Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: The metaphor underpinning our new book

A guest post, from the front matter of Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap

Cheryl MacDonald and Jonathon Edwards have published their first book, an anthology titled Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap: Hockey’s Agents of Change. The book was included in Quill & Quire’s Best of Fall 2021 Non-Fiction list.

But what is a neutral zone trap?

For those less familiar with ice hockey strategy, the neutral zone trap is an on-ice defensive tactic used to prevent the offensive team (i.e., the team with the puck) from entering into the defensive team’s end to score a goal. The defensive players position themselves in the neutral zone—between the two blue lines—in a manner that is intended to prevent the offensive team from gathering speed and maintaining control of the puck. Put differently, the central area of the ice surface is closed off to the opposing team and a boundary is created to stop them from succeeding. The image below depicts the play.

Within the context of the anthology, the neutral zone trap comprises the institutional norms (labeled as the defence or X in the above photo) that restrict the offence (labeled as O in the photo) from succeeding. The boundaries established in the neutral zone trap can be penetrated or overcome when the offensive players, which MacDonald and Edwards call agents of change, are able to mobilize up the middle of the ice and disrupt the trap, which is interpreted metaphorically as institutional norms. As such, agents of change are not necessarily just athletes, but anyone in hockey who faces challenges or barriers created by institutions.

A contemporary example of how institutional norms are created and overcome that is not mentioned in the anthology is the story of Kyle Beach, a former Black Ace (athlete added to the team roster for playoffs) in the National Hockey League (NHL). In the context of men’s elite hockey in North America that is known for its culture of silence, Beach was sexually assaulted by a team video coach in 2010, which he reported to his superiors, but the incident was swept under the rug.

Recently, after several years of suffering quietly and discovering that the video coach had gone on to assault other athletes, Beach elected to sue his former team. Some of the leadership with the organization at the time of the incident denied having any knowledge of or involvement in the incident, which Beach argues is false. As the story gained media attention, Beach, who had been referred to only as John Doe, eventually revealed his identity in a television interview. He stated that it was important for him to attach his identity to the story in order for other victims to feel more comfortable coming forward and reporting their assaults. Through this process of legal action, media attention, and revealing his identity, Beach became an agent of change, fighting to break through the neutral zone trap—the silence and denial of the organization’s gatekeepers—that had held him back both emotionally and professionally since he never returned to the NHL.

Of course, Kyle Beach is a more absolute case compared to the more subtle and perhaps systematic neutral zone traps that are not always apparent in hockey culture yet work to marginalize certain groups nonetheless. MacDonald and Edwards’ anthology seeks to shed light on the narratives that arise from those situations. The book is a collection of essays that highlight agents of change in ice hockey who are confronting or have overcome the neutral zone trap. In other words, the chapters each address the pursuit of inclusion and acceptance for those typically excluded. The book grapples with the established norms that create and reinforce stigmas in hockey and society more broadly.

The combination of personal stories and research illustrates how different empirical settings disrupt the institutional arrangements or ‘break down the trap’ as a means of implementing change within ice hockey by challenging its norms and pushing its boundaries. Overcoming the Neutral Zone Trap opens up critical discussions of previously underexplored topics as they relate to the women’s game, indigenous participation, viable career pathways, masculine identities, hockey parents, mental health, and social media.


All are welcome to the virtual launch on December 2 at 7:30 pm AT. It presented by the St. Mary’s University Centre for the Study of Sport & Health (CSSH), with host Dr. Brian Kennedy, author of ‘Growing Up Hockey.’ 

For details and the Zoom link, see the SMU Events Calendar: https://loom.ly/g184hUQ