Remembrance Day and the Language of Hockey and War

Today you will be given a history lesson on the handful of National Hockey League players who volunteered their time and their lives to fight in one of the great wars. You’ll read about Allan Davidson, Red Garrett, Joe Turner and Conn Smythe. This blog entry will not be one of those places. Those were all great men who once had incredible stories to tell, but now rely on others to tell the story. They should be repeated every year.

The military touches many facets of our society whether we like to admit it or not. The history of the military and hockey are intertwined. The military has provided rosters of players. It has lent their namesakes to the Generals, Battalion, Warriors, Spitfires, and Voltigeurs. Don Cherry equates the two on a weekly basis to a common audience of supporters. A simple hockey sweater unveiling in Winnipeg this past summer sparked a national debate about the role of the military in hockey. Today, I want to address the shared language of war and hockey.

It’s far too easy to use military language to describe certain situations that occur on the ice. We as a society often misconstrue sport as a political vehicle. Canada is not the first, nor the last country to be guilty of such acts. Anytime nationalism rears its head you can usually find sport lingering in the wings. The language of war lends itself easily to our national game. The idea of a battle, between hardened men in uniform dress who form a collective under a regional identity is almost eerily familiar. Bravery is applauded. There are medals to be won and those who have them are nationally revered. You play through pain and you’re expected to fight to win. Blood, sweat and tears are a shared condition.


On the international level, players are quick to “answer the call” for their nation when they’re needed the most. It’s a matter of pride and has nothing to do with money. It is expected of them. It’s the same sentiment felt by those who answered the call when Borden and King called upon them. As Canadians, we like to look at the 1972 Summit Series when discussing the Cold War. Americans lean on the 1980 Olympic victory over the Soviet Union. These are great sources of nationalistic pride. These were confrontations between competing powers that used sport as a stage to exercise their deepest militaristic desires against one another under the veil of athletic competition. It wasn’t hockey. It was us versus them. Nuclear war was not ideal, a hockey game was. There’s something important to remember about that mentality.

“Going to work in the trenches” is one of many hyperboles used by broadcasters and bar-stool critics on any given game night. They use it to describe the hardworking character player who goes into areas others would prefer not to, the dirty areas, and the areas subject to punishment. While in reality, the trenches are rat infested killing zones, and sometimes sanctuary where many saw their last sights and others carried those visions for a lifetime. They’re not a brightly lit corner of an insurance company sponsored, million dollar entertainment complex. We all understand the reference when we hear it. We just don’t always remember what it really means. We hear of battles, no man’s land and the enemy. We don’t see them as players, zones and competition.

The regular language of competition is no longer adequate for our dulled senses. No one wants to watch a game billed as it really is. We want to see these men as super beings, as heroes and victors. We reach into other realms to showcase the ferocity of the game. That happens. Sometimes they convey the emotion the author is seeking. Other times, they just border on ridiculousness.

I’m not advocating eliminating these words from the hockey discourse. That will never happen despite one bloggers wishes. There are a number of military terms and events that could be easily applied to sport. Many of these words or events are better not ever used outside their original context. The military language we translate into sport should simply be used sparingly as to not cheapen the horrors of war or the supreme sacrifice made by those who were not million dollar athletes. Fine, call a shot a bullet. That’s a relevant analogy. Shea Weber might even be able to prove that one correct. At least if they are used, we should remember where the term came from and what it once meant. The bombardment of these terms is enough to deafen their impact. That is my concern with the language of war as it’s used today in sport. I don’t want those words to be meaningless expressions used to fill a word count. I don’t want to hear about a defenseman being a soldier on the ice. I want to hear about a man who gives it his all, regardless of their profession. This is no different than the plumber who works 60 hours weeks or the train conductor who is on call and doesn’t know when his next eight hour sleep will be.

In minor hockey there’s a long standing tradition to chant on the march between the dressing room and the ice. A common chant is “Team-Name-is-on-the-war-path!”

Lest we forget that war is horrible, and hockey is not. No one should want to be on the warpath. They should want to be on the ice.

I want to share an excerpt from my Great Grandfather’s WWI diary with you. He was a Signalman in the Canadian Army and spent his time on the battlefields of France and Belgium.

Diary entry 1918 November

Thursday 7th  FARTHEST FORWARD  Cooked breakfast and got ready for the pullout saddled Balt, etc.  Left shortly after eight.  Kept on the go through Estrenz and on to Valenciennes and on to the chateau positions in St. Leges.  Got our same room, on the ground floor with the same bunch.  The day kept rainy all day.  The horses in good barns.  Cleaning out our place all afternoon – on afternoon stables.  Sat around the bivie all evening -wrote one letter.  Quite a few shells through the roof since our last stay.

Friday 8th  Stables all day.  Rest of the time off and we spent it getting settled and the place cleaned up.

Saturday 9 Stables three times.  Concert in the evening in VAL.  4th Div. concert party and a splendid one.

Sunday 10  Went ro VAL to see the Premier Poincare  give a speech to the people of VAL and to thank Gen  Thorne or Horne Watson for the gallant fighting in the recapture of the town.  Many were the compliments paid to the Canadians and especially the 4th Division.

Monday 11 ARMISTICE PEACE DECLARED The day of days.  Cleaned up my saddle iln the AM had a lecture from Col. Ross.  Afternoon stables.  Went to VAL  for a bath in the aft.  Home in the evening.  Fine weather doing stables each day and getting saddles cleaned up..  Very comfortable in Chateau home.  Early reveille and away towards Mons on  advance party – landed in Elouges.  Good place for the horses and billets for the men.  The people are the very best on earth.  We were with a little woman whose husband was a prisoner – had a little baby.  We six lived in her front room – a little girl Joan was visiting her and looking after Josie Marie.  The weather clear and cold.

And years later as he recalled the celebration on November 11, 1918:

We were living in the Mayor’s house in Valencienne in France on the Belgian border.  Twenty people in the house.  The house was built on a hill – I was downstairs looking over a small lake which had developed because a dyke had broken.  There was a schoolhouse on an island in the middle of the lake – Uncle Freddie (Coffin) and Frank Forsyth  found a small row boat and went out – found a bottle of wine in the teacher’s desk.

The Mayor’s house had a large garden and we dug up Brussel sprouts, potatoes and cut cabbages. There was a large kitchen downstairs with a wood stove the whole width of the room. The dining room was upstairs and was similar to the dining room in the Pallisar Hotel.

I brought home a small white oval china piece which had been inset in a cabinet.  Roses  painted on it.  I have not seen it for a long time – don’t know where it is.

We had been in the Mayor’s house about two weeks previously and at that time there had been no damage to the house.  On the November 11th stay there had been shell damage – ie tiles gone from the roof etc.  It was completely furnished – cutlery and all.  I don’t know where the Mayor was.

We stayed in the Mayor’s house about a week after Armistice.

We stayed in France and Belgium  for some time then returned to England.  Returned to Canada in April or May – I remember it was very hot in Toronto.

When Armistice was declared, the troop ships which were on the way to Europe turned around and returned to Canada.  Those who had been at the front felt that these troops should have continued on to relieve them.

You would never know how we felt on November 11, 1918.

I don’t think anyone who wasn’t there would know how they felt on that day. I don’t think it would be a stretch to take a page from hockey language and say, they probably felt like they had battled hard for months and had won it all. We call them the Lost Generation. I’m not sure why this is. All they managed to do was win. They beat the depression, won the war and raised a generation that would go on to be our parents and grandparents. I remember as my Great Grandfather was aging, he was not able to watch his beloved Canucks on television due to the excitement. Here was a man who had been through it all, but still found hockey to be the most exciting thing on earth. I guess we can all agree on that.

I’ll leave you with one final thought today to help put the importance of today into perspective.

Some people want to take fighting out of hockey. Maybe we should focus as much attention on try taking it out of the world arena instead. There are problems way more real than a team, a game or terms of a deal.