On Being Called a “Frog”

May 23, 2014 § 27 Comments

I got called a ‘frog’ today.  Every time this happens, it stuns me.  Like stops me in my tracks stuns me.  It’s happened a handful of times in my life, a few times in Ontario and British Columbia and now twice in Massachusetts.  The last time it happened was at the bar of a restaurant in a small town in Western Massachusetts.  I was having an amiable conversation with a guy about hockey.  He was a New York Rangers’ fan and I, of course, cheer for the Habs.  When I told him I was from Montreal, he said, “Oh, I guess that makes you a frog.”  I don’t think he really understood what the word meant.  But it was a conversation stopper, I visibly recoiled from him.

I have asked most of my French Canadian friends about this.  They, of course, have been called ‘frog’ many times in their lives, in Canada, the US, and Britain.  None of my friends is particularly fond of this particular epithet, of course, but most of them are also rather sanguine about it.  Perhaps due to being called a ‘frog’ repeatedly, according to one friend.  One of my tweeps is married to a French guy, as in from France, and she calls him ‘the Frog.’  Clearly, for most people who actually are French or French Canadian, the term isn’t a big deal.  Me, on the other hand, it is a big deal for me.  Maybe because I’m an Anglo.

The term ‘frog’ was actually first applied to the Dutch by the British, who saw the Dutch as marsh-dwellers.  Get it? Frogs live in marshes, too.  But then, in the mid-18th century, the French became the main enemies of the British, so the term got applied to the French due to their propensity towards eating frogs’ legs.  Eventually, the term ended up getting applied to French Canadians, just, I suppose, due to Anglo laziness.  Then again, Anglo Canadians have come up with other names for French Canadians, such as ‘pea soupers’ and ‘Pepsis,’ due to their alleged fondness for pea soup and Pepsi.  One Anglo Montrealer once told me that the Pepsi epithet also worked because French Canadians were said to be ’empty from the neck up.’  And French-speaking Quebecers also have a whole long string of nasty names for Anglos, including my favourite, tête-carré.

But.  I’m not French Canadian.  I’m an Anglo from Quebec.  So when I get called a ‘frog’, it stuns me.  Today I was called a ‘frog’ because I was wearing my Montreal Canadiens ball cap around.  I’m used to the abuse the hat brings me in and around Boston.  I welcome most of it, especially since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins in the last round of the playoffs.  But usually it doesn’t go beyond “Habs suck” and variations thereof.  I don’t get told to go back to Canada (though I was once told to “Get out of my country” by a guy in Vancouver once), I don’t get called names or anything like that and 98% of the banter is friendly.  Since the Canadiens knocked out the Bruins, most people have even been respectful.

What makes today’s name-calling all the more puzzling is that I’m wearing a t-shirt that makes fun of Irish stereotypes and I have a huge Celtic cross tattooed on my right calf.  So clearly I’m not French Canadian.  And when this guy called me ‘frog’ and dissed the Habs, I actually stopped cold in my tracks.  I was stunned.  I just looked at him, he seemed to realise he’d gone too far and scooted off.

But I do find it interesting how much I detest the term.  And how much it offends me.  Any thoughts on the matter are welcome.

On PK Subban and Controversy

February 27, 2014 § 8 Comments

Watching the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Sochi, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there is no way that PK Subban is the 8th best defenceman in the country.  He’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an offensive threat, a hitter of big hits, a puck carrier, and he’s a rock solid defenceman.  In short, Subban’s skill set seemed to fit exactly with what Canada needed, especially in the preliminary round when it was having problems moving the puck.  And while Subban makes mistakes, so, too, do Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, Canada’s golden boys of defencemen.  And surely, Subban was a better choice to play than Dan Hamhuis or Jay Bouwmeester, at the very least? But, no, not in the eyes of the coaches.  And, really, at the end of it all, what’s to quibble with?  Subban handled his demotion with grace, and Canada won the gold medal going away, making it two in a row for the men, and landing their first medal on the big ice of the European game.

Subban attracts attention and controversy wherever he goes.  A lot of it is racially charged, and a lot of it comes from people who should know better (which is everyone, frankly, this is the 21st century, not the early 19th).  Subban is many things that many hockey fans do not like: flamboyant, exuberant, and incredibly skilled.  As a result, aside from legitimate criticism, Subban attracts a lot of racist attention.  Let me be very clear: criticising Subban’s play for mistakes or boneheaded plays is not racism. But a lot of the static around Subban is race-based.

When Subban broke into the NHL back in 2009, a lot of the media discussion was about controlling Subban’s exuberance, about toning him down.  Oddly, when Maxime Lapierre played for the Habs, he was an energy player, who was always on the edge, running his mouth on the ice, irritating opponents, trying to goad them into penalties.  Sometimes he crossed the line.  But there were rarely discussions about the need to control or reign in Lapierre.  Unlike Lapierre, Subban can make an entire building of fans rise to their feet with a rush up the ice, the kind of thing we Habs fans haven’t seen since the glory days of Guy Lafleur, frankly.

And yet, Subban has been called out by nearly everyone in the hockey establishment for his allegedly cocky attitude, from  Don Cherry to Mike Richards, and everyone in between, including a few coaches of the Club du Hockey Canadien.

And criticisms are continually made about his play.  That he takes too many penalties.  That he gives away the puck too often. And so on.  Oddly, the Habs other young defencemen are not subject to this kind of criticism. It’s a given that defencemen take a long time to mature and they will make errors on the way.  And young players, especially, will be overly exuberant at times.  But they’re given leeway Subban is not, at least in the media and amongst some fans.

And yet, Subban’s penalty minutes are not egregious.  And, as far as his alleged poor defensive play, that’s just patently false, as this advanced stats discourse shows.  It even shows that Subban can more than carry his weight in relation to the rest of the dmen on the Olympic team.

I won’t even get into Darren Pang’s rather unfortunate mistake of referring to Subban not doing something the “white way,” as opposed to the “right way” (it was a slip of the tongue, he apologised immediately, but, we all know what Freud says of slips of the tongue).

Racism, especially in Canada, works insidiously.  There are certainly still loud mouth racists out there, but aside from the occasional offensive tweet or comment board post, that is not the discourse around Subban.  I could also point out that Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane is similarly targeted by the media for his alleged bad behaviour.  Kane is also black.  No, rather than outright racism, this works in a more callous manner, it creeps along, and we find Subban (and Kane) critiqued for behaving in a certain way when other, white Canadian players, are not.  We find the play of Subban (and Kane) under the microscope for alleged inefficiencies when others are not.  We see the the character of Subban (and Kane) under question, when white players’ characters are not.

Case in point.  After the 2011-12 season, Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the best dman in the NHL.  There were protests that Karlsson was a one-dimensional player, he was a defensive liability, etc.  That the likes of Doughty, Keith, Shea Weber deserved to win.  But the outcry died down pretty quickly when advanced stats showed that Karlsson is actually a pretty good defenceman.  And by the time the 2013 season finally began after an epic lockout, the controversy was over.  But here we are now, at the tail end of February, Subban won the Norris in June last year, and the controversy lives on.  Tell me that racism doesn’t play a role here.

The criticism directed at Subban is not of the ilk directed at other superstars, rather, it is unrelenting and often unfair and baseless.  It’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that PK Subban is resented by many in the hockey world (fans, media, players, coaches, managers) for something as simple as the colour of his skin.  And that, to me, is just stupid.

Ken Dryden and Prosthetic Memory

December 2, 2013 § 8 Comments

Top-10-Hockey-Ken-DrydenOn Saturday night, I went to the Bruins’ game with a buddy.  Those who know me know that the only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate are the fucking Bruins.  My buddy, John, is a Bruins’ fan.  He has no love lost for my Canadiens de Montréal.  And everytime he goes on and on about the Big Bad Bruins of the early 70s, the teams of his childhood, I say two words to him: Ken Dryden.

For those of you who don’t know, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  They were a big, rugged team led by Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman and, of course, Number 4, Bobby Orr.  They were far and away the best team in hockey in the early 70s.  But in 1971, something happened that disrupted their reign: the Montréal Canadiens.  The Habs weren’t that good in 1971.  They had won the Stanley Cup in 1969, but in 1970, they were the first Habs team to miss the playoffs since 1948.  And the Habs wouldn’t miss the playoffs again until 1995.  In 1970-71, they were an average team.

But then, in the spring, a call-up from the American Hockey League took over the Habs’ nets.  Ken Dryden was his name.  In the first round of the playoffs that year, the Habs took on the Big Bad Bruins.  The Bruins finished with 121 points in 78 games, 12 more than the 2nd place New York Rangers.  The Habs finished a full 24 points back.  But the Canadiens knocked off the defending champs in the first round in 7 games, finally eliminating the Bruins in the hostile confines of the old Boston Garden. The Habs, riding Dryden’s brilliance, went on to win the Stanley Cup over the Chicago Blackhawks.

I wasn’t born in 1971, it would be a full two years until I made my début.  My first hockey memories are from 1976 or so, I vaguely remember seeing a game between the Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks on our old black and white TV, and my dad took me to the Stanley Cup parade that spring in Montréal.  But.  Just as with Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal against the Soviets in 1972, Ken Dryden’s run in the spring of 1971 is burned into my memory.

How does this happen? Alison Landsberg’s 2004 book, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, attempts to explain.  Due to the onslaught of mass media in our lives, we are increasingly able to assimilate the memory of things we did not experience.  Thus, I can see, in my mind’s eye, the incredible artistry of Ken Dryden in the spring of 1971 before I was born, and long before I had any sentient thoughts.

From where we sit in 2013, almost 2014, nearly a decade since Landsberg published her book (and nearly two decades since her argument was made for the first time in an article in one of those 90s books about the “cyber-world” and “information super-highway”), the argument seems rather obvious.  But it wasn’t a decade ago.

And yet, whilst Landsberg focuses on the proliferation of mass media, it is also clear that the internet plays a very clear role in the formation of prosthetic memory for her.  In the case of Ken Dryden, my memories were made in the 1980s.  In 1984 and again in 1986, the Habs had young, hot goalies in net to start the playoffs. Steve Penney carried a pretty lousy team to the semi-finals in 1984 and two years later, Patrick Roy carried a mediocre team all the way to the Cup.  Both years, Hockey Night in Canada ran endless Dryden video, and talked about Dryden.  The newspapers I read, all the way out in Vancouver, talked about Dryden.  The Hockey News, of which I was a dedicated reader, talked about Dryden.  I went out and bought Dryden’s book, The Game, with my own money because of the 1986 playoffs and the myth-making.  And while, clearly, mass media was central to the formation of my prosthetic Dryden memories as a kid in the 80s, this is long before the internet.

The interesting thing is that, when I taught in Montréal, at both Concordia University and John Abbott College, my students, who were born in the late 80s and early 90s, long after Dryden retired, and at the height of Roy’s brilliance,  knew about the legends of Ken Dryden, as if they were born with fully formed prosthetic memories.

I read an article on the BBC’s website today about how memories can be transferred from generation to generation through biology.  A study of mice at Emory University in Atlanta has demonstrated how this works.  For the study, a generation of lab mice were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms.  This fear was passed on to their children and grandkids, even though the children and grandchildren had never experienced anything negative surrounding the scent of cherry blossoms.

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Maybe the legends of the Montréal Canadiens are passed on this way, from father to son and daughter.  Maybe this is why I can see in my mind’s eye Howie Morenz rushing up the ice in the late 1920s, when my grandfather was just a lad?

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