Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hockey and Nationalism Should Be Kept Apart

BROOKLYN, New York -- Tuesday was an historic day for American hockey. The United States defeated Canada in the final of the World Junior Hockey Championship, winning just the second gold medal in the country's history. Canada had been aiming for history themselves; having won the tournament five years in a row, a sixth consecutive gold would have set a new record of dominance. Instead, the US came out on top in an end-to-end overtime thriller that was without a doubt one of the most exciting hockey games I have seen in years.

Meanwhile, my friend Gene sent me this blog post from The New Republic by Adie Tomer, which relates an idea by everyone's favorite pop psychology maven, Malcolm Gladwell, about how to fix the National Hockey League. Apparently, I have not been experiencing enough diarrhea of the mouth, so I subjected myself to reading his interview with serial ego-blogger and self-referential nincompoop, ESPN's Bill Simmons. Simmons and Gladwell think it would be totally radical if the NHL were realigned into two 12-team conferences divided equally between the US and Canada. Not only would this endow hockey-mad Canada with the six more franchises it richly deserves, but it would also set up an awesome "border war" in each Stanely Cup final, stoking national pride and making everyone from sea to shining sea (in both countries) totally excited about hockey, regardless of which cities are represented in the final.

So, how are these two things related? Well, if this national showdown would be so awesome for hockey, why does nobody in the US care that we just had a cross-border battle for the ages? Not only does Tomer make no mention of it (his commentary was posted the day of the final), but it was totally ignored by the national media (ESPN only mentions it on their NHL page, not their main page). The reason is that the appeal of teams isn't just limited to their respective cities; the appeal of hockey in the US is limited, period.

While there are lots of deserving cities in Canada without NHL teams, and lots of undeserving American ones with them, this hare-brained idea will do little to help hockey. Fewer teams in the US might be better for the overall health of the league, but it won't do much to grow the game in the US. Gladwell and Simmons' idea of creating national buzz about the Stanley Cup final is already true in Canada, as it's non-stop national news whenever there is a Canadian team in the final or even the conference final.

Gladwell keeps harping on the mismanagement of the NHL, but the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes are a mess does not give his ideas any more credence. Here is one of his nonsense analogies about how to improve hockey:
I was once in Brazil when Brazil was playing Argentina in soccer, and the entire country was in a state of advanced hysteria. I was at a conference and they stopped the proceedings, in the middle of the day, so everyone could go watch the game. Unbelievable. That's what happens when you combine sports and national loyalties. Can you imagine this happening every spring?
Perhaps this would be a better idea if Canada shared a border with Sweden or Russia, but even these countries cannot match Canada's obsession with hockey or its sheer output of talent. The Coyotes should definitely move back to Canada, and Gary Bettman should have been fired many, many years ago, but drawing analogies between the hockey rivalry of the US and Canada and soccer matches between Brazil and Argentina is ridiculous (see my point above re: diarrhea of the mouth). And we really need this in hockey:

I think this realignment is an idea dreamed up by an American (Simmons) who likes the example of Green Bay – a small town with a big professional franchise – and thinks it would be quaint to have NHL teams in places like Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Practically speaking, not only is it tough to decide which 12 of the 24 US franchises should be cut (once you get past the usual Sunbelt suspects, it gets much harder to decide), but it's hard to find six more Canadian cities that could support a $200 million+ hockey franchise, especially considering that Toronto won't let anyone into their southern Ontario fiefdom, which contains most of Canada's larger cities (my picks were Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Quebec City, Halifax, Hamilton and Victoria, hypothetically speaking).

Gladwell's other idea is that Canadians "secede" from the NHL and run their own league. Many Canadians have in effect done this. Instead of trekking to the league's six Canadian outposts, they watch junior hockey in their hometowns, where 17- to 20-year-olds ply their trade in the Western, Ontario and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues, and in the various junior A and B circuits across the country. Canadians may be happy to spend their ticket dollars on their local youngsters, but they still tune in every Saturday night to watch Hockey Night in Canada. If the NHL is to remain the world's pre-eminent hockey league, it needs the revenues that large US markets and American TV networks and advertisers provide.

Lastly, I would like to take aim at a larger point made by Gladwell and expounded upon by Tomer, and that is that melding sport and national pride is a good thing. Why do we need to inject nationalism into the NHL? It is a cosmopolitan league with players from around the world who are embraced by their adopted cities across North America. The Washington Capitals are captained by a Russian, the Ottawa Senators by a Swede. The Montreal Canadiens are without a captain, but their three alternates are two Americans and a Russian; Toronto is in a similar situation with a Czech, an American and a Canadian wearing the "A" on their sweaters. There are plenty of opportunities for players to wear their national colors, such as the annual IIHF World Championships (another non-event in North America), the WJC and the Olympics.

Sport may on occasion be a peaceful proxy for actual confrontation between nations, but nationalism and sport often make for a dangerous combination that can boil over into real violence. Just watch the soccer hooligans at this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Hockey has been largely free of fan violence on this continent, but there were a pair of ugly nationalism- inspired incidents during the 2002-03 NHL season, when Montreal Canadiens fans booed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in response to the invasion of Iraq; Florida Panthers fans responded by booing "O Canada" at their own arena. We don't need to encourage that nonsense every year at the Stanley Cup final. The World Junior Championship has also experienced that nationalist boobirds, when Canadian fans in Vancouver in 2006 jeered the American squad while cheering on their traditional rival, Russia. Booing teenagers is always a classy move. I have made my opinions about the Olympics well known here and elsewhere – they just provide another tool for xenophobes and bigots to manipulate national sentiment, and international events are no less sullied by corporate advertising and fraud than the professional athletic circuits. But the vocal fans in Vancouver should add a little flavor to the usually tame Winter Olympics, especially during the hockey tournament.

I will admit to feeling a great deal of pride in my country when John Carlson netted the game winner in Saskatoon last night, but I would be far happier to see the Boston Bruins Slovak captain Zdeno Chara hoist the Stanley Cup. Let's keep nationalism out of the NHL, and let's keep people who don't know what they're talking about out of hockey.

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