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The Reports of the Death of Hockey Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Whether it is Canadianized or Americanized, its still the greatest game on earth.

Yesterday I preached wrote about "anti-Canada bias in the NHL". Triggered by a series of articles and a tweet, the whole thing just got under my skin. While I am sure that this second sermon post of a similar nature will cement me as having my own "anti-Canada bias", I can assure you, I do not. You could not pull me out of this country or away from a love of the game of hockey with a whole fleet of tow trucks. But really, between you and me and the other folks who end up on this page, I am beginning to think that there is an "anti-American bias" amongst Canadian hockey fans.

Today, while doing my usual trek across the interwebs, I came across the following words inside a comment attached to a story about the state of hockey in Canada. The comment was made by, presumably, a Canadian reader. It is a nearly perfect summation of something that is gaining traction across the country and needs to be called out until it stops. You've heard of self-defeating behaviour? This is an example. You've heard of "there, there, do you need a crying towel" responses from the American media and fan camps? This is why.

"It used to be a beautiful, elegant game but that is gone too. It used to be Canadian but the violent American marketplace has taken over. There are many reasons why hockey is dying but the main reason is that the thugs have killed it. Too bad, it was the best game on earth..."

I know this is going to sound like a bit of maternalistic pablum, but we're sowing the seeds of our own discontent here, folks. We take to the boards and forums and comment sections of the internet, proclaiming the end is nigh, with the whine of broken logic and the stain of the magic kool-aid on our lips. We say things like "hockey is dying" and "it's become Americanized". 

There is a disturbing choral voice amongst the malcontent of Canadian hockey fandom and they're singing, "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

The refrain? "And it's all their fault!"

Hold Up There, Chicken Little 


There is a pervasive, grassroots, everyman misconception about the "Americanization" of hockey. Honestly, you'd think they came up here armed to the teeth and stole something from us while we slept. Canadians seem intent, intent I tell you, on blaming America for everything they think is wrong with hockey while clinging sentimentally to those things they think are right as being "Canadian". 

If you have a conversation with someone and mention some aspect of the game that you feel has "slipped" in quality, the response is invariably, "Damn Americans". Americans should not take it too personally, we also seem to believe, communally, if you take everything that you read and plug it into a chart, that America is responsible for death, taxes and the high price of bread. And maybe even the break-up of the Beatles.

Sorry about that, Americans.

My fellow citizens, my fellow lovers of hockey: you are rewriting history with your rose colored glasses on. Which are sitting on top of your anti-American glasses. You are mistaken in your belief that America has somehow ruined the game. You are equally mistaken if you believe that it has become "Americanized" or that it has, in fact, been ruined at all. Although, I confess freely, I am not entirely sure what "Americanized" even means. 

More American teams? More American teams on television? More American fans? More Americans who write about it? The NHL being based in America? In the same way hockey was never a possession of the Canadian people, it is not now a possession of the American people. The NHL is a business serving both peoples. So, what gives?

Maybe someone can enlighten me. What does Americanization mean?

In the meanwhile, I will use some answers I found on the internet. They run the gamut from "America is so violent and this violence has infected the sport" to "it's all about money now". Ahhhhh ... those old rubes. The greedy, money hungry, profit crazy, capitalistic, hand gun toting punks south of the border thing.

It's enough to make you swallow your own head with the biggest yawn ever yawned, isn't it?

Deconstructing The Americanization Myth 

Don't be shocked, but Canada is just as violent in a per capita way, the sport is less violent now than it used to be and professional hockey has always been "about the money". The word "professional" has money in its definition, ferchrissakes. It's always been about the profit. Did we all forget Howard Ballard, deceased owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so quickly? 

The man used to make players take out the garbage and drive the Zamboni to save a few bucks. While the Nationals, a hockey team Ballard coached, were touring Europe in 1933 (where they lost to the Americans in the World Championships), they were involved in several highly publicized fights, both on the ice and off. Ballard was actually arrested in Paris following a punch up in a hotel lobby. Of all the crazy, despotic owners NHL teams have had, Ballard, a Canadian running a Canadian hockey team, has to be considered the reigning example of how not to do things.

Honestly, if Howard Ballard couldn't "ruin the game", I am not sure it can be ruined. 

You can't redact out the bits of history that disprove your theories, as much as the the temptation whispers sweet nothings in your ear.

Although the NHL started in 1917 in Montreal and the "National" stood for Canada, it expanded to the United States in 1927. A bunch of stuff happened, including the Montreal Canadiens almost being moved to Cleveland, the Great Depression and the second World War. By 1942 the league was formally binational, had contracted and expanded several times and had six teams. The so-called Original Six formed the entirety of the NHL for a period of twenty five years. So, let's say that the modern NHL started in 1942. The Original Six were Montreal, New York, Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Detroit. By my count, that's four American teams and two Canadian teams. Sure, 98% of the players were Canadian in the old days, but 2/3 of the fans and owners were American. It kind of evens up, don't you think?

But here's the bottom line: What was, at least, half American to begin with can't be "Americanized". Ipso facto. By the fact itself.

America has changed and evolved, as has Canada, and the NHL, inevitably, has gone with it. The world has changed. The NHL and the game it promotes is different and you can dislike those differences, but you can't blame the Americans or their corporate style for changing it. It is no more or less American today than it was when the first puck dropped at the first NHL game during the 1942-1943 season. They're not Johnny-come-latelys to the good old hockey game, they're members of the founder's club.

Right? Good. Glad that's settled.

If you are one of those people who regularly opines the death or ruination of hockey, I can only assume you mean one of two things. One, that it is literally dying from lack of popularity and participation, like, say, Roller Derby and mullet hair cuts. Or, two, that it is metaphorically dying by way of being stripped of its essence or its integrity, like, say, muscle cars and Mixed Martial Arts.

Hockey Is Not Dying, It is Positively Thriving

The game is not ruined. It's not dying. The game is evolving.

Let's just get to some facts. Facts always confuse these sorts of arguments, I know, born as they are in the heart and not the cerebral cortex, but if we can't use facts we have to reply with something that reads like, "stop talking, you sound stupid". And then the thing just gets out of control. Plus, if there is one Canadian stereotype that I actually like, it's the notion that we're fairly polite. At least to one another. So, don't make me call you stupid; it offends my Canadian sensibilities.

This is a chart that proves the evolution of NHL hockey. While we are losing our stranglehold on it in terms of percentage of players, what has actually happened is that more people fell in love with it. We are not diminishing, the rest of the world is catching up. Since the 1980s Canada has held pretty steady at between 450 and 550 players in the league with no particular upward or downward trend in terms of hard numbers. Some years we're above 500 and some years we're below it. We are still churning out more or less the same number of professional NHL players as we always have.

America is churning out about 200, a number which has been similarily steady for the past several years and actually showed a small decline in 2012-2013.

Our percentage has fallen because the league has expanded and includes more players, but our contribution to it, in terms of Canadian players, is extremely steady. What we're losing is player market share. And like all good shareholders, this makes us nervous. Market share equals superiority and superiority is good. I think people are mostly angry because Canadian player market share, so to speak, is dropping and this fact has been translated, from the raw data, into something wholly untrue. Sigmund might say, "Your insecurity is showing".

Our stranglehold wasn't stolen from us, we gave it away. On purpose. With intention. We TRIED to give it away. We wanted to share it. We wanted people to fall in love with the game.

Guess what? It worked.

In 2013, nineteen nations of birth were represented by players in the NHL. In 1960, three nations were represented. In 1980, there were eleven. In 1990, there were thirteen. By 2000, there were eighteen. All together, since 1917, thirty nations have been represented by NHL players. We should all be proud and thankful. Not cranky. Our game is growing up.

It's not dying. It's positively thriving. In order to thrive, it had to evolve. You know the expression, which is actually based on Colossians 1:3-12 which covers Paul's Thanksgiving Prayer, if you're not growing, you're dying.

Hockey is enjoying a tremendous growth and popularity. At the 2010 Olympics, the men's gold medal hockey game was the highest rated television program in the history of the country. The history of the country.

The 2013 Stanley Cup Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins were the highest rated NHL games recorded since 1994. Ten and a half million people watched Game 6 in 2013. In 2003, for example, they were lucky to get three million viewers. In 2004, they barely cracked two million. Even for the math challenged like me, that's "a big increase".

So, if by "ruined" you mean unpopular and not worth watching, then you're really very, very wrong. If you mean declining in interest, participation and media support, then you're also really very, very wrong.

The Canadian in you should be kind of chuffed that "our game", our little game of ice hurley, has ignited such passion and interest.

Yay us. Back pats for everyone.

So, hockey is not dying a literal death. Which just leaves the metaphoric one. The one where it loses itself. Changes into something less than it used to be. I believe thugs were mentioned.

Hockey Has Been Taken Over By Thugs




Some people seem to remember hockey as being some sort of ballet on ice where every player was a gentleman and the grace of the sport could make you weep into your plastic cup full of Molsen's Canadian. To hear some of the talk, it was once populated by men of such immense character and skill who, if you listen long enough, start to feel like Gary Stus on skates.

People need to stop "remembering" hockey as some sort of idealized game between gentlemen where it was all skill all the time. Because it has NEVER been that way. Not even in the minor leagues. My son's first bloody nose came at the hockey rink. Likewise with my daughter's first serious muscle sprain, my cousin's first broken bone, my father's first and only fist fight and my best friend's first concussion. The expression, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out" wasn't born out of thin air. Hockey has proudly welcomed thugs, slugs and all other manner of personality types into its fold since it began.

According to the CBC's broadcasted series called Hockey: A People's History, four players were killed, just in 1904, during hockey games due to the all-out and frequent brawls and unrestrained and violent use of the lumber. People were beating each other to death with their fists and bashing each other's heads in with hockey sticks.

Not in any way to condone that, of course, by thuggery can hardly be called a new phenomenon.

All of those killed players? Canadians. All of those doing the killing? Canadians. So, shush now, and remember from whence the game came before you start pointing accusatory little fingers all over the map. In 2004 Todd Bertuzzi punched Steve Moore and in the resulting shuffle Moore basically had his entire body broken, smashed, crushed and otherwise rearranged. Has not played hockey since. Both Canadians. I could go on and on and on and on. But I will spare you because I am sure you get the point by now.

In fact, although I searched fairly diligently, I could not find many examples (and no especially gruesome ones) of American players conducting themselves like the sort of grade-A thugs mentioned above.

Hardly a scientific study, surely, but it does seem fair to conclude that if the game has been infested with too many thugs, we can't really blame the Americans.

So, if by "ruined" you mean that is has become more violent and unsportsmanlike or that is has suffered a loss of integrity by being "ungentlemanly" then you must have started watching hockey in February of 2012 or something. And you're very, very wrong.

Hockey is evolving and is less violent today than it has ever been. The players are, in fact, more gentlemanly. They skate faster and better, goalies make more saves, there are fewer penalties.There are fewer injuries. It's just that we hear more about the ones that do occur. If YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even the Internet had existed in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, you would have a different perception, I am sure. If they had existed in the forties and fifties, hockey probably would have been banned.

And of course, now the beer is cold and the hotdogs warm. Used to be the other way around.

So, hockey is clearly not dying and it has not been ruined and I would like very much if my fellow countrymen would stop saying otherwise. Just say what you mean: you hate that hockey is different. It makes you feel angry that you can't afford to go to a game or have a team in your city. You are sad that there are twenty three teams south of the border and only seven above it.

Here's a thought: 2/6 = 10/30. Things are not much more uneven than they were in the beginning when Canada only had two of the original six. When you consider relative population growth it works out like this:

In 1942 there was 1 hockey team for every 33,750,000 Americans and 1 hockey team for every 5,827,000 Canadians.

In 2013 there was 1 hockey team for every 13,695,652 Americans and 1 hockey team for every 5,033,857 Canadians.

Canada, in fact, is more densely populated with hockey teams than America and is more densely populated now than it was when the league started. America would need 45 more teams to be equal in terms of proportional representation. A MUCH higher percentage of Canadians have access to hockey than do Americans. 

That should help ease the pain a little.

Last sermon for a while, I promise.

Previously on Sidelines:
Shutting Up Wyshynski - Repeat After Me, There is No Anti-Canada bias in the NHL

Next on Sidelines:
Rink Burgers: A Bruins Fan Remembers Life Through a Hockey Porthole