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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hockey Nationalism

I wanted to take a minute to post as an entry here, some comments that i made on two other sites recently.

The discussion was started by this post at Two For Elbowing that i first saw linked to from this Puck Daddy entry. The quote that started the discussion was this:

"What, exactly, does this say about the relative power balance of Canada and the U.S. when the Leafs have to hire Americans to fix the franchise?"
So I give you the ensuing discussion:
I think more to the point, what do statements like that say about racism (or more specifically nationalism) in hockey. I've never heard any other pro sport outside of nationalist soccer/futbol squads be so hung up on where their coaches and players come from, and the problems with racism going on in soccer leagues around the world is a massive problem right now. I'd hate to see hockey be next.

Who care if a Canadian is coaching a US team or a US coach or GM is working for a Canadian franchise. The only other time i've heard nationalities discussed in other sports is during the Olympics/world championships when they have their flags on their uniforms.

If they are wearing a Leafs sweater or a Sharks sweater - it shouldn't matter. They are just pros doing their jobs. Argue about them on their merits, not where they come from.
That comment brought this response: "Paul- tell that to the people of Quebec." - to which i responded:
I definitely hear the most consistent nationalist/racist comments from Quebecers, but it is much, much wider than that. As a resident of Nashville and fan of the Predators, I/we have seen no small measure of this.

It is ironic really.

When i moved here, i thought that southerners in Nashville more were racist than average. I found the opposite though - not that there aren't people with issues, but on the whole the city is very accepting of Eastern Europeans, Canadians, Scandinavians, etc on the Predators and African American players on the Titans, and Hispanic players on the Nashville Sounds baseball team. Without question they are judged on their playing ability 99% of the time and comments are practically never made as to where they are from. We just don't care as long as they can play.

Meanwhile i hear things like this, where a lifelong hockey man in Ron Wilson and others are criticized for having the audacity to think they 'deserve' to coach on Canadian soil. You can think he is the right coach for Toronto or not, that he can handle the media pressure or not, that he will help the team or not... but that he should be allowed to coach based on his nationality?

That same post goes on to say "The mind boggles. I'm amazed the Canadian-centric media types haven't been screaming at the government to outlaw this already." meaning the hiring of coaches and GM's from the US.

I know they are dipping into sarcasm there, but seriously...I'm not sure what the situation is in Canada, but this level of discrimination is outlawed in the US. In fact the NFL requires that minority options are considered before hiring coaches.

It boggles the mind indeed. When will hockey implement something similar?
Which then received this response
Paul, I agree with you on judging an individual purely on their performances and their ability to get the job done, and not where they are from. However, with some rare exceptions, I think most Canadians are not prejudice against players/coaches/gms from other countries, but rather, proud of the ones from their country.

I don't think comparing Canada's love of hockey and their pride in their country's rich and honored history in that sport, to something as ugly as racism, is a fair statement.

Comparing it to African American players on the Titans or Hispanic players on the Sounds, and saying it doesn't measure up is like comparing apples to oranges. One has zero to do with the other. There are African American players on Canadian hockey teams; there are American players; there are players from countries all over the world who are not only on Canadian teams, but are worshiped by many Canadian fans.

I believe, a fairer comparison, using your Nashville as an example, would be to say that many people from Nashville are proud of their city's rich and honored history in country music. And some outspoken voices may say that the best country singers are from Nashville, and a country singer from Calgary, Canada or Tokyo, Japan should not be the headliner at the CMA Music Festival. But a few outspoken does not mean I should assume all everyone from Nashville agrees with these statements. Or that everyone from Nashville only likes Nashville country singers. Or even the bigger leap that you suggest above, that in fact they dislike every country singer outside of Nashville.

Again, with some rare exceptions, most Canadian hockey fans love the sport first, and are simply very proud of their country's rich history in that sport. And while some over zealous, proud fans, may come across pro Canadian at times, this 1) does not speak for all Canadian hockey fans; and 2) is a far cry from racism, IMHO. Hometown pride and racism are worlds apart! --buffettworld
Which then led me to respond:
Well put. And i do understand that.

I just hear more comments like this from hockey than any other sport. I understand a certain amount of pride...heck...i'm originally from Texas. I know pride (and its excess...)

But comments like the one quoted on this blog and many others i hear around seem to me to cross the line. They aren't just pride ("Isn't it great that the world is playing 'our' game" or "we have the best hockey players in the world") but more bigoted ("all top hockey teams, players, and coaches should really be Canadian")

There certainly are voices out there saying that the CMA's should always be held in Nashville (much ruckus was made when they tried it in New York a few years ago), but i've only heard a very small, quickly ignored minority complain about country music being popular in western Canada or Australia. Most love the fact that the additional eyes and attention mean more fans and a bigger/better product.

To carry that analogy through, no one would suggest moving the hockey hall of fame to Tampa. But by the same token that i don't hear anyone suggest that they should ban people from outside the south eastern US from country music.

I guess that is the biggest difference to me: who i'm hearing it from. I hear these criticisms and bigoted comments about the nationality of players from main-stream Canadian press, not just a few random bloggers and comment trolls.

Best example i can think of:
Lidstrom being the first European captain to win a cup. It was a big deal, and was covered by the press. Very similar to Tony Dungee being the first African American coach to win the Super Bowl a few years back. The difference was that no major sports outlet or even serious radio talk show host would have stood up and said "a black coach has never won the Super Bowl so our team shouldn't hire a black coach". Meanwhile i've heard from major hockey writers and talking heads repeatedly (up until last week) that teams shouldn't make Europeans their captains, citing "lack of heart" and other ludicrous reasons to explain how they shouldn't captain teams.

Is it horrible? No.
Is it everyone? Not by any means.

But is it more pervasive in hockey than other North American sports and something that should be addressed and talked about? Yes.
What do you think?

(image courtesy of Lone Primate)


Brett Jackson said...

Looks to me that there are two sides to the issue, both see each side intelligently, but can’t quite agree with either view point…
Seems to me that's all it is… a point of view, and that is hard to change in anybody.

Canada sucks! Ha!

introverted one said...

I see where your coming from and see it as an important thing to discuss. But I fail to see it as that big of a problem. I don't believe the nationalism has been taken to a level where Canadians start discriminating against those born in the states. Other than in word...to sell papers or get readers onto their blogs.
At least there isn't any hooliganism...yet! Watch out for the Quebecois. They're a nasty bunch! ;-)

Rob Robinson said...

Congrats on the call from Puck Daddy. Your post was a good read, and I generally agree.

Guy had a point re: country music's issues with "outsiders." I see parallels b/t hockey & cm fans views of nonfans/newbies

(via Twitter)

PB said...

Hi Paul -

It's funny - when summer comes along, we read blog posts an articles about the other side of hockey...(btw, this is a long missive, so bear with me...)

To me, the issue stems from the aspect that the U.S. citizens, as a whole market, hasn't grasped the beauty of the sport, so the Canadian's passion about the sport they love comes out from a different angle. Even though we share the same continent, the culture is different. So, when the nationalism rings in Canada about their favorite sport, sometimes the passion goes overboard to smacks the U.S. fans in the face when they...share the same passion.

So, in other words, what brings us together as fans, drives us apart.

I think of it this way. It's like a fan of a particular band that has been around forever . And then, that fan stands in line for his or her concert ticket (he or she spent the night outside the ticket window, tickets for past shows have sold out quickly, band doesn't tour that often, and so on), only to have the concert sell out before that fan arrives at the ticket window, where the last two tickets purchased are ones that a couple bought because they heard one song on the radio and thought it was cool, and that fan has the band's entire discography . Some would feel a sense of loss, a sense of entitlement, where the common thread is the same, they like that musical group.

I think it's the same way in this debate but it's not limited to just Canada vs. U.S., but original six fans vs. fans of expansion teams, vs. fans of the second expansion, vs. fans of the southern expansion, fans of the Red Wings vs. everyone else (had to throw that in there [grin]); the issues of "we were fans first, recognize our heritage" sometimes come out, and personally I always try to understand where they are coming from. However, the frustation is that new fans aren't recognized as quickly and they're tagged as johnny-come-latelys that just.don't.get.it.

Though, I don't think it's racist or bigoted. It's more of a cultural difference and a pride issue - which I get and which I get frustrated by at the same time. It doesn't mean though that if James Mirtle, or the other Canadian bloggers want to venture down to Phoenix that I wouldn't want to hang out with them and talk hockey, because I would most assuredly would. They have liked and played this sport far longer than me and I can still learn a great deal from them.

Conversations like these, as long as they are reasoned, are important and good - especially in the off-season when we want hockey to come back right.now.


Paul Nicholson said...

PB: Totally agree, and your analogy (band fandom) is a very good one.

I totally see where Canadian frustration comes from in regard to team placement and wanting expansion teams. They shouldn't miss out on those last few tickets. They deserve to have more teams in Canada - i've been convinced of that.

(Of course there is an argument here that only NHL hockey could survive in the southern US but minor league hockey survives well in Canada so... but its a bad argument).

The issue i'm trying to focus on here isn't so much the expansion to Canada argument, but the fact that those national pride sentiments seem to be boiling over into a nationalist/racist position that seems to resent anyone else that plays or enjoys the game.

The one that is the most striking to me was the Lidstrom situation. There were many many people (we heard them in Nashville when Timmonen was captain in 07-08) that said that Europeans don't have what it takes to captain a team to the Cup, only North Americans. And comments like the one that started this discussion that Anerican Ron Wilson ( technically a Canadian born American citizen, by the way) shouldn't coach the Maple Leafs based solely on his passport status.

I think Introverted One is right, this probably isn't as prevalent as i am making it out to be, but it is more of a problem in hockey than most sports, and one that deeply offends me.

I thought we got over this kinda stuff decades ago.

Paul Nicholson said...

Another interesting point that Puck Daddy and i talked about when he called me just now - the NHL had a largely regional recruitment/signing system until 1963 when the first Entry Draft was held.

Hockey - which has been around for much longer than every sport bu baseball in North America - relied on a recruiting system not unlike college sports does today. As a result you ended up with a largely French Canadian Canadiens team, Largely US born Chicago team (relatively), etc. (see more info here).

This probably set the NHL up for a longer stretch of regional resistance to 'outsiders' and a feeling that the best coach from Toronto should coach Toronto, etc.

I don't think this is anyone's evil plot, just something the league needs to watch if it wants to grow in popularity (not just in the US).

James Mirtle said...

I think Introverted One is right, this probably isn't as prevalent as i am making it out to be, but it is more of a problem in hockey than most sports, and one that deeply offends me.

No one here in Toronto seems to give a flying flip where Wilson's perceived to be from. Heck, the guy has a Canadian passport and was born in Windsor anyway.

Paul, no offence, but I think you've been reading comments from the troglodytes more than anything. No fans with half a brain, Canadian or otherwise, have anything against players like Nick Lidstrom. Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle are revered here, people in Vancouver love Markus Naslund and the same can be said for Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa.

And how about all of those MVP chants for Alex Kovalev in Montreal, a city that has the most issues with this sort of thing?

A relative non-issue, really. If Tennessee had players coming from the region, they'd be favourites down there, too.

Paul Nicholson said...


(first, thanks for commenting)

As i said, i'm beginning to realize that. I still think this is more of an issue for hockey than for other sports, but that doesn't mean it is about to bring the sport down. There are many other more pressing issues (like getting better TV exposure in the states and more revenue generating teams, be they in Canada or elsewhere).

I know this was a bit of me falling for troll bait, but i guess i read too many hockey blogs and not enough real 'legit' media coverage. I guess if my team got any legit media coverage, that would be easier to remedy, but the blogs and 'buzz'ards dominate my feed reader right now, so its easy to get a skewed perspective.

I think it is still an issue, but not like its even 10% of the Canadian fan base, and nothing to get too bent out of shape over.

Kevin Hicks said...

Warning: this is a long post, but I think I make some decent points, if you're patient enough to read it. Or maybe I'm an idiot. Whichever.

Nice discussion, Paul. You've made some very valid points. Speaking as an African-American male, I can definitely relate to your point of view. On the whole, American sports have made an effort to, in to a great degree, remove race from consideration. Rarely will a major sport even acknowledge the race of a player (you don't hear, "Kyle Korver is the first white forward since Larry Bird to make 100 3-pointers in a season" or "the Brewers have 4 black players and 5 white players on the field right now." When race is discussed, it is communicated as a GOOD thing, and all diversity seems to be encouraged among players and coaches (celebration of Jackie Robinson, Tony Dungy, Tiger Woods, etc). Milestones are celebrated, and shortcomings are not highlighted. You will never hear, "Make sure you don't draft any black hockey players, there's never been a black player to win the Hart Trophy." (Self-editorial note: Not that there are many black players entering the NHL draft, or who have ever played hockey in their lives for that matter, but that's a different story.) The American media attempts, almost to an embarrassing degree at times, to make reparations for the rocky history between blacks and whites in the country by promoting "Diversity" like it's the name of the new i-Phone competitor.

When it comes to most foreigners, we do not gush as much as we do about African-American accomplishments, but we do seem to accept them without reservation. In the NBA for example, Yao is highly touted, Dirk Nowitzki has won an MVP award, Hedo Turkoglu was voted this year's Most Improved Player. Steve Nash (2 MVP's), Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan are just considered some of the boys, regardless of where they hold citizenship. We may pigeonhole European players as strictly shooters, but that doesn't stop every team from having at least one or two. European players are known to be changing the game, but there is no nationalistic movement going on to "save the NBA" from the evil Europeans. The same goes for baseball, where nearly 50% of the game's biggest stars are neither white nor black, but rather of Hispanic origin (Pujols, Ortiz, Ramirez, Santana, Soriano, and Guerrero, to name a few). I know that Roberto Clemente opened the doors for these guys... and I may be too young to give a concrete verdict on this, but was there any outcry when "America's game" turned into "Latin America's game"? If so, I don't recall hearing about it.

So this leads to this question: Why is hockey different? What entitles this sport to such overt nationalism, bordering on bigotry? To me, the answer lies in this simple statement: it's not our sport. It's Canada's sport. They did it first, and historically, they did it best. The Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Oilers have more collective Stanley Cup championships than the rest of the NHL COMBINED. That's enough to make a Canadian feel nationalistic, right? (Except for the fact that those three clubs hate each other, but that's beside the point.) At long last, a reason for the great Canadians to look down upon the fat, greedy, self-righteous Americans!!! But then, things changed. In 1992-93, Barry Melrose won the Cup for the Canadiens. The next year, an American team won it. Then another. Then another. This year marked the 14th consecutive "official" year that an American team has won the Cup. Along the way, we even sprinkled in a few "warm weather" teams like Anaheim, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Think that didn't p*ss Canada off? Not only should those cities not have teams, but now they're winning championships!?! Their one piece of leverage was gone. D*mn Americans!!!

Now don't get me wrong; I realize that nearly all of these "American" championship teams were largely comprised of Canadian and Slavic-born players, but sometimes, it's the principle.

With all its great players, why does the England's national team hate Italia? Because Italy can beat them. Why does Argentina hate Brazil? Because they're better. Nationalism becomes stronger when you're on the short end of the stick. In international basketball, we couldn't even name half the teams we played in 1992, because we won each game by 50. In 2004, we all know Italy and Argentina. Why? Because they beat us. So now we hate them. (Figuratively.)

Trust me, I'm not a Canada-basher, and this is not what I would consider a "nationalistic" post. Just my subjective opinion, based on some objective facts.

But for a Canadian, if an evil American--representing the country that has already taken "their" Cup, and who is starting to take over "their" sport, were to come over and become a coach of a pure, Canadian hockey team, it would be the ultimate slap in the face. Like if the coach of the Italian national basketball team were to come in and unseat Phil Jackson as coach of the Lakers.

Oh, and by the way, Melrose is now the coach of Tampa Bay Lightning. Take that, Canada!

RudyKelly said...

I think what you're talking about is much more common in Europe (take the Euro 2008). Europeans constantly measure themselves up against other nations because they all play the same sport. We don't really play the same sports as other countries, and when we do we usually are way better so it's not that much of a competition. Canadians are rightfully proud of their sport and know that it's the thing they're best at; I think they're afraid the rest of the world will take it away from them. Americans don't understand this point of view because, well, we don't usually listen to other countries. It comes across as piggish to us, but in truth it's probably how we sound about everything else.

And Kevin, Barry had that Cup stolen from him by the Canadians. Everyone knows Kerry Frasier was a virulent nationalist. I have some materials in the trunk of my car you might be interested in...

repenttokyo said...

wow to that last rant. I'm a Canadian living in Quebec and my favourite team my entire life has been the Hartford Whalers. I am also a big Canes fan. I think you guys are getting a little too caught up in a media storm that has made you believe that the majority of Canadians care whether an American team wins the cup or not. If I'm not mistaken, 4 of the Original Six teams were American...I think you guys all need to relax.

Paul Nicholson said...

repenttokyo: yeah - like i said, this was in response to a troll-bait post and started me thinking, so i wrote. then it got picked up and here we go...

I appreciate (i honestly say 'thank you') that most Canadian's just love hockey and support their local teams (or non-local) and that's pretty much as it should be.

I was just responding to one of those rare bigots that have far too loud a voice thanks to this inter-webs thing. Unfortunately my response may have just made his voice louder if this comment string and my blogs stats for today are any indication.

Kevin Hicks said...

Again, trust me, I have nothing against our neighbors to the north. I've personally never been there, but have had several friends that visited and said that the people were friendly, the environment was awesome, and the culture had many advantages over America's. I look forward to visiting. As far as hockey goes, I honestly and truly salute their nationalism. It IS THEIR SPORT, period. They did it first, they did it best. They do it most passionately. No matter how many cups "American" teams win, hockey will always be the #4 team sport in this country, and it will be #1 up there. They are proud of the tradition and proud of the sport, which, as I have learned especially over the course of the last 3 or 4 years, is an awesome sport.

My last post was not intended to be a rant, just a perspective. Unfortunately, I'm long-winded, it may have come across wrong. I don't want to generalize Canada as a whole as a bunch of America-hating snots. You have pride, which is what sports are all about. We all do; it's the very essence of being a fan. I can assure you that if the NFL merged with the CFL, I'd be much more likely to root for one of our teams in a head to head matchup, for a subliminal fear that you might "take our sport away from us." We all have this nationalism, we all have this fear. My only problem is public acknowledgment that you don't want an American coaching a Canadian team. I just don't feel that same type of, for lack of a better word, prejudice over here in THAT regard. I am sure that a vast majority of Canadians are like you, repenttokyo. A majority of you guys probably have a second-favorite team that is American, couldn't care less if your coaches are American, and don't consider hockey to be a border war. Like is the case with most things, sometimes the minority paints a bad picture of the majority, so I truly understand that point of view. Our super-sensitive media may be partially to blame.

To be fair, I will over-generalize Americans: we are uber-nationalistic, self-righteous, and pompous about nearly everything else.

Matt said...

As you've all said, this is a non-issue. But, it is certainly discussion worthy. Did Don Cherry eat crow when Lidstrom captained the Wings to the Cup this year? No, he probably noted the presence of "good old Canadians" like Cleary and Draper. I know that Cherry's an old soul, as well as a great hockey man. But him citing the Ducks' roster from a year ago and all their Canadians, while mentioning that "that's the type of team you need to win a Cup", makes me sick. We've had numerous examples of Europeans who are tough as nails, and Grapes can't seem to acknowledge them. Granted, I live in the U.S. and don't watch/hear Don as much as I should to be railing away on him so badly. But from what I've seen, the criticism seems valid enough.

How can this sentiment be considered irrelevant or non-existent when the man who IS hockey to a number of U.S. and Canadian citizens alike, is saying it?

It's nowhere near a nationwide problem, and I've never seen it brought up specifically to the Wilson hiring (besides here, naturally). Canada wants to protect their own, as well as the sport they have made theirs. The problem is that they seem hesitant to let anyone else share in it, as well. How many times have you read articles from "journalists" who call for contraction in the NHL, and the removal of southern teams?

As crazy as it sounds, I actually find myself seeing some logic in Gary Bettman's thinking. Hockey fans are hockey fans, plain and simple. I know this, having lived all my life in a state (New Jersey) that isn't exactly a hockey hotbed. The people here are just as passionate as anywhere else.

I know no one is arguing that last point, but the fact that its even questioned is something to talk about. It's a big pissing contest with no winners.

Sorry for the long post.

Anonymous said...

I love Canadian Hockey, American Hockey, Russian Hockey, Euro Hockey small-town hockey. What I really love about Canada is milk in a bag and ketchup flavoured potato chips!!!

Anonymous said...


I would say that most of your points are valid, except that this opinion is more pervasive in hockey than in other sports. Two examples pretty quickly come to mind. Soccer in europe (especially italy) is just as bad if not worse than hockey. I also seem to recall the Toronto Blue Jays "diverity" (all the players were american) not being respected when they won the world series.

Anonymous said...

this is an interesting discussion. my first thought upon reading the comparison to music in Nashville was only another example of Paul's point of view. Many of the current and past music "greats" aren't U.S. citizens. I am not sure who's point of view it supports to say that once they are loved they are embrassed as "hometown boys (or girls) reguardless of their accent or skin color!