Tag Archives: national

The Greatest Threat to National Unity

By Jason Menard

The greatest threat to National Unity doesn’t come from the Plains of Abraham or the Oil Sands of Alberta. No, the most divisive force our country faces comes once every four years.

That’s right, forget the Péquistes or those oil-rich Albertans, the cracks in our national mosaic widen each time the World Cup of Soccer rolls around. Those who are proud to call themselves Canadians every other day of their lives shun the Great White North each and every time the world’s best take to the pitch.

Already the rumblings have started. With the recent announcement of the brackets for the 2006 tournament in Germany, people have begun to scan the pools to see where their favourite squads are, and the gentle murmurs now will become a roar when June rolls around. And, although Canada doesn’t find itself in any bracket, not too many people seem to be too broken up about it.

When the World Cup comes about we cease to be a nation of hyphenated Canadians. We become a divided nation of displaced Italians, Brazilians, Portuguese, English, French, and Czechs. We cling tightly to the thinnest threads tying us back to whatever Old Country is taking the field. And we cheer with pride for their victories and lament each loss as a personal defeat.

All this for a sport that, in large part, we don’t really care about. North American soccer leagues struggle annually to attract fans. Club teams in cities across Canada play before almost empty stands, populated only by those whose familial obligations compel them to attend. Yet, schedules are changed, lives are rearranged, and World Cup soccer becomes must-see TV for those who normally wouldn’t know their Tottenham from smoked ham.

So why do many of us cast aside our Canadian identities the moment Italy versus Brazil shows up on the screen? Why, in cities small and large from east to west, do we find people waving other countries’ flags out the windows from their cars every four years? One reason is the fact that Canada’s national soccer program ranks behind such industrialized powerhouse nations such as Guinea, Qatar, and Albania. Before we get too down on ourselves, note that we would be slightly favoured in a match against Burkina Faso. Yes, when your team ranks 87 th in the world it’s hard to get stoked about the home side.

Since there’s no Canadian team to speak of on the global scene, soccer fans are forced to find other reasons for affiliation that extend beyond geography. As such, history becomes the defining factor. My wife, as French-Canadian as she comes, fiercely supports the boys from Brazil – all because of a two-year sojourn living and working in Brasilia.

Yet, for many of these national bandwagon-jumpers the allure of foreign dominance begins and ends with soccer. Rare is the flag-waving Italian-Canadian who will do the same when the field of play moves from the pitch to the ice. When it comes to a sport where we dominate, our national pride returns to the fore.

Which begs the question: are we a nation of front-runners, flipping affiliations depending on which way the victorious wind blows? Are we emotional mercenaries looking to back the winning side so that we’re certain to savour the fruits of victory?

Honestly, we’ll never know until Canada is able to field a national team that can kick its way out of a wet paper bag. Currently a national joke amongst those who cherish the sport, what would happen if we fielded a squad in which we could take pride? And what about if we were ever to ascend to the favourite status? Would those national affiliations continue to fall along the lines to which we’re currently accustomed?

Or would geography trump history? Would the people and nation we are now finally outweigh any ancestral ties we may cling to? Would Canadian soccer fans resemble their hockey brethren on an international stage? We may never know.

I’m a Canadian with both English and French heritage. And, more importantly, I don’t really consider myself a soccer fan. I’m not a weekend warrior watching the feeds from overseas during Championship League play. Yet, I can appreciate the grace and skill of high-level soccer played by elite athletes. I don’t live and die with any win or loss, nor do I have a favourite side in any match. Without the binding nature of ancestral tethers, I’m free to enjoy the games purely for their displays of athleticism and talent – but with no emotional attachment.

Well, at least until Canada fields a team. And, for me at least, I know where my heart will lie.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Pride or a Paycheque?

By Jason Menard

Pride or a paycheque? To which force should athletes be beholden? And is there really a right answer in all of this?

The Dominik Hasek situation at this year’s winter Olympic games in Torino, Italy just added a few more sleepless nights to the schedules of National Hockey League general managers and coaches. Their greatest fears were realized with the slight strain to the Czech goalie’s adductor muscle.

It’s the age old question – do you play for your country or your employer? The easy answer, especially for guys like me who don’t have millions riding on every shift, is that the pride of playing for your country outweighs any financial gain. But the realist in me knows that I’m talking out of idealism and national pride.

Things have changed since 1972 – the watershed mark for national representation. During that Canada-USSR summit series, a nation stood riveted as “our guys” faced off against “them.” This series was less about on-ice prowess than off-ice idealism. What should have been simple exhibitions between athletes from two countries quickly evolved into an on-ice battle for social and political superiority.

And this us-versus-them mentality continued on into the 80s and every contest was a pitched battle where ideals were fought for, not with words or guns, but rather with sticks and pucks. These were events and every player: whether they were Canadian, American, Soviet, or other nationality, was willing to drop everything to play/fight for their country.

Alas, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the us-versus-them nature of the games just seemed to matter less and less. How could we, as Canadians, stoke the flames of societal passion when our TVs were flooded with images of displaced Russians lining up for hours just for a loaf of bread? When the entire Eastern Bloc was struggling through the chaos of overwhelming societal and cultural reform, attaching cultural superiority to a hockey victory began to reek of Schadenfreude. It was hard to gear up for a Cold War battle when one side’s supporters ran the very real risk of freezing to death.

Starting with Sergei Priakin in 1989 and continuing with the arrival of the former members of the KLM line — Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov – to the NHL landscape, our once on-ice enemies became just another hockey player. Former ideological enemies were now playing side-by-side with North Americans for the common goal of winning a Stanley Cup.

And with that, International Competition became less of a passion and more of a source of pride. With players free to play anywhere in the world, international competitions like the Canada Cup (and its successor, the World Cup) became the location to see the best of the best play against each other. But instead of ideological supremacy being at stake, nothing more than bragging rights were on the line.

Now average NHL players from around the world are earning healthy salaries to ply their trade. And, despite the cachet of the Olympics or international competition, the National Hockey League is still considered the highest level of play. The Stanley Cup is truly hockey’s Holy Grail. So, for a Dominik Hasek, he has to balance his loyalty to the Czech Republic with his loyalty to his regular employers – the Ottawa Senators – who fill his bank statement with all those zeroes.

Despite any national pride, to NHL general managers the game is a product and the players are their assets. While winning a gold medal is nice, remaining gainfully employed is even nicer. The best way to keep their jobs is to win games – and the easiest way to win games is to have their best players playing at their top level.

That’s why there’s always a risk of allowing players to participate in these games. Sure, there’s insurance, but that only covers the financial loss – no insurance can replace the effect of a top performer on a squad.

For NHLers, whose careers are generally short, they have to balance their desire to play for their country with the risk of undermining their long-term ability to earn a top-level salary. Certainly injuries can happen anywhere, but running the risk during a game in which you’re paid by your employer seems more acceptable than any risk assumed in what is essentially and unpaid exhibition.

Pride is a very powerful force and I’m pleased to see so many athletes sacrifice themselves for the honour of playing for their country. But as international competitions become less and less relevant, the day may not be too far away when a player’s loyalty to his country is superseded by his responsibility to his employer.

And, as people just trying to make a living, will we really be able to blame them when they make that choice?

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved