Monday, June 29, 2009

Nazem Kadri and the Hockey Reflex

It might be a stretch, but whatthehell.

The way some media portrayed the Leafs drafting Nazem Kadri, a young man who is Muslim, might be a symptom of what a friend calls the Hockey Reflex. It's an umbrella term for a much larger identity crisis which envelops the national obsession. Canada is evolving faster than ever as a nation, albeit not in ways that can be 100% anticipated. That has stoked angst hockey will one day concede some of centre stage to other sports. If that happens (stress, if), it will be because it is cost-prohibitive and a sport of the middle class, which has been shrinking for more than 20 years.

Please bear in mind this is not directed at any individual. It's more of an attempt, as someone on the outside, to try to figure out what is at the heart of the Saturday Star describing Kadri as a "symbol of change" (beat writer Kevin McGran's story) and a sign "the cultural tectonic plates of the GTA just shifted a little bit." (Damien Cox's accompanying column.) The Globe & Mail also got in on the act ("The new face of the good ol' hockey game"). Here you thought the Leafs drafted Kadri because they thought he might be a potential 35-goal scorer whom you can already see skating on a line someday with Taylor Hall. Suspend your disbelief and presume that Leafs GM Brian Burke is waiting for next year to make a big move to snag a phenom from the OHL, instead of just talking about it so much).

Kazem being Muslim is part of the story, certainly. One could not get away with not noting it when only one other Muslim, early-2000s journeyman Ramzi Abid, has played semi-regularly in the NHL (68 games). There are certainly fans who are going to identify with a player who's of a similar background to them, or commit it to memory like his height, weight and junior team (case in point: On Newsday's blog item about Kington Frontenacs forward Ethan Werek being drafted by the New York Rangers, the first comment makes reference to Werek being a "dual Canadian-Israeli citizen").

This comes back to the Jason Whitlock saying that social agenda does not trump truth. One way to get away from a loaded word such as "agenda" is to say that labelling and packaging — Leafs draft Muslim player! — should not stand in for honest dialogue.

Think about it. It as if there is a nettle tugging at the heart that mandates reassuring people that newer Canadians are taking up the game en masse, even when they are not. It comes off as a Hail Mary, hoping there something will just magically happen to off-set trends which are working against sustaining the elitist youth hockey model in Canada.

That would include, off the top of one's head, urbanization, an aging population, the decline of the manufacturing sector in smaller Ontario centres (if the family breadwinner now works at a big-box instead of on an assembly line, it will be tougher to afford new skates for little Logan) and last but not least, the fact the cost of youth hockey is divorced from sanity. You can only count on families being willing to make a sacrifice for so long.

However, The Globe's Jeff Blair had a point when called BS on the Kadri coverage in his Monday column, writing, "Look, I like to sing Kumbaya as much as anybody but it's a stretch to see anything remotely altruistic behind the Maple Leafs drafting a Muslim player of Lebanese descent. Really." The Star, once it had time to flesh out a sober second thought, moved from "symbol of change" stuff to following up with a story headlined, "Immigrants won't flock to hockey for Nazem Kadri." The money quote probably came from minor hockey organizer named Paul Maich:
"We are still not seeing the numbers from the visible minorities that represent the percentages in the local population. I really don't think the short term effect will be that great but I'd like to be proven wrong."
Not to presume anything of some random minor hockey guy, but I'd like to be proven wrong is not far off from, It'd be nice, but I'm not gonna actually make an effort.

Point being, citing Kadri as a "symbol of change" is unfair. This is not out of concern for Kadri. It's presumed he has the head on his shoulders to handle being a hyped-up high draft pick and a Leafs prospect from Southern Ontario, plus being the team's first Muslim. That's for the Leafs and sports psychologists to handle.

The unfair part with some of the Kadri coverage is that it wrongly assumes a person who is a visible minority needs that role model. It's a little too close to the old liberal canard, add-minorities-and-stir. It is pandering. Just because your parents were born in another country does not you need a role model to get into a sport.

We can all find it on our own. Many already do this in Canada. The demographics of a Leafs crowd are distinctly different from Toronto's other teams, but it's a far cry from what it looked like at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s and '80s. People from all walks of life are discovering hockey in Canada since it is the No. 1 sport, although it's overcovered. (There is even a side point that having the world junior here almost every year might be a good entry point, since it's the most publicized hockey event whose format is similar to the World Cup, with group play followed by knockout rounds. That is just a personal observation.)

The Kadri-to-the-Leafs love-in glosses over a larger truth. No matter what your cultural makeup is, you play a sport because there is an opportunity. It's like the riff Chris Rock did on blacks dominating U.S. sports — "and as soon as we get a heated hockey rink, we'll have that too!" (Oddly enough, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's story about the Thrashers drafting Evander Kane did not mention that Kane is black.)

Opportunity hinges on the values of one's family, community and society's ability to pay. On a macro level in Canada, that means there is a push to keep men's hockey on the front burner, even to neglect of other sports, which has passed the point of satire. Meantime, the way it works in this country is that if you want to be great at a sport, your family is expected to go out-of-pocket (unless said sport has a very thin field at the Winter Olympics).

That puts hockey beyond the means and interests of many families, pure and simple. That dictates a day is coming when the drop-off between No. 1 and whatever is the No. 2 sport will shrink. Exercising the Hockey Reflex only prolongs the inevitable.

(As a footnote, some recent examples of the Hockey Reflex. It is a gross generalization, to be fair, but you can see it in the sports section every day.

You can see at play with Canada Basketball having to scrap its successful beyond belief National Elite Development Agency or the fact our national women's basketball team's summer schedule is being subsidized by China and Cuba. Dave Feschuk, writing in the Toronto Star, noted sarcastically, "Thank goodness for Communists."

It's even prevalent within hockey. Earlier this month, posted a story headlined, "Hockey schmoozers to gather at Olympic centre" which outlined how there will be a 80,000-square-foot entertainment and hospitality complex for rich folks and hockey players to hobknob during the Olympics.

On the same day, no less, the Calgary Olympic Oval scrapped its women's hockey program where national team mainstays such as Cherie Piper, Gina
Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod, Colleen Sostorics, Delaney Collins, Tessa Bonhomme and Gillian Ferrari train. At least the schmoozers' needs are being addressed, eh!

As a second post-draft footnote, for any Sennies fans — love the choice of Jared Cowen — did you see this from the Columbus Dispatch:
"It's hard to believe how far the Ottawa Senators have fallen, and how fast they went from Stanley Cup runner-ups to one of the most dysfunctional clubs in the NHL.")
Newest Leaf's hockey-mad home; Kadri's father made sure son could play the sport his own parents couldn't afford for him (Kevin McGran, Toronto Star)
Immigrants won't flock to hockey for Nazem Kadri; New face of Leafs might help introduce the sport, but cost still a big factor (Lois Kalchman, Toronto Star)


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eyebleaf said...

I don't really care whether Kadri's drafting to the Leafs starts a movement, but I'm all for more ethnic representation. I'm glad he's joined the good side. He's a great hockey player. The fact that he's ethnic is just icing on the cake.


Dennis Prouse said...

Not trying to be argumentative, but that whole, "death of the middle class" meme is, at best, up for debate. Toronto is not Canada -- minor hockey numbers are very robust in the rest of the country. In Ottawa, they are having a difficult time keeping up with demand for ice time. In addition, if in fact immigrant kids aren't playing hockey, you would have a hard time proving it by looking at the roster of a South End MHA team. There are an absolute ton of Somali kids playing hockey there.

sager said...


That is good to hear, since it proves the point ... people flocked to hockey because they had ability to pay and it was the main sport, socially prestigious.

Ottawa could be more an exception to the rule. It's a growing city. However, in areas with less population density, you're starting to see minor hockey associations merge. Not a good sign.

sager said...

Another point. No doubt there are a ton of children playing from families which have come over from Somalia in the last 15-20 yeas.

The proof is in how many move up to elite travel teams.

It's the same principle that you apply to the youth soccer people. They might hbe the No. 1 participatory sport, but what is the retention level after kids hit age 13-15 and develop broader interests?

Dennis Prouse said...

The issue of retention is always challenging in that 13-15 age bracket, regardless of the sport. My son, a 12 year old goalie, would love to play rep, but hasn't made it yet. I told him he will probably make it in the next couple of years, as his peers start dropping out one by one.

I can only go by what I see in our local minor hockey association, though, where the number of Bantam teams last year was the same as the number of Peewee teams. At the rep level, there was only one less Bantam team than at Peewee. I found that surprising, to be honest. We will see what our numbers look like this year.