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The game goes global « Douglas Fisher



The game goes global
Date:September 8, 1996
Source: by Douglas Fisher, Toronto Sun


More good players: better hockey.

More fine players: ever better hockey!

Those two generalizations come as I reflect on the hockey being played in this World Cup series. Many among the several million Canadians who are intense about hockey, especially elders with long memories, will quarrel with both opinions. Neither they nor I can disprove or prove hockey’s been getting better. These are personal hunches.

A lot of Canadians hate to concede we can no longer be proprietorial with hockey. It is now a world game, played and being coached well in tough competition in far more countries than three decades ago.

My own close retrospect of hockey goes back to 1969. That’s when I got a role in policy for international hockey and became familiar with major actors in hockey’s management and play in a dozen countries, including the NHL and the NHL Players Association — sponsors of the World Cup, and which in an uneasy concert either dominate or overwhelmingly affect the game across the world.

One hardly needs to cite quantities to appreciate that globally there are many more good hockey players and considerably more able coaches than in 1969. There are also far more children and youth of both sexes playing the game now. From many countries there has been a remarkable blending in the training of players and the offensive and defensive strategies of the game.

In 1969, thanks to then-PM Pierre Trudeau fulfilling an election promise, the federal government took an open hand in hockey’s politics — pushed by a growing national frustration. He said this: “Hockey is considered our national game and yet, in the world hockey championships, we have not been able as amateurs to perform as well as we know we can.”

Year after year we were being clobbered in nation vs. nation hockey, notably but not exclusively by the Russians. In large part the reason for the eclipse of the people who had originated hockey stemmed from the long-held Olympic exclusion of overtly professional athletes. Our ablest hockey players, mostly in the NHL, could not play for Canada.

Through the 1960s, a strong, special effort, backed by the government, went into the concept of a permanent national team (of amateurs) by the late Father David Bauer. This had improved our teams’ performances in the annual “world” championships but not enough to augur victory. Further improvement was unlikely, given the rivalry for players which saw NHL teams lure top prospects from the Bauer teams (e.g., Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe).

The complicated tale doesn’t bear much repeating here of how a government-created agency, Hockey Canada, helped engineer the departure of Bunny Ahearne from his control of European hockey, teamed up with Alan Eagleson and the then-developing NHL Players Association and with the NHL owners in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, to woo the Russians into the first great breakthrough to open world class hockey. That was the still vividly memorable 1972 series with the USSR. The Canadians won — barely — and the quality of the hockey was astounding.

There was more than the stimulus of nationalism. The contrasting styles, the skill and finesse and the fierce competition were mesmerizing and unforgettable. And, indicative for the future, the series had been successful financially. Beforehand, the NHL president forecast a mere $100,000 profit. The consequence was close to $3 million and a clear message to both NHL owners and players that there was more in international hockey than a nationalistic burden.

The question after 1972 was what came next. Remember, the Iron Curtain was then in place and was to remain an impediment to non-governmental arrangements in sports until it collapsed as the 1980s closed.

In the ’70s getting more of such wonderful hockey meant wooing the Soviets, their Czech colleagues in communism, plus Sweden and Finland. The Europeans stuck together in the sense they would not regularize a competition that only included one of them.

How could we attain truly international competition between national teams and even between club teams?

Should there be more super-series, pitting Canada and the USSR? We got one in 1974 but this time the source of the Canadian team was the relatively new World Hockey Association. The quality of play was high but the Russians won.

How could we get the NHL on the one hand, the IIHF on the other, to sanaction the full, outright use of NHL players by national teams in the annual tournaments sponsored by the IIHF and in the Olympics?

Hockey Canada (of which I was an executive) turned rather quietly to the idea first advanced within it by the late Stafford Smythe of the Maple Leafs: to copy football and have a series every four years for a world cup of hockey, based on national teams. As a participant in the development of the first Canada Cup tournament in 1976, I believe the key to establishing it, once the players’ association led by Alan Eagleson was thoroughly involved, was American nationalism, not Canadian or Russian or Swedish nationalism.

As a schemer of the first Canada Cup series I know I played more on the national pride of American owners like Bill Wirtz and Ed Snyder than on the lure of dollars. A lot of Americans involved in hockey then choked — and still do — on Canadian assumptions of hockey superiority.

Put crudely, Americans believe that if they are not the best at something they can be and should be.

So here we are as Canadians, 20 years after the first credible “world” cup of hockey, facing in the current series what was the gleam ahead for those like Wirtz, Snyder, Bruce Norris and Walter Bush when they agreed to the first Canada Cup.

Now the Yanks look like they can take it all.

And when they do, I think it will stimulate a response in Canada even more emotional than that which made Pierre Trudeau lead the government of Canada into hockey’s politics.

And even if such a bonus from an American paramountcy doesn’t develop, as fans we can still revel in what internationalizing hockey has done. Superb Canadian players we savor like Lindros, Messier, Gretzky and Lemieux are adorned, not besmirched, by competing against or playing with the likes of Selanne, Kurri, Koivu, Sundin, Forsberg, Jagr, Bondra, Fedorov, Bure and Yashin.
The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 1996, SunMedia Corp.