Your Country May Not Be Hockey, But I’d Like It To Be
While I’ve never had the opportunity to read any of Brian Kennedy’s books, I appreciate the lengths he’s gone to, particularly in My Country Is Hockey, in an effort to explain our country’s love affair with the sport. However, I have to take issue with some statements he made on the most recent episode of the show, regarding the expansion of the NHL into non-traditional markets. Before I do so, however, I want to provide some context and talk about how I perceive Canada’s attitude toward the sport it spawned.
There’s an inherent contradiction in the prevailing Canadian attitudes towards hockey in the US and non-traditional areas in general. On the one hand, we’re very provincial about hockey. It’s Our Game, the beer commercials and Hockey Day in Canada proclaim. Failure on the international stage, even in the modern context, is cause for nationwide hand-wringing and second-guessing: pity the 22 teenagers tasked with upholding the beliefs and dreams of a nation every Christmas, while their cohorts drink eggnog and play Call of Duty. Hockey is part of our history, our politics, and our public consciousness. It’s the only thing we’re obnoxiously patriotic about, which says a lot about us, both good and bad. Because of all that, we can unfortunately get jingoistic and even mean-spirited about hockey in sunnier climes. We cheered when the Atlanta Thrashers failed and moved to Winnipeg. We’ve actively rooted against the Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes, and Florida Panthers for years now; Make It Eight! After all, they don’t care about hockey down there. We proclaim, like a jealous ex or unrequited crush, that they could never love The Game like we do. And to a degree, that’s probably true: as has often been pointed out, the position of hockey in Canadian culture is most akin to the historical position of baseball in American culture, distinctive and unique and seemingly unassailable*. And so we reason that they don’t deserve it, and thus we should reclaim it for ourselves.
But that possessive attitude runs completely counter to the other prevailing emotion we feel about The Game: we want Americans, and others, to love The Game like we do. We want them to see the beauty in its distinctive combination of grace and brutality. We want them to be moved by the shadow of a lonely net cast upon the frozen pond or backyard rink under the moonlight. We want them to revel in the chill of a tiny community arena that demands mittens and hot chocolate to keep the hands warm. We want them to feel hockey in their bones, and are dismayed when they don’t, because ultimately, we’re a country with a bit of an inferiority complex, in need of validation. We’re the little brother, or the nice guy in the Friend Zone. Our comedy is self-deprecating. Our wartime glories and heroes aren’t celebrated here to the same extent they are elsewhere, because that’s not the Canadian Way: we’re peacekeepers and negotiators first, and warriors only when the situation demands it. So we need something else to show the world with pride, something the world can in turn appreciate and acknowledge as being truly great that only we could have brought to the table. If the rest of the world loves and plays hockey, then we matter to the world in a way that’s innately Canadian: not through power, but through play.
As you can probably tell, I’m an adherent of the latter theory, and this is where I break from Brian on the subject. He stated that expanding to the American South was a business mistake, because they don’t care enough down there. Moreover, he supposes that the franchises were run well enough, and failed or are failing because of fan apathy. I will grant the first to a degree, but with a caveat: the NHL entered too many Southern markets too quickly, in an ill-guided effort to ride the Gretzky wave to expansion fees and the billion-dollar national TV contracts enjoyed by the other major sports. A more measured approach might have left fewer financial basketcases, and a more stable league. However, I also feel that bringing the game south, and trying to grow it in non-traditional areas, is what we should ultimately want to do. No, they didn’t care about hockey in the South, for the most part, in the mid-â€˜90s when teams were cropping up regularly. But they’ll never care about The Game if they don’t experience it. Like a proud inventor, we want to show off our wonderful creation to the world, and let them see what they’re missing. We’re also a sharing people: why would we hoard The Game, and keep it to ourselves? That’s not very Canadian. Furthermore, I cannot agree that those failures were or are well-run by any definition, for if they were, they wouldn’t be failing.
Take, for example, the Coyotes. They were terrible for the better part of a decade, and the publicity stunt of hiring Wayne Gretzky to coach did little to distract from that. Then, their owner tried to use bankruptcy court to circumvent NHL procedures and sell the team to persona non grata Jim Balsillie, a courtroom drama that ended in the NHL owning the team. They’ve turned it around on the ice, but the ongoing ownership uncertainty and previous poor decisions (Glendale? Not Scottsdale? Really?) continue to keep fans away. The Thrashers, meanwhile, drafted several marquee talents, but failed to surround them with a good supporting cast, leading to one playoff appearance and no wins in eleven years. GM Don Waddell was never replaced, though, because of perpetual ownership squabbles; by the time those were settled, the damage was irreversible. But then dysfunction is hardly limited to the Sun Belt: the New York Islanders haven’t been a relevant NHL franchise for over two decades, and I certainly don’t need to recap the sins of “Mad Mike” Milbury in particular. Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Edmonton all suffered attendance woes in the â€˜90s and/or â€˜00s while those teams wandered the desert, and the Devils continue to play to sub-capacity crowds despite their best efforts on and off the ice. Meanwhile, until their recent ownership fiasco, the Dallas Stars were a model franchise in the South; the Tampa Bay Lightning have packed the house when they aren’t being actively run into the ground; and the San Jose Sharks have carved out a niche in Northern California by being consistently good, and often great, for most of the last 15 years.
Hockey has been part of Canada’s national character since its birth as an organized sport nearly 140 years ago, and will probably remain so as long as any of us are alive. We love The Game because it’s ours and we believe in it, and in true Canadian fashion, we need to share it with the world. Part of sharing it and believing in it is not to yank it back at the first sign of rejection, but to be patient and let The Game speak for itself. If we can’t do that, then we don’t deserve to see our sport succeed.
* – That baseball has given way to football, at least in everyday conversation, says a lot about how those respective businesses have been run the last 20 years or so.