Michael Peterman: Canada and the international hockey world
That winter, Canadian unity showed itself in a remarkable way – it was a two-week drama of high-spirited junior hockey performed in Moncton, NB and Halifax, NS
Belatedly chosen to replace Moscow as the venue for the 2023 Canadian Junior Championship, the two lake cities, which are about two hours apart by highway, hosted the games and made all participants feel welcome, comfortable and well looked after. They made every game special.
Canadian television did an excellent job of bringing the entire 10-team tournament to the nation and to other countries wanting to see the competition and all the post-Christmas hockey hype.
The coverage was Canadian through and through, treating less competitive games like Latvia versus Austria with the same kind of respect and enthusiasm as high-profile games like Canada versus Finland.
While Canada retained their title by beating a superb Czech team 3-2 in overtime, the real winner was the hockey game itself.
Indeed, hockey was in dire need of a boost to recover from the many months of troubling revelations about previous junior teams and the cover-up strategies of Hockey Canada, the regulator, following these troubles.
Many Canadians were deeply concerned by the disclosures of gang sexual assault by as yet unnamed players and secret financial payouts to victims by Hockey Canada.
In such a conflicted situation, it was refreshing and encouraging to anticipate competition on the ice that was both rigorous and dramatic. Characterized by surprising surprises; The entire tournament was competitive and developed its own internal drama.
The winner was the hockey game itself, with Canada at the forefront and taking center stage as venue, host country and preferred participant. For decades I’ve mostly enjoyed watching the tournament and have often told people it’s the premier winter sports event in North America. Admittedly, there is a lot of competition for this position, but I remain convinced that few events deliver such a comprehensive and rich quality product as the World Junior Championships, wherever the tournament is held.
As a developing country, Canada continues to struggle with identity issues – we want to know who we are and what makes us significant as a nation. Together we engage in an ongoing debate about what it means to be Canadian, and we worry about how united we really are as a country. The inescapable fact is that we are a deeply regional nation, driven by vastly different geographic experiences and social agendas. What an Albertan wants is very different from the aspirations of seafarers or those living in the Northern Territories. We have few compelling narratives and stories that bind us together. It is a challenge to ask what binds the many different parts of the country together and inspires Canadians, for example in Ontario or British Columbia, to support or sympathize with other regions thousands of miles away. So, in that sense, hockey is important. Meanwhile, beyond our borders looms the big bad outside world of conflicting political agendas and pressing economic needs.
As a sports fan and Canadian nationalist, I am often disturbed by loud voices of alienation within the country. I tried to give some validity to the “Freedom Convoy” with its unprecedented blockade of downtown Ottawa and the American border crossings.
I regularly struggle with Quebec’s quest for protective language and culture laws, though I admire those efforts.
And like many of you, I realize that there are wrongs in the country that need to be righted, particularly the importance of recognizing and supporting the struggle for indigenous rights.
Overall, I am deeply dismayed at what amounts to a continued fragmentation of Canada’s federal identity.
As the depths of winter approached in December, I found both joy and hope at the World Junior Championships. They began on Boxing Day and lasted through the first week of January.
While I, like many other fans, expect a good performance from the Canadian team, I always appreciate every win over the American team as a sign of special achievement. But what really impressed me this time was the improved quality of play from the 10 participating countries and the sustained level of competition throughout the tournament.
The big gap between the elite teams – Canada, USA, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic – and the smaller teams (Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Latvia, Austria) – narrowed noticeably. In fact, this year Slovakia have emerged as a top-flight team, beating USA in round robin and leading Canada to a heartbreaking overtime in the quarterfinals.
In fact, the competition was strong from game to game; Early on, most teams enjoyed high expectations as they set out to prove themselves. The on-ice product was exciting and refreshing, an emotional step up from the quality of the usual and often boring National Hockey League Christmas deals.
Along with Team Canada’s victory in the overtime final and the exceptional play of 17-year-old Connor Bedard, the tournament was a validation of our country and our often beleaguered but robust hockey culture.
As vigilant citizens, we had much to be proud of – the game itself, the quality of the competition, the wonderful maritime hospitality, and our national pride in Team Canada and their accomplishments. We did everything we set out to do and we did it very well.
But after writing so positively about the tournament, I had to put aside the ongoing issues that have so worried many Canadians over the past few months. Complaints have been mounting at high political levels and continue to be raised as I write this.
I’m not trying to apologize for such behavior, but I do acknowledge that hockey has for decades been allowed to hide a toxic male culture that values winning at all costs and honors those who preside over this dark and self-serving arena world.
It would take a book or three to try to define this toxicity, but I can say that during my own active days in the 1950s and 1960s I did my best to avoid this culture. And lacking in speed and skill, I was able to do so with some grace and carve out my own path on my own terms.
I’m just saying that a world that values male strength and superiority over social responsibility and intelligence is a world I was quick to avoid. And it’s still present at rinks across the country as players hit puberty — it includes such rudeness as bullying, practical jokes, embarrassing tests for beginners, and most importantly, belittling women through words and deeds.
The cover-up of Canadian players’ illegal behavior during past junior tournaments and, more disturbingly at a higher, more responsible level, Hockey Canada’s refusal to deal directly with these issues have cost the game dearly.
But ice hockey has two different sides – on the one hand the wonderful, fast and dancing game that I love, and on the other hand its dark, rough and sometimes poisonous underbelly. I stand by the game that was shown so vividly this winter in Moncton and at the Scotiabank Center in Halifax.
It was a joy to watch and a joy to look at. It was clear that the game would remain in our country in its best form and continue to grow.
The junior tournament is a reminder of how passionate and loyal Canadians are to the game.
The maritime audience made that very clear – “Heave away, me jollies, heve away.”