Canucks and Beyond

Debunking a Myth That No Longer Exists

06/04/2008 at 2:26pm EDT

There’s been much preoccupation with the fact that the Red Wings, possibly just inches away from winning this year’s Stanley Cup, may do so aided for the first time by a European captain.

The origins of this come from the notion that Europeans are ‘soft’, ‘don’t make good leaders’ and don’t have enough grit for the big prize. But where does that attitude even exist in the modern NHL and why this seemingly-endless obsession with debunking it?

As far as I can tell, the only prominent person who is still in hockey today that ever argued Europeans were soft was Don Cherry. And—aside from the fact that bombast and controversial commentary are historically part of Cherry’s schtick—I don’t even think Cherry believes that anymore.

So why do so many others still need guys like Nik Lidstrom to prove him wrong?

In the LA Times this week, Helene Elliott points out that the debate and issue are largely peculiar to Canadian journalists covering the series, which (given that we all grew up with Cherry’s voice in our ear) isn’t that surprising.

Regardless, it’s a theme that demands some patience from Wings players.

Lidstrom has been asked nearly every day what that feat would mean, and has somehow remained polite. On Monday, Mikael Samuelsson was asked whether the Europeans and North Americans razz each other about their origins and if it would mean more to him to win the championship with so many Europeans on the team.

The puzzled look on his face extended beyond his unfamiliarity with the word “razz.” Once that was explained, he had an exasperated look on his face and said he’s a little surprised people still make the distinction between Europeans and North Americans within the team but has come to accept it.

“I just play the game,” he said. “We’re not even talking about it. It’s not an issue. It hasn’t been talked about the whole year.

“As long as I’ve been here there has been a lot of Europeans. We have this group, we have to do the best with it. . . . I don’t care where they’re from, Europe or whatever. If they’re skilled players they’re here and try to win the game.”

While Americans don’t appear to obsess on this European captain stuff in the same way as Canadians, they do have their own unique angle: Instead of looking at it as “Europeans vs North Americans”, the notion of “race” has been brought up. Perhaps the same thing, but an entirely different perspective, no?

Comments from a Larry Brooks column in the NY Post last week (*apologies for no link—I can’t seem to find the original anywhere now) takes a look at race issues in baseball and then views hockey through the same prism, one that I don’t think would’ve occurred to many Canadian journalists or fans.

Cited by Justin Grant in the Black Star:

Meanwhile, New York Post columnist Larry Brooks compared the Mets’ situation to the New York Rangers—who have a diverse mix of Americans and Europeans on their roster.

“You better believe the question is asked every day around NHL front offices: Do we have too many Europeans? ... You better believe the question was asked by the Rangers when they collapsed late in 2005-06: Do we have too many Czechs?,” Brooks wrote last week.

“Those posing the questions aren’t necessarily bigoted. They’re simply covering the bases in attempting to apply common sense to a complex equation in which two dozen men of disparate backgrounds must live and work together over eight months in order to achieve a common goal,” Brooks wrote.

Fair enough, but is that really a ‘race’ issue or just a cultural one? While the causes may be the same, people’s reactions are far different.

I think Brooks is a bit lost if he likens what’s going on with the NY Mets (and read Grant’s short column for a very good, brief overview of the issues of race facing that MLB team) to what’s historically been the issue in the NHL.

As for the suggestion that the NHL’s head office itself might be concerned about too many Europeans, that might be true, but not for race reasons. More likely, they just hate the fact that it takes being more than a casual fan to learn how to pronounce their names. Pronouncing the likes of ‘Khabibulin’ or ‘Hejduk’ obviously requires a bit of an education for most of us.

Anyway, in modern times, the issue of Europeans in the NHL can’t be traced much deeper than Don Cherry that I can see. And in today’s limelight, he’s the lone survivor of an old guard that once insisted on rejecting European talent out of hand.

Since Cherry himself isn’t even doing that anymore, who do we expect Lidstrom to prove something to?

Maybe the former Cherry-attitude exists at a deeper level than I’m aware of, but I just don’t see it. And looking at the sum total of Lidstrom’s career, I’d say he’s got nothing left to prove to anyone but himself.

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