Xenophobia, Hockey and Canada

kostitsyn article

Like most Canadians, I am happy to live in Canada and proud to be Canadian.  I live in a country, where for the most part, people not only co-exist with people from other backgrounds and cultures, but embrace and celebrate the diversity.  My workplace provides an apt example of how we all coalesce.  Today, I worked alongside a Jordanian, a Palestinian, a Malaysian and a Finn to provide intensive medical care for Canadian children.  I am comforted that people from all over the world can be at peace in Canada, and can be productive, useful and reliable members of society.  However, I have also come to learn that diversity is not universally appreciated in Canadian society.  One arena where being “foreign” is often viewed with suspicion and contempt is in the hockey arena.  Despite over twenty years of widespread European migration to the North American game, old attitudes and stereotypes remain strong and unyielding, and make me rather uncomfortable about the game I love and devote my time towards.

The recent NHL lockout has brought an interesting “cultural exchange,” where Canadian hockey players have been forced to look for jobs across Europe and Eurasia.  Over many years, the Canadian media has often portrayed European players as unreliable.  They have been accused of not putting in the effort, and “not caring” for the NHL game compared to their Canadian teammates.  In fact, until Niklas Lidstrom lifted the Stanley Cup in 2008, there was much scepticism over whether a European captain could actually accomplish such a feat.  Recently, Toronto Maple Leafs player, Joffrey Lupul (http://ca.askmen.com/sports/fanatic/culture-shock-lupul-s-lockout-diary.html) wrote an interesting article in which he documented his brief excursion in Russia’s KHL.  He wrote about former Russian NHL teammates, Stanislav Chistov and Alexei Smirnov.  Both were immensely talented young players, but who fizzled out in their NHL opportunities.  Neither came close to playing regularly in the league.  On a long road trip in which their older, experienced teammates packed sufficiently for a ten day trip, Chistov and Smirnov brought along only shaving kits.  Upon realizing the magnitude of the roadtrip, and how underprepared they were for it, the Russian duo hastily purchased clothes in Dallas, amidst the mockery and abuse of their teammates.  In an incredible piece of insight, after spending time in Russia himself, Lupul states “They just couldn’t adapt to a different world at age 19.  I get why now.”  Lupul’s comments were particularly insightful, since many North American commentators of hockey fail to recognize the immense cultural barriers that exist for young hockey players moving into a new continent, with its different culture and language, at an young age.  Because of their pursuit of athletic excellence, these young players often lack the basic life skills to manage their own lives, let alone bear the pressure of the hockey markets they are expected to carry.

Unfortunately, Lupul’s recent insight generally lacks amongst Canadian media who’s comments shape the agenda of world hockey.  How many times have players like Nikita Filatov, Nikolai Zherdev, and  Ilya Bryzgalov, and Alex Kovalev been accused of having “character” issues.  “Character” issues were also cited at the most recent World Junior championships, where Nail Yakupov was defamed in a piece in the Edmonton Journal for not speaking to the Canadian media after a game (Read: http://blogs.edmontonjournal.com/2013/01/02/nail-yakupov-labelled-a-prima-donna-after-his-refusal-to-talk-to-media for a summary). He was labelled as immature and a “prima donna,” but let us not forget that he is only 18 years old, and is only starting to grasp a comfort level with the English language.  It is almost shameful the way these youngsters are treated during a period in which they are trying to adapt to a new level of scrutiny, media attention and expectation which the average person cannot relate with.

Ironically, over the course of the lockout, Canadian players in Europe have demonstrated the exact “character flaws” that European players have been accused of committing in Canada.  Perhaps, the failings of these players can also be chalked up to trying to adapt to new environments.  Winnipeg player Evander Kane treated his KHL experience with Belorussian outfit, Dynamo Minsk with complete disrespect.  He arrived to camp incredibly out of shape, and was ultimately released after his poor attitude and play netted him only one point in 12 games.  Likewise, Ottawa’s Kyle Turris, who is just starting to figure out his NHL career appeared like a petulant, spoiled brat recently when he made disparaging comments about Finland and his experience playing for SM-Liiga team Karpat Oulu.  Though Kane and Turris behaved deplorably, the actions of both players have not been vilified to the extent of the actions of European, particularly Russian players in the Canadian press in recent years, for lesser transgressions.

What triggered me to write this article and sum up these observations has been the general treatment of Andrei Kostitsyn this offseason.  As someone who has watched the majority of Montreal Canadiens games over the last decade, I view Andrei Kostitsyn as an extremely talented player.  He is big, very skilled, has a bullet shot, and he scores goals.  For every 4 NHL games, Kostitsyn on average nets one goal.  However, perhaps his biggest on-ice flaw is his inconsistency.  Kostitsyn possesses the skill set that every team would covet.  Yet, he remained unsigned this past offseason, and ultimately agreed to a try-out with the Florida Panthers.  With goal scoring as a premium, I believe a major reason for which Kostitsyn failed to earn a contract this off season was because of his experience with the Nashville Predators.  Kostitsyn and Predators teammate Alexander Radulov missed curfew the night before Game two of the Nashville/Phoenix playoff series, and were suspended by the team.  This event proved to be damaging to both players, as Radulov also failed to earn a contract from an NHL team, and now is committed long-term to the KHL and CSKA Moscow.  Coincidently, Canadian Olympic heroes, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were involved in a bar fight in Helsinki the same week as the Radulov/Kostitsyn incident, yet have their reputations largely preserved as good character players.  Some Canadian media even labelled Perry and Getzlaf’s actions as “boys will be boys,” while the Russians have been vilified and have taken a hit to their career aspirations.

Much of what I have posted here comes from observation from years of watching hockey, and listening to a Canadian hockey media, who’s values remain conservative, old-fashioned and sceptical of the rest of the world.  Admittedly, I have also witnessed great European players recognized for their outstanding character over the years, in players such as Saku Koivu, Mats Sundin and Niklas Lidstrom.  Yet, as I watch the general Canadian media generally gush about the multicultural nature of Canada and point to it as one of the virtues of living in this country, the contrast I see with the attitude perpetually spewed by the Canadian hockey media is quite stark.  I hope that in years to come, we can embrace the efforts and contributions of foreigners in this country, in all walks of life, and not continually perpetuate the misinformed stereotypes that belong in a prehistoric era.

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