International hockey and the club v country debate

club v country article

Over the past week, discussion around the hockey world has been coloured with an immense feeling of national pride, as Canada, the United States and Russia held their Olympic orientation camps.  However, as debates rage on in basements, bars and rinks around the world as to who should make their respective national teams, the way that some fans view their national teams will be shaped by the players who represent them, and their own devotion to their NHL teams.

International hockey is an incredible spectacle, and offers the fan the increasingly rare opportunity to see the sport’s true best on best action.  I enjoy the thrill of watching the competition, the exploits of smaller hockey nations like Belarus in 2002 or Switzerland in 2006, and the fervor of the crowd during the games.  Although I watch nearly every game intently, unlike many Canadians, I am rarely filled with a rousing sense of national pride over Team Canada.

The source of these feelings do not come from being anti-Canadian, or not being proud of my countrymen.  Far from it.  My feelings stem from the fact that I have complete devotion to the NHL team that I support on a full time basis, the Montreal Canadiens.

Admittedly, I view all hockey discussion through bleu, blanc et rouge coloured glasses.  It is the team that I have followed 24/7/365 ever since childhood, and I subsequently feel extremely invested in the club’s trials and tribulations.  The utter futility of the team since its last Stanley Cup in 1993 has been disappointing to say the least, and I feel a true ache for this once great team to get back to the top of the sport.  The playoff losses in recent years have been emotionally draining, and the verbal onslaught from fans of the Bruins, Flyers and most recently the Senators has been insufferable.  Yet, in spite of these enduring moments, I am heartened at the present time with the emergence of some Canadiens youngsters into star players, namely PK Subban and Carey Price.  When they were invited to the Team Canada Olympic Orientation Camp earlier this summer, I was delighted that they could not only make the team, but be key contributors.  Since the NHL started to send its players to the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998, only 2 Montreal Canadiens have made Team Canada (Mark Recchi and Shayne Corson), and there has been no Canadien on Team Canada since that initial tournament in Japan.

But what happens if neither Price nor Subban makes Team Canada, but Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty make the American team, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin make the Russian team, and Tomas Plekanec makes the Czech team?  I become extremely conflicted.  These are the players who’s development I have watched over the years, who play major roles for my club team and who I want to see succeed and thrive.  Their progress at these international tournaments can further develop their confidence and ability to deal with pressure, and this experience could further benefit the Montreal Canadiens. How can I be expected to suddenly cheer against them, or hope they do not have any success.  I simply cannot.  I have far greater emotional investment in these athletes, than other athletes who may even play for rival NHL teams.  In football/soccer terms, this has long been debated in local pubs, and is titled the club versus country question.  For instance, Liverpool and Manchester United are massive clubs, with a massive following, and now mainly employ foreign players.  The rivalry between different regions in England is so immense for cultural, political and sporting reasons, and the supporters are so devoted to their own clubs and its players that many of them cannot get themselves to support England during the World Cup or European Championship competitions.  Manchester United supporters from Manchester probably would not support the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry and Ashley Cole, English players who have been fixtures on England’s teams in the last decade, and who play their club football for major United rivals.  Are these Englishmen unpatriotic for not supporting England, but supporting their club team?  I certainly don’t think so.  Emotion is not controlled by a switch.  Perhaps the most fascinating club vs country conflict was seen during the 1990 World Cup in Italy.  Diego Maradona was unquestionably the world’s best player at the time, won the World Cup in 1986, and played for Italian club side Napoli.  Maradona was a larger than life figure in Naples. Traditionally, Italy’s football and economic power resided in Northern Italy, yet Maradona came to Southern Italy and brought much glory to the city that was previously derided by the wealth of Milan or Turin.  Maradona was subsequently seen as a villain to those outside of Naples, and during the World Cup in Italy, the Argentinean team was lustily booed and treated poorly by the Italian supporters.  Yet, Argentina progressed through the tournament and reached the semi final, against home side Italy, in all places…. Naples.  Many Neapolitans were deeply divided.  Maradona was a god-like figure in the city, and the relationship that Neapolitans had with their Northern countrymen was oftentimes quite fractious. Yet, this was an opportunity for their country to win a World Cup, at home.  The atmosphere for the match was truly mixed, but for the first time in the tournament, the Argentinians were appreciated by the Italian audience. Eventually they triumphed in penalties.  Though Italy lost, much of Naples was exited that their imported hero had his opportunity to win another World Cup.  Bringing the discussion back to hockey, suppose hypothetically  that Saku Koivu captained his Finnish team to a World Cup playoff game against Team Canada (which did not feature any Canadiens players) to be played at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Would I be conflicted? Absolutely. I would put on my Koivu sweater and hope he won the game.

Much of our beliefs about hockey have also emanated from our fathers and grandfathers, and certainly the world in 2013 is a much different place than it was during their formative years. Over the last two decades, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the strengthening of the European Union, the shift of communism to market economies and the advent, development and proliferation of the internet, North Americans and their European counterparts are not as dissimilar as they were in the dawn of international hockey competitions.   It appears to me that much of the hockey rhetoric about “us against them,” “our way of life versus their way of life,” “hockey is Canada’s game” is extinct, but is still within the belief system of many Canadian hockey people. When the Summit Series took place in 1972, nearly 95% of NHL players were Canadian.  Today, Canadians make up only 53% of NHL players.  Every NHL team has a prominent European player, and many of them are fully integrated into the North American lifestyle and language.  Some players have even become highly respected members of the greater society.  The Sedin brothers have made heavy financial donations to the BC Children’s Hospital, and Daniel Alfredsson has done the same in Ottawa, all despite being Swedish and playing for Sweden’s team.  Players from different national teams play together from a young age and become friends on and off the ice.  This happens as early as junior hockey, as the CHL allows two foreign players per team.
I grew up watching hockey in an era where Europeans work with Canadians for their NHL clubs, and I do not find the need to overtly support Team Canada as protectors of the sport, as some fellow Canadians do.

For those that say this stance is unpatriotic, I’d argue that disagreeing with this stance is unpatriotic. Living in Canada affords us the luxury to choose.  Regular tax paying Canadian citizens often disagree with the Canadian government on various matters.  Are they unpatriotic?  People may prefer American movies and music, German or Japanese automobiles, Belgian or Czech beer over Canadian alternatives for a variety of reasons.  Does that make them unpatriotic? No, of course it does not.  Citizenship should be about working hard, being productive and contributing to society.  If you do that, this magnificent country gives you the opportunity to choose what you want.

Another facet of Team Canada that has made me question my allegiance has been the frequent chest-thumping that some fans engage when Canada beats up on a relative hockey minnow, and the often one sided portrayal of Canada’s hockey talents as choirboys and overall do-gooders. Canada has an international reputation of dirty tactics, going back to 1972 with Bobby Clarke’s deliberate and vicious assault on Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle.  Though recent Canada Olympic teams, led by Gretzky and Yzerman are more sporting and built on speed and skill, rather than goonery, the characterization that other nations “dive” or that the “international referees are out to get Canada” when a call goes against Canada are off putting.  It often appears that some Canadian commentators still believe that the Cold War is alive and well.  I find great affinity for the relatively smaller nations that are undeterred by playing Canada, and give them a good, clean, competitive game.  Switzerland in 2006 and 2010 come immediately to mind.  Canada is no longer the best in the world.  In fact the recent IIHF rankings have Canada ranked fifth in the world.  Perhaps the Canadian hockey press can reduce the hubris and realize that hockey exists ad thrives outside of our own country.

So in the end, perhaps the question should be, which do you value more, the Stanley Cup or the Gold Medal, and whether these two goals are mutually possible? As a Canadiens fan over the last three Olympic Games, I would say no. However, this time around, Carey Price and PK Subban offer me that opportunity.  Is it unpatriotic to cheer against Team Canada’s hockey team?  Certainly not.  What is unpatriotic however is to deny a fellow citizen the freedom to choose and express himself.  This is what makes me proud to be a Canadian and I will pull out my flag for that. 

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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3 responses to “International hockey and the club v country debate

  1. For many, the reasons people cheer for their club team overlap with why they cheer for their country. Often, fans simply root for their hometown team to feel a sense of unity and belonging with the city. A natural extension of that is to root for your country. The Olympics in Vancouver brought Canada together like few things can. I disagree that by rooting for your home country, where your family, friends, and livelihood resides, you are betraying your club team’s players. The players themselves turn from teammates to fierce competitors and forget of their club allegiances. The Olympics is about more than hockey, or even sport. The feeling of being united with your fellow countrymen and countrywomen takes precedence.

  2. Reblogged this on puckdrop uk and commented:
    Great read and I love the comparison with football here in England. Although there are hated rivalries in football at the end of the day most fans will support England. Yes there is a bit of booing of certain players but most fans would rather see England win the World Cup then their club wins the Champions League. I was torn a few weeks ago when Ricky Lambert scored for England against Scotland. Being a Portsmouth fan I hate everything about Southampton players and couldn’t force myself to be happy, even against Scotland.
    Then again there is nothing like a game against France to galvanize a countries support around a whole team. England as individual players are pretty good, the fact they don’t play as a team means they are not going to win the World Cup for many years to come.
    So going back to hockey, if possible don’t let regional pride get in the way of national accomplishment. Always support anyone who pulls on the national jersey. Even if it’s a Bruins player and you’re a Habs fan!

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