Friday, March 31, 2006

Mr. Hockey is 78 Today!

A long, long time ago – to be precise 78 years to this day - in Floral, Saskatchewan there was born unto a humble immigrant farm couple, a son. Hard work and some of the most incredible gifts any athlete, anywhere ever possessed led young Gordon to the National Hockey League in 1946 and the beginning of a career unlike any other in modern sports history.

I grew up on the South Shore of Montreal and cheering stridently at the old Montreal Forum for Howe and the Red Wings was one of the earliest manifestations of my contrarian disposition – for at that time in the late 1950s, the era of Detroit being at least a strong contender for the mighty Canadiens was pretty well over. Les Habs rolled to five consecutive Stanley Cups and the fact of Detroit having finished first in the league (the Prince of Wales Trophy) was largely eclipsed by Montreal’s achievements. All the more reason for a sawed-off little Anglo curmudgeon-in-training to be bellowing out “Go Gordie Go” amidst the din in the very spiritual core of Quebecois pride (the same epicentre, not long before, of the infamous riots over the suspension of Rocket Richard).

Once a year, just about this time when Detroit would be visiting, I’d take my saved up allowance and blow it on a card and a box of Laura Secord chocolates, then wait excitedly outside the visitor dressing-room at the Forum and pass it to me hero. In return I got my hand shook, my hair tussled and a card of thanks with the Gord’s autograph sometime within the ensuing week.

During the many years I followed Howe’s exploits, I was convinced that he was, as an corny song of the time by Big Bob and the Dollars rang out, “the greatest of them all” (for full lyrics scroll down on this page). Not that there were no other plausible claimants back in that era – Maurice Richard of course comes to mind but also the graceful and gentlemanly Jean Beliveau and the raw
power hawg, Bobby Hull. later, along came Bobby Orr the only player who to this day is the only guy who ever so slightly shook my confidence in Gordie’s primacy although honourable mention in the pantheon of aspirants must also go to the recently departed Mario Lemieux and the now-almost-utterly-forgotten player, Gilbert Perrault.

I have successfully gone several paragraphs without the W-word – Wayne, that is and I am sure the clamouring horde of readers, especially those who have detected in earlier postings a certain antipathy on my part towards Gretzky – are waiting for that skate to drop. Alas, it is not possible, given the ubiquitous oodles of stats and records and the mighty publicity machine that has worked for the past quarter century around this ill-clept “Great One”, to avoid saying precisely why and how Howe was his better, by far.

By way of sliding into this rant, allow me to relate a moment of revelation that came to me while listening to some colour commentator on Hockey Night in Canada. Some player who’d been scoring at a hectic pace at the time was the topic and the frenetic announcer said “Hey, he’s getting the goals and that’s the name of the game.”

No, I spake aloud, goals is not the name of the game: hockey is. This utterly unprofound observation got me to thinking more deeply about the exaltation of individual players on the sole attribute of scoring and how that had become the basis for what today is the seemingly unchallenged mantra about Gretzky being the greatest ever hockey player, i.e. because of his lion’s share of NHL scoring records.

I saw Gretzky play on several occasions in the flesh and, of course, many times on the tube. Seen live, his strategy of avoiding the nitty-gritty work in the corners - the jousting and elbowing and scrambling needed to gain possession of the puck, was pitifully clear. When the play was in his team’s end of the ice, Gretzky would be slowly circling around outside his team’s blueline waiting for a pass from far better all-around players like Messier and Coffey. Once he had the puck, a career-long unwritten but universally understood proscription against so much as brushing up against him would go into effect, enforced, of course, by Sather's stable of oversized brutes.

Indeed it was only when Gretzky came along that the notion so common today arose that superstars were untouchable. Gordie Howe - and the Rocket and the Golden Jet – didn’t get picked on a lot either but it was because they – not otherwise talentless bully-boys – were quite able and willing to demonstrate the consequences of undue aggression that might otherwise inhibit their brilliant play. One need only call to mind what happened to the NHL’s to-that-point lead brawler, Lou Fontinato when he decided to tangle with Howe. That now legendary encounter on February 1,1959 ended with “Leapin’ Louie” in reconstructive facial surgery. The rough and tumble whether in drop-your-gloves donnybrooks, dubiously legal infighting or just darn good clean hard body-checks was something that Howe excelled at in addition to scoring prowess and which Gretzky nimbly avoided for his entire career.

Indeed, it was not only his drooling henchmen and Coach Sather who bought Wayne a lifetime free pass, but complicit referees and their superiors to the highest levels of the NHL. “Aha! A conspiracy theory”, says you, the League allowing, even condoning strong-arm tactics that gave the indisputably offensively talented Gretzky free rein to run up incredible scoring records.

Tripe, you say? Not quite so fast there, my friend. Consider if you will a moment what the benefits were for the NHL to manufacture the myth of Gretzky and the fabrication of so seemingly dominant icon. At a time when the obvious dilution of talent by rapacious expansion would otherwise have been emptying the arenas, the feats of the well-cosseted young Gretzky were the made-to-order remedy. Motive and opportunity there were aplenty to provide the regulatory environment for a seemingly superlative performance. Thus Gretzky’s natural scoring prowess was hugely inflated by the ubiquitous tolerance of his teammates intimidation of opposing players. Gord did his own intimidation which, like it or not, is part of the armoury of the complete player, something Gretzky was never close to being.

Howe was a nonpareil class act off ice as well. His teams missed play-offs and the last thing he would have ever dreamed of was the kind of disgraceful display we saw with Gretzky who dissed his entire team in L.A. in early 1996. Seemed that Wayne felt he deserved a better career ending than with the lowly Kings. Unlike past superstars who quickly figured out that if your team’s not playing well you should lead them out of it, not blubber about being traded. But Gretzky whined until he was indeed traded off to St. Louis (who to my consummate pleasure bombed out of the playoff contention pretty quickly that year, shortly after which Gretzky fittingly got himself traded again into the glitz of Broadway for his discordant swan song).

This sense of entitlement, spurred on no doubt by the self-serving league and press was not some late-career peccadillo but something seen right from day one when Gretzky picked out 99 for his sweater as a rookie. For those who recall the numerology of the original six NHL the message he wanted to send was unmistakable. 9 had been Howe’s number also Maurice Richard’s and, in the final years of his career, Bobby Hull’s. Other original six teams tended to give nine to their highest scorer like Andy Bathgate on the Rangers and Johnny Bucyck on the Bruins. Doubling it up, and choosing a number that could not easily be exceeded across a player’s back was the Whiner's early assertion of being the top dog ever sent out before he even laced up the skates for his pro debut.

Despite this arrogance, so foreign to the famously modest Gord, in the final days in 1994 of this cossetted egotist’s inevitable overtaking of Howe’s scoring record, the Greatest once again showed what a class act he was by following Wayne about good-naturedly to be there to salute the man who’d beat his record whenever and wherever it happened. As difficult as it is to imagine anyone anytime soon approaching Gretzky’s well-oiled scoring records, it’s that much harder to think of the alleged Great One displaying any such magnanimity (just think of how he cut young Crosbie from this year's Olympic squad a thinly veiled and ultimately backfiring strategy to keep the spotlight on himself).

Hockey greatness is not just about racking up points when your bully-boys are there to give you a free pass around perfectly legal body-checking: it’s about doing the whole game well and being an exemplar off the ice in your humility and generosity. Only Orr and possibly Jean Beliveau are contenders of Howe’s in this regard. So HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. HOCKEY!

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Greatest Canadian Hogwash

Following close on the heels of my recent and far from yet finished dissing of Gretzky and his purported greatness, this post may get some of you thinking that I am stuck on the theme of undeserved adulation – a kind of “Let us now flay famous men”! Perhaps. But the more immediate precipitant of the rave here is the sudden spotlight on the late and (I don’t think all that) great Tommy Douglas both on CBC’s Ideas series this week, on an upcoming biopic, Prairie Giant and, worst, in the as-usual inane ads preceding every CBC radio newscast by that ridiculous persona, Promo Girl. (I shall reserve for later a few lyrical lines for that twit and the dumbing down of Canada’s public broadcaster that she reflects and so adds to).

Here I have larger quarry. Idiot Girl’s clips, built entirely on the quivering foundation of the “Greatest Canadian” series CBC ran in 2004, blithely announce Douglas’s alleged status without any explanation for the uninitiated as to where that soubriquet comes from, and then goes on to proclaim that he had “ushered Canada into the modern age”. Oh the swine of our fair land have never been so spotless after hourly dousing with this utter hogwash!

First, let’s have a quick look at that spurious contest itself. Suffice to say that if some banana republic ever picked their leader with anything like the selection methodology CBC stole from BBC , it would be a laughing stock for anyone with a modicum of democratic concern and understanding. Why? At least four reasons:

(a) Nous semblons oublier un petit coin du Canada – the race was not run at all on the sister network, Société Radio-Canada and thus categorically disenfranchised about 25 % of the population, indeed the portion of our citizenry that most avidly listens to either arm of the CBC.

(b) The high-tech version of old-fashioned vote stuffing – there was no real control over who could vote or how many times (given that a determined multiple vote caster can fix himself up with 10 email addresses in about 15 minutes). At least three of the eventual top 50 got there with CBC’s explicit knowledge of this and, no doubt, many others probably did so below the radar screen of the public broadcaster’s lax monitoring.

(c) Unrepresentative “sampling” – or just who is watching/listening any way? Of the less than 50% of English Canadians who regularly listen to the radio, only 1 in 10 chooses CBC and there is a very strong bias within this listenership for university-educated types. Talk of elitism, so contrary to what Douglas himself publicly espoused with his second hand parables of mouseland! As for CBC TV --where the top candidates were formally nominated and profiled at length – and even smaller fraction tuned in on the English network – 7.5% or about 1 in 15 households in 2000-2001 according to the Parliamentary Committee Report, Our Cultural Sovereignty: The Second Century of Canadian Broadcasting.

(d) Last but not least, one must, with admittedly delicious tatutological reasoning, look no further than the outcome to see how biased and, in many a case dog-dumb this Greatest Canadian travesty was: No women in the top 10? Stomping Tom Connors at 13th ? And the coup de grace, Don Cherry up in the number 7 position!?

As for Tommy Douglas and his ushering in of Canada’s modern age, indeed even his much vaunted paternal status vis-à-vis national medicare, today’s electors cum celebrants seem to have forgotten that the man never led a party to more than 17% of the popular vote in Canada, never had the kind of say-so over major advances (if such they be called) in our nation’s society that would merit such claims, in short, was never Prime Minister or even close to.

I well recall (and wish I could locate a copy of) an editorial cartoon by the late Duncan MacPherson of the Toronto Star on the eve of a federal leaders debate. It portrayed the goal of electoral victory as an apple on a boy’s head a la William Tell (the boy stood for the bemused Canadian voter). Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker were very nervously lining up their shots while, dressed appropriately as a jester, Douglas was merrily aiming wildly between his legs while looking in another direction from the fearful boy. MacPherson’s well-taken point was that canny Tommy, fully knowing the zero possibility of hitting the target of a winning mandate could do and say anything he wished – which is precisely what he (and the long string of successor NDP leaders) always did. He had the luxury of promising and promoting whatever sounded most progressive and admirable because the truly hard work of legislating and implementing anything was never going to fall in his lap.

Even in what is supposed to be his halcyon achievement - universal free medical care in Saskatchewan – the predominance of his role is open to question or, at least, moderation. The concept sprung into existence in – of all places – Alberta in the formative convention of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. Universal health insurance was a plank in its inaugural manifesto germinating from the real grassroots of prairie farmers rather than then-youthful Tommy's eye twinkles.

Almost completely unsung - lost indeed in the glitzy acclamation of Douglas as medicare's originator - no doubt now much abetted by the even greater acting achievements by and tributes from his grandson, Kiefer Sutherland - were the tireless, politically unrewarded, efforts of the likes of Norwegian immigrant dirt farmer, Matthew Anderson who successfully pushed Regina legislators to enable local government sponsored health insurance plans. After his earlier and significant pioneering work, Anderson went back to the farm and into undeserved obscurity, all the more so due to the blaring overstatement of Douglas's role.

Douglas became the first CCF leader to win electoral victory in Saskatchewan in 1944. Despite Tommy’s five successive majorities in that province, it was not until 1962, 18 years later and after Douglas left the increasingly hot kitchen of Saskie medicare battles in the hands of his successor, Woodrow Lloyd, for his foray in national politics, that the dream of fully free hospital care for all that province’s citizens was realized. Indeed, it was that now mostly forgotten successor who held the line in the face of mobs of irate and striking physicians in the summer of ’62. If Douglas was “father” of at least Saskatchewan medicare, no doubt mightily enjoying the act of procreation and the kudos when the prodigal child reached fame, it was poor forgotten Lloyd who went through the labour, birthing and struggling infancy, while dead-beat “Dad” took off for Ottawa.

By 1967, vociferously applauded but hardly led by Douglas, the Liberal Government passed national medicare. Unquestionably the former Saskatchewan Premier’s commitment to universalize medical care back in Regina, two decades before, was powerfully influential. But to exalt Douglas’s supporting role to the top podium and thereby overlook others' central roles -- John Diefenbaker whose Hospital Insurance and Diagnostic Services Act started cost shared medical insurance across Canada, Justice Emmett Hall whose powerful Royal Commission detailed the need and mechanisms for medicare and Lester Pearson and Paul Martin sr. who enacted the 1966 Medical Care Act that made it happen -- is grossly unfair.

To attribute to Douglas, as Idiot Girl’s clips do, the advances, such as they were, on human rights, multiculturalism and, of course, medicare that unfolded in Ottawa during the time that he led the third or fourth ranking party in Parliament, is a distortion of history that those of us actually alive and aware at the time would find purely laughable – were it not for the insufferable burst of adulation, including the ominously looming biopic (A CBC-funded which a cynic might say may help to explain the glorious excretia of the also CBC-produced Greatest Canadian series), that we are now having to abide.

How easily does historical fact blur to vague rememberings and thence to utter myth. We older Canadians had no fewer than four chances to decide just how great Douglas was, not in some ill-conceived, poorly managed and elitist popularity contest but in the national elections of 1962, 1963, 1965 and 1968 when we gave the "Prairie Giant" a consistent and resounding thumbs down.