Knowing the Game: The Canada Problem

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Knowing the Game: The Canada Problem

North America is a big, big place. It’s not got too many countries, and it’s not broken up by as many languages as other continents across the globe, so what you’re left with is a series of individual cities, states and provinces all similar to each other (relatively speaking). What this creates is one very big marketplace. And while one region might favour one way of doing things over another, the reality is that Florida and British Columbia do share a lot of cultural similarities, despite being separated by thousands of miles.

In terms of the sporting market in North America (and sorry Mexico, but I’m not including you in this because your differences are a little more tangible) you’ve got the same principles of nationwide audience making cultural preferences depending on what peaks their interest. For example, it would be fair to say that Football (of the American variety) would take preference over Hockey in somewhere like Texas, whereas in Ontario, Hockey is the top dog. Both markets have equal opportunity to accept either sport in to their lives, but each makes their choice and this is backed up by the viewership in the regions.

In the US, there’s no question that Football is King. It dominates television ratings, social media trends, sports broadcasting, and often times is the lead story of the day in local news regionally on the weekends it’s being played. When Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson gets involved in unpleasant extra-curricular activity, it’s invariably the biggest story in any sports outlet that day. If Tony Romo throws three interceptions in a game-losing effort, you’re going to hear about it as one of ten other headline sporting events from the NFL that day. The US loves football.

Having lived in Canada for four years, I can’t say that they treat Hockey exactly the same way as the American’s treat football, but it’s not a million miles off it. The sensationalism and media blitz is carried out in a slightly more understated way, but the game is seen as a part of Canada’s identity, which is made easier by the country’s significantly smaller population. The US, with such a substantially larger population, is always going to find it harder to adopt one sport as their own on a national level because they don’t need to. They have a choice, and they have enough people to sustain all these choices.

So Canada adopts Hockey as its game. The NHL, despite only having 7 Canadian teams out of 30, is largely dominated by Canadian-born players. A lot of the games great stars have, and do, hail from the great white north. They win Olympic Gold, they win Stanley Cups, and they become national icons. Where’s the problem?

The problem is in Canada.

Being at the forefront of the sporting landscape is not easy. There’s additional scrutiny, there’s more work involved, there’s greater expectations and pressures. Sure, the highs are arguably higher in a country that lives and breathes hockey, but conversely the lows can be quite brutal. People really care about hockey in Canada, and that is not easy to deal with. In an ideal world, that wouldn’t be a problem and you could use the added intensity of a hockey hotbed such as Montreal or Toronto or Winnipeg to galvanize and inspire.

Unfortunately, that takes only a special sort of player.

Instead, what you get is a group of professional athletes who get sick of fifteen microphones stuck in their face as they discuss a bad result or the latest controversy starring one of their teammates. The controversy might be the captain not being made available to the media, or someone disagree with a coach, or not enough time on the powerplay – normal, everyday issues that a professional sports team goes through.

Maybe Vancouver have just lost their opening two games? It’s an 82 game season, it’s not the end of the world…except in Vancouver. The talking heads on TSN, Sportsnet and CBC (and that’s not even talking about local media) has hours of content and shows asking what’s wrong, who’s to blame, where do they go from here, is there season over? Crisis, crisis, crisis until the next crisis comes up in Edmonton, or Toronto, or Ottawa.

These are Canada’s sporting headlines. Hockey, Hockey, Hockey.

This would be difficult under normal circumstances, but it is exacerbated by the exact opposite experience in about half of the other NHL markets. Teams like the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes, Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars (and I could go on) just don’t move the needle locally or nationally the same way the Canadian teams do. The players are relatively anonymously going about the daily lives, getting played a handsome sum to play the sport they love in (generally) a warm climate where everyone’s a lot more laid back, and expectations are a lot more reasonable.

The spotlight does not shine as brightly, the scrutiny of an individual error or a couple of bad games doesn’t result in crisis mode all over the news, and the fans, although equally as passionate, are not as plentiful. There are other sports in the US that catch the attention moreso than Canada. If Roberto Luongo has a bad game and gets pulled in the 2nd period in Florida, he’s not going to go home that night, turn on the sports news and listen to it for the next two or three days. It’s done. Not too many people care. Next game.

This inequity is an issue. Almost every Canadian hockey player played at a junior level and have friends playing all over the league. Some are traded from one team to another. Some have spent their whole hockey-playing lives in Canada, others in the US. These guys see the differences all over the league. They get it. And I have no doubt that some of them feel like they drew the short straw when they get drafted by a Canadian team. How couldn’t you? Who really wants to have to deal with cameras in your face every day, picking apart every aspect of your professional life and asking you the most inane questions about the latest “he said, she said”?

Of course, it’s in a Hockey Town where a true hero will emerge, and I’m not just talking about Canada here. In Toronto, the likes of Dougie Gilmore and Mats Sundin are heralded as Gods, and they didn’t even win a cup here. Teemu Selanne is an all-timer in Winnipeg. These are the men who rose up and became greats amongst the fans in their hockey-crazed cities, and they are a special breed that got to enjoy the highs of playing their hockey in place where it matters the most. There’s a lot to be said for a professional athlete to be able to do that, but that’s what it takes: someone special.

In professional sports nowadays, where players get paid so much, who really wants to be special?

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