Wednesday, May 23, 2007

City states and hockey

I know I am risking being instantenously labelled as jumping on the Sens bandwagon (while I don't even profess to being a regular Sens fan) but this Stanley Cup fever has awakened something more fundamental than just sports fandom or old-style civic pride..and it's strong enough of a factor that it bears some analysis, from the 'geek chair'.

The 'home team' has many meanings. They are imprecise but highly intuitive and understood by every kid. In a small town or somewhere with an OHL or other minor league franchise, most of the players are truly the hometown boys. It's a shared gene pool of hockey talent, a shared culture, an ethos. The stuff of classic Canadiana. Small town Saskatchewan derby - Estevan versus Moose Jaw. Bobby Orr with the missing teeth, Phil Esposito playing in the minors with the Soo Greyhounds. Higher up, you have the other archetypal story, that of the out-of town wonder kid being accepted in the new town, Sidney Crosby putting the Rimouski Atlantique on the hockey map of the world.

And then you have the even larger, heroic-type figures - Mario Lemiux in the Pittsburgh setting is a good example (player, owner, probably a franchise saviour). Messier in Edmonton is another one.

And yet franchises these days, especially in the NHL, have very little to do with local identity. How many Ottawa-valley guys are there on the Senators' roster, right? Or - for that matter, what is the percentage of Canadian players on some of the NHL teams? The teams are so internationalized, so cosmopolitan, and so populated with transient players, especially since the mid-90s, that it is difficult for any kind of local identity politics (our boys are better than your boys) to enter into the whole practice and language of fandom. If anything, the teams have become micro-niches for certain kind of import players plying their trade in N. America - sometimes mirroring the coaches' preference for varying styles of hockey. Also, players know players they'd grown up with and will put in a good word for their former hometown buddy. Thus you get the Swedish-dominated line up of Detroit, a high number of Czechs on the NY Rangers current roster...and the 2004 Cup-winning Tampa Bay squad which was so full of Quebec players it might as well have been a Montreal team.

So, with locality, nationality, language and all kinds of other easily politicized factors out of the picture, what is left - or rather what is left of the identity, the rootedness of a franchise, of the 'hometown club'? Is it the style of play? Is it a simple temporary belonging to the city where the player might be hanging his hat - for the moment? Or is it deeper?

My father used to compare Canadian big cities to the old city states of renaissance Italy. With the hinterlands devoid of opportunities and the big cities sucking in more and more population, capital and 'idea quotient', it's perhaps a fitting comparison. A city big and smart enough will eventually attract enough talent (should it focus on it) to excel in various fields. Thus hockeytowns and football towns - not unlike cities with IT clusters or car part makers or foundries or paper products, or with a damn good ballet company. It all becomes a function of the increasingly corporate-dominated, branded process of inter-city competition. A good hockey club is just one card in a suite featuring things like industry, conventions, tourism or arts. 'We're big enough, therefore we should have an NHL team'. Tell that to Winnipeg...

The Ottawa Senators is actually a fitting example of the city state behaviour. The Sens embody the city of Ottawa's personality on a hockey stage. We want them to matter. Take care of business but somehow not offend too many others in the process. Lacking in the religious fervor of the Habs-Leafs rivalry, not quite possessed of the mystique of the 80s-era Oilers, not rushing into hedonistic celebrations a la the Calgary Flames 'red mile' (think Girls gone Wild videos)...not accompanied by contentious history and bad-ass reputation like Philly, and definitely not equal in statue to the long-term classic teams such as Boston and Detroit...Ottawa is still the new kid on the NHL block, still in its formative years, still enduring a lot of growing pains and forced to reckon with many a naysayer in its hometown.

With so much stacked against the Sens actually developing a solid hockey personality as a club (never mind individual talent, that can be bought and sold) and with so much in Ottawa's city personna that does not encourage an all-out, rambunctious celebration of Ottawahood. it is actually a wonder the Sens are finally in the final. And it is nice to see.


Umar said...

I think the biggest surprise is not that the Sens are in the finals, but that people actually streamed out onto Elgin St., figured out - hey, let's go for a walk, and then paraded, some with faux Stanley Cups, onto Parliament Hill. That just doesn't fit in with the persona of Ottawa.

Maybe the somewhat mild manner of the crowd in doing so does, however. It was far from a dangerous crowd (perhaps the conclusion of the match at 5:30 had something to do with that), and was extremely civilized. Even drivers stuck in the "parade"-related traffic didn't seem to mind all that much...

joncormier said...

It's not the fans that suck, it's the ability of our "leaders" to capture that energy and really pump it up and go for broke.

This is a hockey town like any other, if not moreso because us fans need to make these impromptu celebrations when nobody else will. The same parade and singing happened the last time our hockey team won gold at the Olympics - clue in people, we need to put up the jumbo-tron where people will go every time we win something.

It ain't splitting the atom here.