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From David Anthony Hohol…
I started playing hockey at the age of four, and it remained an integral and constant part of my life until I was nearly twenty years old. Hockey in Canada, especially in rural areas, is not just our nation’s pastime, but a way of life and a belief in an idea. Hockey is organized like most sports with minor leagues, junior ranks, semi-pro and pro levels, each with their own governing bodies and modus operandi. All kinds play the game of hockey, as there are many different roles to be filled. There are certain personas in team sport, however, that rise to positions of leadership and power, just as there are those who lead us on the fields of battle, and in the politically charged ideological wars of our postmodern world.
Leadership and social power are both integral parts of athletics, and even more so in a violent and physical sport such as the game of hockey. Effective leadership in hockey makes the team more successful. Who becomes team leaders and what makes them effective is something that I began to actively pursue an understanding of about half way through my fifteen-year hockey career.
I so loved playing that game. At times the feelings that still live on within me surge through my body and manifest themselves into tiny pockets of emotion. Pride, reverence, and sentimentality flow through me, as I look back at the time I spent in the sport of hockey and see it as amongst the most important and self-improving times in my life. In retrospect, it seems I was a part of something that was indefinable yet complete in itself. Philosophical undertows aside, I was a member of a very powerful and decisive subculture. We all worked together in order to achieve a common goal. We had our own rules of protocol, our own rituals, our own values, and even our own language. Like men on a frozen battlefield, our goal was always victory. Other valuable objectives, both as a team and as individual players would always be included, but it was conquest that everyone’s efforts revolved around, and thus victory was our ultimate goal. The structure of hierarchy on a team was to be respected at all times, as we needed to be a cohesive unit in order to achieve that victory. Problems with individuals were discussed amongst the team first, the coaching staff second. We were the ones who would be out there in the fight together, so disputes had to be settled internally. Problems with the team system or philosophy would be communicated to the team captain or his assistants first. We did not disrespect our coach in front the team. We left the dressing room in the same order, we warmed up in the same order, and ended every warm up the same way with the ritualistic tapping of our goaltender’s pads. Last but not least, the captain would always be the last man back with the goalie before the opening face-off.
Most importantly, no matter if it was the pre-season, the regular season or the playoffs, and no matter what the score or situation, if two or more opposing players physically doubled up on one of our own, we were to save our man at all costs. This precluded absolutely everything and is the only time victory or defeat was temporarily set aside. When one of our men was down, it was the team’s responsibility to not only get him safely out of harms way, but to avenge him with extreme prejudice. This is why physical play in hockey is so revered, as it represents sacrifice, solidarity, leadership and power all at once.
What results from this exceptionally powerful cohesiveness and structure is the emergence of a unique language or argot, a form of communication born from the domestic side of hockey and is used to refer to both teammates and opponents alike. Whether it be grinders, goons, cherry pickers, hackers, stick men, submariners, hat tricks, shut outs, bangers, or shadows, the terminology is endlessly unique and is quite perplexing to those fully removed from the group. The bottom line is that such idiosyncratic standards demonstrate patterns of a distinct subculture. Deeper still, the foundational super structure that serves as point zero for any and all characteristics is that we all operated under the pretext of hegemonic masculinity, as power and leadership within a male inter-group structure of hierarchy was vital to the maintenance, growth and success of the team. As all subcultures are, any team I played on was a social group that stood completely separate from yet integrally connected to the daily ingestion of human experience.
I spent a large portion of my years playing hockey in a leadership role. Why did I become a team leader? As I now look back upon my past through the lenses of a classical education, it seems the necessary characteristics were there, and perhaps they always had been. Without question drive, the desire for achievement, and leadership motivation were all integral components of my ability to lead. I wanted to be the best, I wanted to be the one that the coaches and the team looked to as an example of how to play the game; I wanted it more than anything. Further still, honesty and integrity was applied through my candid approach to both my coaches and my teammates. At times, I was seen as a hothead, as I just couldn’t help but say what was on my mind. Contrarily, I was respected as someone who was always open and honest. I played honest as well, as no matter who it was I played for when I was out on that ice my heart was always on the sleeve of my jersey. Self-confidence and cognitive ability also applied to my ascent to the leadership role. I never considered being intimidated an option, which directly correlated to the development of my ability to read others team’s systems, discover their weakest points, and my specialty, latching on to the opposing teams weak minded players and provoking them right out of the game.
Although I didn’t make all of the decisions all of the time and I didn’t constantly give orders, I probably leaned towards an autocratic style of leadership. I did so, however, as an autocratic in democratic clothing, a Napoleonic style of leadership that works very well, albeit slightly Machiavellian. Present to your teammates the right to choose, but subtlety convince them that your way is the best without them knowing it. If one is a good leader this approach encourages all to participate while simultaneously activating your ideas the vast majority of the time. At all times, however, I was well aware of team hierarchy. Certain players were more followers than leaders, and other players were more leaders than followers. Beyond the team aristocracy, there was a wide range of players who were all important parts of the team, no matter how big or small their role. I felt it my duty as a team leader to be able to handle different players in different situations, and at different levels to maintain the power structure of the team. The sociological approach that most applies itself at this point is called Normative Theory, that suggests leaders are most effective when their decision-making styles are formulated on a situational basis. In other words, a leader’s ability to establish a definition of the situation is a vital part of leadership, as the idea of the reflexive self once again demonstrates its centrality to social psychology.
I believe that the inter-actionist approach explains much of why I came to lead, as I was the right leader for the right situation due to a combination of past experiences. The ability to lead and the ideals of masculinity from which they stemmed, had been developed from within my childhood reference groups and role models. My grandfathers both epitomized masculinity. My mother’s father was a paratrooper for the British Army during WWII, and then served as a police officer for twenty-eight years, including twenty years as a homicide detective. He always symbolized authority and that masculine detachment from emotion. My father’s father worked his entire life farming out on the prairies of Alberta, working with his hands and his back for more than sixty years, a man’s man and the picture of strength. My father’s image was that of Johnny Slick, an in- your-face publisher heavily involved with politics, who was sued for defamation of character countless times, but in representing himself in court never lost once. Telling it like it is, regardless of the sting that resulted, was my father’s specialty. All these men, in combination with the traditionally subordinated persona of my grandmothers and my mother, produced a constant countenance of masculinity and I came to see these ideals as being represented in leadership, and in some ways I guess I still do.
The masculine image of the men of my reference group brings us to the idea of hegemonic masculinity; the masculinity of power and leadership. Hegemonic masculinity is part of the very fiber of my hockey experience. The masculinity of leadership is an integral part of sport, and it becomes heightened with a higher the level of violence and physical play. There’s no doubt, team leaders become figureheads of hegemonic masculinity. As mentioned, I used the normative approach to leadership and incorporated my legitimate power as a team leader, my reward power to offer my approval from a position of authority, and my referent power, as I had the ability to call my team into action. Like the sport/war metaphors that are so common in the world of athletics, when I stood in front of my teammates before a big game I spoke with an androcentric tongue and stood as an elite male extending his influence and control over lesser status males within the team inter-male dominance hierarchy.
Sport/war metaphors valorize masculinity and lionize or make heroes out of the most aggressive men. I always led my team with a socialized power motivation. I wanted to be lionized. I wanted to be seen as the picture of masculinity to serve my own ego, but also to work with my teammates and lead by example, so that in the end we all would be victorious. As a hockey player, victory was the only thing that ever mattered to me, the only thing I played for… for fifteen years. And not only did I want to win, to use a sport/war metaphor, I wanted to crush my opponent and stand above my vanquished enemy as a symbol of hegemonic masculinity. I was often told by the many I played with and against that I was one of the most brutal and animalistic players they had ever seen. I did and still do take pride in that. Furthermore, I always saw myself as though playing on a stage and as a result I would often skate a brief but victorious circle around a fallen foe, still dazed from the crushing blow I laid upon him and say “Keep your head up boy”, as I skated back into battle leaving him immersed in hegemonic totalitarianism.
I respected the hierarchical structure of leadership and power in the game of hockey immensely. Hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to a variety of subordinated masculinities and I was by no means always the vision of the elite male. The first half of my hockey career I was the subordinated male in the power structure of the team and I did so with pride. I remember when playing for and winning the Alberta Championships, I wanted the best players out there on the ice as much as possible, well aware that at that time I was not one of them. I looked at my role as providing rest for the team’s elite and security for my coaches by playing solid positional hockey when I was on the ice. I wanted to win – nothing else mattered. My role was embedded in the structural hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity. I had a part to play and played it well.
The second half of my hockey career involved a five-inch and fifty-pound growth spurt and the discovery of how physical play, and even out right violence triggered not only my offensive skills, but also my ability to lead. I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I was struck with this revelation at the age of thirteen. I’d already began to play rougher early in that season, but there was one instance in just our third or fourth game of the year when I caught a guy with his head down and literally knocked him cold right in front of our bench. What I remember clear as crystal was that when I looked up, I saw all my teammates and even my coach pumping their fists and screaming approving obscenities. The whistle blew and the young man had to be taken off the ice by his trainer.
I’ll never forget that hit. It was the first time I experienced power, not from the hit itself, but through my teammates’ reaction to it. It was a catharsis that changed my hockey career and deeper still, it changed me as a person. I made the jump to being a leader shortly thereafter and I began to realize that male solidarity is achieved and maintained by constructing and reconstructing inter-group relations at many levels. At a societal level, this represents hegemonic values as not only advantageous, but entirely essential to social order as it serves as an amalgamating ideological structure.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’d immersed myself in machismo and testosterone and more often than not, I was the leader. I became of those off-the-hook, over-the-top lunatics, who specialized in athletically sanctioned battery and assault. By extension, I was extremely adept at whipping an entire room of young men, oozing socially prescribed maleness, into an absolute frenzy. While in the locker room before hockey games, there were times I would pound my head into a steel cage that held the team’s equipment, while screaming war cries like some kind of madman, until my teammates frothed at the mouth. During the pre-game warm up, I skated out onto the ice without my helmet, so the opposing team could see the steel grating of the cage imprinted on my forehead. All the while, I stared down my opponents with a look that seemed to suggest I was planning on drowning their kittens or shooting their dogs after the game.
The off-shooting result of such ritual is the systematic delineation of gender. Manly men of aggression are lionized, while men who appear to be weak or passive are marginalized and emasculated. An extremely physical sport such as hockey thus links maleness to highly valued visible skills, and with the positively sanctioned use of violence and aggression. Such images serve as resources of mobilization to advance, justify and rationalize the patriarchal values that delineate hegemonic forms of masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity also pigeon holes women into the subordinated roles of mother, wife or girlfriend, while officially licensing homophobia all in the name of the masculinity of leadership and power. Hegemonic masculinity represents, reproduces and legitimizes relations of domination under the guise of cultural values, norms, and beliefs. Such a construction frames out resistance as to challenge this will be perceived by many as challenging the fundamental morality of the social order and is often painted as an opposition to the very core of values upon which our society was built. In the end, hegemonic masculinity thus survives and thrives on the mantle of its own neutrality, and the hegemonic androcentric construct of Western society is one in which the most manly of men still construct, maintain, and control the agencies of domination and power. The extremely cathartic experience of athleticism is an extension of these societal ideologies and gives the masses the temporal opportunity to wield micro-level power, while reciprocally supplying an arena to restore to the world the pre-conceived learning mechanisms of a given civilization, perpetuating the mass production of a society’s membership and the structure of power that results.