Be Hockey!

Florian Cazzola translated by Carla Ortuño Guendell
16 Juin 2013

Canadians only live for that! Having the privilege to encourage their team during the eliminatory round of the Stanley Cup. A religion that Europeans are trying to get hold of by holding their Hockey World Championship for the 75th time (out of 77). In between supremacy and cultural clash, ice hockey tries to make its way towards the old continent after having conquered North America.

Montreal Canadiens at Bell Center (Credits: Martin Duranleau)
Montreal Canadiens at Bell Center (Credits: Martin Duranleau)
It is a particular season that has just finished for the National Hockey League (NHL). The championship was considerably shortened due to a lockout that opposed the league and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). Each franchise only played 48 matches instead of the usual 82.
A dispute that was put aside today during the first round of the eliminatory rounds of the Stanley Cup. Encouraged by millions of North American partisans, the 8 best franchises of each conference (East and West) will confront each other in direct-elimination format games. Indeed, hockey is, on the other side of the Atlantic, the top sport. It is irreplaceable in the American and Canadian culture. In order to get a better picture of this, one must simply get to know some determining historical details. 


While there is no skepticism about the supremacy of Canadian hockey, the sport’s origins are on the other hand much more ill defined. Although it was officially born on the well-known morning of the 3rd of March 1875 on the Victoria de Montréal ice rink, many illustrations depict how the stick was handled long before. Petr Bruegel’s painting, Hunters in the Snow (1565), is the most-known-about evidence. Irish and English immigrants are believed to have introduced this 16th century practice in the 51st State. Hockey rapidly carved out a place of choice in the North American culture while the old continent preferred at that time to sanctify soccer and rugby.
It is an all the more logical choice for many reasons. Ice hockey has been implemented across the Atlantic mainly because the weather is suitable. The duration of winter and extreme temperatures have benefited the installation of ice rinks in all the cities. There are almost as many as there are soccer fields in France. In the city center of Toronto, there are at least 15 ice rinks. These places are free, which portrays the population’s fondness towards this discipline.
In Quebec, 650,000 people play this sport out of a total population of 7.8 million people and around 80% of the Canadian population is interested in this activity. Both girls and boys share this passion feverishly. Nicolas Baillou, consultant of the French channel Canal + for the 77th edition of the Ice Hockey World Championship that takes place in Finland and Sweden, declares that the world nomination of the old continent can be easily explained: “It is the main sport over there (at Canada NLDR) because everyone starts playing it once it gets cold whereas in France it is the opposite because it is less of a tradition.” According to the singer Roch Voisine, a former hockey player, “almost 5% of the population plays ice hockey in Canada. This is huge for a population of only 37 million people. And if there are so many players, it is because we start playing early, really early! I for instance, started at the age of 3.” 


The weather is not the only reason why hockey is the number one sport in North America. The development of this sport is also due to advertising. There are so many intermissions that broadcasting channels have made Hockey their financial gold mine.
What is more, Nicolas Baillou - who accepted to take part in our interview the day before the Finland-France match – sums it up pretty well: “NHL is above everything a business which attracts the best players in the world”. Other sports such as basketball, baseball or American football have set up and developed in North America thanks to this. The costs of equipment purchases is just one of the many difficulties linked to the development of this discipline in regions of the world where climate is less cold.
However, the consultant of Canal + confirms that the “violence of this sport and the many bare-handed fights between players are not excuses to explain the hard adaptation of this sport in Europe because it is not more violent than rugby, for instance.” He remains hostile towards this kind of brutality; he says hockey “is not about that!” 
As we see it everyday, North America dominates hockey. But Europe also has something to say…


Ice hockey arrives in Europe at the end of the 19th century through the sons of Frederick Arthur Stanley, the former Governor General of Canada. It rapidly carved itself a place in the Scandinavian countries - especially Finland, Norway and Sweden. His game, often described as the “wise mix between acrobatic sledging and World War 2”, like Sir Alfred Hitchcock used to say, conquered Russia and Switzerland to make hockey one of their main sports.
Under the initiative of Andrei Medvedev, European hockey regains composure in the late 2000s after having experienced countless failures. The KHL (Russian league) decided to integrate adjacent franchises in order to show its objective, which is to develop in the West part of the old continent. And it works! The number of spectators is rising and exceeds nowadays an average of 10,000 people. An insignificant number if we compare it with the 17,400 people that crowd ice rinks at each NHL match.
As for Switzerland, it has made hockey its national sport. It tries to export it through its league, whiwh is the most followed one after the North American one. The country is trying to take revenge on history thanks to the regain of interest by sponsors and broadcasters. It shows that it is one of the countries that we should count on in the future.


We are getting there, little by little. Regarding the development of neighbor leagues, Magnus league reemerged in 2002 after having experienced dark times: internal disputes, media coverage disappearance, bankruptcy… Historic franchises keep it up and the East is surprisingly the most represented geographic zone with 10 out of 14 clubs.
Thanks to “young entrepreneurs” who start breaking into the NHL and to the greatness that this sport has to offer (despite the prohibition of combats between players), the public fills the stadiums little by little and players do their show in front of around 1,500 spectators. Rouen has the most spectators in its ice rink. The Dragons, who have held the title three times, started the season at top speed.
Hockey is a sport of the future that needs to strengthen in order to attract sponsors and media coverage, just like Nicolas Baillou analyses it: “French hockey must get stronger sports-wise and more structured so that spectators are welcomed into beautiful ice rinks. […] It is therefore necessary to have a strong league with identified and qualified players. The rest will come with time […] Moreover, the French team must promote this sport, which today is not so mediatized. And players do their best to seek interest from the world”.
Nobody doubts that the introduction of fights in the Magnus league would be a plus. Unfortunately, it is not foreseen at the moment.