Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap

Hockey’s Agents of Change

By Bruce Cinnamon

Edited by Cheryl A. MacDonald and Jonathon R.J. Edwards
University of Alberta Press
2021/$34.99/304 pp.

The “neutral zone trap” is a tactic in hockey wherein the defending team traps the advancing team in the centre of the ice, killing their momentum and denying them the opportunity to score a goal. In this book, the metaphorical defenders are those who seek to maintain the status quo of hockey. The advancing team comprises hockey’s “agents of change”—those excluded from or marginalized within the dominant hockey culture who are trying to make the sport live up to its ideals as a uniter of Canadians from all walks of life.

The 12 essays in the book cover a wide array of perspectives, from challenges in women’s hockey to struggles of closeted gay players to issues of disability, Indigeneity, mental health and masculinity. The authors of the various essays approach hockey through an intersectional lens—an essay about being a hockey mom discusses age dynamics and financial barriers, for example, and an interview with an openly gay former player highlights the role that sexism and racism play alongside homophobia.

While the collection skews academic, personal stories and interviews make the book appealing and accessible for casual readers, showcasing the inclusivity the book is championing. Vicky Paraschak’s “Skating toward Reconciliation” stands out here for being deliberately celebratory of the achievements of Indigenous players—and the positive role of hockey in Indigenous communities—even as it pushes for more progress.

Ironically, one of the pieces that packs the most punch is a chapter that’s not about playing hockey. William Bridel’s essay outlines the author’s experiences as a young figure skater in small-town Ontario, and how his lack of conformity to hockey culture led to bullying and assault. “I persevered and learned all about the sport of figure skating by being the best student of it that I could be. I learned about gender and sexuality, however, because I failed to adhere to socially acceptable performances of maleness and masculinity within the Canadian context.”

The book’s contributors return again and again to the place of hockey in Canada’s national mythology. What does it say about our country that this load-bearing beam in our national identity is eaten through with so many forms of exclusion and discrimination? What does it say that these hateful and harmful behaviours, rightly criticized and vilified elsewhere in our society, are mostly accepted in our national sport with a boys-will-be-boys shrug, and attempts to challenge and change this culture are met with limited success and considerable pushback? Though it offers no easy answers, the book gives its agents of change a rare chance to break through the defence to their goal.

Bruce Cinnamon is the author of The Melting Queen.

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