On PK Subban and Controversy

February 27, 2014 § 8 Comments

Watching the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Sochi, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there is no way that PK Subban is the 8th best defenceman in the country.  He’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an offensive threat, a hitter of big hits, a puck carrier, and he’s a rock solid defenceman.  In short, Subban’s skill set seemed to fit exactly with what Canada needed, especially in the preliminary round when it was having problems moving the puck.  And while Subban makes mistakes, so, too, do Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, Canada’s golden boys of defencemen.  And surely, Subban was a better choice to play than Dan Hamhuis or Jay Bouwmeester, at the very least? But, no, not in the eyes of the coaches.  And, really, at the end of it all, what’s to quibble with?  Subban handled his demotion with grace, and Canada won the gold medal going away, making it two in a row for the men, and landing their first medal on the big ice of the European game.

Subban attracts attention and controversy wherever he goes.  A lot of it is racially charged, and a lot of it comes from people who should know better (which is everyone, frankly, this is the 21st century, not the early 19th).  Subban is many things that many hockey fans do not like: flamboyant, exuberant, and incredibly skilled.  As a result, aside from legitimate criticism, Subban attracts a lot of racist attention.  Let me be very clear: criticising Subban’s play for mistakes or boneheaded plays is not racism. But a lot of the static around Subban is race-based.

When Subban broke into the NHL back in 2009, a lot of the media discussion was about controlling Subban’s exuberance, about toning him down.  Oddly, when Maxime Lapierre played for the Habs, he was an energy player, who was always on the edge, running his mouth on the ice, irritating opponents, trying to goad them into penalties.  Sometimes he crossed the line.  But there were rarely discussions about the need to control or reign in Lapierre.  Unlike Lapierre, Subban can make an entire building of fans rise to their feet with a rush up the ice, the kind of thing we Habs fans haven’t seen since the glory days of Guy Lafleur, frankly.

And yet, Subban has been called out by nearly everyone in the hockey establishment for his allegedly cocky attitude, from  Don Cherry to Mike Richards, and everyone in between, including a few coaches of the Club du Hockey Canadien.

And criticisms are continually made about his play.  That he takes too many penalties.  That he gives away the puck too often. And so on.  Oddly, the Habs other young defencemen are not subject to this kind of criticism. It’s a given that defencemen take a long time to mature and they will make errors on the way.  And young players, especially, will be overly exuberant at times.  But they’re given leeway Subban is not, at least in the media and amongst some fans.

And yet, Subban’s penalty minutes are not egregious.  And, as far as his alleged poor defensive play, that’s just patently false, as this advanced stats discourse shows.  It even shows that Subban can more than carry his weight in relation to the rest of the dmen on the Olympic team.

I won’t even get into Darren Pang’s rather unfortunate mistake of referring to Subban not doing something the “white way,” as opposed to the “right way” (it was a slip of the tongue, he apologised immediately, but, we all know what Freud says of slips of the tongue).

Racism, especially in Canada, works insidiously.  There are certainly still loud mouth racists out there, but aside from the occasional offensive tweet or comment board post, that is not the discourse around Subban.  I could also point out that Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane is similarly targeted by the media for his alleged bad behaviour.  Kane is also black.  No, rather than outright racism, this works in a more callous manner, it creeps along, and we find Subban (and Kane) critiqued for behaving in a certain way when other, white Canadian players, are not.  We find the play of Subban (and Kane) under the microscope for alleged inefficiencies when others are not.  We see the the character of Subban (and Kane) under question, when white players’ characters are not.

Case in point.  After the 2011-12 season, Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the best dman in the NHL.  There were protests that Karlsson was a one-dimensional player, he was a defensive liability, etc.  That the likes of Doughty, Keith, Shea Weber deserved to win.  But the outcry died down pretty quickly when advanced stats showed that Karlsson is actually a pretty good defenceman.  And by the time the 2013 season finally began after an epic lockout, the controversy was over.  But here we are now, at the tail end of February, Subban won the Norris in June last year, and the controversy lives on.  Tell me that racism doesn’t play a role here.

The criticism directed at Subban is not of the ilk directed at other superstars, rather, it is unrelenting and often unfair and baseless.  It’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that PK Subban is resented by many in the hockey world (fans, media, players, coaches, managers) for something as simple as the colour of his skin.  And that, to me, is just stupid.

Olympic Geography

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have seen a fair amount of Olympic critiques from the American left in the past week or so, or, well, since the Olympics began.  And aside from what you’d expect, about Russia’s horrendous human rights records, Putin’s disgusting homophobia, another trend has been criticising the Winter Olympics as essentially a party for wealthy northern nations.  Comparisons are made between the Winter and Summer Olympics and where athletes are from, and the size of the delegations and the like.  Aside from large northern sporting nations (the US, Russia), the geographic distribution of competing nations in the Summer Olympics is necessarily much larger than for the winter variety.  Of course, the Summer Olympics is also a much larger event than the winter variety.

But I have a fundamental problem with this critique.  The Sochi Winter Olympics medal standings right now is topped by the Netherlands and the USA, followed by Russia, Norway, and Canada.  In Vancouver in 2010, the standings went: United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Austria.  In contrast, in London in 2012, the standings went like this: United States, China, Britain, Russia, South Korea.  Four years earlier in Beijing: United States, China, Russia, Britain, Australia.

In both winter and summer Olympics, the medal standings are dominated by the USA and Russia (with the exception of Vancouver 2010).  The other nations in the top five vary.  In the winter, it is the Dutch, Norwegians, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians.  In the summer, the other nations are: China, Britain, South Korea, and Australia.  All are wealthy northern nations, depending on how you want to classify China and Russia, who are at the very least at the BRICS level of emerging economic powerhouses.  There are no poor nations from the Global South.  In other words, both summer and winter Olympics are dominated by wealthy northern nations (ok, Australia’s in the South, but you get the point).

Of course, there is still the simple fact that there are athletes from the Global South in the Summer Olympics, and not the Winter Olympics (aside from token representation, such as Jamaican bobsledders and the three Indians in Sochi).  But this is also simply a reflection of geography. Winter sports are played in cold, northern nations.  And the alpine sporting disciplines that feature at the Olympics tend not to be TV ratings champions outside of Olympic years.  In other words, of course the Norwegians are going to ski and skate and the Jamaicans are going to play soccer and do track.

So what to make of this American leftist critique of the Winter Olympics? From what I’ve read, it seems this is simply a case of “We Are the World,” and it’s more an American critique of American chauvinism at the Olympics. Yet, those who make this critique are wonderfully un-self aware that they are just as chauvinistic as the chauvinism they are criticising. Ain’t life grand?

The Civil War and the Atlanta Flames

February 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Atlanta Flames goalie, Daniel Bouchard, c. 1977

Last week, I was watching the Calgary Flames play, I can’t remember who they were playing; I watch a lot of hockey.  I’ve never liked the Flames.  They were arch rivals of the Vancouver Canucks in the 1980s and, as much as I have never cheered for the Canucks (who wore the ugliest uniforms in NHL history in that era), I never cheered for their rivals either (Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary), with the exception of the Los Angeles Kings.  The Flames also committed the venial sin of defeating the Montréal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup in 1989 (to this day, the last time two Canadian teams played for Lord Stanley of Preston’s mug).

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

Vancouver Canucks road uniforms, 1978-84

The Calgary Flames came into existence in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames packed up shop and moved to the much smaller Canadian city (in a wonderful twist of fate, Atlanta’s next chance at an NHL team, the Thrashers, packed up and moved the much smaller Canadian city of Winnipeg in 2011, where they became the Jets, Version 2.0, the original Jets having moved to Phoenix in 1996, becoming the Coyotes).

When I was a kid, the Atlanta Flames were this team that no one ever thought about.  The only real time they entered my consciousness was in 1977 or 1978, when my parents were considering moving from Montréal to Atlanta.  We moved to Toronto instead.  But, due to the snow storm that hit Atlanta last week and the fact that it was in the news, I was thinking about the old Atlanta Flames whilst watching the Calgary Flames.

I may be slow on the uptake, but the reason why the Atlanta NHL team was called the Flames was a Civil War reference.  After Atlanta fell to the Union Army under General William Tecumseh Sherman in July 1864, Sherman, a vindictive sort, ordered the civilian population out, and then proceeded to sack the city old school, by burning it (though he was persuaded to save the city’s churches by Fr. Thomas O’Reilly of the Church of the Immaculate Conception).  The city was devastated.

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

The ruins of the Atlanta rail roundhouse, July 1864

Calgary Flames star Kent Nilsson, c. 1984

When Atlanta was awarded an NHL expansion franchise for the 1972-3 season, Tom Cousins, the owner, chose the name to commemorate the burning of Atlanta.  When the Flames relocated to Calgary eight years later, Nelson Skalbania, the new owner, decided to keep the name, thinking it a fitting name for an oil town.  The uniforms remained the same, except that the flaming A was replaced by a flaming C.

Sports Journalists and the English Language: #Fail

December 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

I just read an article on Sportsnet.ca about the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I don’t like the Leafs, and I enjoy it when they lose, something they’re doing a lot of right now.  But, something about this article seemed unfair, like it was piling on.  Chris Johnston starts off his article by saying “The word “crisis” is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs and after just seven wins in the last 22 games it really isn’t much of a stretch.”  Right away, my eyebrows go up when I see language like this.  The passive voice.  The word is being attached to the Leafs.  By whom? In what circumstances?  When?  Why?  Johnston isn’t interested in answering any of that.  It turns out, the word “crisis” was pitched at Leafs’ coach Randy Carlyle by another Toronto journalist, Steve Simmons.  And Carlyle wouldn’t commit to the word.

So it turns out “[t]he word ‘crisis’ is now being attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs” by another sports journalist.  So two guys who cover the Leafs think this (I’m sure many of the fans do).  It reminded me a lot of the hullabaloo swirling around the Chicago Bears last week when news broke that starting quarterback Jay Cutler was ready to return from injury.  This would normally be a good thing, except that his backup, Josh McCown, was the reigning offensive player of the week.  One blogger for ESPNChicago began arguing that McCown should be the starter and, suddenly, all of ESPN was making this claim, arguing that “voices” had been calling for McCown.

The Leafs and Bears examples are reflective of a general shift in sports journalism I have noticed of late.  Journalists are desperate to reach readers and viewers, so the coverage gets more and more shrill.  In the case of the Bears and Leafs examples, journalists are attempting to create stories, to give themselves traction so that they can later claim they were the ones who ‘broke’ the story.  A classic example of the tale wagging the dog.

This general shift has also lead to a loose relationship between the English language and events the journalists are attempting to describe.  For example, last weekend, the Boston Bruins played in Vancouver and were hammered by the Canucks 6-2.  After the game, Bruins forward, Milan Lucic, who is from Vancouver, went out to blow off some steam.  For his efforts, he claims he was punched in the face twice by some idiot, which led to a lot of shouting and masculine preening in front of some guy who filmed it on his phone and the Vancouver police.  A Bruins journalist, Joe Haggerty, called this a “street brawl” in an article on-line.  Some idiot throwing a couple of punches is many things, a brawl it is not.

In watching highlights of the Montréal Canadiens’ game against Phoenix last night, a TSN commentator on SportsCentre claimed the Habs couldn’t “buy a goal,” about a half second before showing highlights of the Canadiens’ first goal in a 3-1 win.  Obviously, they didn’t need to buy a goal, they scored three of them.  This is like the football commentator I saw this weekend reporting that the Dallas Cowboys had scored 24 unanswered points before showing us how the Green Bay Packers came back to win the game.  Obviously those points were answered.

These are a wide variety of recent examples in the world of sports journalism of writers and broadcasters having a loose grip on reality and a dodgy relationship to the meaning of the words they use.  While I realise that we live in a somewhat post-modern world, but words do still have meaning.  But in the world of sports journalism, at least, editors and producers seem to have forgotten this.  And more’s the pity for it.

Ken Dryden and Prosthetic Memory

December 2, 2013 § 8 Comments

Top-10-Hockey-Ken-DrydenOn Saturday night, I went to the Bruins’ game with a buddy.  Those who know me know that the only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate are the fucking Bruins.  My buddy, John, is a Bruins’ fan.  He has no love lost for my Canadiens de Montréal.  And everytime he goes on and on about the Big Bad Bruins of the early 70s, the teams of his childhood, I say two words to him: Ken Dryden.

For those of you who don’t know, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  They were a big, rugged team led by Phil Esposito, Wayne Cashman and, of course, Number 4, Bobby Orr.  They were far and away the best team in hockey in the early 70s.  But in 1971, something happened that disrupted their reign: the Montréal Canadiens.  The Habs weren’t that good in 1971.  They had won the Stanley Cup in 1969, but in 1970, they were the first Habs team to miss the playoffs since 1948.  And the Habs wouldn’t miss the playoffs again until 1995.  In 1970-71, they were an average team.

But then, in the spring, a call-up from the American Hockey League took over the Habs’ nets.  Ken Dryden was his name.  In the first round of the playoffs that year, the Habs took on the Big Bad Bruins.  The Bruins finished with 121 points in 78 games, 12 more than the 2nd place New York Rangers.  The Habs finished a full 24 points back.  But the Canadiens knocked off the defending champs in the first round in 7 games, finally eliminating the Bruins in the hostile confines of the old Boston Garden. The Habs, riding Dryden’s brilliance, went on to win the Stanley Cup over the Chicago Blackhawks.

I wasn’t born in 1971, it would be a full two years until I made my début.  My first hockey memories are from 1976 or so, I vaguely remember seeing a game between the Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks on our old black and white TV, and my dad took me to the Stanley Cup parade that spring in Montréal.  But.  Just as with Paul Henderson’s series-winning goal against the Soviets in 1972, Ken Dryden’s run in the spring of 1971 is burned into my memory.

How does this happen? Alison Landsberg’s 2004 book, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, attempts to explain.  Due to the onslaught of mass media in our lives, we are increasingly able to assimilate the memory of things we did not experience.  Thus, I can see, in my mind’s eye, the incredible artistry of Ken Dryden in the spring of 1971 before I was born, and long before I had any sentient thoughts.

From where we sit in 2013, almost 2014, nearly a decade since Landsberg published her book (and nearly two decades since her argument was made for the first time in an article in one of those 90s books about the “cyber-world” and “information super-highway”), the argument seems rather obvious.  But it wasn’t a decade ago.

And yet, whilst Landsberg focuses on the proliferation of mass media, it is also clear that the internet plays a very clear role in the formation of prosthetic memory for her.  In the case of Ken Dryden, my memories were made in the 1980s.  In 1984 and again in 1986, the Habs had young, hot goalies in net to start the playoffs. Steve Penney carried a pretty lousy team to the semi-finals in 1984 and two years later, Patrick Roy carried a mediocre team all the way to the Cup.  Both years, Hockey Night in Canada ran endless Dryden video, and talked about Dryden.  The newspapers I read, all the way out in Vancouver, talked about Dryden.  The Hockey News, of which I was a dedicated reader, talked about Dryden.  I went out and bought Dryden’s book, The Game, with my own money because of the 1986 playoffs and the myth-making.  And while, clearly, mass media was central to the formation of my prosthetic Dryden memories as a kid in the 80s, this is long before the internet.

The interesting thing is that, when I taught in Montréal, at both Concordia University and John Abbott College, my students, who were born in the late 80s and early 90s, long after Dryden retired, and at the height of Roy’s brilliance,  knew about the legends of Ken Dryden, as if they were born with fully formed prosthetic memories.

I read an article on the BBC’s website today about how memories can be transferred from generation to generation through biology.  A study of mice at Emory University in Atlanta has demonstrated how this works.  For the study, a generation of lab mice were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms.  This fear was passed on to their children and grandkids, even though the children and grandchildren had never experienced anything negative surrounding the scent of cherry blossoms.

morenz3_medium

Maybe the legends of the Montréal Canadiens are passed on this way, from father to son and daughter.  Maybe this is why I can see in my mind’s eye Howie Morenz rushing up the ice in the late 1920s, when my grandfather was just a lad?

The New Yorker and Serbian Aggression: Re-Writing History

September 12, 2013 § 5 Comments

I like reading The New Yorker.  It’s generally a pretty good general interest magazine and I appreciate its particular slant and humour.  But sometimes I read things that are profoundly stupid.  Like in the 2 September issue, in a profile of the Serbian tennis player (and world #1), Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic grew up during a difficult time in the former Yugoslavia, as it disintegrated.  And he grew up during a difficult time for Serbia, while it was committing genocide.  So, when the author of this piece, Lauren Collins, casually mentions that NATO began bombing Belgrade, without any context, I was left gobsmacked.  Belgrade was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo War, during which the Kosovars fought for their independence from the remaining rump of Yugoslavia, which was really just Bosnia.

Serbian troops, with their wonderful record of genocide in Bosnia/Herzogovina (in conjunction, of course, with Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army) were suspected of committing genocide, or at least engaging in genocidal massacres, against the Kosovars.  Hence, NATO, as it had done in 1995 during the Bosnian genocide, stepped in.  In the end, it turns out that Serbia wasn’t exactly committing genocide in Kosovo, merely “”a systematic campaign of terror, including murders, rapes, arsons and severe maltreatments” (to quote from the BBC), the Serbian army sought to remove, not eradicate the Kosovars.

Whether NATO was right or wrong to drop bombs on Belgrade, Serbia has a history of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity.  There’s a reason former Serbia President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in The Hague whilst on trial for war crimes and former Serbian general Ratko Mladic is presently on trial in The Hague.

Clearly Collins is trying to engender a sympathetic audience for Djokovic, who, as an 11-year old boy had nothing to do with Serbian genocides, and it is largely an entertaining article.  Nonetheless, she is guilty of a gross misappropriation of history in describing the bombing of Belgrade in an entirely passive voice: “When he was eleven, NATO began bombing Belgrade…”, she then goes on to explain the young Djokovic’s means of survival.  She goes onto write “In the aftermath of the war, as sanctions crippled Serbia’s economy, Djokovic’s family struggled to support Djokovic’s ambition [to be the world No. 1 tennis player].”  Again, this is a tragedy for the Djokovics, but there are very real reasons why Serbia was hit with economic sanctions by NATO and its allies, and that’s genocide.

The New Yorker and its editors, as well as Lauren Collins, should know better.  It’s that simple.

Boston Strong?

June 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Boston Bruins lost the Stanley Cup last night in glorious fashion.  Up 2-1 with 89 seconds to go in Game 6, they were that close to a Game 7 back in Chicago tomorrow night.  Then disaster (or, from my perspective, glory) struck, and the Black Hawks scored twice in 17.7 seconds to win the game 3-2 and capture the Cup in 6 games.  All throughout the playoffs, the Bruins and their fans have rallied behind the slogan “Boston Strong!”  Before every home game, the Bruins brought out victims of the 15 April Boston Marathon Bombings as a sign of solidarity with the city, with the city’s recovery and, of course, to rally the Garden faithful.

On the whole, Boston has rallied behind the “Boston Strong” cry.  Every time I step out the front door, I see it on t-shirts, ball caps, bumper stickers.  It’s in the windows of businesses.  And the Boston sports teams, most notably the Bruins, but also the Celtics and Red Sox (the Patriots aren’t playing now, of course, and no one cares about the Revolution) have harnessed this as well.  The Celtics, during their brief playoff appearance, were selling t-shirts that declared “Boston Stands As One.”  A woman behind the counter at the pro shop in the Garden swore the Celtics were donating to the One Boston Fund with proceeds from the shirts.  The Bruins did the same thing.  And all throughout the Bruins’ run to the Cup final, “Boston Strong!” meant cheering for the Bruins as much as a declaration of strength in the face of terrorism.  This, of course, made it kind of difficult for me, as anyone who knows me knows that the only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate is the fucking Boston Bruins (sorry, Auntie (my great Aunt got mad at me for using foul language in an earlier blog post)).

BJnpdP2CAAEIXhBAnd then in the NHL playoffs, all holy hell broke lose.  Some guy in Toronto, during the first round series, held up a sign that said “Toronto Stronger.”  People in Boston were furious, and within minutes #TorontoStronger was the top trend on Twitter here.  People not in Boston were furious, people in Toronto were furious.

It got worse in the Finals, a t-shirt company in Chicago began selling “Chicago Stronger” shirts.  The response was predictable and it makes you wonder just what the guys at Cubby Tees (the company behind the t-shirts) were thinking? The t-shirts were quickly pulled from sale in response to the firestorm of protest, much of it, to be fair, from Boston. ht_Chicago_Strong_Blackhawks_Stanley_Cup_thg_130614_wgThen the guys at Cubby Tees responded, offering some kind of apology that wasn’t really an apology, just a self-serving attempt to make themselves as the victims of the entire affair.  But they kind of had a point, they argued that this is sports, and in sports, there are rivalries.  And when there are rivalries, there is a competition of wit, idiocy (ok, I said that, they didn’t) and so on.

And yet, the kind of furor that erupted after the sign in Toronto and the t-shirt in Chicago was predictable.  The guy in Toronto should’ve seen it coming, so, too, should have Cubby Tees.  Both were in incredibly bad taste.  The Boston Globe published an editorial comment a week ago decrying the co-opting of the “Boston Strong” slogan by sports fans (amongst others), claiming that it diminished from the slogan’s original point, which was “the victims of the bombing, now rebuilding their lives; the law enforcement efforts during the manhunt; the decision, by athletes and organizers, to run the Marathon in 2014.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, but it’s also bad logic.  The Boston Strong rallying cry has obviously spread to sports, and it’ll spread to music and festivals all summer long.  And when the Dropkick Murphys play, whether in Boston or anywhere else, there’ll be people in the crowd chanting the slogan or they’ll have it on posters.  Why? Because the Bruins and the Dropkicks are ambassadors of Boston.  Both the punk band and the hockey team market a brand that makes Boston a tough, intimidating place (in reality, it’s nothing of the sort), and that’s an image that Bostonians like, and are proud to project around North America and beyond.  The Bruins represent the city and the fans of the Bruins put their hopes, their energy, their money into supporting the team in cheering them on to victory.  When the Bruins lost last night, Claude Julien, the coach, told reporters that he was disappointed in part because it would’ve been nice to bring the Cup back to Boston to help in the healing from the bombings.

It was always going to be the case that “Boston Strong” would become a rallying cry for Bruins’ fans.  They’re Bostonians, and the Bruins are their team, their representatives.  The Globe missed the point of professional sports; sports are meant as a distraction, as a means of turning our attention from reality.  It’s worth noting that back in September 2001, the NFL season was meant to start the weekend after 9/11.  Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner of the NFL at the time, immediately cancelled the games that weekend out of respect.  It was the obviously correct choice to make.  But then-president George W. Bush inveighed upon Tagliabue to reinstate the games, Americans needed the distraction.

Sports are more about identity as much as anything else for spectators and fans.  And thus, it should be no surprise to anyone, lest of all the Globe that “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry for the Bruins, just as it was for the Celtics, as it is for the Red Sox, and will be for the Patriots when their season starts up in the fall.

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