A new podcast looks at hockey through an inclusive lens — and recasts our national identity

As Changing On The Fly host Aaron Lakoff puts it: "We bring voices from the margin to centre ice."

As Changing On The Fly host Aaron Lakoff puts it: 'We bring voices from the margin to centre ice'

Edmonton Oilers' inaugural You Can Play Night in February 2017. (Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club)

Aaron Lakoff hosts a hockey podcast. Lakoff, who resides in Montreal, is an avid fan of his hometown NHL team —following a brief stint cheering for the Toronto club, he admits sheepishly. Speaking over the phone from Montreal, he explains he's waiting to watch the Canadiens take on the Arizona Coyotes. "I, like so many other people in this country, grew up a rabid hockey fan," he says, quipping that he learned to skate before he learned to walk. But his podcast, Changing On The Fly, isn't just about hockey — it's described as "a podcast about hockey and social justice." Lakoff declares: "We bring voices from the margin to centre ice."

Each episode takes a different lens to the sport's historical and present contexts, with expert guests contributing crucial perspective on things like race, feminism, anti-fascism and more. One episode looks at hockey's history of racism, and, through discussions with Canadian filmmaker Damon Kwame Mason, spotlights the ways that Black players on the east coast of Canada revolutionized the game in the 1890s by inventing the "baseball shot" — known now as the slapshot. Another addresses the sport's rampant issues with toxic masculinity and homophobia, issues that continue to crop upwith severity in youth and adult hockey cultures. A recent episode is centred on Jessica Platt of the Toronto Furies, the first transgender pro hockey player in Canada.

The podcast intersects Lakoff's love of hockey with another passion: progressive social justice activism and organizing. The latter brought Lakoff back to the former, after he quit hockey in his mid-teens when homophobic slurs and shaming became routine. "As the level got a little more competitive and intense, the shaming got a lot more intense, too," he says. He shifted his focus to social justice and anti-capitalist movements in Montreal, and for a time saw them as antithetical to hockey. "It felt that being part of those movements and being into sports were just absolutely incompatible."

Aaron Lakoff. (Nora Tremblay-Lamontagne)

In the past five years, Lakoff says, he began to see ways to reconcile the two. "There's this space that's opening up again where we can say sports is not just the domain of self-important macho white dudes," he explains. Lakoff points to a powerful legacy of protest in sports — Tommie Smith and John Carlos' 1968 Black Power salutes; Muhammad Ali's protest of the Vietnam War; Justine Blainey taking the Metro Toronto Hockey League to court over gender-based discrimination in the 1980s; Colin Kaepernick's inspiring and widespread anthem protests against police brutality. In 2017, Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown became the first National Hockey League player to protest during the anthem in a regular season game when he raised his fist in solidarity against police brutality.

"What we're seeing in recent years is sports can also be a platform to express social justice values," says Lakoff. "That's been this incredible revelation for me, and this incredible way to kind of stitch together two parts of my identity. That was the starting point: how can we in this country, in Canada, look at hockey, which is really our national sport, from a way where we can start to critically examine some of the most important issues of the day?"

Changing On The Fly is an opportunity to reassess not just a national sport, but a national identity. "Part of me also wants to try to challenge some notions of Canadian nationalism through this," says Lakoff. This includes looking at colonialism through the lens of hockey, and the ways that the latter has been used in service of the former.

How can we in this country, in Canada, look at hockey, which is really our national sport, from a way where we can start to critically examine some of the most important issues of the day?- Aaron Lakoff

The series' first episode, "This Game We Love On Stolen Land," begins with a conversation with Braden Te Hiwi, a Maori (Ngati Raukawa and Rangitane) of the Manawatu region of Aotearoa/New Zealand and Assistant Professor of Indigenous Studies at University of British Columbia Okanagan. Te Hiwi's first experiences with hockey when he came to Canada were paradoxical: he noted a game that unified an entire country while operating along lines of gender, class and race. "Hockey felt to me, in these environments, very white, very middle class and very male-dominated," he explains. "These processes are deeply connected to the role it plays, and has played, in building the nation. I don't think that happens by accident, but as part of the operation of power, and how those structures operate within the game."

Te Hiwi worked on a 2017 paper on the relationship between hockey and discipline at Pelican Lake Indian Residential School between 1945 and 1951. The paper, co-authored with Western University's Director of First Nations Studies Janice Forsyth, examined hockey as a tool of control and assimilation.

As Te Hiwi notes, it's a complex history. At Pelican Lake, he says, positive experiences were sparse. Hockey provided a place for youth at the school to excel and develop confidence in a bleak environment — but it was also used to instruct and control youth in ways that excluded their communities and their parents. "The values that their parents or communities may have wanted to promote in the sport were never part of the equation," says Te Hiwi. The sport was used instead "as a way to eliminate or replace the values and the ideals of those communities."

Aaron Lakoff. (Darya Marchenkova)

Grappling with these histories of hockey can help us to understand and decolonize the sport. Given its close ties to national identity, folks like Te Hiwi and Lakoff hope it helps Canadians think critically about themselves and their country. "Like all facets of life, it can be deeply political," Te Hiwi explains over the phone from Kelowna. "One way that people can start to be exposed to ideas around colonialism, and histories of colonialism, and the ways in which those histories flow on and continue to be part of the present — hockey would be one way to do that."

In the podcast's first episode, Lakoff quotes a passage from Vancouver author Matt Hern's book One Game At A Time: "You can't participate in or spectate sports without constantly articulating values, running into difference, talking about what matters and why, and being forced to figure out who you have a responsibility for and why," he reads. "Our core political ideals are always being performed in the gym, rink, ring, field or track, and then tested materially and bodily."

"Sports, if they're done right, should bring out the best in humanity," Lakoff says. "It's a place where, around the world, billions of people are paying attention to sports. They can elevate us as people and societies to become better, but only if we invest our best values in them. Hockey kind of defines us as a we have to think, what do we want to be as a society, and how do we reflect that through our national sport?"

Listen to Changing On The Fly here.


Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.