Status Of Hockey In The United States Part 7: The American Attitude To International Sports

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.

 

 

 

NHL/America’s Attitude To The Olympics: They Are An Alien Concept

Besides news about the daily games, what’s the news on the NHL’s website? It is said that the NHL’s participation in the next Winter Olympics in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea is in danger. At the latest NHL Board meeting, many club owners, voiced several grievances against the games of which there are some of legitimate merit. There is the problem of shutting down the NHL for two weeks and revising the schedule. There is the problem of insurance and injuries to players.

But these legitimate problems seem to be playing a minor role in the current dispute. The main grievance is said to be money; the Olympics do not “pay”. What the NHL (and American television) wants are Winter Olympic Games held in the United States or Canada which can bring in big ratings and dollars. The South Korean time zone is just too much out of range for their liking. They also want their rumps kissed by having the IOC pay for their insurance, travel and accommodations. The IOC is willing to do this just like before.

The NHL/American attitude seems to be that they can step in and step out of the Olympics or any other sports or cultural event anytime they feel like it. There is no firm commitment, no sense of duty, no sense of something “spiritually higher” than themselves. This is a business decision.

This is not the first time the Olympics have been used for other purposes instead of a sporting event. Usually the reason is politics. Hitler used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda and to prove racial superiority. There was the horrible Munich massacre in 1972. In 1980, the United States and other countries withdrew from the Moscow games to protest the USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Then the eastern block retaliated by withdrawing from the 1984 Los Angeles games. This time the reason is big business.

The NHL participated in the games at Sochi, Russia which were also out of North American time zones. But the NHL now has a sizeable number of Russians and Europeans playing on their rosters, so it would not have been very politic to not participate in Sochi. But South Korea can make no similar claim on the NHL and it is not big enough nor as important enough as a country like China in the NHL’s eyes. So there are less qualms about telling the South Koreans to stick it.

Even if the NHL formally does not participate there may be problems. Several players have made it known that they want to participate in the Olympics whether the NHL participates or not. It will be interesting to see what happens should that come to pass.

But the NHL and the United States attitude to the Olympics runs deeper than money. They just do not understand international competition unless they win. They are still willing to brag and boast about the “Miracle On Ice” victory over the USSR in 1980 when it suits them but overall their attitude is bad and belongs with myths and fairytales. And if they pull out of the 2018 games they will have no claim to brag and boast about anything.

In 1972, Canada had a similar attitude to international hockey competition, but its near defeat and the excitement caused by the close competition the USSR gave changed everything. The Canadian public was given a choice; should the NHL stay a North American only league or admit players no matter where they came from if they were good. They voiced overwhelming support for the latter policy. That is why the NHL is a multi-national league today. That is why there are still competitions between NHL professionals at the Olympics and the Canada/World Cup.

The American attitude seems to be that they exist on their own planet except when they win. When leagues like the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL were formed, their champions are somehow champions of the “world”, not merely the United States or Canada despite the fact that none of their teams play a single international game except when teams from Canada and the United States in the NHL play each other or when the Toronto Blue Jays/Raptors participate. The current dispute about whether to play in South Korea is simply reality intruding on American fairytales. “We want the best hockey players in the world to play at our South Korean Olympics.” “Huh? What? What’s all this about?”

But the NHL’s bad attitude is nothing compared to baseball and football. On other blogs I have written many articles about the American attitude to the World Baseball Classic, an event designed to encourage the growth of baseball internationally. Instead most Americans pour scorn and ridicule the event, even questioning whether the event itself and its result is legitimate. This cleverly covers up the truth that the United States – the country that invented baseball – has never come close to even winning even a third place medal. Yet Americans still believe they are the best baseball players in the world; that they are willing to pay top dollar to MLB because MLB says that its players are the best in the world in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; and that the champion of the “World Series” is the champion of the world despite not playing a single foreign opponent.

But the worst attitude belongs as usual to the arrogant NFL. They despise “foreigners” and make little attempt to hide their contempt. When the Buffalo Bills began playing some of their games in Toronto in order to cash in on its lucrative market, the ticket prices were set so high that even the most fanatical Ontario NFL fan had to say, “Wait a minute. We’re not suckers.” Another telling event are the games played in London, UK. Usually the competition is between bottom-of-the-barrel teams or mismatches, projected meaningless games, games that would not sell out on their native soil. Indianapolis against Jacksonville? New York Giants against Los Angeles? Usually a seller hauls out his best stuff when he wants to make a good impression. The NFL is saying, “Take this crap, you ignorant foreigners. That’s all you’re good for.” And Americans wonder why they are unpopular when they travel abroad.

Is this attitude merely reserved for lowly foreigners? Ask the good citizens of St. Louis how they liked having their football team taken and gift wrapped to Los Angeles simply because their market is not as big as the second largest market in the United States. So much for their loyal support (Oakland, Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston can all relate to this.) All the NFL had to do was expand by one or two teams and nobody would have been hurt. If this is the league’s attitude to its own citizens and supporters, it is no wonder that “foreigners” are given the dregs from the barrel.

Too bad the situation is not like soccer’s FIFA. Sure they like and want the American money and acclaim but they are quite prepared to live without the United States, being satisfied with the rest of the world. At last glance, there does not seem to be any attempt by FIFA to consult the United States or American television executives about which countries to award the World Cup to. Too bad the situation is not the same with the NHL and the current Olympics. What we will get whether good or bad is an American business decision.

Myth Vs Reality: International Baseball Vs. International Hockey

The revival of the World (formerly Canada) Cup of Hockey that I am currently writing about reminds me about another subject that I wrote a few articles about on another blog a few years ago, the World Baseball Classic. And since I recall it, it is appropriate to make a few comparisons between the state of international hockey and the state of international baseball.

Two obvious differences are cost and climate and baseball has the advantage in both. It is far cheaper and easier to learn to play baseball and become good in the sport than it is to develop a young hockey player. Children from poorer countries can learn to play baseball while to learn to play hockey properly means at least being able to afford a pair of skates and lots of protective gear. And while baseball can be played almost continually year round, to be played properly, hockey must wait for winter in the polar regions of Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia or build and maintain expensive indoor rinks. That makes it easier to get more recruits for baseball than hockey.

As result of greater participation, international baseball does not have a quality problem like international hockey. In the 44 years since the famous Canada-USSR match of 1972, the top 7 teams are still the same; Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden. After the “big 7″, the quality of play drops off noticeably. Baseball has no such problem with far more countries able to field quality teams. But there lies the main problem with the growth of international baseball, that retards its development – and it is all due to American mythology. Hockey has no such problem.

In the aftermath of the near defeat of Canada by the USSR in 1972, a revolution in thinking about international hockey occurred. It was now recognized by Canadians that Europeans and Americans were catching up in the quality of play and that the best players in the world no longer exclusively came from Canada. Shortly after that, the first Europeans started to penetrate the NHL which has led to the development of the league as fans know it today; a multi-national league with the vast majority of its players coming from the “big 7″ countries. Canada is usually the favorite, one step ahead of the other “big 7″, but it is no longer an upset if one of those other countries win major international tournaments. And the attitude of Canadians to these tournaments has changed too. Winning events like the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Women’s Championship, and the World Junior Championship are considered major achievements by Canadians.

But in contrast to Canada’s sensible revised thinking about international hockey, the United States clings to laughable, unrealistic myths about international baseball and its own domestic product. In contrast to international hockey tournaments which are treated with respect by North Americans, the World Baseball Classic is constantly belittled and treated with disrespect by Americans. This helps to hide an ignominious fact; the host country has never won a medal.

Instead American fans like to pretend that they “don’t send their best players” or some other unrealistic excuse or they simply ignore the results and the facts. But the repeated World Baseball Classic results prove that Americans are not the best players of baseball any more. No matter. Americans like to still claim that the true champions and the “real tough” competition lies within Major League Baseball.

In three of the four major professional sports that are played in the United States; baseball, football, and basketball, Americans like to proclaim that the winner is the “world champion” instead of just being the mere champion of the United States. Actually the only true international championship in any of these sports that ever occurred was when the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball participated in the “World” Series. The NHL used to call itself and occasionally still does use the term “world champions”, but now usually uses the more correct title of Stanley Cup Champions thanks to the developments in international hockey.

American chauvinism is hurting the development of international baseball. Their continued disrespect for the World Baseball Classic is simply boorish. Some American commentators like former MLB player and television commentator Tony Kubek used to dream of a true world championship between the MLB winner and the champion of the Japanese leagues, but the American attitude to international play makes such a dream impossible to realize.

And the myths and disrespect hide another brazen fact; American baseball fans are being cheated by their own myths and self-deception. The NHL with a few exceptions can truthfully say that the vast majority of the best players in the world play in its league. But the results of the World Baseball Classic show that a large percentage of the best baseball players – maybe even the majority – do not play in Major League Baseball. So American fans are paying top dollar for a product that may be far from being the best possible. And yet they continue to pour scorn on the World Baseball Classic and insist that the only true champion is the one who wins the “World” Series.

As the future second President of the United States, John Adams stated when he was defending the British soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre, “Facts are stubborn things.” Despite all the advantages that international baseball has as opposed to international hockey, as long as Americans continue to cling to their myths, the prospects for developing hockey internationally may be much brighter than for baseball. The main problem with international hockey is that its top quality is limited to seven countries. But if this can be overcome, international hockey can look forward to bright future developments, while international baseball remains in the dark ages.