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Anti-European Sentiment in the Canadian Hockey Media Is Getting Out of Hand

Every major sport in North America has stubborn traditionalists in its media ranks. ESPN’s Joe Morgan seems to honestly believe that the Golden Age of Baseball ended the day he retired, and much of what has come since is an insult to the game or “not the way the game is supposed to be played.” In both his MLB and NFL coverage, Joe Buck often engages in embarrassing, maudlin displays of orthodoxy, most famously his ridiculous overreaction to the Randy Moss touchdown celebration against the Green Bay Packers in the 2005 playoffs.

While these traditionalists can be infuriating, you never get the sense that they are indicting a specific group of people, but rather the natural (or, in their eyes, unnatural) progression of the sport. In other words, Joe Morgan doesn’t think baseball has become tarnished due to, say, the influx of Latin and Asian players; he’s just an egotistical jerk who thinks his generation was the greatest and will not accept otherwise. Joe Buck’s issue with the Randy Moss touchdown dance wasn’t that Moss represents the black, urban “gansterization” of football; he’s just an easily offended prude who probably gets uncomfortable around nude sculptures in art museums.

But much of the traditionalism, if you can call it that, emanating from the Canadian hockey media lately carries with it a not-so-subtle implication—that Europeans are not only what’s wrong with the sport, but they are, by nature of their place of birth, inferior to Canadians.

What’s truly shocking is not so much that this undercurrent of xenophobia exists in the Canadian media—because it has for a long time now—but that so many people seem to think it’s a legitimate, defensible position or, at the very least, chalk it up to simply being a lovable quirk of Canadian culture or a byproduct of their passion for the game.

I suppose it would be even more troubling if it wasn’t so pathetically transparent. One need only look at the top five scoring leaders or the three Hart finalists this year to understand the root of this growing anti-European sentiment. Since gaining a foothold in the league, there’s a reason the treatment of European players in Canada has gone from leery non-acceptance to near outright hostility. And it doesn’t have anything to do with “heart” or “toughness” or whatever easily leveled, stereotypical charge you can throw at them. Anyone who understands the psychology of fear can see those charges for the red herrings they are.

The real reason behind this growing hostility, of course, is that Canadians can see their death grip on worldwide hockey dominance slipping away. In truth, it might be already gone. If you look at the probable rosters for Vancouver in 2010…well…let’s just say Canada likely won’t be the favorite on paper.

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Seeing a 75-year-old man in a clown suit disparaging Europeans every chance he gets on his weekly “get-off-my-lawn” forum is one thing. I don’t like Don Cherry, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of his age. He never played with Europeans and never coached them. His bigotry is ignorance-based. He’s just a product of a different time. I’m sure all of us have relatives we can say the same about.

But watching, for instance, the rest of the Hockey Night in Canada crew’s reaction to the Mike Brown hit on Jiri Hudler—and their barely contained joy that he was left bloodied and dazed on the ice by a guy four inches taller and 30 pounds heavier—you almost get the sense that for them the hit was the realization of some deep-seated revenge fantasy. That Mike Brown is an American doesn’t really matter. He’s not European, and that’s good enough. Whatever your opinion of the Mike Brown hit—I personally think a good argument can be made that it wasn’t suspension-worthy—it’s hard not to be a little disturbed by the way some in the Canadian media seemed to take a perverse joy in it.

One thing you’ll notice is that the loaded terms they use are nearly identical. The idea that he was “admiring his pass”…that well-worn implication that Europeans are somehow self-absorbed hot-doggers. How often do you hear this charge leveled at North American players when they take a hit after a pass? The dog-tired template for this sort of thing is provided in base form by Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, who essentially makes the argument that European hockey is somehow less compelling because so little blood is shed on the ice.

I personally don’t agree with him, but his argument would be perfectly legitimate and acceptable if the issue was simply with the European style of play, the system under which they learn the game. But it’s always been more than that with many in the Canadian media. The understatement here is that it’s not the European system, but European character that is being called into question. Look no further than the following statement from Spector: “Of course guys like Henrik Zetterberg and the Sedin brothers want those hits out of the game.” Of course. After all, they’re Europeans.

It’s exactly this kind of broad-brush charge that makes it difficult to take so much of the Canadian hockey media seriously anymore. And the sheer hypocrisy they employ in making these accusations and assertions is mind-boggling.

Just as an exercise, ask yourself this question, and be honest: Do you seriously believe the Canadian media’s reaction to the Brown-Hudler hit would’ve been the same if it was Jonathan Ericsson hitting Andrew Ebbett?

Pat Caputo is a Michigan-based sports writer, and certainly not the most impartial source of opinion on the matter, but he’s spot on here:

“I can’t help but think that many of those claiming Brown dished out a clean hit would be viewing it as a typical dirty play by a European if it were the other way around.”

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All this being said, I want to make a few things clear…

First, I don’t mean this as an indictment of the entire Canadian hockey media. Obviously, the majority of them don’t think this way. Damian Cox in particular is always quick to call out the HNIC crew and others whenever they descend into outright knuckle-dragging. There are many Canadian hockey writers and pundits who are great at what they do and understand that the NHL functions best as an international game.

Second, the charge of bigotry is often too easily thrown about. I realize that. And I’m not implying that the Canadian media is somehow “oppressing” Europeans. But this kind of “soft” bigotry is, in my opinion, harming the game I love. It doesn’t need to be institutional to be detrimental and wrong.

Third, there is a lot to be said for traditionalism. Hockey has, in my opinion, the most fascinating tradition of any major North American sport, and it should be upheld. But to use it as a cudgel with which to attack other nationalities is doing a disservice to the game.

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The NHL has always billed itself as being more respectful and more temperate in its conduct on and off the ice compared with the other major sports, and I’ve always agreed with that. But I can’t help but get the sense that the brand is devolving when I read or hear people—fans and media—outwardly and proudly proclaiming their own bias against other nationalities. That some couch this sentiment in hushed tones or hazy implications doesn’t make it any more justified.

I suppose you could make the argument that it’s simply a reflection of larger Canadian attitudes. It’s a legitimate argument, but it does nothing to absolve the media; it just changes their role from complicit to spineless. Whatever their role, one thing is for certain: There needs to be more who are willing to call out those among their own ranks who are instilling or supporting this hostility. It might not be a popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing.

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