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Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Evaluating Rogers Hockey: Year One!

Originally published on Habs Eyes on the Prize on April 18, 2015, I asked three hockey observers to give their views of how Rogers did in its first year as Canada's national hockey TV broadcaster. With Rogers currently making severe cuts and changes to its broadcast package following two subpar years (subject of a blogpost in the very near future), the comments and assessments provided by Ted Bird, Christopher Curtis, and Marcy Di Michele in this piece proved to be quite prescient. You can read the Eyes on the Prize version here.  

How Did Rogers Hockey Night in Canada Do in its First Year?

The playoffs are underway! That means we've all made it through year one of the massive new Canadian TV hockey deal that put Rogers in charge of almost everything.

Though the initial announcement of the deal took almost everyone by surprise, and drew a fair amount of criticism, the results of the lengthy and reportedly dramatic negotiation process sealed the fate of Canada's national hockey mediascape for the next eleven years. There was a lot of uncertainty in the air, but hockey fans came into this season well prepared for what promised to be a significantly altered viewing reality.

Out went Ron MacLean and James Duthie from national prominence, and in went George Stroumboulopoulos.

Out with a focus on Canadian teams on Saturday nights, and in went multiple game-viewing options.

Out went the old Hockey Night in Canada set, and in went a new massive broadcast studio and technological innovation for game coverage.

There would be (a little) less Don Cherry, and a lot more Damien Cox and Doug MacLean.

It promised to be a revolution.

Over the course of this season, fans and media watchers were given inside accounts of how the Rogers hockey broadcast worked, updated on the deal's expected versus actual financials, and shown poll results describing how viewers were reacting to the changes in on-air personnel. My own Twitter feed hummed with the same kind of of Rogers-directed critique that I'm already seeing this playoffs, but what more can be said about Rogers hockey at the end of its first year? Did we see a vast improvement to the TV coverage of the good old hockey game over the season? Or, did we miss the people and the shows that we had, and that we basically seemed to enjoy, before?

To assess Rogers hockey in its first year, I've gone to three outspoken hockey observers and media contributors for their expert views. Given the reality in which almost everyone in Canadian media works for either Rogers or Bell, and lest one's opinions be influenced by one's professional affiliation, I turned to experts who have some, but maybe not total, distance from these two telecommunications giants.

Ted Bird is the Morning Show host at CHSV Radio, The Jewel, based out of Hudson-St-Lazare, Quebec. Author of a versatile blog, Bird's done loads of hockey media/analysis work in recent years, and he makes occasional appearances on the Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out Show. With an early start in news, Christopher Curtis has spent this hockey season as a Montreal Canadiens reporter for the Montreal Gazette. Curtis' thought-provoking reporting and analysis of Habs-related affairs has received much favourable attention, and he has also appeared on the Hockey Inside/Out Show. Finally, Marcy Di Michele covers the Edmonton Oilers, and the wider NHL, for The Hockey Writers blog. Di Michele's keen insights have been noticed, and have brought her opportunities to contribute to CTV News.

While all three media experts were surprised by the sheer size, and financial scope, of the Rogers deal, only Di Michele told me she came into this season somewhat concerned about some of the major changes that would come to the Hockey Night in Canada show to which she'd felt attached since she started watching as a kid. Bird and Curtis were ready for the change, and they also expected to see a continuation of the professionalism and quality in hockey broadcasting they were used to from CBC and TSN.

Going beyond their expectations heading into this season, I asked each of the media experts the same set of questions about what they saw during the first year of Rogers hockey. Aside from full agreement on what all the experts described as the annoyance of Rogers' nebulous regional blackout policy, the experts gave varying answers across four different question categories: game broadcast, intermission programming, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Habs coverage.

I present the media experts' analysis of year one of Rogers hockey below.

The Game Broadcast

Even with the blending of staff between Sportsnet and CBC (plus Dave Randorf and Mike Johnson from TSN), there was concern heading into the season that Rogers might not have enough quality talent to properly cover its massive schedule of games. As they watched their favourite teams over the season, the media experts don't totally agree on the level of quality of the Rogers broadcasts.

For Marcy Di Michele, some of the fans' biggest concerns about talent shortage have definitely been realized.

"Every chance I have to watch a broadcast on TSN over Sportsnet, I take it," Di Michele said. "I think Rogers dropped the ball not signing Chris Cuthbert. He's one of the best in the business. The talent is spread pretty thin because of all the national coverage. I know the guys they have are doing the best they can, so I don't want to criticize individuals."

Unlike Michele, veteran media man, Ted Bird, says the quality on Rogers has mostly been fine. And while he thinks it's time for some CBC talent to move on, Bird also appreciates the new-old personalities who have found their way back onto Canadian hockey TV under Rogers.

"I haven't seen a significant different in the quality of the broadcast because it's a lot of the same people doing a lot of the same things, in front of and behind the cameras," Bird said. "[It's] nice to see Paul Romanuk back in the saddle, but Bob Cole should have been put out to pasture long ago, in my opinion."

Count Christopher Curtis among those who had hoped that the Rogers broadcast would actually bring some interesting innovation in how they game is showed to the viewers. So far, he's been a bit disappointed.

"You spend billions of dollars getting the hockey rights, you're going to want to tinker with some things, and almost all of the tinkering was in vain because they don't use all those [new] things," Curtis said. "The one technological innovation that really actually does make the game a little bit more of an enjoyable experience is only available in Toronto. I like the Sky Cam. It's the one camera rig that they've built that isn't hokey, and you only [got] to see it in games where literally nothing [was] at stake because Toronto [was] playing."

Along with noting some of their particular disappointments, the media experts give Rogers game broadcasts a satisfactory evaluation.
Intermission Programming

What did it mean to hockey fans to have no Ron MacLean and less Don Cherry during intermissions on Saturday night games? Was it a loss to say goodbye to Hockey NIght in Canada's panels? Did Rogers hockey new approach to intermission programming draw fans into the games and players in a way that CBC and TSN did not? Regarding intermissions, I asked the media experts to consider three specific areas: hockey analysis, Don Cherry, and the diversity of the Rogers broadcast team. Their responses are mixed.

Hockey Analysis

Ted Bird appreciates Rogers' new 'USS Enterprise' studio, but he argues that the content delivered by the intermission teams fails to meet previously high standards of Canadian hockey broadcasting.

"As a group, the intermission casts are palatable and competent, but still have a long way to go to match Bob McKenzie, Darren Dreger, James Duthie, Aaron Ward et al at TSN for broadcasting chops and journalistic credibility."

Marcy Di Michele agrees with Bird that hockey content and analysis are lacking on Rogers hockey, but she sharpens the stylistic and substantive criticism an additional degree or two.

"Intermission shows [have] become more like a gimmick than actual hockey content, however, I much prefer the analysis of guys like Darren Dreger and Bob McKenzie as opposed to the talking heads at Rogers," Di Michele said. "I feel as though Sportsnet intermission broadcasts are a bunch of guys who think very highly of themselves, trying to one-up each other rather than actually provide insightful hockey analysis. Or, name dropping all the famous players they know and telling us boring stories of when they were in the NHL."

Taking a bit of a bigger picture approach, Christopher Curtis believes the problem with intermission content in hockey broadcasting has more to do with generically stifling formats than with particular individuals and their talents. Yet, Curtis explains the lack of creativity he saw during Rogers' intermissions this season.

"It's the same basic principle," Curtis said. "It's too safe. It's so formulaic that you would have like to have seen something a bit different. Small documentaries, small segments that look at what's happening outside the lines, issues like domestic violence, sexual violence, which we've seen in hockey this year, PEDs, doping, not only concussions, or the one or two hot button issues. I would have liked to have seen something a little bit different, but you didn't see it."

Don Cherry

The media experts were in agreement that hockey substance was lacking during intermissions on Rogers hockey, but they don't see eye to eye on the status and performance of Don Cherry and Coach's Corner. Interestingly, their contrasting views defy expectations that one might expect based on a consideration of gender and age demographics.

Marcy Di Michele views the Don Cherry-Ron MacLean partnership as an institution in Canadian hockey broadcasting that is being unnecessarily phased out by Rogers.

"As for Don Cherry, I know many people don't care for him, but he's good TV," Di Michele said. "He and Ron MacLean are a good duo and it's a real shame they're getting pushed out the door."

While both Bird and Curtis acknowledge and respect Don Cherry's past cultural relevance, they also agree that the Coach's time is done. Curtis expresses his particular aversion to Cherry.

"I feel like there's this fear of being the network that will be remembered as the network that kills Coach's Corner. I have zero problem watching Coach's Corner die at this point," Curtis said. "It just doesn't feel like he's doing his homework any more. He's going back to the same three or four wells. 
There isn't enough violence in hockey. There needs to be more violence in hockey. Toronto needs to have more players from Ontario. The segment long ago became self-parody. Turn on the camera, point it at Don Cherry, 'Don Cherry, yell something crazy. Excellent! We're done. Let's move on.'"

Gender Representation

In light of an increasing public discussion regarding the fact that women want and deserve more prominent places in hockey media, I asked the media experts if they felt Rogers missed an opportunity to build a more diverse on-air team in terms of gender. The differences in responses to this question were split along a generational line.

For Ted Bird, the elder statesman, there was no need for Rogers hockey to alter the gender composition of its on-air team from what's been done before.

"A hockey broadcast crew with an overwhelming male presence is no different than the all-female panel on The View or predominantly Black hosts on BET," Bird said. "It caters to the target demographic. I don't have a problem with that. Broadcasting hockey games is a business, not a sociology experiment."

Di Michele and Curtis, both from a younger generation than Bird, see the question of gender in hockey broadcasting in a completely different manner, and they both expressed frustration with the standard situation in which women on-air talent are featured in supporting roles rather than as primary contributors of hockey content. Christopher Curtis describes his disappointment that Rogers has thus far failed to innovate in this area.

"The roles women can have are limited," Curtis said. "Women can never be weighing in. It's like, 'I can introduce it, because I speak well, and I'm on television, but I won't weigh in.' It's not these people themselves. It's just the roles that they're given. I would love to have seen Cassie Campbell have the chance to either do the colour commentary or the play-by-play, and that's just not going to happen. It's just this reliance on these old formulas. Come on, guys, tweak it a bit."

From intermission hockey analysis to Don Cherry to the question of gender representation on Rogers hockey, the media experts present diverging responses. In terms of an evaluation of Rogers' intermission programming, there are definitely indicators of dissatisfaction.

Arguably, one of the biggest questions heading in to year one of Rogers hockey pertained to the decision to bring George Stroumboulopoulos in to replace Ron MacLean. Viewed as the key for Rogers to appeal to a young and emerging generation of hockey viewers, the media experts' assessment of Strombo in his first year on the job is both mixed and in defiance of demographic expectations yet again.

Ted Bird endorses Strombo after his first year, and he sees him as a welcome change from Ron MacLean.

"I give Strombo credit," Bird said. "The decision to hire him was too hip by a half when Elliotte Friedman was the obvious heir apparent to MacLean. But, Strombo himself has done a good job of deferring to the 'experts' and not trying to make it about him, unlike MacLean, who was always too clever by a half and overtly insecure about his job."

Both Curtis and Di Michele acknowledge Strombo's skills, but fail to give him the resounding youth vote that Rogers was counting on capturing.

"I look at George Stroumboulopoulos and I remember him from the New Music," Curtis said. "I always pigeonhole him in that role, and I think maybe a lot of people do. Look, he's done more than a satisfactory job, and it does take a little bit of time to develop chemistry with the people you're on a panel with. So, I would say give Strombo a pass for this year. Let's not be too harsh on the guy, and let's see what he can bring us in the future."

Whereas Curtis looks ahead optimistically, Di Michele hits Strombo's performance in his first season where it might hurt the most.

"Strombo is a good interviewer, but he knows very little about hockey. I never understood why he's there, and I still don't. He can't fill Ron MacLean's shoes," Di Michele said. "Strombo is fine to do lengthy interviews a la Barbara Walters, but keep him away from intermission reports and actual hockey opinion."

Strombo may not have hit it out of the park in his first full season as host of Rogers hockey, but, in a split decision, the media experts say they'll give him more time.
Habs Coverage

There was one last question I wanted the media experts to mull over, and that was how the new Rogers hockey broadcast handled our very own Montreal Canadiens. As Habs fans, we're used to Toronto-centric coverage, and we've often felt that our team neither gets the airtime nor the appreciation that it deserves. Knowing that Strombo's a fan of the blue-blanc-rouge, hopes were a little higher heading into the season. What did the media experts think?

Whereas both Marcy Di Michele and Christopher Curtis say they'll often tune in to RDS to watch the Habs, Ted Bird appreciates most of what he's seen this year when it comes to coverage of the Canadiens.

"I like that we're getting a lot more Habs games in English. Pierre Houde is the best, but I still prefer watching in my first language when possible," Bird said. "John Bartlett is a premium play-by-play talent who deserves national exposure. Colour commentary and intermission elements of the regional broadcasts could definitely be better."

As a local Habs reporter, Curtis says he likes hearing the analysis that comes from reporters outside the Montreal media bubble, but he also feels that Rogers hockey has not delivered an upgraded commitment fro Habs coverage than what we've seen before.

"When the Habs get national attention, they've been treated as this regional curiosity," Curtis said. "The regional games, you can tell that they're saving a few bucks here and there. [Rogers] puts together a fine show, but, as any Montrealer, I have that inferiority complex. I would like to see the team, and the city, get more national recognition. But, it is what it is. The media centre of our country is Toronto, and we have to accept that, because, 'shut up Montreal, you'll get yours.'"

The media experts weren't blown away by year one of the Habs on Rogers hockey.


So, with all the money spent, and with the the changes to the Canadian hockey-media industry, the experts' opinions suggest that, while it was far from a catastrophe, Rogers has a fair amount of thinking and work do do before it will deliver a truly interesting and innovative hockey broadcast to Canadians in the next eleven years.

But, despite the concerns that were duly raised by the media experts, and that we all hope will be heard by the new national hockey media bosses, it's still hockey, and it's still Canada. We're all already tuning in to Rogers to watch playoff games this spring. And, with that in mind, I leave you with one last set of opinions from the media experts, their playoff predictions. After all, they come closer to reaching a consensus on the eventualStanley Cup champion than they did on the network that will bring all the action to the fans.

Enjoy the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Participating in Quebec's Public Sector Worker Strikes

Last fall, Quebec's public sector workers launched strike actions to pressure the provincial government to come to a fair settlement in their ongoing negotiations for new collective agreements. As it appeared that public sector workers and the Quebec government were inching closer to an agreement, I wrote about striking with my colleagues at Vanier College. I describe how the experience of being together with fellow workers on the picket line led to some surprising and positive dynamics of solidarity and hope. You can read the piece on the Contexts Blog here.

Strike Days for Quebec Public Sector Workers (Originally published December 7, 2015)

My colleagues at Vanier College and I are among the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who have been striking to pressure the Quebec government to accede to our demands in negotiations over our new collective agreements.

Working in a province whose government raised eyebrows when it stepped up big time to help a major private corporation in financial trouble, that recently proposed to increase salaries of its elected officials, and coming out of a national election in which the winning Liberal Party and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the principle that state spending, not more economic austerity, is needed to push Canadians through a difficult economic period, public sector workers in Quebec see themselves, and the services they offer to Quebecers, as more than worthy of social investment.

Weeks after demonstrating strong local willingness to take part in collective action, and after participating in three strike days over the last several weeks, we at Vanier were preparing for three consecutive days during which all public sector workers across the province would withhold their labour from their employers.

After the planned three-day strike was deferred to give provincial government negotiators time to reflect on our last counter-offer, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux recently announced that the Common Front, the network of all provincial public sector unions, would take part in a one day strike on December 9 if a deal with the government isn’t reached by that time. Some of the more militant unions in the network are locked in for three consecutive days of striking.

At the moment, and following a lengthy period of public and even government indifference to the negotiations, a lot is going on.

For the first time in his relatively young government, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is feeling heat to back down from his miserly approach to social spending. There’s been a recent rise of media chatter encouraging government negotiators to settle with the Common Front, as well as piecemeal tentative deals reached with specific unions. With hints that deals could be struck with all the province’s unions before the holidays, the situation is quite fluid.

We’re living in a time in which activism is both ubiquitous and off-putting. Whether it was the pots and pans tactics used by students during Quebec’s Maple Spring protests against cuts to education, the current wave of student protest over racism at U.S. universities, or even the power of hashtags to try to force change, those turning to non-institutional protest tactics are being met today with no small amount of public and media judgment and rhetorical retribution.

Yet, despite operating in a reality in which taking to the streets receives tepid support at best, representing an institutional context – Quebec’s Cegep system – whose utility is semi-regularly interrogated by vocal segments of the general public, and learning that a tentative non-monetary deal has been reached between the government and the college sector, I am enthusiastic about continuing to strike with my Vanier colleagues until acceptable deals are signed between the government and all public sector unions province-wide. There are many good sociological reasons why.

As our everyday schedules normally dictate that we typically fly past each other in the corridors, many of us spent our recent strike days with colleagues whose faces we’d seen hundreds of times, but whom we really did not know. For the first time in a long time, workers from different college sectors actually talked to each other on our strike days, and the stories we shared were neither limited to the substance of our demands nor to the fears we hold over threats to our jobs.

In the midst of our marching, and some singing and dancing, we swapped teaching philosophies, deconstructed Canada’s new prime minister, and we even strategized on how we could take part promoting an inclusive social democratic movement in Quebec. We shared reactions to the Paris attacks, considered how our community might be able to help Syrian refugees, and, of course, we marveled over the state of our revered local hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens.

Sure, strike days were organized to show the Vanier community what would be missing if we weren’t on the job. They’ve also been held to demonstrate to the provincial government and to our fellow Quebecers that we’re serious about opposing austerity and fighting for continued investment in the public sphere. Bridging the macro and the micro, strike days accomplished more than just that.

Countering the economic pessimism and perceived political limitations of our times, strike days gave passionate teachers and staff permission to imagine what it would be like to have significant public support for our community that’s trying its best to work for its students. Attuned to and inspired by global and national events occurring around us, they brought us to talk about different roles that we could play in building a Quebec and Canadian society that worked for all its citizens.

Don’t get me wrong. Strike days have made Vanier workers hungry for a collective agreement. But, by temporarily letting us believe in our capacities and in our social relevance, the interactive dynamics of strike days also animated a collective power that we don’t often get to sense during the routine.

Seeing the meaning of strike days to Quebec public sector workers in this way, and recognizing the social engagement potentials that they seductively unleash, it’s probably in the best interest of the Quebec government to settle with all of us as soon as it can.

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 cafés. 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.