The Confluence Of Culture, Politics And Hockey

I just realized we’re coming up on the fortieth anniversary of the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team’s gold medal victory at Lake Placid, New York. I was almost 13-years-old on that day, and my memories are still quite vivid. It was a turbulent time in U.S. history; I can look back upon it and say that “turbulent” is a subjective description. After all, I was just a kid, and politics and world events were secondary, save for my sixth-grade social studies class, where we discussed history and current events. I don’t have any concrete memories of those classes, but I do remember my fellow classmates shouting “U.S.A!, U.S.A.!, U.S.A.!” in the hallways between classes. We were proud Americans; even if we didn’t quite understand why. 

As I grew up and started to take a greater interest in what was going on in the world, I realized why an Olympic sporting event meant so much to Americans at that particular moment in time. For my readers who weren’t alive back then, or too young to remember, late 70s America was a dark place - there was the fallout from Watergate, the energy crisis, the Cold War and the specter of nuclear weapons in the background. I remember my father and brother getting up at ungodly pre-dawn hours to go fill up their gas tanks so they could get to work. I remember my mother lamenting that she wished we could move back to Canada so we wouldn’t have to be party to such misery (but she also lamented how her family had a housekeeper during the Great Depression). In general, I remember not really understanding why things were so bad. 

Fast forward a couple of years to when Iranian students overthrew the Shah’s government and installed Ayatollah Khomeni, a Muslim theocrat. Then there were the hostages, and “F*** IRAN” buttons and bumper stickers everywhere. There was embattled president Jimmy Carter, seemingly unable to do anything right. And then there was hockey. 

Back then, U.S. Olympic athletes were amateurs, with their making-the-NHL odds looking rather low at first glance. The men’s hockey team was comprised of college students, mostly from Boston College, Boston University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Minnesota. All were, and still are, schools with prestigious athletic programs. Hockey was huge at these schools, but there were very few American boys on NHL teams. As good as they were, they were no competition to the Canadian kids who played junior hockey through high school, many of them forgoing college for the NHL Draft. 

The U.S. and Canadian Olympic hockey teams were not expected to fare well in the ’80 Winter Olympics. They were inexperienced boys compared to the men – the Red Army soldiers – that populated the Soviet Olympic team. (And if SportBetTime was around back then, you could imagine how much of underdogs both teams would have been.) Those guys were a collective human machine compared to the players that represented other countries. Even countries like Sweden and Norway that sent players on to the NHL, were no match for the Soviet style of play. Yet, the Americans prevailed. And as inconsequential as it normally would have been, the victory meant something. It was a symbolic defeat of Communism, even though the Berlin Wall didn’t fall for another decade. It was an example of how America stood for good in the world, and that even though we were down and out at that moment, we would rise up to once again as a force to be reckoned with. 

Here we are again. This time, we are a country with a great, yawning, ideological divide that might literally destroy us. We’re almost two decades removed from the worst terrorist attack perpetrated on our own soil. We’ve got a president who is clearly unfit for office (although some will disagree with that), and our professional sports teams are being held hostage by that divide. 

During the first month of the 2019-20 NHL season, the current Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues visited the Trump White House to bask in accolades for their victory. The Stanley Cup made an appearance, of course, that oh-so-Canadian symbol a Canadian team has not managed to win in 26 years. 

Oddly enough, the reverberation of controversy surrounding the Blues’ visit to the White House was practically non-existent – here in the U.S. In Canada, however, well-known sportswriter and Trump-hater, Damien Cox, plastered his Twitter account with missives that the Blues should boycott the invitation to the White House; the team is made up of majority Canadian players, and it goes against all that is Canadian to accept praise from the likes of Trump.

The Blues didn't buck tradition when it came to visiting the White House. (Reuters)

Much to Mr. Cox’s chagrin – and let’s be honest – mine as well, the Blues ignored his pleas. As a Canadian, I agree with Mr. Cox that the Blues should have taken a lesson from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and said “no thanks” to the invite. But I can understand why they went. Missouri is one of the reddest (read, conservative) states in the nation, and you don’t want to upset your fans by turning down an invite from a Republican president. Therein lies the conundrum: The majority Canadian team did the Canadian thing by being polite. The American ownership and fans of the St. Louis Blues – many of whom might be Trump supporters – didn’t say “boo.” Those of us who remember how much patriotic pride there was behind that Olympic victory 40 years ago died a little on the inside; not because we’re 40 years removed from the event, but because we are no longer capable of meaningfully bridging political and cultural divides on the field of play. 

The congratulatory presidential phone call and the visit to the White House used to be two of the greatest perks of becoming a champion. They were also completely apolitical. It never used to matter which side of the political spectrum you were on; what mattered was the coming together to celebrate and give fellow countrymen and women a feeling of participation and joy. Now, it is nothing more than another reason to be angry. The White House visit stokes the divisiveness we’ve created, and at this point, the pit is so deep, it is practically bottomless. 

I would like to point out something positive the NHL does every year: November is Hockey Fights Cancer month, and each of the 30 teams hold events to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society and the American Cancer Society. As someone who has had breast cancer, this is particularly meaningful to me, seeing as how October has been hijacked by corporations claiming to want to raise awareness about the disease. “Pinkwashing” has become a huge problem, with companies promoting products that are supposed to benefit breast cancer charities, but instead deposit huge amounts of money into corporate coffers. I detest pink ribbons, but I can get behind the NHL’s campaign because it has something those pink ribbons are missing: heart. 

This year, the league named former player and coach, and current Chicago Blackhawks broadcaster, Ed Olczyk, its Hockey Fights Cancer ambassador. Mr. Olczyk, who played as a 17-year-old on the 1984 U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team and later went on to win a Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer in 2017. He was given a clean bill of heath a year after his diagnosis, and has written a memoir about his experience.  

The NHL is as flawed and blinkered as any other professional sports league, but it is doing something right here. It allows its players, their families, and their fans to tell their stories, and those stories have an impact.  

Much as I, and many other fans bristle at the naked politicization of sports, we still have something meaningful to fall back on. Some of us may indulge our cynical sides by claiming it is nothing more than slick marketing, but those people and stories are real. And they’re saving us by letting us know that there is more to life than politics. I am grateful for that. 

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