“It’s war out there.” “That guy’s a real hero.” “We’ll battle this thing out until one of us comes out on top.” “Aw man! That guy really took his legs out.”

To the layman, these are the kinds of things you might hear at a casualty clearing station or first aid post on the battlefield. More frequently, civilians hear such comments in hockey, baseball, and football locker rooms across North America. Sport, as is well known, has a long history of martial metaphor (not to mention gender stereotyping bundled up with war imagery). But is this trend inappropriate?

We’ve recently seen how the public, when given a clear example, draw an unmistakable distinction between battlefield and sporting heroism. Witness the recent “great lake debate” (no pun intended) on whether the Manitoba government ought to name a remote northern lake after Chicago Blackhawk Jonathan Toews. The controversy swirls around the fact that Toews is going to have his name bestowed on a lake before a number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

The Commemorative Names Project is “continuing to name geographical features after Manitobans who died during war service. More than 4,200 lakes, rivers, creeks and other landscape features have been named for World War II, Korean War, United Nations Peacekeeper, and Afghanistan fatal casualties.” That a “mere” sportsman could be named ahead of one of those Manitobans killed in Afghanistan really raised some hackles. In recent years, we have seen a conscious retreat (even I can’t help the military metaphors!) from the use of such language; some have even described the use of such terms as “repulsive”.

However, the long history of martial metaphors in sport accompanies an even lengthier association of sport with martial training. Is the distinction between them as clear-cut as it might otherwise seem? In this post, I’d like to highlight the great importance that Canada’s soldiers attached to sports while they served overseas during the Second World War.

Perhaps beginning with the Olympiads held by the ancient Greek city states as early as 776 BCE, sport and physical education (PE) have been institutionally sanctioned in civilizations across the globe in the form of military training. In Canada, no national organization existed for the advancement of sport or PE until the twentieth century. The earliest program for the national proliferation of sport and PE to the provinces was the Strathcona Trust, initiated in 1909. The Trust initiated systems of physical training and military drill in schools across Canada. Among European governments, the culture of sport and physical fitness became widespread between the world wars, partially as a result of the rise of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany which offered healthy youthful images as representative of national health and vigour. While most people in Britain and Canada rejected the politics of the extreme right, the national government in Britain launched a “National Fitness Campaign” in 1937 that linked individual fitness to national strength.

The Canadian government was not insulated from these developments. Parliament passed the National Fitness Act in 1943, which was not unrelated to the attitudes then engendered by Canada’s youth stationed overseas. Among this sizable section of the Canadian population, physically separated from Canada, we can see how the military’s use of sport kept the soldiers in fighting form and, more importantly, maintained high levels of morale by linking them to memories of home and by facilitating the play of sports that reinforced their national allegiances. This was especially important as the soldiers were forced to “hurry up and wait”, many for 42 months, before seeing sustained action, a problem that could badly sap morale.

In Canada at the beginning of the Second World War, sports positively reflected the nation’s cultural desires and pastimes and these patterns were reflected in the army overseas. In the army, some sports were differentiated according to English- and French-Canadian cultural preferences. For example, English-Canadian soldiers liked recreational rifle shooting, while French-Canadian troops preferred skiing. But overall, 85% of English-speaking and 75% of French-speaking troops professed an interest in sports and of those, there was agreement on the most popular sports. Troops representing both language groups professed a keen interest in hockey, softball, and skating. These sports occupied a space of cultural consensus between English- and French-speaking Canadians overseas and differentiated them both from the British.

The popularity and morale-building qualities of Canadian games overseas trumped even the primary reason for encouraging sports: the physical benefits. Hockey was so popular that it was played despite army assertions that it was not the best sport to promote physical training and despite the fact that its special logistical requirements augured against large-scale participation. For example, in a September 1942 meeting, the senior Canadian YMCA officer in the UK bemoaned the loss of equipment to enemy naval action and its potential for postponing the hockey season. This resulted in a request to send hockey equipment over immediately on the next bomber – valuable space indeed. The army’s eventual support for hockey and softball leagues and championships reflected its acknowledgement that these sports served an important morale function for the soldiers. Enthusiastic participation and spectator appeal replicated normative patterns of social life extant in Canada, which thereby eased problems of discipline and morale in the Canadian army during the long static period. Sports – both in the form of participation and spectatorship – were an essential tonic to the soldiers who were eagerly awaiting action.

In the end, the differences in terms of sacrifice, compensation, technical know-how, and real guts between a multi-millionaire hockey player and a father or mother of two little kids, separated from their families and operating in that hostile and unforgiving environment bear no comparison. Still, there is a strong and reciprocal historical relationship between sport and the military. In Canada, this link served a special purpose in the Second World War, while Canada’s soldiers were forced to live abroad for many months without any visits home. In those harrowing and dangerous days, the soldiers may well have approved of their favourite hockey player back home receiving accolades because this reminded them of all that they missed and loved back home. For Canadian soldiers in England, sporting metaphors for warlike behaviour were entirely appropriate and useful substitutes for action on the one hand and as a reminder of home on the other. Given a set of circumstances similar to the Toews controversy, their biggest issue may not have been that a hockey player was being honoured, rather, that this particular hockey player represented a victorious American hockey team!

I am currently working on an article related to sports and the army in the Second World War. I also hope to publish these findings and much more as a chapter in an upcoming book on the Canadians in England during the war.

Some Further Reading:

Gruneau Richard and David Whitson. Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities, and Cultural Politics. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.

Hall, Margaret Ann. The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Howell, Colin D. Blood, Sweat, and Cheers: Sport and the Making of Modern Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001.

Humber, William. Diamonds of the North: A Concise History of Baseball in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Robidoux, Michael A. “Imagining a Canadian Identity Through Sport: a Historical Interpretation of Lacrosse and Hockey.” Journal of American Folklore 2002 115(456): 209-225.

Thompson, John Herd and Allen Seager. “The Conundrum of Culture: Sport.” In Sports in Canada, edited by Morris Mott, 265-270. Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1989.

John Maker is a recent PhD graduate and a Research Associate with the LCMSDS