By Jason Menard
For a country that’s known for quiet pride, politeness, and generally being unassuming on a global scale, when it comes to hockey, we can crank up the hyperbole machine with the best of them.
Don’t be surprised by a rise in carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of all the national hand-wringing brought about by the combination of the National Hockey League’s lock-out and a fourth-place finish by our under-20 squad at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Our media and business communities are doing their best to imitate those shoulder-borne cartoon angels and devils: on one hand, fanning the flames of our passion, while at the same time offering commiseration and a shoulder to cry on.
TSN, for one, has worked overtime turning the World Junior Championship into an-ice referendum of our national worth. And advertisers — the worst offender being Nike — are right on board. Nike’s cloying, “If you want to take away hockey, you’ve got to take away Canada…” ads are designed to play on our sense of ownership of our unofficial national sport.
But they’re all missing the point. Hockey’s fine. Canada’s fine. We just need a little perspective.
Yes, the NHL and its players are displaying varying degrees of lunacy. They are doing their best to slaughter a pretty fat cash cow — but both sides likely fully understand that cash cow will willingly be herded wherever they want once the lockout is over. Fans, despite their emotional proclamations and expressed anger, are mere cattle — despite all the tough talk, once they drop the puck at the Air Canada Centre, the Bell Centre, or the MTS Centre, those fans will be back at the trough.
In the end, maybe the cash cow isn’t the best animal reference for us fans — because both the players and owners are treating fans are quite content to treat us like the inbreds treated Ned Beatty in Deliverance. Harsh words may be coming out of our “pretty mouths” but in no time the fans will be squealing like pigs at the concession stands, the merchandise table, and — of course — the ticket window.
And yes, we finished fourth in the World Juniors. But it’s not the end of the world. In fact, most of the world doesn’t really care. The WJC, for the most part, a passing fancy in other countries — a matter of curiosity mostly, but not the be all and end all. Other countries treat the WJC the same way we treat the IIHF World Hockey Championships — you know, that tournament where some of our NHLers go if their teams didn’t make the playoffs?
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a bunch of kids — and, at 18 and 19 years old, that’s what they are. They carry the weight of the nation on their shoulders because we, as fans, have dumped it all on them. Other countries look at the WJC as an opportunity; Canada looks at it as an expectation: gold or bust.
But Canada, and hockey, is just fine. While our World Junior blinders were firmly affixed, many might have missed our victory at the Spengler Cup. Our teams held their own at the under-17s (a tournament where our provincial and regional teams compete against the best of other nations!). And, most importantly, the game is just fine from coast to coast.
The World Juniors get all the attention, but don’t forget where those kids are from. The 60 teams across the Canadian Hockey League are providing top-quality hockey entertainment from London to Blainville, from Kelowna to Moncton, and even in U.S. markets like Erie, Seattle, and Saginaw.
The Quebec Remparts packed in over 10,254 people on average per game last year; the London Knights, averaged 8,859 and appear to be quite content with packing its venue. These numbers aren’t far off the bottom end of the NHL grid (Phoenix at 12,420; New York Islanders at 13,191)
Fans are seeing the value of this level of hockey — and you can add in the collegiate ranks, midget, Junior B — because it’s cheaper, more passionate, and less corporate. Hopefully those same hands wringing over the U.S. victory and the Canadian fourth-place finish will also reach into their wallets to buy a junior-hockey ticket.
And let’s not even get into the presumption that hockey is a part of what it means to be Canadian. I grew up playing and loving the game, but that mentality is changing. Anecdotally, at least half of the people I know either have a passing interest (at best) or no interest at all in the game. Our country is changing.
The NHL does not equal hockey. Hockey does not equal Canada. But if you scratch a little deeper, you’ll see that both the game and our country are doing just fine.