–you’d be wrong. Consider the celebrity of Don Cherry, who makes a living valuing Canadianness over skill. Just last year
(and, to Cherry’s disgust 5:28 into the clip, Marian Hossa the best). While Cherry never came out and said it, Johnson’s fearlessness reflected Cherry’s ideals regarding Canadian hockey, and it therefore warranted a defense. Cherry’s been accused of racism before and walked away unscathed because the players he discriminates against aren’t visible minorities (so it’s not racism–it’s ethnocentrism). That said, he’s never going to be fully held accountable for this, because his biases are shared by the majority of Canadian hockey fans.
Hockey is so enmeshed in the Canadian national identity that Canadians will always feel uneasy when our
players are the minority on our
hockey teams. For us, Canadianness is an attribute of the game of hockey, and we don’t want foreigners representing it because, as foreigners, they simply can’t. A recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies showed that 53 per cent of respondents believe Canadian-based NHL teams should have a minimum percentage of Canadian players
. The reality is that, just like the Atlanta fanbase, Canadian hockey fans have a unique identity and a strong sense of themselves. As stakeholders, we expect
that to be reflected in the makeup of our teams. If you find yourself disagreeing with this assessment, let’s look at two examples: The Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks.
Quebecers are particularly sensitive to Canadian representation on their hockey team. In the above survey, an alarming 72% of French-Canadians supported a mandated quota of Canadian players. (As a sidenote, I personally feel this overwhelming public opinion played a huge role in Montreal’s stubborn determination to keep Carey Price over Jaro Halak). But there’s more: Quebecers expect French-Canadian representation. Every year, there seems to be a rumour that Vincent LeCavalier or some such other star Francophone is headed to Montreal, as the city has been clamoring for a French-Canadian figurehead for years.
The province of Quebec is insistent
that their team’s players be representative of their identity. In fact, when I began writing this article, I had not yet heard the ludicrous comments made last week by Parti Quebecois language critic Pierre Curzi
, who claimed, according to Daniel Halton’s report, the lack of Francophone players on the Canadiens was part of a federalist plot
to rob Quebecers of a cherished symbol of their identity. It was unsubtle nationalism, so boorish that Ted Bird at CTV Montreal claimed
Curzi could take subtlety lessons from Don Cherry. Curzi came under fire almost immediately for his comments, but he’s just spouting an extreme version of the same sticking point Quebecers have adhered to since the club’s inception. From Canadiens blog Habs Eyes on the Prize
One year after the birth of the Montreal Canadiens, known then as Le Club Athletic Canadiens, it was decided that this would become the franchise that would cater to the desires of the french speaking clientele. Slowly but surely it filled it’s roster with french names [...]
Despite Montreal management claiming otherwise, nationality will always factor into their roster-building strategy. At the end of the same report, Daniel Halton tells us that 1/3 of the players trying to make this year’s Montreal team are Quebecers. That is the highest percentage you’ll find anywhere in the NHL. Halton: “Management insists their skills on the ice–not the language they speak–will determine who makes the cut.” This may true, but that doesn’t
mean they aren’t on the lookout for NHL-quality Francophones, especially after last year’s playoff run, which piqued fan interest and nationalistic scrutiny at the same time. Suggestions that there’s an “Anti-Francophone Virus
” in Montreal grew suddenly louder after the Canadiens were, ironically, eliminated by a Philadelphia Flyers team led by Francophones like Simon Gagne, Claude Giroux, and Danny Briere. Montreal noticed that
; they weren’t happy.
One could argue that Quebecois nationalism in hockey is out of control, but you have to realize that the hand of the Canadiens is forced: in order to garner continued support for their hockey club, they must pander to a desire for Canadian–and especially Francophone–representation. Just like Atlanta, Montreal is a community with a specific ethnic priority. That community needs to feel a connection to the team in order to stand–or, in this case, remain standing–behind it.
For British Columbians scoffing at how ridiculous this sounds, be aware that your team is no better. If Montreal’s nationalistic explanation for their loss to Philadelphia seems shortsighted, consider the similar line of reasoning in Vancouver following two consecutive postseason eliminations by the Chicago Blackhawks, a team full of BCers. Consider the furor over Markus Naslund’s captaincy and the Euro-captain debate in general, or the annual cries by some that the team has too many Swedes. Consider general manager Mike Gillis’s response to a fan inquiring about the pursuit of Russian players at July’s Summer Summit
: “I think we’re going to stick with more Western Canadian kids,” Gillis said, to a hearty applause. It was little more than clever pandering in an effort to dodge a silly question. But, it worked because BC fans fear foreign takeover like all other Canadian fanbases, and expect BC-born players on the roster.
It’s been said that there are two Canadas: English and French. This division is palpable, but there are actually three
Canadas: Quebec, naturally, and the East and West Coasts. Much of the pressure to give Henrik Sedin the Hart trophy came from West-Coasters sore over constantly being overlooked by what they feel is a hockey media with an East Coast bias. West-Coasters have a tendency to feel underrepresented in Canadian media (right or wrong), often jealously calling Toronto “The Center of the Universe.” This tension bleeds into our hockey teams. Just like Quebecers expect for French-Canadians to represent their unique micro-community within the macrocosm of Canada, we demand a Western-Canadian presence.
It’s why all Canuck fans know that Dan Hamhuis is from Smithers and Willie Mitchell is from Port McNeill. It’s why it matters that Brendan Morrison is from Pitt Meadows, and don’t underestimate Morrison’s role as the BC-born pivot for the West Coast Express during their heyday. He allowed Canuck fans to take complete ownership of that line. It’s even why it seems to take heavy community involvement (Trevor Linden’s charity work or the Sedins’ massive donation
to the BC Children’s Hospital) from our star players before we accept them completely. To hail from any birthplace but in Western Canada is to be a foreigner, and we need
to be able to claim them as our own to get behind them fully.
The ultimate no-brainer was Indo-Canadian forward Manny Malhotra, who fit the Canucks’ need for a third-line center, but also has notable BC connections
and shares his heritage with a large portion of the Canuck fanbase (drive down South Fraser Way in Abbotsford after a playoff win to see this firsthand). The Vancouver Canucks have the largest Indo-Canadian fan following among Canadian teams, and just happen to have the only two Indo-Canadian players in the NHL in their organization, with Malhotra and Surrey native Prab Rai
. Yes, Malhotra’s skillset was likely the major factor behind his donning the orca, but don’t kid yourself: it wasn’t the only one. It never is.
Back to the Atlanta Thrashers. All of this is to say that, from a business perspective, I support their strategy of acquiring black players. It is imperative to their success that they engage their community in the same way that Vancouver, Montreal, Indiana, and many other sporting communities do. As we’ve seen, the way to do this (short of winning, which isn’t an option for Atlanta) is to give your team a local connection. A Georgian birth certificate is a rarity in the NHL, but black players are beginning not to be. In Atlanta, this needs to be apparent in order for hockey to gain any momentum there.
That said, while I don’t blame ownership for pandering to a fanbase’s unease with otherness and foreignness (they have to do what will sell tickets), I do blame these fanbases in Canada, where hockey is already established. Our teams are forced to consider and carefully manage the foreign element when building their rosters because of our mean-spirited nationalism and ethnocentrism, and that is unacceptable.