The Americans finally won the gold medal in the World Baseball Classic this year, in fact their first medal ever. Will that change things?
It seems funny to start off an article about hockey by talking about baseball but the World Baseball Classic is an all too accurate symbol about the United States attitude to international hockey, indeed to almost all international sports. It’s either win or have nothing to do with it and belittle it.
American bombast in sports starts the moment the sport is created. The winner of the “World” Series is not the baseball champion of the United States but the “world” champion. So is the champion of the NFL and NBA. And it is the same in the NHL, though with the coming of the Europeans in the 1970s, the term “Stanley Cup Champion” is now more frequently used. In fact NHL hockey is probably the closest “big 4″ sport to being a true world championship because seven of the NHL franchises are based in Canada and the main trophy and several others are Canadian. At least that is better than the one international team in the NBA and MLB and none in the NFL.
Which brings up the subject of the World Baseball Classic. It was started in an attempt to promote the growth of baseball internationally, but it has been decidedly hampered by the bad American attitude toward it. Up to this year, the Americans had never won anything and the excuses made during previous tournaments were that the tournament was a “minor” affair that did not compare with MLB and was not worthy of the United States sending its best players to participate. That was the unofficial excuse Americans clung to for comfort in the face of obvious ignominious failure; America had not bothered to send its best players to a “minor” tournament.
In 2009, American team member Kevin Youkilis publicly berated the American fans for not showing more support for their team. His outburst provoked reactions of violent hatred. America was in the grip of the Mortgage Meltdown and American fans, especially those who were suffering the effects of the Meltdown turned on Youkilis as a representative of a fantasy world of prima donna sports figures that had no contact with the grim reality of the “real world”. Yet their legitimate outbursts still reflected the contempt Americans had for a championship that they did not regard as “big league”.
In fact the results of the World Baseball Classic could be used to question whether MLB itself contained the best baseball players in the world and whether Americans themselves were paying top dollar for a product which, it could now be legitimately argued was inferior to what was being played internationally. No matter. Americans generally ignored the results of the tournament, belittled it, and continued to believe that MLB was the best baseball in the world.
Now contrast that with what happened to Canada in 1972. Before the Canada-USSR tournament, Canada had much the same attitude to international hockey as Americans had to the World Baseball Classic. A group of NHL “goons” it was even speculated, would be good enough to sweep every game against the Soviets.
But the near defeat of Canada’s best players by the USSR and the high standard of play in every game changed everything. Gone forever was the thought that Canada had an overwhelming monopoly of the best players in the world. It was recognized that at least among the “big 7″ hockey countries, Canada had only a narrow margin of superiority. Canada now had things to learn from international competition, particularly the importance of conditioning, that everyone recognized that the USSR had a distinct advantage in the tournament. Canadians became willing to eat a lot of humble pie in order to improve their own game of hockey.
The Canadian attitude toward international tournaments changed too. Now winning the Olympics, the World Championship, the World Junior Championship, and the World Women’s Championship were considered to be great achievements to be valued, not something to be belittled and disparaged. But perhaps the greatest change was that international competition was now considered something special, something higher than even the NHL. The obvious superior play between the USSR and Canada was recognized immediately and Canadians wanted more of it. The Canada-USSR match led directly to the start of the Canada/World Cup and the integration of Europeans into the NHL. The close competition created a new attitude of respect.
But the American attitude to international sports including hockey still has not changed much. They still claim their domestic championships are world championships. I’ve written several articles on this blog and others outlining the NFL’s hatred for foreigners as well their contempt for their own fans by stripping cities of their franchises, often on the mere whim of a prima donna owner. This year NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed the American attitude to international hockey clearly by pulling the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.
And to soothe their own troubled consciences, Americans haul out memories of the 1980 “Miracle On Ice”, one of the few triumphs in hockey the United States has enjoyed. They create myths like the “Bsd News Bears” in baseball and the “Mighty Ducks” in hockey (Who have yet to play a Canadian team. Disney is afraid of losing the Canadian market. Canada always gets defeated off camera by some villainous European team.).
Soccer for the most part has learned to live without the United States and its money. The NHL is in a kind of half way position. What respect there is for international hockey has mostly come from changes in attitude from Canada. But for the most part, the American attitude to international sports hurts the sports Americans claim they want to develop around the world.
This year, South Korea improved its hockey team so that it got promoted to the top level of next year’s World Championships. If they do well, it will be a breakthrough in the development of international hockey. But the NHL has pulled itself out of Pyeongchang, hurting both international hockey and the entry of the NHL into a potential new important market. But no matter, Americans can watch reruns of the Ducks, Bears, and the Miracle On Ice. Myths in international sports are more important to Americans than improving their own game and becoming members of the international sports community.