Sports  Rally around the flag

National identities go head to head at the World Juniors

As the National Hockey League (NHL) stumbled over itself in late December, further infuriating and alienating fans during the lockout, hockey devotees across North America struggled to find a replacement for their favourite sport. Some dove into college hockey or minor leagues like the Ontario Hockey League or American Hockey League, while others kept up with European professional leagues, reading poorly translated game recaps and watching pirated feeds at odd hours.

But the games that garnered the most attention from hockey-starved fans, especially in Canada, were those at the recently concluded World Junior Hockey Championships (WJHCs). Stocked with each participating nation’s best under-20 players, the tournament is usually a showcase of the future generation of NHL stars. During a regular NHL season (that is, one where games are actually being played), the tournament does not quite get the same coverage as it did this year. Most Canadian cities, however, have had little to watch since the Canadian football season ended. The baseball season has not yet begun, and the only professional Canadian basketball team, the Toronto Raptors, has struggled this season. A sports-deprived nation, then, shifted its eyes toward the WJHCs with increased intensity. This devotion would have been fine if the discussion surrounding it weren’t so troubling

The media coverage of the tournament, especially on Canada’s Total Sports Network (TSN), was laughable. Not only was TSN unabashedly pro-Canadian (it was hard to find one voice in the middle ground), it was as though the entire staff forgot that the players on the team are teenagers between the ages of 17 and 19. These players were expected to represent the nation, and do it without making mistakes. Mistakes led to incessant ridicule from observers, giving no mercy despite the fact that, once again, they are kids.

Even worse was the treatment of players who were cut from the team. For many young athletes, making the national team is a lifelong dream. The Canadian team, though, releases the names of the cuts one by one during primetime news hours, forcing the freshly cut players to face the media immediately after receiving some of the worst news of their life. The players are athletes, soon to be professional, and will have to deal with this sort of media attention in the future; however, to force it upon them as they are still developing as players is at the very least discomforting.

The WJHCs unfortunately have become an exercise in flag-waving, as nations look to perpetuate positive perceptions of their own players and demean other nations’ supposed ‘character’. Each nation’s media was quick to paint their squad as ‘hard-working’ and ‘gritty,’ a supposed reflector of the nation’s ‘identity’. This is especially absurd for a team like Canada, which is stocked with talented first- round NHL draft picks. Attacks on other nations were usually coded descriptors meant to demean other nations; Russia, Sweden, Finland, and other European countries are often labeled as ‘talented’, but ‘inconsistent’, one step away from calling them lazy.

Certain styles of play have been elevated as indicative of a nation’s character, a practice dating back to the 1950s, when nations recognized the importance of international sports competitions during the Cold War. Citizens used them as barometres of national supremacy. The traditional stereotypes for nations break down among remarkably political lines; the “hard-working” Canadians and Americans succeed with their superior effort, despite a perceived dearth of talent (no matter how untrue that is, the stereotype was fostered when the USSR was dominating international hockey competitions), reflecting to some extent a  capitalist ideology. The Russians, Swedes, Finns, and other European nations are usually characterized as ‘talented‘ and lauded for their ‘puck control.’ When these styles of play were first introduced – during the height of the Soviet Union – observers were quick to label it as ‘socialist’ hockey. Despite the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, these perceptions still exist and are still widely used.

The media and the fans on social media were quick to both use these perceptions, and use them in poor taste. On Twitter, where anyone (and any idiot) can have a voice, insults were lobbed back and forth – dirty Canadians, lazy Russians, et cetera. Don Cherry, the venerated Canadian commentator, complained that the Canadians couldn’t play their hard-hitting style because of international rules, and that other nations benefited from the junior Canadian leagues’ coaching, and then called for exclusively Canadian players in the junior leagues. Nail Yakupov, one of Russia’s top prospects, was quoted as calling the Canadian team “dirty”, causing more squabbles, when (as it has been suggested), most likely, his interview was poorly translated from Russian. When the Americans beat the Canadians 5-1 in the medal rounds, a new round of barbs went back and forth between the sides. The insults went back and forth, a whirling chaos of jingoism. The question became: what are we watching? The world’s best young hockey players competing for our enjoyment as hockey fans, or an exercise in misplaced national pride? For too many fans, it was the latter.

I watched the World Juniors, a starved hockey fan myself, waking up early in the morning (the games were played in Ufa, Russia, meaning 3 a.m. EST starts) to see if the U.S. team could pull off a gold medal finish. While I had some fun chiding my Canadian friends throughout the tournament, a lot of the discussion by both the media and other fans made me uncomfortable. What I saw when I watched the U.S. take on Sweden in the gold medal game was two teams firing outlet passes through the neutral zone, catching their teammates on well-timed breakouts; fluid, beautiful hockey. Unfortunately, the players can’t just play. Their nations’ histories, and all the connotations that come with them, are written across their uniforms.