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Giant Sucking Sound
Michael Farber
March 20, 1995
That's the noise distraught Canadian hockey fans hear as their game heads south
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March 20, 1995

Giant Sucking Sound

That's the noise distraught Canadian hockey fans hear as their game heads south

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•When the Canadian dollar was worth 15 or even 25 cents less than the U.S. dollar in the late 1980s, Canadian teams shrugged off the gap as the price of doing business. But now a flaccid Canadian buck—$1.40 of Ottawa's money equals one U.S. greenback—has made it prohibitively expensive for teams north of the border to keep or sign free agents.

•Even Canadian players have scant loyalty to their native land. "If you had a choice between an ideal situation in Canada and an ideal situation in the States," says Canadien captain Kirk Muller of the Kingston, Ont., Mullers, "90 percent of the guys in this room would be out of here. Just like my friends who have businesses in Kingston. A lot of them are trying to move 35 miles over the border because it's cheaper to function in the States."

•The collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout did not solve the disparity of dollars or aid to "small markets"—NHL-speak for Canada (except Montreal and Toronto) and Hartford. The league subsequently hired a Denver consulting firm. Bortz and Co., to tackle the difficulties of the have-nots, but there is no deep reservoir of feeling for the NHL's Green Bays, four of whom—Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg—came into the league in the 1979 merger with the World Hockey Association. The problem was poetically outlined during the recent labor negotiations by New Jersey Devil owner John McMullen, who reportedly said, "To hell with the small markets."

Canada was hit right where it lives. Hall of Fame right wing Guy Lafleur predicted only three Canadian franchises would survive the next 10 years, and broadcaster and former coach Don Cherry, a nationalist to the point of xenophobia, mournfully went Lafleur one better, saying Vancouver might not make it, either. One day Canada's NHL might again be only Toronto and Montreal.

"Of course Canada is losing the NHL," says Montreal managing director Serge Savard. "Look at the shift in franchises. In California there are three teams, and they're selling out. The Florida Panthers are getting nearly 15,000 a game. Back when I started playing, if you told me there'd be a franchise in Miami, I'd have laughed."

"Canadians are paranoid, but it's a justifiable paranoia given the game's visibility there," says Brian Burke, the NHL director of hockey operations, who has worked both sides of the fence as an executive with Vancouver and Hartford. "I view the migration of teams and star players south of the border like a mother putting her baby up for adoption. Canadians don't want to hand that baby over to anyone but a Canadian."

Canada had seemed delighted with the results of its recent proselytizing, flattered that the NHL was attracting marquee owners like The Walt Disney Company in Anaheim and Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. in Florida, gratified that Americans, too thick to grasp the joys of hockey even after the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, were finally coming around. But as McMullen's words reverberated and commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow dug in during the lockout. Canadians replied with unusual vitriol by the favored means of communication in the late 20th century—talk radio. In the U.S., where hockey is just one more form of entertainment, cities were without one of their sandbox toys. In Canada, a spiritually essential industry had been taken hostage.

But. Salutin noted, no one could quite identify the enemy. Was it America? Or was it money? "Canadians aren't sure if it's the War of 1812 again," he says, "or whether it's simply the octopus quality of business, the tentacles clutching the game." Canada might simply mourn the passing of the mom-and-pop NHL. where the only marketing was at the corner store for cold beers after a game. Instead of comparing Gordie Howe with Rocket Richard, or Wayne Gretzky with Mario Lemieux, four of the bargainers during the NHL lockout sat around during a break in the negotiations and compared old law-board scores. "Want to know the problem?" says Christie Blatchford, a Toronto Sun columnist who grew up in northern Quebec and fondly remembers the Noranda Copper Kings juvenile team practicing spearing in the warmups to intimidate the opponents. "The Toronto Star ran a chronology of the Monday night they settled the lockout. It says at nine o'clock NHL stall ordered out for Chinese food and watched college basketball games on ESPN. College damn basketball games?"

"Certainly the lockout hit Canadians more than Americans because the elements of national culture and mythology are more fragile here than in the U.S.," Salutin says. "In the U.S. they have baseball, but they also have lots of other stuff. In a general sense hockey is one of the few things that makes this place coherent. In the U.S. there's no worry the country will cease to exist. Here, there's a sense the country is falling apart. With free trade, the threat of Quebec separation [later this year Quebec will hold a referendum on separating from the rest of Canada], issues of national sovereignty, hockey assumes a sense of national loss."

Although Canada's small markets are fighting seemingly unwinnable economic wars and its kids want to grow up to be Russian Rockets like Bure, in some ways Canadian hockey never has been stronger. Find a Canadian-based Ken Burns to pan black-and-white still photos of Jacques Plante and present 98 different versions of Stompin' Tom Connors' The Hockey Song over 18½ hours, and the hosers would feel better.

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