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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Sociological Reflections on the Uneven Fan/Media Reception of the NHL's New 3-on-3 OT

For this piece, published at Habs Eyes on the Prize in December, 2015, I took on the question of how hockey fans and media analysts are reacting to the new 3-on-3 overtime implemented by the NHL for the 2015-2016 season. In speaking to an avid fan of the Montreal Canadiens, a Canadiens reporter for TSN 690 radio in Montreal, and a Montreal-based arts reporter who also maintains a regular blog on the Habs, I compared their views with some sociological ideas I've had about whether the wide-open and formless style of play associated with 3-on-3 hockey may clash with our contemporary cultural obsession with order and predictability.

Points, Purity, and Predictability: Exploring Disagreements Over 3-on-3 OT

When it was announced this past June that the NHL Board of Governors approved 3-on-3 overtime for the 2015-2016 season, the official explanation was that the league and its players wanted to make game outcomes, as well as the manner in which they were decided, more pleasing to the fans. So, one decade after the shootout was added to the NHL in order to bolster game excitement, league officials decided that 3-on-3 OT was needed to make hockey even more exciting.

NHL folks responded to the announcement by either talking up the unfettered offense that would be unleashed by the significantly opened ice space of the new extra frame format or by expressing hope that more games would be decided by back-and-forth team competition than by the single-man scoring of the shootout. Coaches and players expressed varying types of hesitation.

Would team tactics and player deployments be all-offense or all-defense? Would coaches be able to come up with any workable tactics for their players to execute at all? Would goalie stats go out the window? Would skaters suffer from exhaustion?

We're now more than a couple of months in and, aside from some early mainstream media and blogger endorsements, some unsurprising player objections, as well as some numbers that tell us that 3-on-3 is infusing offense into an NHL game that many say badly needs some, what more can be said about the hockey community's response to the NHL's new experiment?

In my own experience of watching a variety of overtimes this season, I've been absolutely mesmerized. During play like this, I've been routinely annoying my wife and daughter with the constant sounds of joy that involuntarily burst from my mouth. Resulting, moreover, from the absolute pleasure I've gotten from what looks to me like an obvious amplification of skill, precision, and speed, I haven't even been overly bothered by losses suffered by the Habs during OT this year.

Well, I may be just the kind of fan the NHL had in mind when the decision was made to transition to 3-on-3, but I've also noticed that many of my fellow fans view this development rather differently.

Peering outside my own personal viewing space this season, social media routinely tells me that the response to 3-on-3 OT is actually quite mixed. While some in my network are buying in, there's also no shortage of clear and strong opposition. So, rather than enthusiastically sharing my enjoyment of the OT action with like-minded souls on Twitter, my awareness of the critics has actually led me to hold back so as to avoid a potential backlash that celebration might elicit.

Compensating for the cowardice I've shown by staying on the Twitter sidelines, I decided to explore hockey community reception of 3-on-3 OT by talking to a few people with informed views on the matter. What became clear was that one of the major points of disagreement centers around the question of whether 3-on-3 OT is accepted as a pure, or authentic, form of hockey.
Eric Engels, who covers the Montreal Canadiens for Sportsnet, acknowledges that 3-on-3 deviates from the form that hockey traditionally takes. Engels argues that the type of play that it actually enables mostly outweighs some of the concerns he has over its hockey authenticity.

"I think 3-on-3 is highly entertaining, but don't believe it's any less gimmicky than the shootout is," Engels wrote in an e-mail. "Search the video archives and watch Tampa and Philadelphia in early October or go back to Los Angeles and Chicago [from a recent] Saturday night. [It's an] absolutely unbelievable display of skill, saves and beautiful goals. People say they'd rather see a tie. But, you'll never convince me that's more exciting."

While Engels accepts a 'gimmick' that he believes (despite its occasional sloppiness) is bringing a clear reward in terms of its on-ice results, the perceived novelty aspect of 3-on-3 is the exact point that drives others to reject it completely.

Rosalyn Roy is a Newfoundland-based blogger, author, and diehard Habs fan who can be found tweeting about her team on most nights they play. Contrary to welcoming the offense of the new 3-on-3 OT, Roy simply can't accept what she sees as the less-than-true hockey form that it takes.
"I hate it. It feels less like a fix for the skills competition that is the shootout and more like just another gimmick," Roy said. "The best strategy, if you can even call it that, seems to be to lose the initial draw, wait for a turnover or failed scoring attempt, and hope for an odd-man rush going the other way. Even at only five minutes, it's bound to tire out your skaters because of all the open ice. As far as gimmicks go, it's hardly a good sales pitch for newbie hockey fans and this old timer hates it just as much."

While not all critics of the new OT format reject the shootout as Roy does, the sense that traditional hockey is being eroded via this innovation can run pretty deep.

Brendan Kelly reports on arts and culture for the Montreal Gazette and CBC Radio's Daybreak in Montreal, and maintains his own Canadiens blog. Never pulling punches in his critique of his favourite team, or of the NHL as a whole, Kelly's opposition to 3-on-3 OT's dilution of the game of hockey is no less militant than Roy's.

"I do not like the 3-on-3 at all," Kelly said. "It's funny because I am a fan of the shootout. I think everyone enjoys that. But the 3-on-3 just looks goofy. I love playing 3-on-3 on a 3-on-3 sized rink. On a NHL-sized rink, it just becomes silly. It's really a typical Bettman innovation. Ideas coming from a guy who knows nothing about hockey culture."

Kelly's perception of threats to traditional hockey culture clearly provide powerful justification for his rejection of the inauthentic style of play that's resulting from what he calls a cold and corporate imposition of 3-on-3 OT. Yet, not all hockey observers I spoke to agree on the specific features of that cultural tradition.

Amanda Stein is a reporter for TSN 690 radio in Montreal who covers the visitors' dressing room at every Habs home game. In offering her appreciation for the style of play created by 3-on-3, Stein also presents a dissenting take on its place in relation to hockey's tradition.

"While the Canadiens haven't participated in too many 3-on-3 occasions this year, I've certainly enjoyed what I've seen from other teams playing in the new overtime format," Stein said. "I'm enjoying the quick pace of back-and-forth with so much free ice. I like the entertainment value of odd-man rushes, big saves, and one man's mistake is another man's goal. I think it showcases hockey talent better than an individual shootout move does. Ending 3-on-3 is much more in the spirit of the game of hockey - a team effort - whereas that dreaded shootout is much more individual."

So while the offensive production of 3-on-3 is definitely winning some observers over, mutations to the very game conditions that are enabling the offense violate others' conceptions of authentic hockey to such a high degree that endorsing the innovation is normatively impermissible.

Now, I don't know about you, but I find the claim that 3-on-3 defies hockey tradition to be dubious. Like Amanda Stein said, aren't pretty passes, risk-taking, and breath-taking collectively produced goals not part of hockey's tradition? And, like Eric Engels stated, if 3-on-3 OT provides these things more starkly than regulation play, and definitely more often than the shootout, isn't that a good thing? Or, if it really reminds us of the shinny that Brendan Kelly loves to play on the outdoor rink, aren't we actually tapping into a central part of hockey's great tradition by integrating 3-on-3 into the NHL game?

There must be additional explanations for the mixed reviews, and when I thought about all of this a little sociologically for a few moments, I really thought I'd figured it out.

When it comes to the world in which we live, and also our mundane daily lives, what do people crave more than predictability? We want to know what the interest rates will be for years, we read polls to tell us who will win elections in months, and we expect forecasts to allow us to plan for weather we'll face in weeks. Our tech devices are for communication, but we gleefully use their multiple functions to guide us through each part of each of our days in highly routinized ways. (Just think about how your routine gets thrown off if you leave your mobile phone at home one day.) So, comfort in predictability characterizes the workings of our wider social world. It's the same in sports and hockey as well.

As the public representatives of major businesses that put a premium on maintaining positive reputations, what have most athletes' public comportment and communication styles become if not predictably limited and dull? Engaged in minute-by-minute consumption of information about games, trades, and fantasy transactions, what are sports fans routinely doing if not trying to predict the accomplishments of their favorite players and teams? And, as the numbers are gathered, analyzed, reported, and debated, what's the new generation of fancy stats bloggers and writers doing if not working according to the belief that the seeming chaos of player deployments and plays can be converted to understandings that might lead to more predictable team tactics and outcomes?

It's within this broad social context that the NHL dropped 3-on-3 OT into hockey. With its significant and intentional heightening of uncertainty, randomness, and un-predictabilty, I wonder if 3-on-3 OT isn't just a a little too displeasing for today's players and fans who've been trained to embrace sports and life routines that depend nearly entirely on order and the expected.
Well, as good as that theory might sound at a sociology conference or in a classroom, according to the hockey observers with whom I spoke, player and fan rejection has little to do with a lack of fit between 3-on-3 OT's inherent unpredictability and the predict-all logic of the wider world in which we live. For them, the wider opposition comes down to much more basic negative emotional and psychological reactions people are having to an unfamiliar change made to a game whose features they've known intimately for quite some time.

Leaving aside her own view that it deviates from authentic hockey tradition, Roy suggests that many other fans aren't warming up to 3-on-3 OT because, despite the hype, they're actually underwhelmed by the on-ice product they're seeing from the change thus far.

"Fans don't like 3-on-3 because, like the shootout, it favors the faster teams," Roy said. "Workhorse teams are not going to benefit from it. Like the shootout, it reduces team effort to a lucky snipe, only with two more players on the ice, and at a faster pace. Big whoop de do."

Eric Engels believes that some players and fans struggle with 3-on-3 OT because it leads them to feel intensified disappointments in response to those parts to the games that, due to their respective ways of being competitive, they never really want to confront.

"Seeing as how I view 3-on-3 as the same type of gimmick as the shootout, I believe what fans don't like about it is the anticlimax of seeing their team lose in that situation," Engels said in his e-mail. "I've been to several hundred hockey games at this point, and I've never seen fans all sitting and quiet during the shootout. But, when their team loses, it goes dead silence. It's the same thing for the players. The Canadiens were ornery after 3-on-3 losses against Ottawa and New Jersey. They don't like losing, and they especially don't like losing in a format where mistakes are magnified."

While Brendan Kelly insists that most fans agree that 3-on-3 is a "travesty" that has little to do with the game of hockey, similar to Engels, he also points to a specific and negative psycho-emotional context when giving his view of why not all the players are embracing the change. For Kelly, 3-on-3 OT can bruise players' egos.

"The players don't like it because it's very hard for them to play this game," Kelly said. "The teams, notably the Canadiens, don't know how to play 3-on-3. It's almost impossible [for them] to set up to play 3-on-3 on a rink this size, and thus they often end up looking downright amateurish out there."

For Amanda Stein, player and fan hesitation is not so much about intensified emotional discomfort they experience in response to key moments of a 3-on-3 situation. Rather, the resistance is mostly evidence of a near universal human tendency that most of us have to be slow to embrace change in the worlds around us.

"I chalk it up to learning to adapt to something new, to accept new additions to the game we hold so dear to our hearts," Stein said. "It can be a scary thing to watch things change. Consider Erik Karlsson, who first called 3-on-3 'boring,' then backtracked a couple of days later saying, 'I really liked the 4-on-4, so maybe I'm going to give 3-on-3 some time.' It boils down to learning to accept the changes that are coming to the game of hockey, and requiring the time to accept that it does."

So, let's summarize. While some fans and players enjoy a 3-on-3 OT that's facilitating goal scoring and the liberated collection of points for their teams, others reject it as an unholy deviation from traditionally pure hockey. Though the hockey observers made a convincing case that the opposition is better understood as the psychology of hurt feelings than as illustrating the sociological effects of the force of the culture of our times on hockey fans' tastes, at this early stage in the 3-on-3 experiment, there's clearly a paradox.

The NHL brought in 3-on-3 OT with the hopes that it would allow its players to make the game of hockey more fan friendly, but a sizable number of hockey fans, and maybe even players, hold mostly unfriendly feelings towards the place of 3-on-3 OT in their favourite sport.

Regardless of your own view, and like one of the hockey observers said, I don't expect that our overall love for the game will be eclipsed by the reality that two solitudes appear to have formed around 3-on-3 OT in the NHL.

"As the years go on, questions about the change will become less frequent, we'll talk less about it, and it will just be part of the game," said Amanda Stein. "You can't make everyone happy in this situation, unless I guess you score the overtime winner. But, remember, there's no 3-on-3 OT in the playoffs. And, that's when the games really matter."

Jewish Voters and Canada's #Elxn42

For this post, published in the Montreal Gazette in August, 2015, I wrote about my impressions on why so many Canadian Jews have been moving towards voting for the Conservatives under former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. By now we know that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals ended up winning the 2015 federal election in a big way, but as time has passed, the differences between the 'Harper Doctrine' on Israel and the Middle East and the public pronouncements of Trudeau's government have been hardly perceptible. (Maybe that will be a topic for a future opinion piece.)

Jewish Voters, Stephen Harper, & Mount Royal Riding

We returned from vacation after the call for Canada’s October federal election. Like many, I wasn’t ready to engage. Yet, after seeing a slew of the Conservative Party’s Harper-Libman campaign signs planted in the lawns of homes around my neighbourhood, I’ve been thinking about it almost nonstop.

I’ve been grappling with questions about my fellow Jewish voters in the riding of Mount Royal and about the wider conditions that shape their political motivations.

I grew up in a Jewish home in which I was taught that being Jewish meant supporting liberal-leftist politics. With grandparents who survived the Holocaust, the lesson was that the best way to ensure that such atrocities were never visited upon Jews again would be to support politics that promised equality for everyone.

That my grandparents were members of the Communist Party, that American Jews marched for civil rights and voted Democrat, and that Canadian Jews were strong supporters of Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals and multiculturalism were oft-cited pieces of evidence to support this lesson.

As I developed an academic interest in these questions, I learned that things were more complex. Yes, North American Jews had supported liberal-leftist politics since the Second World War, but this was only half the picture.

As the liberal civil rights movement gave way to Black Power and to calls for more radical reforms in the late 1960s, for example, many Jews disconnected from U.S. progressive politics. Around the same time, when other North American racial or ethnic identity groups began demanding that their minority status be recognized, many Jews disliked being viewed as privileged members of the establishment.

But the pre-eminent wedge between Jews and liberal-leftists has arguably been Israel and its relationship to global politics.

While Israel’s Six Day War victory in 1967 pushed liberal-leftists to question their conception of Israel as a beleaguered democracy, the existential stress caused by that war brought North American Jews to strongly connect with Zionism. And, though Israel’s conduct in conflicts like last summer’s Gaza War, the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bibi’s opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal trouble liberal-leftists, many North American Jews understandably see Hamas, Iran, and now ISIL as threats not only to Israel but to global stability.

Tensions between Jews and liberal-leftists, especially surrounding Israel, contain the seeds of a second lesson taught in the Jewish community — when Jews are in trouble, democracy and freedom are in trouble. And, when liberal-leftist policies like today’s BDS movement against Israel appear to neither be bringing security to Jews nor peace to the world, this lesson encourages Jews to protect themselves and move to the right. This echoes in Canada’s election today.

Sure, liberal Justin Trudeau and his Mount Royal candidate Anthony Housefather say that for Liberals, supporting Israel matches Canadian values. Yes, Tom Mulcair’s leftist NDP demonstrates unprecedented comfort with Israeli interests. But, in understanding the pre-eminence of Lesson No. 2 to Canadian Jews today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Israel doctrine and his allied emphasis on global security are unparalleled. And, in Mount Royal, the prime minister’s earlier mastery of that lesson already brought a majority of its Jewish residents to vote Conservative in the 2011 election.

By making this such a prominent feature of his political discourse, Stephen Harper isn’t changing the attitudes of today’s Jewish Canadians to try to win their votes. It’s the attitudes of many Jewish Canadians today that will possibly bring more of them than ever before to vote for Stephen Harper’s party.

Overall, Mount Royal is very much up for grabs. Though my own assessment of the conditions, and certainly my own preferred childhood lesson, will keep my vote headed in a relatively liberal-leftist direction in October, many of my fellow Jewish voters will deliver theirs rather differently this time around.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Strombo takes over Hockey Night in Canada on Sportsnet

For this Huffington Post Canada piece, I give my take on the announcement that George Stroumboulopoulos would be taking over as the host on the new Hockey Night in Canada under the direction of Rogers Communications and Sportsnet. I take issue with Strombo's claim that, because hockey journalism doesn't require attention to serious issues, he expected to be able to approach his new gig as a fan of the game as much as in the capacity of journalist. You can read the original HuffPo version here.


Strombo Should Approach HNIC as a Journalist, Not a Fan

After days of speculation, the announcement was made that, starting next year, George Stroumboulopoulos will replace Ron MacLean as host of CBC's Hockey Night In Canada. Coming months after the massive new Canadian NHL TV rights deal, this was the first indication of what Rogers, the new national hockey content provider, would do with our iconic Saturday night broadcast. Aside from concern that HNIC's new on-air team was short on social diversity, most commentators hailed the selection of Strombo as a great move to refresh a show that had become stilted in its predictability and routine.

In all the hoopla, one interesting subplot of the news pertained to Stroumboulopoulos' press conference admission that he'll be approaching his new gig more as a fan than as a journalist. While my Twitter feed, and a few local writers, went back-and-forth over whether this meant that HNIC would become more friendly to the fortunes of the Montreal Canadiens - Strombo proudly supports the Habs - Simon Houpt of the Globe and Mail posed tougher questions about whether being a fan might not clash with the professional responsibility to report about the game and the business of hockey. Stroumboulopoulos was unconcerned.

"Sports is a bunch of people gathering around, watching something that they're not actually connected to - they're just emotionally connected," Stroumboulopoulos told Houpt. "Sports is entertainment....So this isn't like covering Syria. And it's a mistake to think it is like covering Syria."

Stroumboulopoulos made a heartfelt claim to be able to perform the role of both journalist and fan in his new job. He also appeared to justify this belief on the parallel stance that, since reporting on sports is most certainly not like reporting on something important like Syria, "the division is different between a journalist and a sports journalist."

I agree when Strombo says that he can leave his personal biases aside when talking about teams other than his beloved Montreal Canadiens, but do sports journalists really have less serious reporting to do than traditional journalists? Is Strombo right that the fan and journalist roles in sports are unlikely to clash? Recent events say no.

It's fashionable in certain circles for sports to either be dismissed as unserious or to be denounced for promoting practices and values that are socially damaging. Yet, with all the legitimate concerns, one cannot also ignore the growing number of situations in which either members of the media or athletes are not only calling attention to particular problems in sports but also raising awareness of how they might be tied to the structure and culture of the wider society. The point here is that these trends show that sports matters. It's neither simple entertainment nor merely a microcosm of society's serious issues. Sports is a place where people are doing things to raise questions and to promote meaningful change in their social worlds.

Seeing sports in this light, and recognizing the role being played by some members of the media in reporting on this reality, I can't help but struggle with Strombo's perspective on fan-journalism and HNIC. Is hockey immune to the serious? Does our national sport not face any of the same struggles that are being waged elsewhere? Are there no issues in the hockey world that could press the host of the new HNIC to take distance from a fan's mirth and to work on the basis of a journalist's muckraking instincts instead? Of course there are.

One of the major issues in hockey arises out of questions regarding violence and player safety. Other than Ken Dryden, there are additional media voices consistently pushing folks to explore connections between fighting and player health. In recent years, however, this discussion tends to rise up during crisis, but then fades to obscurity as memories of a shocking incident start to diminish. Journalists were brave to tackle the question of NFL responsibility for the damage caused to its players by concussion injuries. Will HNIC, fronted by a fan-journalist, be willing to engage a similar debate in hockey?

A second dynamic pertains to gender and hockey. Whether it's the undeniable growth in women's participation in the game, the argument that women hockey players and media want and deserve more exposure, or questions about the readiness of NHL players to welcome an openly gay teammate, there's stuff to talk about. There's exciting journalism confronting the complex ways gender awareness is changing sports and society. If its host denies connections between sports and the serious, can the new HNIC step up when these challenges surface in hockey?

Finally, in today's hockey media, bloggers, and some mainstream journalists, are ramping up their analyses of the game by using a battery of non-traditional analytic statistics. Though different from the social issues described above, this trend represents innovation that's not quickly being welcomed by all in the hockey world. Bringing advanced stats to HNIC would carry risk, but it would also offer new tools for analysts who've long been critiqued for providing precious little in the way of informative explanation of what happens on the ice. Which kind of host is more open to trying? A fan-host who's thinking about viewers' habits and comforts or a journalist-host who's attracted to the challenge of exploring the possibilities of the new?

I admit, maybe most fans just want the good old hockey game on Saturday nights, and don't really want to be challenged. And, I actually do have faith that Strombo will be open to trying new things. But, there will be much more potential for the new HNIC to turn the page on its recent languid past if Strombo were to embrace reporting on the seriousness of the game of hockey to society, rather than suggesting that, because it's just sports, there really isn't that much of a need.

When culture and media help citizens remember and celebrate their most cherished ways of life.

For this piece, my first published on the Huffington Post Canada, I write about a live recording of Jian Ghomeshi's CBC radio show, Q, in Montreal. The current affairs show was dedicated to celebrating Montreal and Quebec culture, but I argue the show's content served a deeper social function for Montrealers. It helped us to feel good about ourselves, and about social diversity, in the midst of an uncomfortable period in Quebec politics during which the PQ was promoting a policy that would ban the wearing of religious symbols in public (the so-called Charter of Quebec Values). You can read the original HuffPo version here


Thank Q! Culture in Defence of Montreal

Ever since the PQ officially unveiled its Charter of Quebec Values, Montreal residents have been in a bit of a slump.

In the not-too-distant past, whenever the media attempted to draw ire with reports of Hasidic Jews forcing gym goers to conceal their Lululemon workout gear from the public, or with headlines of Muslims demanding that pork be removed from sugar shacks, most of us simply shrugged and continued to go about our business.

And, as recently as last June, when the Quebec Soccer Federation received Pauline Marois' blessing to uphold a ban preventing turban-wearing youth from playing soccer, Montrealers swiftly denounced a move we viewed as hostile to our city's mantra of openness and fun.

Yet, when it comes to this Charter, and to the government's unwavering claim that its objectives are to protect the public practice of our society's commitment to the principles of equality and neutrality, things feel different.

Yes, we've signed an impressively constructed petition calling for inclusion. We've continued to publicly call out the PQ for solving a crisis that is entirely of its own making. And, we've commiserated with our friends and acquaintances at work and in our local caf├ęs. Confronting a reality, however, in which even cities and politicians out West are doing cosmopolitan life better than we are, we're nursing wounds to our collective psyche, and we're shuffling in our efforts to get our mojos back.

It was in this sad context last Thursday night when about 1500 Montrealers gathered for an event that coincided with Pop Montreal. When the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi brought his crew to the Olympia Theatre for a live taping of his daily radio show, Q, the Toronto-based host, perhaps unwittingly, used culture to choreograph and direct a re-awakening of the city's confidence.

Of principal importance to the revival were the evening's guests. Not simply due to the content of their performances, or to the substance of the answers they gave to Ghomeshi's questions, but especially because of the symbolic role their presence served to an audience of Montrealers.

Ghomeshi welcomed two musical performers. Patrick Watson performed elegantly, but when he said that the Montreal music scene was known more for creative collaboration between bands than for competition, he highlighted a unity in diversity spirit that's been rendered verboten under the letter of the Charter. Members of Braids told Ghomeshi how they fuel the content of their craft with their life experiences, but by showcasing a band that had relocated from Calgary, Q recognized that Montreal's allure still radiated outward to young artists in search of opportunity.

The inclusion of author Louise Penny, whose new book debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, was an obvious feel good story. But, when actor Antoine Bertrand's taunting of Ghomeshi for butchering the French pronunciation of his TV show's name segued into a disclosure of the nerves he felt about speaking English to the crowd, a deliciously local encounter was set in motion. A sheepish Ghomeshi offered a few words in his best French. Bertrand replied saying all that's needed is effort. Reasonable accommodation is anathema under the PQ, but when its awkward reality played out on the Olympia's stage, the audience ate it up precisely because they're comfortable performing it in their daily lives.

Finally, while Q's special Quebec media panel was ostensibly tasked with making sense of the Charter, comedian Sugar Sammy just may have been the one who offered the best edification on this score. Born and raised in Montreal, of Indian ethnicity, open about his irrational fealty to his traditional immigrant parents, and so fluent in English and French that his bilingual comedy show has sold 100,000 tickets to Quebecers on both sides of the two solitudes, Sugar Sammy is the living embodiment of the PQ's worst nightmare. "I grew up around different cultures," Sammy said. "And,  I've always said, 'if you open yourself up to everybody, I promise you you'll come out winning.'"

Sammy's preference to promote equality in Quebec by letting everybody be themselves is at odds with the Charter. But, judging from his overwhelming popularity province wide, time may very well be on the man's side.

This is all rather optimistic. Why, after all, do Montrealers need a Toronto show to highlight our culture? Why were no visible minorities included on the media panel to speak about the Charter's effects on their communities? Certainly, there were some in the audience who supported the Charter?

These are important questions.

But, in the midst of an uncomfortable autumn, when our politics are particularly foul, local culture makers reminded Montrealers just who we are. By watching them, we celebrated ourselves. And, at least for one night, it was good.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

When Political Commentators and Journalists Double as Hockey Fans

For this piece, my first published on Habs Eyes on the Prize, I wrote about three public figures who spend their leisure time tweeting about hockey and the Montreal Canadiens in particular. I caught up to Andrew Coyne, Les Perreaux, and Emmett Macfarlane during the 2014 NHL playoffs. Each was paying attention to the exciting run the Habs managed to put together to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. You can view the original piece here. 


The Unexpected Habs Fanatics

While the real action is undoubtedly on the ice, we’ve heard quite a bit about Habs fans during these playoffs.

We've read about the religious fervour with which expatriate believers unite around the Montreal Canadiens. We've learned that the superstitions and neuroses that we thought to be unique to our own living rooms are actually universal features of the game-day experiences of fellow members of Habs nation. Finally, we've seen how the traditionally face-to-face act of collectively cheering on the CH is now increasingly practiced in digital space.

Forgive Habs fans if they've been panicking in this third round series against the New York Rangers, but even with tensions running high, it's been a thrill.

Now, there's nothing unusual about fans doing fairly typical fan things. But, as the Habs have gone deeper into this year's playoffs, I've also noticed unexpected partisanship emerging around me. From the Coordinator of my department who's closing e-mails with "Go Habs Go," to the Humanities professor who's talked my ear off about Thomas Vanek, people who normally shy away from the hype have exposed themselves as full-blown boosters.

I have many academic friends who'll keep their hockey passion on the down low out of a sense that sports is not serious compared the real life topics we're supposed to be dealing with in higher education. But, in light of the numerous Habs love reveals I've witnessed in recent weeks, I decided to explore this question in a little more detail.

In the age of Twitter, it's easy to locate people with particular interests, and it's from my own feed that I drew a sample of hockey fans with whom to talk. Similar to the normally closeted Habs devotees at my work, these folks address important social issues in their professional lives. Yet, they've also stood out for their enthusiastic hockey tweeting during the playoffs. I turn to them to explore the phenomenon of the unexpected Habs fanatic.

Readers of Andrew Coyne know that the Postmedia national affairs columnist is deeply engaged in Canadian politics. Those who follow him on Twitter also know that Coyne's not shy about defending the positions he takes against those who come after him. Though he admits he'd rather be chatting with those he knows personally, Coyne explains why he'll go back and forth with his critics on Twitter.

"People don't always get your point," Coyne said. "People tend to believe what they want to believe, but every now and then you run into somebody who you're able to disabuse of whatever preconceptions they had about either me or about the column. [Twitter's] useful sometimes to know how you're being perceived."

Debating Justin Trudeau's policy on whether Liberal MPs can vote their conscience in parliament on abortion is one thing, but trolling the proponents of advanced statistical analysis in hockey on Twitter is something else entirely. Then there's the commentary he provides on the Habs' ups and downs in the playoffs. Why is a prominent political commentator taking time out of his busy schedule to do that? Coyne explains how tweeting his hockey interest is a welcome release from writing about the big issues of the day.

"It allows you to show a different side of yourself," Coyne said. "There are bounds of tastes that apply to newspapers that are a little looser on Twitter. You might throw in a swearword that you wouldn't in a newspaper. It seems to be an understood norm of the place, and that can encourage a breezy informality. And, [hockey] lends itself to that."

Coyne was a Winnipeg Jets fan growing up. As the only Canadian team in the playoffs, Coyne says he's solidly behind the Montreal Canadiens.

Supporting his notion that political writers tend to enjoy sports, Coyne wasn't the only nationally published journalist I was able to find who's been revealing affection for the Habs via Twitter during these playoffs.

In the recent Quebec election, Les Perreaux, a news reporter for the Globe and Mail, was assigned the task of live tweeting the second leaders debate. Leading up to the event, Perreaux provided historical context by supplying 140 character highlights of debates from the 2012 election. That his replay resembled TSN's routine of showing the previous year's Grey Cup on the afternoon of the current year's championship game is no coincidence. Like Andrew Coyne, Perreaux enjoys alternating between news and sports in his public musings on Twitter. Hockey and the Habs make regular appearances.

"Hockey is an area I feel pretty free to say what I think," Perreaux said. "I don't have to have evidence that the Habs stink to say, ‘the Habs stink,' whereas before I can say Philippe Couillard stinks, I better have pretty solid reasoning to say it. Sport is a distraction, a leisure activity, a spectacle, and for someone in my job, it's a fun area to talk about."

Before he began to use Twitter to discuss issues he's reporting on, hockey was the subject Perreaux tweeted about most frequently. And while he thinks that too many people tweeting the exact same things during games can ruin interactions, Perreaux's personal investment in the Habs playoff fortunes and his work duties keep him involved.

"I will continue to observe play and games, and [tweet] things that happen on the ice," Perreaux said. "If the Habs continue on a run, there's going to be stories we have to do outside the actual games, [like] the buzz in the city or Stanley Cup fever. If they get to the final, we'll be doing stories everyday, so I'll be using twitter for that sort of hybrid news-sports."

It might not be all that surprising to find Canadian columnists and journalists publicly commenting on the Stanley Cup playoffs as part of their chronicling of current events. But, can the same be expected of folks in the ivory tower? Are my colleagues and their coming out stories an aberration or are many scholars experiencing & expressing a similar latent Habs fever? Twitter supplied me with an answer.

I first learned about Emmett Macfarlane due to the fact that his Habs tweets would frequently appear in my Twitter timeline on game nights during the regular season. Macfarlane, an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, studies the Supreme Court of Canada, and also writes on politics for Maclean's and the Globe and Mail. A regular participant in Twitter discussions with a network of political journalists and academics, Macfarlane won't hesitate to express his adoration for the Habs right in the middle of the high-flying conversation.

"I tweet about [hockey] because it's one of the things I'm passionate about," Macfarlane said. "Most of my tweeting is during a game, particularly big games, like in the playoffs. It's kind of neat to connect to other Habs fans online, or to get into debates with people who like other teams. A lot of the people in my twitter feed are tweeting about the game, and it's a shared experience in that way."

It's refreshing to hear a fellow academic be as unabashedly enthusiastic about a sports team as he is about the politics he studies, but is there no hesitation to mash the Montreal Canadiens with the Canadian Constitution in such a public manner? Macfarlane makes the balance work.

"I'm much more inappropriate when I'm talking about hockey," said Macfarlane. "There are people in academia who are conservative about seeing someone swearing or making stupid jokes about other teams. They regard it as wholly inappropriate, and even something that can damage your professional reputation. I don't personally buy into that. I am a fan of hockey, so I behave as a fan. I will literally tweet ‘YAAAH' when there's a goal, as if this is a remotely an intelligent thing to do. But, it's something that's one of my passions, so I enjoy engaging in that way."

In their public expressions then, all three unexpected Habs fanatics transition between the serious content of their day jobs and the joy that comes from following their sport. But, beyond tweeting the Habs, I also wondered what they thought about hockey's place in Canada more generally. Isn't hockey really just a diversion? Or, is it truly as vital to our nation as the CBC and Prime Minister Harper would have us believe it to be? These observers and storytellers of the national scene are in a perfect position to comment.

Though he certainly sees crossovers between hockey and real life affairs, Les Perreaux mostly views hockey as a distraction with limited societal stakes. Taking a different tack, Macfarlane and Coyne not only respect hockey's value to Canadian society, but they also suggest that its big picture significance is partially responsible for drawing them in.

"I think we're a little bit insecure about what makes Canada distinct," Macfarlane said. "We do so much comparing of ourselves to the United States, so we point to things like universal healthcare or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as things that make Canada special. I would put hockey in that class of things. In some ways it's analogous to what baseball is to Americans, but in other ways it's also reflective of us being a winter nation, a northern country. We do hold it in pride of place in that sort of cultural perspective."

While Macfarlane acknowledges that the Conservative Party has invested a lot in trying to leverage hockey into political gains, he also maintains that the sport is a legitimate and needed marker of Canadian identity.

Andrew Coyne agrees that hockey's expressive of Canadian culture, and he offers an inspiring take with which many of us would no doubt agree.

"Hockey crosses every boundary of identity politics," Coyne said. "All the supposedly immutable differences and vast gulfs that are supposed to separate the different languages, or the different races, or even the different genders, all of those get blown apart, and people just find a certain unity just playing a game for fun. That's a wonderful and sacred thing and, at its best, the game really does bring people together."

Coyne recognizes hockey's role as a great social unifier. Yet, true to his reputation as a bit of a contrarian, Coyne offers an additional view of the sport's importance in forcing Canadians to re-evaluate taken for granted views of their own historical and cultural sensibilities.

"It is not the peaceable kingdom caring sharing type of sport, it's just not in its nature," Coyne said. "When you see the game of hockey, you see a more accurate picture of what this country has been than a lot of the nationalist mythmakers would allow. It is violent, individualistic, spontaneous, freewheeling. We've colonized large sections of America with it, so the whole argument of cultural imperialism gets turned on its head. That's probably part of what appeals to me about it, [and] there's a part of me that finds that ruggedness of our forebears something to learn from."

It's clear that even unexpected Habs fanatics enjoy publicly supporting their team, and that they recognize varying degrees of hockey's social value, but one final serious matter requires attention. 

Can the Montreal Canadiens actually win this year's Stanley Cup?

"The stats people would say that Montreal is the odd man out amongst the last four teams in the sense that they were the least effective at controlling the puck all season long," Coyne said. "But, the fact that they've come this far shows that maybe statistics don't explain everything, and that intangible things like emotions and teams playing above themselves can also kick in."

Coyne's foray into the language and logic of fancy stats is impressive, but his prediction is basically a hedge. He's not alone in stopping just short of a clear declaration.

"My ability to predict hockey is much worse than my ability to predict what the Supreme Court will do, and I'm often wrong about what the Supreme Court will do," Macfarlane said. "I was nervous going in to [the Rangers] series, but I'm starting to feel that something special's going to happen this year. The Rangers are a good team, but I think the Canadiens match up well against them."

And, despite being closest to the ground in Montreal, Les Perreaux goes no farther than the others.

"I honestly don't know what's going to happen," Perreaux said. "Hockey's a weird sport. The stats guys are getting a bigger and bigger presence in how hockey's analyzed, but hockey has to be the most unpredictable sport. Anything can happen. To me, that's the crazy thing about hockey."

So, despite all their collective knowledge and opinions regarding the most important happenings in the country, the unexpected Habs fanatics' predictions about their team are surprisingly non-committal. Thus, even taking the highly serious nature of their professional engagements into account, maybe Coyne, Perreaux, and Macfarlane are not so different from fans like you and me.

"After the win over Boston, I suddenly [became] very excited," Macfarlane said. "But, as a Habs fan, being excited just makes you nervous. Are you getting your hopes up only to be crushed? It very much is a completely irrational approach to assessing these things as a fan I think."

Whether our Habs fanaticism is expected or not, it's the irrationality of it all that helps makes the ride so worth it for all of us.

My Thoughts on Palestinian Solidarity Activism in Light of this Summer's Gaza War

In this piece, I've drawn from some of my earlier research as a doctoral student and I've written about what I perceive to be one of the main weaknesses of international solidarity activism on behalf of the Palestinians. This issue has arisen in light of the horrific war in Gaza. I have taken heat on Twitter, both from supporters of Israel and Palestine. This piece has been critiqued from supporters of Palestine. You see the original and the comments as they appear on Huffington Post Canada here.


When Palestinian Solidarity Harms More Than It Helps

As the summer's hostilities in Israel-Palestine drag on, its daily escalations are being intensely discussed and debated by activist-inclined non-Israelis and non-Palestinians. In response to the day's news, and to its parody, all expected positions have been reinforced.
On the one side are those who view Israel as beleaguered, as the region's only democracy in a sea of instability, and as a principled state whose citizens command unqualified empathy during times of threat.

For those who view the Palestinians as the world's pre-eminent disenfranchised population, one relentlessly victimized by unchecked Israeli expansionism, Hamas missiles, though regrettable, are justified as self-defense. It's next to impossible to find anyone who assigns responsibility to both Israelis and Palestinians for either the current crisis or for the trajectory of the historical conflict.

One significant voice in the debate is that being expressed by those who identify as activists in solidarity with the Palestinians. Growing out of ties to organizations in Israel and Palestine, and especially since the collapse of the Olso peace process, international activists have mobilized, and have made inroads on university campuses, in labour unions, and in religious organizations.

Affiliated with what proponents call "a global movement for a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights," Canadian solidarity activists have used the summer's conflagration to challenge mainstream media's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to condemn Israeli 'Apartheid,' and to denounce the Conservative government's one-sided support of Israel.

Given the history and politics surrounding the conflict, one challenge for Palestinian solidarity activists has been finding ways to criticize Israeli state policy without being seen as anti-Jewish. With a range of stakeholders ready to react, advocacy for Palestine will frequently lead to accusations that one is expressing hate, and even doing harm, to Israel, to Jewish Israelis, and to the Jewish people as a whole. Owing to these complex sensitivities, activists know that the movement's ability to gain a wide base of support would be substantially limited if the Jew hating label were to be perceived as true.

In recent years, the tension between Palestinian solidarity activists and their opponents on this issue has routinely played out in the specific debate over whether expressing anti-Zionist politics - challenging Palestinian oppression by assigning its responsibility to Israel's status as a Jewish state - is tantamount to anti-Semitism. Although solidarity activists try to debunk this charge by arguing that anti-Zionism isn't anti-Semitism, many remain both unconvinced and troubled by the singling out of Israel for political attack.

Resulting from their condemnation of Israel for its conduct in the current mini-war in Gaza, Palestinian solidarity activists have faced renewed complaints that they're fomenting hate. To deflect this accusation, activists on Twitter have been including a newer phrase, Zionism isn't Judaism, in their tweets.

In terms of its symbolic meaning, Zionism isn't Judaism is being employed to distinguish a political ideology or system that's being targeted - Zionism - from a religious identity - Jewish - that characterizes a majority of the population of Israel. In the eyes of Palestinian solidarity activists, Zionism isn't Judaism helps because it presents a clear delineation of what is and what isn't the intended object of their denunciations.

Zionism isn't Judaism is a clever reconstruction of the earlier anti-Zionism isn't anti-Semitism refrain. By explicitly freeing Judaism from the 'offending' history and politics of Zionism, supporters can feel safe to join a movement that critiques and calls for political change in Israel, but that has no issue with the Jewish people and their religion.

Separating Judaism from Zionism yields an additional particular benefit for Jewish supporters of Palestine. Their rejection of Israeli policy can't logically be dismissed as Jewish self-hatred when their religious identity is fully excised from the conception of the State of Israel that's rhetorically established by the meme Zionism isn't Judaism.

Palestinian solidarity activists are using Zionism isn't Judaism on social media to say that Jews aren't the problem, the Zionist state of Israel is the problem, but will this tactic work? Does this meme increase legitimacy by helping to remove doubt about anti-Jewish sentiment in Palestine solidarity? Does it pave the way for more Jews with sympathy for the Palestinians to join the movement? Despite good intentions, the answer is no.

One problem with Zionism isn't Judaism is that its primary assertion is inaccurate. Yes, the original founders of Zionism were not religious, but the principle that all peoples have the right to a national homeland provides legitimacy for a range of ties of Jewish affiliation to the State of Israel.

Among other things, this includes historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious-based connections. Not all Jewish Israelis are religious, and there's an internal struggle in Israel regarding separation of state and religion. But, in the context of solidarity activism, saying that contemporary Jewish nationalism has nothing to do with the religion of the Jewish people is either an intentional deception or regrettable ignorance. In either case, this rhetorical move alone renders Zionism isn't Judaism a misnomer.

Probably more problematic for Zionism isn't Judaism are the consequences that flow from acknowledging the political motivations behind separating religion from Jewish nationalism. One can critique the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and propose that Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation will only emerge from the establishment of a secular democratic alternative, without supporting the oppression of Jews in Israel or abroad. But, by inferring that Zionism is inherently illegitimate, in need of dismantling, Zionism isn't Judaism denies Jews access to the same national rights that solidarity activists seek for the Palestinians.

There most certainly are Jews grappling with these dilemmas, as well as those pledging public support for Palestinian solidarity. But, since significant proportions of the Jewish community feel emotionally connected to Israel in its current form, the anti-Zionist politics implicit in Zionism isn't Judaism cannot be credibly perceived as un-threatening to Jews.

By tactically dismissing the lifeworlds of mainstream Israelis and Jews, and by viewing their intractability as the only source of the problem, solidarity activists may very well be following in the footsteps of their colleagues in Palestine and Israel.

Yet, Palestinians are in desperate need of help. They require allies with whom they can work in order to shift the balance of power. The best allies they could get to help them accomplish this are Jews in Israel and in the United States. But, without honest reckoning over the meanings and realities of Jewish nationalism, their potentials to forge a movement with the moral and political credibility to be able to force change for the better will remain elusive for some time.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Sociology, Twitter, & Fan/Media Engagement With Hockey

In this All Habs piece, I do a little sociology lite in an analysis of how fans and media pundits use twitter to chime in and debate NHL coaches. In response to announcements regarding prominent coaches who were given new hockey jobs during or at the end of this past season, I gathered a sample of fan and media comments on Twitter and developed four narratives that express the types of story lines told about hockey coaches. Digital media affects sports and fandom in complex and uneven ways, and this piece shows how hockey fans and media writers use Twitter to bring themselves to have symbolic control and involvement with NHL affairs and developments.  

Coach Opera

By Avi Goldberg

For fans of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the most compelling stories of last offseason was the repatriation of Michel Therrien as head coach. Though this development gave an academic colleague and me a surprise opportunity to employ a little humour in a fancy stats lite analysis of Therrien’s potential in his second go around with the club, many of us fans routinely enjoy observing the movement of coaches from one NHL gig to another. And, despite its abbreviated and intensified pace, or maybe because of it, this past season provided a handful of interesting developments to be written into the script of hockey’s ongoing coach opera.

To make some sense of it all, I’ve looked at this past season’s major coaching transactions in conjunction with a half-scientifically gathered sample of comments from the Twitterverse, and I’ve come up with four storylines that fans and hockey media pundits use to talk about NHL coaches. A comparative look at popular coaching storylines reveals a lot about the relationship between the perceived needs of NHL teams and the drama produced and consumed by those who follow the plotlines of their favourite team serials.

You can continue to read the piece in its entirety here.