O My God Canada: Hockey Is Lost Without You

“Pretty soon hockey players will be playing just for money instead of for the love of the game—like American athletes. They think the world owes them a living, that playing baseball or football is a big thing. Some of our guys are getting like that, too.”

 (Jim McKenzie, 1965)

Canadians are quick to remind any who might forget that hockey is their sport more than it’s the sport of any other nation.

Most non-Canadians would agree. Professional hockey in North America dates back nearly a century because of Canadian players, whether they played on Canadian-based teams or not. A Who’s-Who of hockey greats over that century is a list absolutely smothered by Canadians.

According to QuantHockey.com, the concentration of Canadian born players in the NHL was at its peak during hockey’s Golden Age. It’s widely acknowledged that until the late 1960s and the end of that era, the NHL regularly took its players to the cleaners.

Sure, there were some voices of dissent over the years. Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey come to mind. But in general the NHL had been a league of exploitable Canadian athletes; exploitable because they just wanted to play the game, because they showed little interest in finances and because of a persistent (and in some cases true) mythology about them that said that whatever windswept prairie town it was they came from, it didn’t have much, and they were just appreciative of what they were getting. Everyone played hockey so it didn’t make you special. Earning a living wage to play was privilege enough.

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“Hockey players have long been known as the roughest of athletes on the ice and the most docile in the hands of their masters.”

(Dan Parker, 1957)

Recently, Gary Bettman said the players had no “perpetual entitlement” to 57% of hockey related revenue. Like it or not, he was right. In fact, I doubt he knew it but in using the word ‘entitlement’ the Commissioner was striking at the very heart of the game, of how it’s played and why it’s so adored by us fans.

There may be no dirtier word in hockey than ‘entitlement.’ Hockey doesn’t care who you are; if you’re handsome or ugly, if you’re the child of wealthy parents, if you’re quick-witted, kind to the elderly, good at math. On the ice none of that matters. As Justin Bourne has written, “The only true test of who’s good at hockey is who’s good at hockey.”

It is a tough sport that has no room for unearned entitlement. Gordie Howe wasn’t speaking in riddles when he said that the Stanley Cup was not something kept forever, but something “you have to earn every year you play.”

Time has exonerated Eric Lindros for his perceived selfishness concerning his own health following numerous concussions, but he will never be forgiven for his refusal to play for Quebec, the team that drafted him. That decision shocked the hockey world because the sport is predicated on action, on what you can do. The idea that a player without any NHL experience might dictate the terms of his participation runs against everything the game is about. You are entitled to dictate those terms when you earn it on the ice. From the day he rejected the Nordiques, Lindros had a target on his back. He was unlike any player before him but for all his singular dominance, it should surprise no one in hindsight that his name isn’t on the Cup.

Even beyond hockey, in a democratic society where in theory there are no classes, few qualities infuriate others more than entitlement where no evidence exists to support it. Entitlement is hard-earned. We say that this or that person is “entitled to a day off” in a understated way if they’re entitled to more than that by virtue of their work ethic. We say they’re “entitled” to a big payday if they’ve earned it.

When you work hard and you do so without expecting a thank you and without expecting anything more in return than the equivalent of your work input, that is an absence of entitlement.

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Mr. Jeter deserved it.

In the US, baseball players embody much of the disgust we have for entitlement. Does any pro athlete earn more for doing less than a baseball player? Entitlement runs wild in the MLB and is so deeply ingrained in our American psyche that we applaud the likes of Christian Lopez, the guy who caught Derek Jeter’s #3000 hit ball because he gave it to Derek instead of putting it on the open market. He didn’t give it back to Jeter because it was never Jeter’s property in the first place. Having hit the ball hardly confers ownership, and yet most ball players (excluding Barry Bonds) feel entitled to those historic baseballs anyway.

In 2001, Mike Piazza had a posse of security guards roaming the bleachers at Shea Stadium when he was at 299 home runs so that they could obtain his #300 home run ball. Unfortunately, a six year old girl got it before they could. Even more unfortunately, that didn’t matter—they took it from her anyway. Piazza’s justification? “That ball is a personal heirloom for me.”

Remember how indignant the steroidal Mark McGwire was over his #62 home run ball? Fans Deni Allen and Mike Davidson had already freely turned over home run balls #60 and #61, and chatter about the payday in hand for whoever caught #62 was rampant. Enter Big Mac. While knowingly destroying his sport’s cherished records by virtue of steroids–basking in adulation and money along the way–he had the nauseating audacity to criticize the idea that someone should make money for the ball and “hold it hostage when they had nothing to do with it.”

Those fans have more to do with those baseballs than the players. Law professor Paul Finkleman argues that the person with the weakest legal claim on any such baseball is the hitter. After all, if he was so enamored of that baseball maybe he shouldn’t have tried to put as much space between him and it as possible by striking it with a wooden bat. Should we assume that Mike Piazza routinely takes a bat to all his ‘personal heirlooms’? Catching baseballs knocked into the crowd is all fine and good for ballplayers until the ball has value. Suddenly they’re entitled to it.

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Get out there and work. 

In hockey we place enormous value on the role of the captain. It represents one of hockey’s great traditions. Championships are won and lost on the decision of who wears the C.

“After I overcame the shock of being named captain I addressed my teammates. I told them I was at their disposal at any time, ‘If you go through a bad time, a rough time, if you have personal problems, whatever, if you are thinking I can be helpful, ask me.’ “

(Jean Beliveau)

I don’t think Alexander Ovechkin made a similar speech when the Capitals handed him the C. In fact, no situation better sums up the NHL’s moral decline than Ovechkin’s captaincy. At best a misguided choice and at worst a pure business decision, even if Ovy is just a figurehead and someone like Brooks Laich is the team’s true leader, it still perverts one of the game’s great traditions by allowing any factor other than leadership to influence the decision. It also subverts the real leader’s authority and deprives him of the great honor of wearing the C.

In the 1990s we saw an era of legendary Captains. Messier, Yzerman, Stevens, and of course Joe Sakic.

Excluding his final season, Burnaby Joe dressed for 1,363 games of regular season hockey over 19 seasons. In eight of them he played every single game, and in another two he played in all but one.

He’s remembered for being classy. Clutch. For his lightening release. Quiet leadership. For allowing Ray Bourque to lift the Cup before he did.

Like most hockey players, Sakic was never much good for quotes. “Quoteless Joe” they’ve called him. Except for this:

We never had it easy growing up. Dad worked for everything we had. He never let me off the hook. In hockey it was the same thing: ‘Get out there and work.’

Get out there and work.

Can anyone summarize Sakic’s game from day one until his retirement in fewer words? We admire this, because it’s what the rest of us do. We get out there every day and we work. So did Joe. He got paid a hell of a lot more than we do, but the man was entitled to it. He earned it.

To me it says something good about Joe Sakic that I don’t really know anything about him except his on-ice performance, and his musical tastes as a teenager. When Joe was elected into the Swift Current Broncos Hall of Fame in 2011, broadcaster Shawn Mullin made a video tribute that included Dan Lambert reminiscing about how while with Swift Current, the tape deck in Joe’s car broke, forever trapping one tape in his car stereo. For over a year you couldn’t go anywhere with Joe without hearing some part of the soundtrack to La Bamba.

Being able to say that Joe was entitled to what he earned, and believe it, means a lot to us fans. Born in Canada to Croatian immigrants, few embody all the good attributes we associate with Canadian hockey like Sakic. He retired only a few years ago but already it’s hard to find a player currently in the game remotely like him. Joe Sakic played without any sense of entitlement. He went out there and he worked.

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“The fact that the players are suddenly getting their turn at bat seems very upsetting to many people and yet they seem to forget that the owners had it their way for 50 years and the players have only had it their way for five.”

(Alan Eagleson, 1975)

As Gary Bettman unknowingly intimated, there is no entitlement in hockey. The absence of unearned entitlement is a hallmark of the game.

So only a twisted, self-serving, non-hockey mind like Eagleson’s could reach the above conclusion. It has no bearing on today that the players of Howe’s era or of any other era were exploited. Hockey has never functioned under the presumption of entitlement, and efforts to graft it onto, or grandfather it into, the players are wholly incompatible with what has always mattered most: what happens on the ice.

So it should come as no surprise that right now, nothing is happening on the ice. A sense of entitlement otherwise unfamiliar in hockey has corrupted the Players’ Association. It is best illustrated in the players’ guaranteed contracts.

The defense for guaranteed contracts is a desire for job security. If anyone has any doubts as to the debilitating effect job security has on productivity, look no further than the DMV.

According to Capgeek’s contract buyout page, since 2006 teams have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $120 million to buy out the guaranteed contracts of players whose wages exceeded their productivity.

Sure, the teams agreed to the bloated contracts based on past performance. In doing so, they had expectations regarding future performance. Did the player share those expectations? Yes or no, he didn’t meet them. But the teams still meet their legal obligation by buying out the contract.

Either way, the player is legally entitled to the money. And all of us, down to a man, would probably take it, even though in our heart of hearts we know damn well we didn’t work for it, we didn’t earn it, and morally we have no claim of entitlement to it.

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I wanna be more like the ocean / No talkin man, all action.

(Janes Addiction, “Ocean Size” 1988)

We likely all know what it feels like to be underpaid and under-appreciated. And some of us know what it feels like to be paid a fair wage for a job well done.

But I wonder what it feels like to receive annual payments in the six or seven figures for work that you never did. Work you were supposed to do, work you agreed to do. What does it feel like to be paid for your inadequacy? What effect does it have on your mentality when the system you admired for so long, when the ethic you were raised on and played according to, is so dysfunctional that it rewards players for failing to meet expectations?

No one in hockey should be expected to have any respect at all for a game the new parameters of which indicate that what happens on the ice is no longer what defines you.

There was a time when being a fan of the game was a source of personal pride. You knew that neither hockey nor its players would ever embarrass you, because they had more respect for the game and for one another than even you did. In that instance, entitlement is a bitch to dispute when backed by action. It’s a joke when defended with rhetoric. When Canadians stocked the NHL, a singular moral fiber bound the league to the prairie ethic of “get out there and work”. Prove every day that you belong. With that country’s NHL concentration down to about 50%, and with entitlements being stitched into collective bargaining, it seems Canada has lost its moral grip on the game.

This morning I woke up to Ken Campbell at The Hockey News writing that Canadian youth hockey participation is at an all-time low. Yet despite the numbers, he consoles readers by saying that “dwindling and smaller numbers will not affect this country’s ability to produce elite players.”

So what? Everyone can produce elite players. But only Canada could produce players raised on demanding codes that insist you earn your place with every shift. That was Canada’s character contribution to its finest export.

It mattered.

And its disappearance matters.

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