Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels

by Michael Buma ’01


Fall 2012

Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels by Michael Buma ’01

Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels by Michael Buma ’01

A new book from Calvin graduate Michael Buma '01 on the cultural work of Canadian hockey novels actually has its roots in a class the author took with professor of history emeritus Ron Wells.

Buma, an English and history double major, thanks Wells in the acknowledgments section of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels, saluting his former professor for letting him study the Summit Series for his undergraduate senior seminar.

That series, held 40 years ago this September, pitted a team of Canadian National Hockey League players against a team of Russian amateurs in an eight-game series (four in Canada and four in Russia). It was a series that Canada was expected to dominate; it was a series Canada won by the narrowest of margins, prevailing four games to three with one tie when Paul Henderson scored with 34 seconds left in game eight in Moscow on Sept. 28, 1972, to lift Canada to a 6-5 win.

Buma was born seven years after the Summit Series, in 1979, but he grew up in Canada as a hockey fan, and when he got to Calvin, the experience of living in the States awakened in him a desire to study the game.

“I became very interested in Canadian identity during my Calvin years,” he said, “and hockey is obviously a large part of that. The conclusion I came to about the Summit Series was that beyond the usual explanations of the Series’ appeal—the Cold War context, asserting Canadian ownership of the game, professionalism vs. amateurism, etc.—it was the Centennial-era push to create and define a usable Canadian identity that really made the Series so meaningful.”

Buma remembered that initially he had a hard time selling the idea to Wells, his faculty supervisor on the project.

“He didn’t think that a hockey series could really have meant that much to the country,” he recalled. “But with a little convincing he came around, and the paper won him over in the end. In fact, he was so pleased with the finished product that he suggested I pursue the topic further in grad school.”

That pursuit led to Refereeing Identity. The book joins what Buma describes as a rapidly growing academic subfield that some have taken to calling “hockey studies,” complete with a biennial conference (held this year in Halifax, N.S.).

Also continuing to grow is the number of Canadian hockey novels. Buma read some 200 as part of his research for Refereeing Identity, which is a revised and expanded version of his doctoral dissertation for his PhD work at the University of Western Ontario.

“During the thick of it,” he said, “I couldn’t believe how much of my life was taken up with the game.”

In the book Buma writes about hockey as a Canadian “identity shibboleth,” a term that has a particular religious meaning, too. In fact in Judges 12:5-6 the Israelites use the word “shibboleth” to distinguish between friends and foes. Now the word refers to a custom or ritual that can determine inclusion or exclusion, and hockey has functioned that way in Canada. But, he added, he thinks hockey is becoming less of an identity shibboleth in Canada, as the game’s traditional boundaries start to blur and its parameters grow more open and inclusive.

Still, hockey novels, he writes, can contribute in negative ways to what it means to be Canadian.

“I’m critical of the rather limited and prescriptive version of Canadian-ness and masculinity that hockey novels tend to put forward,” he said. “By suggesting that hockey guarantees national identity and belonging, these novels are effectively letting certain people in and keeping certain people out of what it means to be ‘Canadian.’ They also draw an overly simple picture of national identity, as there is far more to Canada than just hockey. Not to throw out the baby with the bathwater though; there are many good things about hockey novels, too.”

Buma’s book, he hopes, will be of interest to hockey fans, readers of hockey novels, and academics who study hockey and Canadian literature and culture. The reviews, he said, have been favorable.

“I think this is at least partially due to the timing. The high level of public debate about concussions and dangerous hits in the game has brought us to a point where many people are starting to think critically about the masculinity that fuels and encourages these things, and with Canada’s gold-medal win at the Vancouver Olympics and the return of the Winnipeg Jets, the debate about hockey nationalism is once again in full swing.”