Hockey Calls For National Pride: But No One's Home Except The Washington Generals
You’ve probably seen the TV commercials for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey airing non-stop during the Stanley Cup playoffs. A rather forlorn Jim Hughson appears to be asking the musical question, “What nation owns hockey?” We are then treated to some cheesy vignettes in which big stars brag on their own countries’ claim on world supremacy.
There’s lots of friendly rivalries shown, although it would have been more fun to see Vlad Putin boasting about the Ruskies' chances even as Justin Trudeau showed his Gordie Howe elbows on behalf of Canada. But you can’t have everything.
Nowhere in this stirring appeal to national pride does anyone let slip that while some teams are indeed playing for national pride, a couple of the other contestants are playing for… um, points on their AmEx card? Krispy Kreme donuts? A warm feeling all over that no one is likely to notice?
Yes, the NHL and the IIHF are peddling their latest promotional extravaganza even as they leave out the McGuffin, the plot twist, the secret sauce that will captivate fans come this September. Namely, the presence of teams not representing nations at all. Think of the Washington Generals, the longtime patsies for there Harlem Globetrotters, and you get the idea.
First, there is Team Bouillabaisse, a stew of players from nations in Europe not significant enough to field a competitive team but who might still buy a pay-per-view package. So Slovenians, Slovakians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Italians and some nations that don’t end in “ian” are banding to throw a stink bomb into this concept of what nation is best in the sport. (Considering how dotty this idea is shouldn’t Team European Union have a Syrian player— just for consistency?)
But Team Europe is just the appetizer in this ersatz episode in Bettman World. The full meal is Team America, under-23 players who don’t make Canada or the USA but whom the NHL promotional geniuses believe should have a place in a tournament of nations. Just not a place in the commercials. This toy car is not mentioned by poor Mr. Hughson, the best hockey voice of his generation, in his duties as shill-meister to the event.
No wonder. This brain wave owes more Team Adam Levine on The Voice than to an international sports event. Imagine the IOC spicing things up in Rio this summer with Team Lefthanded or Team Rap Artist. Or the U.S. allowing an Under-35 presidential candidate for people who don’t qualify for the real presidency.
In an era when brand identity and integrity are king, this is marketing half-assery of the worst sort. But having bought into some focus-group falderol, the NHL is determined to go ahead with tainting its No. 1 asset— the loyalty of its fans to their home nations. No wonder Hughson looks so glum. He’s going to have to put lipstick on this pig in the fall.
Now that the Toronto Raptors have won a game in the NBA Eastern Conference final series with LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the brand managers in the team’s home city are back pitching their most prized notion: The Raptors as Canada’s team.
The line that the Raps are now part of the nation’s fabric is casually dropped into broadcasts or newspapers. “DeMar DeRozan and his 35 million followers” is the general pitch. This claim is made by people whose world is mostly constrained by the Scarborough bluffs to the east and Port Credit harbour to the west— but people who do understand that selling national TV rights or automobile ads is more lucrative if you can just plop the whole pays into the sales pitch.
If you lived in the Centre of the Universe, you’d likely think that hoops has overtaken— or at least tied— hockey for cultural supremacy in the city. From the exuberant young crowds inside and outside the Air Canada Centre to the steady flow of brilliant young players emerging from the suburbs, hoops is hot in the 416/ 905.
The beautiful people who don’t like sports like basketball. In part because it’s not hockey with all its icky people. But also because the NBA’s popularity allows them to be simpatico with the many visible minority communities who flock to the team. Don’t worry about their loyalty; the latté liberals will decamp for Toronto FC as soon as hoops gets boring.
There are pockets of roundball fervour outside southern Ontario. A fairly fertile hoops factory exists in the lower mainland of B.C.— although it’s not the gold mine now being mined in Brampton. Montreal produces a player from time to time, too. If the men’s national team emulates the Olympic or World Cup profile of the women’s program there will be more to come.
But the notion that basketball is encroaching on the national sport in the rest of Canada is the product of an over-active imagination— or another case of Toronto as Oz. (But then those are the same things, no?) The winter game still retains its leg hold on the imagination of sports fans in this country— those not put off the NHL’s concept of a World Cup. One sports radio station in Calgary plays music to drown out any discussions of the NBA in general and the Raptors in particular.
If there’s a second place in the nation’s pro sports affections it would be the Blue Jays. (The expired Expos still command plenty of support across the country.) The Raptors will need more than a single game won in the NBA Eastern Final to cement that status. Just don’t tell Toronto any of this, however. They’re still leading a parade with no followers.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).