing to pay for, say, a physical ticket for my son’s first sporting event, or a game attended spent on a special occasion with family or friends, or just because I want to add to my collection. Of course, the question is whether it is worth it for teams to go to such lengths for an seemingly shrinking market, and whether they would be enough of a trade-off from the digital benefits (such as transfer revenue or the customer data) for a memento. That said, there is something to having a beautiful, perhaps fading ticket stub, and being able to say “I was there.” The hope is, particularly for collectors/sentimentalists like me, whether this will be possible to do in years to come.

Sports Beach Books

I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature.  Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise.  Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book.  Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class.  Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list.  You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.”  Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective.  Some are very well known, others are a little obscure.  In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.

The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often.  I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book.  Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.

Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue.  Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon.  While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results.  And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.

Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read.  It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.

Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later.  This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom.  And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)

Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.

Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read.  There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.

Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe.  As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.

The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.

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Birthplaces of Sport

A report was released this week that suggested, much to many Canadians’ chagrin, hockey was not invented in Canada. While I have not yet read the full arguments of the authors, it would seem that some in England may have played a version of the sport in England in the late eighteenth century.  What perhaps seems to set this evidence apart from the many versions and multiple claimants of hockey’s birthplace is that these games in England seem to have some kind of codification, in that there were teams and some set of rules to determine winners and losers.  I tend to be a subscriber to the idea that codification, and transferability, of a sport is the most important aspect in determining origins, so there may be enough evidence to place the ancestor of the current sport to the winter ponds of England rather than the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal in 1875 (though the genes of modern hockey seem to be more tied to the Montreal game than those in England). In any event, it is an interesting bit of evidence that – at least in what I have read in the popular press – perhaps provides us some insight into the origins and transferability of leisure and recreation practices in the nineteenth century.

However, and perhaps from a more heritage perspective, this evidence also highlights the importance we put in such birthplace claims – ones tied to our sense of national identity, as well as the cultural and economic well-being of certain communities.  I have written about the idea of home in sport before, though looking at a different sport and a different set of claimants, and the idea of the birthplace of a sport – and for what reason the claim is made – is normally more about the present than the past. Furthermore, the idea of the “home of the sport” is also a source of struggle, and the “birthplace as home” is but one way of understanding how the “home” label is played out in sport. In the case of hockey, there are different communities and people who claim the origins of the sport for different reasons.  I’m sure all believe that they have a legitimate historical claim to hockey’s origins, though the dissemination of their claims are often tied to tourism, pride, and community promotion.  One need only look at Windsor, Nova Scotia‘s claim to hockey’s origins to see how an interpretation of historical data becomes a source of both community identity and marketing. Point being, whether this latest piece of historical data is accurate is interesting, though how it is played out in the present – by those who feel a claim to the sport’s origin myth – will be interesting to see.

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