Nature or Nurture: A Tale of Culture and Hockey

Posted by Drew Mindell in Editorials on April 11, 2009 — 7 Comments
The American captain refrained from mocking the Norwegian captain during the ceremonial puck drop

The American captain refrained from mocking the Norwegian captain during the ceremonial puck drop

I recently had the opportunity to head down to Fargo (the long way thanks to overland flooding) to attend some World U-18 games with an acquaintance that had some passes. We saw the Canada-Germany game, followed by the USA-Norway game. As you would expect, both Canada and the US demolished their opponents. That was about the last similarity I saw between the two teams. What follows is a very specific comment on the differences in hockey culture between the two countries. As a disclaimer, I am Canadian and am not an America-hater (effectively barring me for life should I ever want to work at the CBC). My only purpose in writing this commentary is to point out how I think kids should carry themselves when they are an ambassador for their country and for hockey.

The Canadians, who after their traditional slow start entered the second period tied 1-1 with Germany, put on a display of both physical and finesse hockey for the final two periods. The players made crisp passes, finished their checks all over the ice and quietly celebrated goal after goal with a reserved nature not often found in 17 year old boys. Even the Canadian fans that had made the drive were reserved in their applause, with the odd mother letting out a whoop when her boy scored.

Team USA also started slow against the Norwegians, who despite being down 2-0 halfway through the game were at least putting up a fight (their goaltender was spectacular for stretches). The talent of the Americans finally wore them down and the floodgates opened and Team USA started filling the back of the net at an alarming rate. Unlike the Canadians, Team USA celebrated every goal like it was a Game 7 OT winner, mobbing the goal scorer, and often falling down in a pig-pile. I realize it must be terribly exciting representing your country in international play, but this team is together all year, and often travels to overseas competitions. They have all been there before. I am not one of those anti-celebration guys that jump on Ovechkin for his emotional responses, but he scores goals against the best players in the world.

The actual play was no better. Most of the team looked like they were concerned with getting their name on the score sheet, teammates be damned. One kid actually passed the puck to himself on breakout (off the boards) instead of making an outlet pass to an open man. Kids would drive the net 1 on 3 instead of moving the puck forward and would take shots from impossible angles. All of this stuff is really not a big deal, and may be more coaching than anything.

However, what I found particularly troubling was that when the US went up 6-0, the American players started chirping the Norwegians and pointing to the scoreboard. This stuff just shouldn’t happen at this level, especially when you consider that Team USA is comprised of some of the best talent in America (and they are supremely skilled) and the Norwegians are basically a good AAA team. If something inside you wants to taunt a team like that, you have a problem.

Lest you think the teams are only different on the ice, let me dispel that myth for you. In between games, I was a bystander on a few conversations my acquaintance had with some staffers at the arena. They told stories about how one guy had his son at the rink with him, a nine year old that loves hockey. He took his son downstairs to ask Team USA if he could be the stick boy at practice, only to be told that he wasn’t needed and they didn’t allow visitors in their room. Of course the boy was upset, but he made the same offer to Team Canada and they accepted. Not only could he work the practices, but he could help out at games. To me, it seems that if the USA Hockey program was intent on growing the game in America, they would have their players a little more open to fans and future players.

I realize I am cherry picking stories here, and that this is but one day in the life of two hockey teams. I do wonder though if this example is symptomatic of the minor hockey culture in the USA. In talking with friends who work in hockey in the United States, they describe the game south of the border as a “rich kids” sport. Due to the relative lack of arenas, ice time, and hockey programs, the parents tend to be more well off and accessible to driving little Timmy to and fro from games, practices etc. Stories about minor hockey coaches being bribed to give certain players preferential ice time are not uncommon. Does this type of environment breed needy players who feel they are owed something? Are they ever taught the niceties of the game? Is their upbringing the reason why the Americans are notorious for their boorish behaviour in international competition?

Sound off in the comments.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Kyle

    Having traveled to some high level AAA tourneys, I think you may be on to something. However, I am a little more apt to put some blame on the parents. Some of these people are just terrible, and I think it rubs off on the kids after a while. When the kids are constantly stroked by the parents and coaches, its little wonder some of them get an attitude. Not saying this doesn’t happen in Canada, but I think maybe the kids realize that the path to hockey stardom is long and difficult and that they won’t get much help getting there.

    By the by, who is this Norwegian goalie?

  • Bob Roberts

    In my experience, the difference between Americans and Canadians in international hockey competition is that Canadians, with few exceptions, understand that winning at hockey is a team effort.

    Virtually all the players on the Canadian team are the best players (often the captains) on their club team, yet any of them is more than happy to contribute on the fourth line (or even only on the PK) or third defence pairing or as the backup goalie or to ride the pine just to be on the team.

    Would they love to get the top minutes and be the MVP and points leader? Of course, but they want to win more. And besides, the team concept means everyone plays. Rolling four lines wins.

    As for the celebrations after a goal, they know that the goal to really celebrate comes when they raise your flag and you sing “O Canada”. That’s the cake. Everything else is just no-touch icing.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Drew

    Bob, well said. Along the lines of your commentary, look at the named being bandied about for a role as the 4th line for Team Canada in Vancouver. Doan, Morrow, Richards–3 superstars sacrificing the glory for the chance to block shots and win a gold medal for their country.

    Kyle, the Norwegian goalie you asked about is Lars Volden.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Kyle

    Well said indeed Bob. I would like to run down to Fargo to check this out for myself, see if I can get some more info on this.

    Thanks for the info Drew. Pretty good hey?

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com david

    I have to agree with Bob’s comments.

    But I think a large part of the blame lies with the coaches. When your team is up 6-0, it’s time to get your 3rd and 4th lines involved. Let your top lines get some rest. And even if your team is still scoring you don’t allow them to celebrate as if they’ve scored the Stanley Cup game winner.

  • Mikos

    Let’s remember;

    That after their one-win performance in the 1998 Olympic Games the US hockey team broke 10 chairs, emptyed three fire extinguishers, chucked six broken chairs out a fifth-floor window in the Olympic Village at 4 a.m. and awakened several speed skaters who had to compete later that day.

    After all was said and done assistant coach of the U.S. hockey team Lou Vairo said “These are good kids that broke a few chairs”. Doesn’t really sound too contrite.

  • http://www.illegalcurve.com Kyle

    Mikos, remind me to tell you a couple stories about that whole deal in Nagano.