Are we losing our national sport?

by Sylvain Comeau

Hockey may be thriving in some ways, but all of the new expansion teams are south of the border, and two Canadian teams (the Winnipeg Jets and the Quebec Nordiques) have recently disappeared.

As Canadian fans watch the "new" Colorado Avalanche playing with Patrick Roy in the nets, they may well wonder if hockey will remain our national sport.

A panel discussion last Tuesday posed that very question, and the answer from two experts was "yes." But neither speaker glossed over the very real problems currently plaguing the NHL.

Simon Fraser University sociology professor Rick Gruneau, author of Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics, answered first. "Yes, definitely. But (I have) a proviso. We also need to ask whether hockey has the same mystique as it had for the baby boom generation. I would say probably not."

Gruneau emphasized that the question of hockey's survival encompasses more than just the NHL.

"We have a maddening tendency in this country to equate the health of hockey with the health of the NHL." Gruneau points out that the question of the sport's health seemed a much more pressing one in the early to mid-1980s, "at a time when NHL franchises in Winnipeg and Quebec seemed to be doing relatively well. The big concern then was that registration in minor hockey was dropping precipitously, for a variety of reasons, such as cost and thuggery."

But despite those recent problems, "it's very clear right now that amateur hockey registrations in this country are escalating rapidly," says Gruneau. "It's hard to get ice time at local arenas and women's hockey is escalating at a pace that was unimaginable some years ago. So at the community level, hockey is doing quite well, thank you very much."

Gruneau said that in places like Winnipeg, "we will see a revitalization of junior hockey. In every major market where the NHL consolidated, junior hockey has died off. Now there's talk of bringing an International Hockey League franchise (to Winnipeg)."

Gruneau, who has a strong distaste for the commercialization and marketing of sports, complains that, despite its blue collar roots, "the NHL has been taken up-market. In all of the major sports, we're going to have a handful of global super leagues, and in the space they vacated, other, more affordable and accessible leagues will do well."

But the globalization of the "super leagues" may erode the sense of identity which, for many Canadians, is inextricably linked to the sport itself.

"The question is whether Canadians will feel the same attachments to hockey, given the relentless merchandising, the marketing and the impact of the globalization of the NHL's labour market. Canadian players are already down to 62% in the NHL. Will Canadian children grow up to idolize players born in Moscow or Stockholm in the same way as those who grew up in Scarborough or Ste. Foy?"

Hockey legend Ken Dryden, former goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and owner of four Stanley Cup rings, waxed poetic.

"In an absolute and certain way, the answer is yes: hockey will survive as Canada's national sport. There's no other sport that is close. A national sport is a game that has the feeling, that gets inside the skin of the people of a particular country. And here, baseball doesn't; nor does basketball or football. Hockey is that game," said Dryden, who starred for the Canadiens while studying law at McGill.

He also pointed out that hockey's infrastructure, the sports media, the fan base and the owners of teams and sports stadiums, "would never allow the game to slip, to slide, or go under. Too many people have a stake in hockey as it is today, and in selling (through hockey memorabilia) what it was."

But while the position of the sport is unthreatened, Dryden agreed with Gruneau that its character is changing. In the course of researching his books on hockey, including the bestseller The Game , Dryden has come to see the change as a natural evolutionary process, which began when hockey came in from the cold.

"As the country moved indoors, hockey also had to. When anything moves indoors, it starts to change; it costs money. There is a much greater sense of responsibility, and the need to make it more efficient.

In the '20s, with radio and newspapers, the game changed again. Instead of just being a game in your local area, now it's also being played elsewhere, by people whose names become more common and universally known across the country. It becomes a shared experience."

Dryden agreed that in today's era of sports gigantism, the game does appear to be endangered in Canada. But he said that that, too, could change.

"A year ago, it appeared that this was a game on the move, with the considerable successes in the new U.S. franchises in Tampa Bay, Miami, Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose. It looked like the game was geared entirely for big markets, and we were going to be picked off one by one until there's a core of three cities left."

But a year later, the success of the expansion teams is not at all clear, "and the risk posed to the Calgarys, the Edmontons, and the Ottawas all have to do with their relative strength compared to the U.S. market. And how many U.S. cities are able and willing to support a team for the long term?

"The best chance right now for cities like Calgary and Edmonton is to survive this year into next year, and survive next year into the year after that. Because, if they can, then they'll start to see the real strengths and weaknesses in those U.S. cities, and what their chances are."

The panel was organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.