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Opinion ‘We the North’: How Canada's preoccupation with hockey has changed

Picked up the sports section of a newspaper the other day and was greeted by an irritating headline: "The Year that Hockey Died."

Increasingly, we've seen these doomsday stories about our national sport. They're exaggerated, of course. The sport is nowhere near the netherworld. The NHL is doing fine. TV contracts are big. The game – check the Pittsburgh-Washington series – still offers dramatic entertainment. Ottawa is putting up a new arena. The Toronto Doormats (Maple Leafs) have just won the draft rights to a superstar. Chances are they will be revived in this millennium.

So where does all the codswallop, all the stories about hockey's demise come from? They come from immigration patterns which have seen millions arriving in Canada from cultures where hockey is barely heard of. They come from melting ice caps, a dwindling number of backyard rinks, falling enrolments in hockey youth programs.

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They come from hockey being far more expensive than other sports; from its turn from a blue-collar sport to a rich kids' one. They come from the steep rise of basketball and soccer. They come from no Canadian teams in the playoffs, no Canadian Stanley Cup winner since the last century and problems endemic to the ice game, such as lack of scoring and frightening head injuries.

That's a lot of come froms – and there's another one. They come from comparisons to what hockey used to be and what it used to mean to this country. In this respect, as with other reasons, there is merit in the down talk. That the "We the North" slogan is about basketball, not hockey, tells us something.

In the context of its celebrated history, our national sport is clearly past its prime, clearly on the decline. Hockey's heyday was the Cold War era, 1950 to 1990. It was then that, like rugby in South Africa, like cricket in the West Indies, hockey became an identity sport, occupying a role in society much grander than that of a game.

Not only was the sport a foremost Canadian cultural force but a political weapon, the several hockey series against the Soviet Union serving as proxy wars, pitting value systems against one another. The viscerally Canadian game was a critical source of patriotism, of nationalism. It was a builder and binder of the country.

With the passing of the evil empire, the international competitions no longer have the meaning they did. With the aging of the country the old debates about a Canadian identity are passe. With the new make-up of the population, the interest in and the passion for hockey isn't the same.

Other sports make inroads because they are more in tune with the immigrant population, because they are much cheaper, because Canadians are getting better at them.

Steve Nash's winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player honours in the U.S.-dominated National Basketball Association was a stunning achievement. We're now producing superior roundball players in significant number. As good as our national women's hockey team is, it's the national women's soccer team that occupies a larger place in the public consciousness.

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We're still good at the ice game but hardly getting better. Megastars move the needle and our hockey hasn't produced them. Amazingly, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux scored more than twice as many points in a season as the top players now. With today's 40-second shifts, players are lucky to get a touch of the puck before being called back to the bench.

As former Ottawa Senators' great Daniel Alfredsson says, the game lacks individuality and creativity due to over-structuring beginning in the junior ranks.

But Canadian hockey's bigger problems lie in the larger trends of population change, cultural change, climate change. The zeitgeist is with other sports. While hockey will continue as a major one, it will no longer be viewed as what someone called "the marrow of Canadian life."

The 20th century belonged to hockey. The 21st won't. In that the game is no longer needed as an identity builder, we'll survive its decline.

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