Saturday, June 12, 2010

Would this fly in any other sport?

I've bloody well had it, a portion of the NHL's higher-ups, analysts and their fans make me sick. Think about the three other major sports in North America. What do you think the reaction would be if people had said years ago that black quarterbacks couldn't led their teams to Super Bowls, that Japanese players don't belong in Major League Baseball or that Chinese people don't care about winning in the NBA. Think about the firestorm that would generate in the United States of America if their three top sports had major personalities and large fan bases saying a nationality or race did not belong in the sport and didn't care about winning, they just wanted the money. They'd be branded racists, run off the air and called a bunch of Neo-Nazis or other such terms.

Yet here we are in the year 2010 and we have a culture of bigotry in the NHL about players not born in North America. Granted, bigotry is not a new thing for the NHL. Maurice Richard and his fellow French Canadians of their time faced it, time and time again. Ridiculed, assaulted, ill-treated and shunned from the NHL for years except for the Montreal Canadiens who saw their ability and employed it. It took decades for the French Canadians to assert themselves into the NHL and get a level of respect and legitimacy. They were called soft, cowards, heartless and much worse as they fought for that respect by outplaying and crushing their opposition every way they had to, to win and to make the way open for their fellows and successors in Quebec.

Nowadays, you can't trust those sneaky Europeans. They're money-hungry, soulless and wimps. Don Cherry said European-born captains can't lead their teams to Stanley Cups, if that isn't bigotry I don't know what is. The second an article was written about how European goaltenders are becoming a trend in the NHL, Cherry flipped over it and spent the rest of the playoffs talking about how nearly all the goals scored were from North American players. Whether he's still bitter about Harry Astrom having one of the worst goaltending seasons in NHL history during his brief tenure with the Colorado Rockies or just a rabid nationalist, I don't know and I don't care. What bothers me is this guy gets held up as a role model, talks to 'the kids' every chance he gets and takes the opportunity to slam European players and sell bigotry on national television, funded by my tax money.

I'm tired of the stories about how being raised in Canada creates a will to win the Cup like none found in Europe and that they just care about the money they can make in the NHL. If Europeans come over here and get slammed in the media, the fans and the media personalities, why should they give a crap? They don't get the respect, they get mocked, the names that get reserved for the Sedin brothers and Kostitsyn brothers... I won't dignify them by repeating them. They want to win games, it's a sport, the objective is to win every game they play. The Detroit Red Wings had a strong European basis that made them the most successful hockey franchise in the last 15 years. Saku Koivu was criticized in Montreal for not communicating very well in his 4th language. Saku Koivu was fluent in Finnish, Swedish and English, but we had a bigoted media focus in Quebec that couldn't get over the fact that he couldn't speak very well in his 4th language when most of his critics probably weren't even fluent in two. The team captain who wore the CH on his heart, captained the Finnish National Team to 3 Bronze and 1 Silver medal in 4 consecutive Olympic series had his leadership questioned. It was suggested it was wrong that he might be a captain of the Canadiens longer than Jean Beliveau's tenure had been. Criticized for not bringing a Stanley Cup home, in an era where for the most part, the only thing Habs fans could agree on was how terrible the team was in general.

Let that sink in, a 4-time Olympic medalist in Men's Hockey, whose team's talent pool was limited to a country of 5 million people, took flak for his apparent lack of leadership skills, not speaking his 4th language that well, possibly being captain too long because that would take away from Beliveau's tenure somehow and not leading an utterly mediocre team to a Stanley Cup.

Regardless of the money you make, you don't want to get treated like crap. We have a culture if institutionalized bigotry where the dinosaurs and small-minded of the NHL have great influence. They are involved in running hockey clubs, the NHL itself, scouting, lower leagues and the like. Europeans aren't fit to lead, they can't be counted on the playoffs, don't trust them to play when it's hurt and if they do play, they'll play scared. The press in Montreal tried to run the Kostitsyns out of town by trying to link them to organized crime when the team was struggling in 08-09 and looked for scapegoats and who did they pick? The two kids from Belarus. I'm seeing Ilya Kovalchuk called a playoff failure for not doing well in the 9 playoff games he's had in his entire career, 4 games on a basement team in Atlanta and 5 games on a team that hasn't won a playoff round since the lockout ended. These players are being made unwelcome, don't trust them from the national icon of hockey Don Cherry, the media and the fans. Never give them the benefit of the doubt and never, ever expect them to go the extra mile.

Europeans have been playing in the NHL for several decades, but they've only really been here in significant numbers in the last 20 years. In those 20 years, they've done great things that can't be challenged either. Jaromir Jagr's mastery in the NHL for his entire career, becoming the first European to enter the top 10 all-time scoring list of the NHL and winning multiple Art Ross trophies. 4 Stanley Cups in Detroit with their infusion of Swedish and Russian talent. Teemu Selanne setting the all-time scoring record for a rookie and having a brilliant career despite injuries setting him back as he chased the records of another Finnish legend, Jarri Kurri. Nicklas Lidstrom becoming the greatest defencemen of his generation, the first Conn Smythe trophies won by European players, Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk becoming the finest defensive forward in the NHL and Sergei Fedorov's own illustrious career as a scoring star and two-way player in his later years. The great play of Peter Forsberg that was cut short by injury. The fact that two of the three best players in the world are Russian and that Nicklas Backstrom in Washington is a top 5 centre in the NHL at 22. Saku Koivu's heartbreaking and heatwarming struggles with injury and battling cancer that hampered his playing career, but never once wavering in his commitment to the Canadiens or charitable causes for the city of Montreal. The brilliant career of Dominic Hasek with two Hart trophies, six Vezinas, probably the greatest goaltending performance in Olympic history in 1998 and a Stanley Cup win in 2002. Nikolai Khabibulin's worldly performance in the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs and great campaign in 2009 with Chicago that was stopped only by injury, a great goalie whose own health prevented him from reaching greater heights in his career. There are more, but I think my point is made.

The Europeans have proven they can play on our level, they've matched against the North Americans and taught us new things about the game from how they play. Can anyone deny the simple artistry of Russian stickhandling? Canadians consider it a facet of the game and a skill that requires commitment, for the Russians, the stick is like an extension of their bodies. So why cold shoulder to people of many nations who want to play the game of hockey at it's highest level? The NHL has always been slow to accept change, helmets, visors, headshot rules, Francophone players, European players I guess are just the latest issue that can't be accepted as being part of 'our game'.

I'm not saying Europeans are all perfect, but I've seen plenty of NA players with no heart and commitment to the game. We've created a game where it's a business, players are not just athletes they are entertainers. They want their cut of the rich NHL revenues and many lack a commitment that would help their team win a Stanley Cup. It's a universal sickness if that's what you want to call it, but let's not pretend the Europeans are ruining the game or costing our teams Stanley Cups. We're certainly not helping matters by treating them like outsiders and perpetuating an attitude that they can't win and don't want to win a Cup. You tell people they're not welcome because they're heartless and money-grubbing, what do you think that engenders, goodwill? Not enough talent in North America to fill the NHL ranks, probably not enough worldwide anyway because of the overall weakness of the NHL but that's another story.

We're treating them like outsiders and as long as this divide is encouraged, the bigoted opinions propagated and the mistreatment continued, we're going to have issues. It's a terrible attitude that is being spread far and wide for reasons beyond my understanding that the Europeans don't 'belong'. If a generation of kids gets raised to believe these sorts of things, don't you think it has an impact when they hit the NHL and start playing alongside those supposedly greedy Euros who are here for a paycheck and not the Cup? No reason in the twenty-first century we can't welcome some fellow human beings from other countries to come play the game of hockey, cheer them on and get along with them.