Hockey: Not Our Game, But Our Gift

By Jason Menard,

The great game of hockey may have been born here, but it’s by no means our birthright. And it may be time to reflect upon some 40-year-old lessons that obviously haven’t been learned.

In 2014, the hand-wringing has already started. Back-to-back years where Team Canada has not medalled in the World Junior Championship has some questioning our nation’s hockey development. A gold-or-bust attitude already seems to surround discussions about the Olympic men’s squad. There’s been an unnatural fascination about eighth defensemen and 13th forwards.

There’s an underlying arrogance throughout all of this, which assumes that Canada in some way deserves the gold medal, without even needing to lace it up. All the other nations are pretenders to the throne.

“We invented this game,” a commercial states. “We perfected it. We have the most fans, the most players. The most heart of any nation. We’ve spent our whole lives on ice.”

But that’s just wrong. It’s not confidence; it’s arrogance.

We have not perfected the game of hockey in any way. We have improved in many ways, but we are still often hamstrung by our ‘old-school’ thinking in what it means to play a quote-unquote Canadian game.

It’s nothing new, though. In fact, many of the same fears were expressed and questions asked in 1972.

In his 1983 seminal hockey novel, The Game, Ken Dryden looked back at the decade of Soviet amateur dominance that led to a shocking — to some — challenge of assumed Canadian hockey supremacy in the 1972 Canada/USSR eight-game summit series.

“We have paid an enormous price as originators and developers, as custodians and keepers, as unchallenged champions of the sport. That others coming later, unbound, would take greater, more creative steps in understandable. That we should fail to fight back is not. Yet there is a fatalism about Canadians that extends beyond hockey…”

In the late 60s and early 70s, it was assumed that Canadian hockey was the best. But in a quarter century the Soviet Union managed to reach levels that it took our nation 100 years to attain. Unbound by tradition, the U.S.S.R. were more free to experiment and develop new ways to play the game.

From that experience, we learned. We incorporated parts of ‘their’ game into ‘ours.’ Criss-cross patterning, a focus on skating, and motion was integrated with up-and-down wing play and dump-and-chase strategy. And the Canadians and the Soviets started trading wins back and forth.

But over the past couple of decades, others joined us. Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia (both independently and back in the day as Czechoslovakia), and our neighbours to the south — the United States — all caught up to us.

Now there’s a very real chance that we not only won’t win gold — we may not even medal. And I’d argue that’s great for the game.

At any time, a team like Switzerland, Kazakhstan, or Denmark can beat a traditional power. You can make an argument for any one of Canada, Russia, Sweden, or Finland to take home Olympic gold.

As a Canadian, I always want to see my nation’s representatives at the top of the podium when it comes to hockey (I’ve already expressed how little I care about the rest of the Olympic sports). But as a fan, I want to be invested in the tournament.

It’s no fun when you know you’re going to win. Some people may enjoy 15-0 blowouts, but I don’t. To me, the best way to appreciate what a win means is when you honestly believe there’s a chance for you to lose.

Every 15 years ago, Canadian hockey seems to go through a crisis of confidence. We set up commissions or programs to address our so-called deficiencies and figure out what’s “wrong” with Canadian hockey.

But at what point do appreciate what’s right with it? Canadian hockey is a gift we’ve given to the world — a sport so entertaining that other nations have embraced it with the same fervour as we do. And, on any given day, one of those nations can beat us. Gold should always be the goal, but anything less is most certainly not a failure.

When we think of hockey as a birthright, we take it for granted. If we see it as the gift it is, we can learn from others how to grow, develop, and improve. Win or lose, we analyze what our opponent did and see how to combat it or incorporate it into our style.

Hockey — it was originally our game, but now it’s a gift to the world that will keep on giving.

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