Over the past few months we’ve started an important national discussion on immigration, a discussion which has been especially robust here on this blog. But for this post I wanted to look at immigration from a different lens, stepping away from the overarching themes of humanitarianism and the pressing issues is Syria and South Sudan. Instead I’m going to examine rules/laws on immigration, as well as national pride, patriotism, and competitiveness through the much lighter filter of sports.
The backstory for this begins in 2014 when Hockey Canada, the sports governing body in Canada, made the unprecedented move of banning international goaltenders from playing in the CHL (international in this case means non-Canadian or non-American). The CHL is the top level of junior hockey in Canada, it consists of three sub-leagues and produces the majority of NHL players and draft picks. While the CHL and other junior leagues have long had restrictions on the number of import players a team is allowed to roster, classifying goaltenders differently than other import players and subsequently banning them was an entirely new development.
The ban was a largely motivated by two factors: continued frustration and goaltending woes for Canada’s junior national teams, and an ever-dwindling percentage of Canadian goaltenders in the NHL. Of course there were many other factors involved, including better goaltending development systems in countries like Sweden and Finland, and other countries’ providing better avenues for goaltenders to mature and work with coaches.
While this is only a sports issue, and it affects and incredibly small number of people, the move was still described as xenophobic and shortsighted by many commentators. And this is where the similarities to other immigration debates start to begin. Hockey Canada Executives and supporters justify the ban for very similar reasons to those we hear against immigration and refugees here in America. They say that allowing foreign goalies to play in the CHL means that spots in a league developed, paid for, and supported by Canadians are being wrongfully taken from those good ol’ Canadian boys. Whats worse is that theses foreign goaltenders get access to valuable resources like elite coaches and exposure to NHL teams, and then they compete against Canada in international tournaments. This brings me to my next point on the role of national pride and identity in immigration.
I think its very safe to say that hockey is more than just a sport in Canada, its a matter of national pride, national identity, and being the best. Canadians love the NHL but professional hockey pales in importance to international tournaments like the Olympics and even World Juniors (an annual competition featuring the world’s best u-20 players). Despite their recent dominance Canadians worry, or even fear, that other countries will continue chipping away at their status of the worlds premier hockey nation. And even a single great goaltender can go a long way towards this. Almost every major upset in international hockey is the result of really really good goaltending. Examples of this include Jim Craig stealing Olympic gold for the US in 1980, and Dominik Hasek taking over the entire 1998 tournament to win gold for the Czech Republic.
While hockey is obviously a much less serious international issue, it does have significant resemblances and parallels to many fears we hear about immigrants today. One doesn’t have to go far into the web of American news and social media to hear about how immigrants undermine our culture and the things that make America great while living of the welfare of others. Furthermore the fear that a single refugee could by themselves undermine our national security via terrorism has its obvious parallels in the hockey universe as well. But just like other immigrants, foreign goaltenders have their own domestic proponents who champion the benefits of inclusion and diversity. Many coaches argue that bringing in foreign goaltenders helps Canada develop better players by forcing them to play against better competition. And many Canadian goaltending coaches say that they learn a lot from cultural exchanges with foreign goaltenders.
Whichever way you come down on Hockey Canada’s ban, or immigration issues in general, I hope that this article was helpful in viewing things from a new perspective.