Growing up in Montreal, hockey was very much a part of my cultural landscape. I’m not really even sure that I ever made a conscious decision to be a Habs fan – it just came with the territory! The names of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, Saku Koivu, and Patrick Roy were as familiar to me as the names of Sesame Street characters. I vividly remember the elation of the Habs winning the Stanley Cup in the 1992-1993 season, the sense of betrayal when Patrick Roy left the Habs for the Avalanche, and being annoyed when the team moved from the Forum to the Molson Centre (now the Bell Centre). I even own my very own copy of The Hockey Sweater, in both book and video formats.
So, several weeks ago, when I was offered the chance to sit down and speak with Dr. Jenny Ellison about the new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History, “Hockey,” I of course jumped at the opportunity! The blog post that follows is the result of that conversation, a behind-the-scenes look at the new exhibition and about Ellison’s work on the project.
*Please note that all images, with the exception of Jim Logan’s “National Pastimes,” are courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History, and used with permission. The images of Jim Logan’s “National Pastimes” have been made available by the Canadian Museum of History, and are used with permission from Jim Logan. Please do not reproduce.
Jenny Ellison joined the Museum’s staff in 2015. Her research examines the representation and experience of sport, leisure, physical fitness and health. In keeping with the priorities identified in the Museum’s Research Strategy, Dr. Ellison will be looking at how sports and leisure shape Canadian experiences and help us understand the past. In terms of collections development, this includes research on sports and health activism, adaptive sports, representations of the body, games and government-supported physical fitness programs.
Dr. Ellison has published articles in the Journal of Canadian Studies, the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, the Journal of the Canadian Historical Association and the award-winning Fat Studies Reader. She is also the co-editor of Obesity in Canada: Critical Perspectives.
Dr. Ellison holds an Honours BA in History from the University of Toronto, an MA in Canadian Studies from Carleton University and a PhD in History from York University. She completed her postdoctoral training at Mount Allison University’s Centre for Canadian Studies, and has worked as an assistant professor of Canadian Studies at Trent University and as a researcher at the Australian Museum.
“Hockey” is a special exhibition currently on display at the Canadian Museum of History, co-curated by Jenny Ellison and her colleague, Jennifer Anderson. It runs from March 10th to October 9th, 2017.*
In essence, the exhibit explores the meaning of the phrase, “hockey is Canada’s game.” Created in collaboration with Canada’s Sports Hall of Frame, Library and Archives Canada, private collector Mike Wilson, and more than 45 other lenders, the exhibit features roughly 280 artefacts arranged around eight different themes. These include:
- From Pond to Arena: focuses on the historical development of hockey as a game and a sport in Canada.
- Game On: examines the role that hockey equipment has played in the development of hockey as a competitive sport.
- The Team Behind the Team: considers the massive engine that keeps professional hockey in motion, from coaches, to officials, to merchandizers, to junior hockey players.
- For the Love of the Game: is all about the fans.
- Those Unforgettable Moments: showcases some of the most significant moments in the history of hockey in Canada
- Hockey Inc: looks at the business of professional hockey and the management of franchises, teams, and players.
- Hockey Makes Headlines: serves as a “press gallery,” and explains how print and news media have brought hockey into our homes.
- Passion for the Game: uses hockey as a lens in which to consider more wider social and cultural issues in Canada.
The exhibit has been timed to coincide with several anniversaries, from Canada 150, to the 125th anniversary of the Stanley Cup, to the 100th anniversary of the NHL (and the Habs fan in me would add the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal). However, these anniversaries serve more as entry points into the exhibit rather than as the central focus.
*Although I am happy to report that there is a traveling version of the exhibit, it only contains around 40 photographs or photographs of artefacts. The exhibit is currently in North Bay, and will be in Montreal in November.
“If you walked through the space, and didn’t read a single label, what would you learn?”
One of the main questions that I had for Ellison was: What is the difference between teaching history in a classroom and teaching history in a museum? For Ellison, it all comes down to storytelling. In a classroom, professors have a captive audience and the luxury of spending an hour or more on a single topic. But in a museum, curators have to communicate a story in a much more creative fashion. While there are the dedicated museum-goers who read everything, most visitors tend to browse, and may spend as little as thirty seconds (or even less) with each item. Therefore, museum curators need to convey a story through the selection of specific artefacts, their arrangement in different collections, and the juxtaposition of certain items.
For example, in the final section of the exhibition, “Passion for the Game,” you can find this amazing Shania Twain hockey jersey, donated by the singer herself, sitting next to a display about Herb Carnegie, a minor league hockey player who founded Future Aces, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching children team work, self-esteem, and ethics through hockey. On the other side of the Twain jersey sits a painting by Cree Sioux Métis artist, Jim Logan, called “National Pastimes,” which both celebrates hockey in Indigenous communities and reflects upon the impact of residential schools and the economic challenges that many Indigenous communities face. This grouping illustrates the extent to which hockey is integrated into all aspects of Canadian culture, used as a symbol, a metaphor, and a commodity. In essence, hockey serves as a blank slate upon which Canadians project meaning, creates a sense of belonging, and helps us to frame our pasts.
In other instances, Ellison, Anderson, and their team tell their story through interactive displays that appeal to a wide range of people. For example, the exhibit includes a searchable database of newspaper headlines on the subject of hockey, which can be accessed through a digital touch screen. In other sections of the exhibit, you can listen to play-by-plays of famous hockey games both in English and French, recreate those plays at the exhibit’s Centre Ice, or play table hockey. The display that most captured my imagination is the one where museum guests can actually physically touch historical hockey gear. The museum purchased non-museum quality hockey gear from the last 100 years that people are welcome to touch and feel. This allows visitors to learn about the different kinds of materials that were used over time, the changes in shape and weight, and what it was like to actually use the hockey gear.
Just as much thought and preparation goes into the creation of the artefact labels. For an exhibit like “Hockey,” the labels are usually between thirty and sixty words. The challenge then becomes how you communicate complex messages in compelling ways and in as few words as possible – think elevator pitches, but in a museum. Ellison described this as a humbling experience, but also a useful exercise. These constraints force you to think carefully about the message you want to communicate, how to tell a story in a short format, and how to use particular words to their best effect. After all, the goal is to elicit excitement and interest, not to lecture. This is a skill that many historians would benefit from learning, since many of us, myself included, struggle to effectively communicate to the public the purpose of our work.
“Public review rather than peer review.”
In fact, it was this kind of challenge that drew Ellison into public history in the first place. She found herself drawn to a different kind of storytelling. But this is not to suggest that Ellison’s training as an academic historian plays no role here – rather, the opposite is true. Behind each label and each artefact selection is the same critical literature review that anyone would do when preparing for a research project. Ellison has also found that her training as a social historian has actually been particularly relevant, since she approaches the history of hockey quite differently than someone with a political background would. For instance, as a social historian, Ellison is interested in highlighting the experiences of diverse groups of people and of understanding different experiences of the past. It is easy to see this influence in “Hockey,” since, for example, there is no dominant narrative of professional hockey, for example, with various side stories tacked on. Rather, by integrating different forms and experiences of hockey, Ellison is able to make the point that all types of hockey are equally important and valuable.
Similarly, as a social historian, Ellison is not interested in engaging in a debate about the origins of hockey, since, as she noted, “famous firsts tend to obscure the bigger story.” So rather than telling a “grand narrative of the birth of hockey,” Ellison began the exhibit with the oldest known hockey stick of a Mi’kmaq style, which was owned by a settler boy. This simple hockey stick therefore tells the story of the Indigenous contribution to the development of hockey and how it has been largely obscured from hockey’s history. The types of sticks that Europeans would have used at the time more closely resemble today’s field hockey sticks, but our modern sticks are very much in keeping with the older Indigenous design, specifically with respect to the hook. Yet few Canadians or hockey players are necessarily even aware of this. Further, the fact that this stick is an example of an Indigenous object being used by a white individual speaks to a relationship between the two communities and hockey as a space of interaction and exchange, even though it isn’t totally clear what this precisely involved.
“You don’t always get your way.”/ “En Forme avec Gilles Delorme.”
The creation of a museum exhibit like “Hockey” is a collaborative and interactive process, more akin to a conversation than anything else. Ellison and her co-curator, Jennifer Anderson, worked alongside a main project team, which included a creative developer, a project manager, and a learning specialist. All of these people worked together to translate academic analysis for public consumption, to create specific scenes and displays, and to make installations that are fun for people to interact with. While Ellison and her co-curator were responsible for identifying potential artefacts, they were constantly challenged by the team to explain why certain artefacts were selected.
And, of course, sometimes compromises had to be made. For instance, Ellison had been hoping to have a section on the subject of the changing shape and size of hockey players. For instance, as late as the 1960s, hockey players worked hard, and partied harder. They were known for having extravagant lifestyles, including lots of alcohol and fried food. But in the last forty years, especially with the growth of the NHL, the professionalization of hockey, and changing expectations in terms of training, contemporary players have much more regimented nutrition and fitness plans. In 1987, there was even an exercise tape released by Gilles Delorme called “En Forme avec Gilles Delorme.” (And for your watching enjoyment, I have included the promo video above. You’re welcome.) But there just weren’t enough artefacts available to tell the story. Consequently, this section evolved into a discussion of the commercialization of hockey, with advice from hockey players.
Unfortunately, this proved to be a problem in other areas as well. As Ellison explained, it was very difficult to find artefacts to represent on early non-white teams from the Coloured League of the Maritimes, an all-Black hockey league that was established in Nova Scotia in 1895 and was in operation until 1930, or clubs like the Vancouver Asahi, a Japanese-Canadian hockey team that was disbanded in 1942 because of the interment of individuals of Japanese descent. However, I would argue that the lack of artefacts tells a story in and of itself, about racism and the racialized construction of hockey players. It’s trite but true: silence speaks loudly.
“Who are we protecting if we don’t tell those stories?”
As a social historian, it was also important to Ellison that she discuss some of the more difficult parts of hockey history. Ellison and her team had to balance the desire to tell a story that adult visitors would understand, and younger visitors might reflect on, but which would also be appropriate for young children. One solution was to use Logan’s piece, “National Pastimes.” The piece is actually a collection of seven paintings, one larger overall image, and six smaller images that show specific scenes.
Painting in a style that is very reminiscent of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, “National Pastimes” uses bright colours and beautiful illustrations to talk about the central role that hockey plays in many communities. But unlike The Hockey Sweater, which is often seen as more celebratory, “National Pastimes” is a raw and honest look at how hockey can be a source of immense joy and immense pain. One of the images, which is included in the photograph above, is of a stern-faced priest, with his hands on the shoulders of three boys who are visibly frightened. This is a menacing image, evoking the horrors and abuses of residential schools and the way in which hockey could be both a source of pride as well as an instrument of genocide. In contrast, there is the fourth image immediately above, where two boys are shown wearing hockey jerseys, one labelled “Riel” and the other “Dumont.” In many cases, children wear jerseys with the names of their sporting heroes, champions whom they wish to emulate, as is the case in The Hockey Sweater and Maurice Richard. This painting spins this on its head, showing the hero-worship and idolization of important historical Métis who fought against colonialism and the federal government.
However, as Ellison noted, this exhibit’s narrative was framed around the question: Why does hockey matter to Canadians? Ellison, Anderson, and their team made specific choices about what to include and what to exclude, based on the story that they wished to tell at this specific moment in time. Other people might choose very differently. For instance, as I was reflecting upon my conversation with Ellison and preparing to write this blog post, I wondered about what got left out. While I have not personally seen the exhibition, and I am more than happy to be corrected, I wonder how the narrative might have changed with the inclusion of information about the culture of violence, abuse, and bullying; the devastating toll that chronic traumatic encephalopathy has taken on many players [TRIGGER WARNING for suicide, domestic violence, graphic images] and their families; the rising cost of hockey equipment, which is making the sport increasingly inaccessible to lower-income families; the overriding heteronormative culture of hockey; the increasing popularity of Punjabi Hockey Night in Canada * and the experiences of the partners and children of hockey players. But I also recognize that, in many respects, this exhibit is a snapshot of a particular moment in time, of a history that is still unfolding.
*Although I have since discovered that I was wrong, and Ellison definitely included PHHC! Which is awesome.
Of course, I couldn’t let Ellison leave without telling me about her favourite piece in the exhibit. It turned out to be the famous “pretzel mask.” Legend says that Jacques Plante developed the goalie mask, and that he refused to go out on the ice unless he could wear a mask. But in reality, he and other goalies had been wearing and developing masks for some time, usually during practice. Many of these men had been pressured into doing so by their spouses, who urged their husbands to take steps to prevent serious injuries. But the culture of hockey at the time said wearing masks was cowardly, because it suggesting that the players weren’t “manly enough” to handle the roughness of the game. So this one artefact speaks to a multiplicity of stories, of player innovation and ingenuity, the social construction of idealized hockey players, performances of masculinity, and even the relationship between husbands and wives.
And I think that’s a great way to end this particular story.
I would like to extend a special thanks to Jenny Ellison for taking the time to speak with me, Éliane Laberge for helping to arrange the interview, and Jim Logan for permission to show his stunning artwork.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I know I certainly enjoyed speaking with Ellison about this exhibition. Her joy and enthusiasm for history is infectious! For those of you lucky enough to live in driving distance of Ottawa, “Hockey” is open until October 9th, 2017. Meanwhile, I’ll just be here, in BC. 🙁 If you did enjoy this blog post, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Friday for our regular monthly series, Upcoming Publications series. I’ll see you then!