Who cares whether or not the Canucks are "Canada's team"?

Lately we've been seeing a fair bit of Canadian journalism (and I use that term loosely) debating the question of whether we can consider the Canucks to be "Canada's team". This has question has absorbed the attention of everyone from Terry Jones of the Edmonton Sun to Roy MacGregor of the Globe and Mail to, earlier this week, Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun.

Let's start with Jones, who helpfully points out that in "any sports bar [east] of the Rocky Mountains . . . the majority of the fans are cheering against Vancouver" (a statement I can conclusively refute from personal experience in Toronto). He draws upon a "reader poll" which revealed that 55% of (presumably Edmonton Sun) readers do not think the Canucks are Canada's team, but does not provide any further data about said poll, such as number of people surveyed, their location, etc. Case closed. But not content to rest on his deductive laurels, Jones probes more deeply to reveal, thanks to one Finnish journalist who accounts for 100% of quotations in the article, the true reason that no one outside BC wants the Canucks to succeed. Something to do with lattes and a mild climate, I think. Oh yeah, and (gasp) that our powerplay features non-Canadian superstars.

MacGregor is less rhetorical, but no better. Yankee has masterfully eviscerated the veteran scribe over his nonsensical ramblings about Roberto Luongo, and Beantown has pointed out that MacGregor's piece on the "Canada's team" topic is no better. In the latter piece, MacGregor rambles on about why Canadians may identify with the Canucks or Canadiens during the playoffs, and trots out the tired quantitative data about the number of Canadian players on the Canucks. Long story short, if one wants to extend MacGregor's logic, we should all be cheering for the Boston Bruins because of their Canadian content. Can't believe that Mike Gillis has never figured out that he should simply draft and trade for Canadian players to secure the long term support of a Vancouver and Canadian fanbase. Duh. Trade the Sedins, buy out Kesler and Ehrhoff, bury Edler and Samuelsson in the minors. Then we'll have a winner, right? I think Don Cherry tried that in the OHL and it didn't go so well.

No doubt licking his chops at the chance to rebut the notion that the Canucks are not "Canada's team", Pete McMartin of the Vancouver Sun - whose credentials as a sportswriter are not boosted by the fact that his next article was was a local interest piece headlined "Baking ovens and fruit trees" - wades in to the fray defend British Columbian honour. By comparing the Canucks to the pretty girl at school and the rest of Canada to an ugly, existential hipster. Or something like that. FACEPALM. Really? Is that the best defence you could muster? No wonder some Canadians hate the Canucks if this is the kind of crap that gets published by the Vancouver press (if only they read Nucks Misconduct instead, they might realize that we're not all arrogant idiots). To be fair, McMartin does make some good points in response to the deluge of anti-Canucks journalism that has recently spawned. I just wish he'd chosen a more tactful and intelligent approach to doing so.

All of this makes me wonder: why do we have to have this "Canada's team" discussion every time a Canadian NHL team has a decent shot at winning the Stanley Cup? And when can we drop this tired debate? After the jump, I explore these questions.

I have four theories about why the question of who is, or is not, "Canada's team" always comes up at this time of year:

1. There are legitimately a large number of Canadian hockey fans who cheer for some or all of the other five Canadian teams once their favourite team is out.

This makes sense. Many hockey fans will continue to maintain an interest in the playoffs even once their team is no longer in contention. And many of these people will have or find reasons to root for a remaining team. Maybe they like Sidney Crosby, so they root for the Penguins. Or they have a lot of Red Wings in their fantasy pool, so they cheer for Detroit. Or maybe they see being based in Canada as a primary reason to support another team. I know many people who fall into the latter camp.

I can put myself somewhat in this category, with the exception of the Flames who I will not cheer for. Otherwise, should the Canucks not be in the playoffs, would I hope for another Canadian team? Sure. Would I buy the t-shirt or wave the flag for that team? Of course not - I'm a Canucks fan. But I'm still likely to throw my support somewhat behind another team once mine is eliminated, and if it happens to be one of the Oilers, Maple Leafs, Senators, or Canadiens so be it. But there are plenty of other Canadians who for various reasons don't like some or all of the other Canadian teams, or who simply stop caring about the playoffs once their team is out. That is fine. No one I am aware of, outside of certain newspaper columnists, would expect a fan to automatically support another Canadian team. It is a choice made on personal preference or sentiment, not a patriotic obligation.

2. Some Canadians, particularly those in the age range of Messrs. Jones and MacGregor, have a nostalgic attachment to the Original 6 days

Before the expansion era, when the Maple Leafs and Canadiens were the only Canadian NHL teams, one could legitimately say that English and French Canada each had a team that represented it: the Leafs were "[English] Canada's team" and the Habs were "[French] Canada's team". Maybe there was a hangover from those days for some time, and Canadians would by default root for a Canadian-based team - having Canadian icon Wayne Gretzky captaining the 1980s Edmonton squad certainly couldn't have hurt the likelihood that Canadian fans would jump on the Oilers bandwagon. But the idea of one team representing all of Canada is entirely preposterous in today's cultural and hockey environment. We live in an age when people become hockey fans through EA Sports or YouTube highlights, and when most fans can view any NHL game on demand, instead of being limited to watching the Maple Leafs and whichever team they happen to be playing on CBC. Why, in such an environment, should anyone be expected to have a "national" loyalty to another franchise?

It is entirely possible that Joe Sunreader in Edmonton, who participated in Mr. Jones' reader poll, has been rooting for the Lightning since the Oilers become irrelevant in mid-December. Perhaps he remembers Dwayne Roloson's playoff performance in 2006, or daily watches the 2004 Cup Final clip of Vinny Lecavalier fighting Jarome Iginla. Or maybe he plays as Steven Stamkos in NHL 11, or pulled an autographed Darren Puppa autographed trading card when he was a kid. Who knows? And who cares? If Joe Sunreader likes the Lightning after the Oilers, so be it. Why should I care if he doesn't support the Canucks? If he wants to jump on the bandwagon, cool; but I certainly don't expect him to endorse a team, let alone a division rival, simply because it is located in the same country. Ditto for people in Eastern Canada, who may well prefer more "local" teams such as the Bruins or the Red Wings to ones all the way on the West Coast. And that is fair enough.

3. Some Canadians conflate hockey with Canadian nationalism

These people take it personally when Canada loses in the Olympics or World Juniors. While they have grudgingly accepted that economics and the law-of-averages militate against Canadian teams bringing home annual Cups (as they did 23 out 30 seasons between 1942-71), they still feel as though Canada "needs to bring the Cup back home". They may well, in a fashion similar to that employed by our friends Roy and Terry, point out how many good Canadian kids are on other teams, particularly on the Stanley Cup winning rosters, even if they have to play in US cities. We all know these people, though most of us have probably tuned them out by now.

This nationalist logic gets tricky when quantitive rationales are trotted out. Do you root for Vancouver, who as Mr. MacGregor points out are of questionable Canadian content because "the captain (Henrik Sedin) is a Swede, the top scorer is a Swede (Daniel Sedin) and the team's most valuable skater is an American (Ryan Kessler)"? Or do you root for Boston because, again with a hat-tip to Roy, "a remarkable 13 of the team's 14 forwards are Canadian, along with four of the team's eight defencemen"? It's as though Canadian hockey fans should create a ranking of the "most Canadian" teams in the NHL - perhaps determined through some complex algorithm that takes into account the nationality of players, the amount of time spent learning the game on a frozen pond, and the number of Tim Hortons' within a 10-km radius of their home arena - that will reveal once and for all who is the most "Canadian" team.

The reality is that hockey is an international game. Yes it was created in Canada, and yes for a long time Canadians dominated the sport. But those days are long, long gone and anyone who clings to them is pathetic, and possibly bordering on xenophobic/racist. The NHL now features starts from the US, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Oh, and how about Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland as well? It's an international game, Canadian teams are almost as likely to employ a Swede or an American as they are a Canadian. Get over it.

Oh, and for the eagle-eyed readers out there: I quote Roy MacGregor directly. Yes, he spelt it "Kessler".

4. Canadian journalists, particularly those with a slow beat during the playoffs, feel the pressure to publish editorials or articles, and jump into the "Canada's team" debate because they have nothing better to do

Imagine poor Terry, under pressure from his editors to write copy about the playoffs for a largely indifferent Edmontonian audience, suddenly striking on the "Canada's team" idea - one informal reader's poll and one phone call to his Finnish buddy later, BOOM! Terry's editor is off his back. Similarly Roy, his creativity spent from writing Screech Owl books and eviscerating Roberto Luongo for being human, has a eureka moment. After some spade work by the Globe Sports intern to dig out examples of NHL rosters with high numbers of Canadians, and an easy contrast with the European and American leaders of the Canucks, and PRESTO! Roy can go kick back and do whatever it is he does for the rest of the day instead of watching the the hockey team he is supposed to be covering during the playoffs. Opportunistic journalists who write for Vancouver newspapers, such as Pete McMartin, spy a chance to produce copy by responding to such journalistic piffle... by producing more inanity. And the journalistic grist mill continues to grind.

To conclude: Are the Canucks "Canada's team"? Of course not. No NHL team is, or ever will be. Are they a talented, multinational, fun-to-watch team that has a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup? Absolutely. And if non-Canucks fans decide, for whatever reason, to root for a Vancouver Stanley Cup victory in 2011 that is fine by me. If they chose not to? Also fine. Just please don't be a jerk about it. And please stop whipping up fake controversy about Canadians not supporting the Canucks. Now can we please end this tired debate?

Anyway, these are just my theories, and could very well be wrong or incomplete. Feel free to chip in your thoughts in the comments. Now if you'll excuse, me I think I'll pop out for a drink at a Toronto sports bar where, when the Canucks face the Sharks tomorrow night, the majority of people will be cheering for the Canucks.

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