Throughout my time as a sports fan, I’ve managed to compartmentalize hockey and politics. I’m not an apolitical person. I have opinions. I vote. I volunteer for a political party. I donate to causes. And up until recently, I’ve been able to maintain the illusion of hockey as a closed system.
Two teams comprised of players of varying skill take part in a game contained within static rules and yet affected by haphazard degrees of chance. Anything can happen, and yet the outcome is rarely in dispute. A bouncing puck can make the difference between immortality and becoming a footnote in the history books, and yet the score, when all is said in done, is unchangeable, objective, statistical fact. The political and economic conditions at the time are beside of the point.
This sentiment has become irreconcilable with reality in the age of 45, He Whose Name Will Not Appear On This Blog. Reality demands that we not retreat into fantasy. This presents a problem for hockey, whose featureless visage promises uncomplicated enjoyment, a workmanlike disinterest in activism.
In other words, hockey is a kind of reality television show. The biographical details of players and their long road to the NHL are subsumed into the primal story of apolitical competition. The Cup is a largely arbitrary award handed out to the team that was both good and lucky. Hockey games – especially in the age of parity – emphasize the drama of what’s happening right in front of you, not the world at large or of history.
But now that there’s a reality television star in the White House, everything feels at the same time deeply meaningful and meaningless. The boundaries between our compartmentalized politics and entertainment are breaking down. Hockey, which is good at making meaningless, arbitrary competition feel meaningful, should know how to operate in this space. It should, in other words, know how to roll with it. Instead, it’s fumbled its way through the last week. It’s insisted that hockey is never about politics, and in so doing has emphasized the part of its personality that is stodgy, traditionalist, and anachronistic.
Of course, hockey has never been truly apolitical. The You Can Play campaign attempts to reduce homophobia in hockey. The dispute over public financing of arenas has cropped up again in Calgary. A number of NHL players have been accused of sexual harassment and assault of women. Don Cherry used Coach’s Corner for years to espouse conservative perspectives, often lightly tinged with xenophobia. As in all things, we see both the machinations of money, power, and marginalization and the need to identify those machinations using political speech.
And yet the NHL seems to insist that one can simply choose to be apolitical. Beyond its players’ involvement in charitable foundations and projects for causes already enjoying broad support, the culture of hockey seems to emphasize the cohesion of the unit and almost militaristic deference to Team. Hockey, one might argue, requires a greater degree of serene coordination than baseball or basketball. Its players are either not allowed or have never been encouraged to publicly express opinions about important causes for fear of disrupting team harmony. Maybe they don’t have opinions.
This kind of featureless, apolitical vessel for hockey itself is no better personified than by Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, a player whose talent relative to hockey makes him the sport’s LeBron James but without any of the personality. This profile of Crosby describes a person whose life is defined by his utter dedication to playing hockey. He goes home to Nova Scotia in the off-season. He watches sports. He spends his free time getting kids into sports. He took a college course about World War II but found there was too much writing. He hangs out with his parents. He works out. He practices. In this way, Sidney Crosby maintains hockey’s preference for stolid obedience, a kind of ‘aw shucks’ blue collar sensibility that insists on remaining, as Crosby repeatedly puts it, “grounded.”
But the past year has destabilized the apoliticism that hockey players enjoy, and even a 10+-year veteran like Crosby looked uncomfortable. The league was broadly exposed to criticism this last week as the defending champion Penguins visited the White House amid an ongoing dispute between 45 and African-American NFL and NBA athletes. Crosby was exposed to questions of whether his team’s attendance at a White House ceremony was a tacit endorsement of the administration’s highly divisive attitudes and policies. Crosby’s statement served to extend rather than resolve that debate:
“From my side of things, there’s absolutely no politics involved” […] I can’t speak for everyone else, I just grew up under the assumption that that wasn’t something really bred into sports (and) different things,” said Crosby, a native of Nova Scotia, Canada. “Everyone’s got their own view. That’s how I kind of grew up playing hockey. I wasn’t surrounded by that or didn’t have any examples, so I kind of understood it and stayed out of it.”
Many hockey journalists were satisfied with Crosby’s assertion, allowing us as it does to return to the status quo of a new season getting underway. It’s telling, also, that the Sportsnet article from which this quote is pulled made a point of pointing out that Crosby is from Nova Scotia as if to say “why should he have opinions about American politics? What’s happening is happening down there.”
Others, however, found Crosby’s quote a fitting example of white privilege, that to assert that something is apolitical is to describe’s one’s luxury not to have to think about politics. This, despite Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour experiencing race riots in 1989. (These were referenced in the 2015 film Across the Line, about a black hockey player in Nova Scotia.)
I admit to thinking that it’s unrealistic to expect Sidney Crosby to do much more than try to win hockey games when he’s clearly been socialized to only care about winning hockey games. But that he can be both the spokesperson for a professional sports league in the process of a White House visit and be completely bereft of opinions about a racially-charged dispute between professional athletes and the President is weird and alienating and maybe says something about this sport we love. Sidney Crosby doesn’t need to be all things to all people, but his behavior was a reminder that some hockey players are disinterested, privileged white men unmotivated by anything other than hockey. For some fans, that will be enough. For others, it’s not anymore.
Would it have been difficult for the NHL to spend some time covering politically-involved players and charitable activities in the run-up to the White House visit? I suspect it would have. That’s because, for the NHL, it would have been unprecedented to feature that as a characteristic of the league.
In this way, the NHL might learn from the NBA, who’s getting better at allowing players, coaches, owners, general managers and the journalists who cover them to both have an opinion and be able to play the game they love – at the same time! It’s difficult to imagine a hockey coach feeling comfortable holding forth with political opinions the way, say, Gregg Popovich does. It’s difficult to imagine a respected hockey journalist offering an opinion on race. My Twitter feed is a surreal mix of 45-induced protest and hockey commentary. The hockey commentary often feels strangely untouched by politics. That’s because there’s a perception in hockey that that’s not our thing.
Ultimately, the measure of the league’s maturity is not whether it goes from quiet conservatism to vocal progressivism, but whether it’s confident that it can tolerate and survive the expression of a diversity of ideas. It’s time for the NHL to grow from a league of boys who either aren’t allowed or are unwilling to speak to a league of men with the courage and interest in joining the world. If it doesn’t, fans will begin to see hockey the way hockey sees itself: as featureless escapism.