Last week, Penny Oleksiak was crowned Canada's best athlete of the year for 2016. The swimmer, in case you've forgotten her exploits, won four medals for her country at the 2016 Rio Olympics, including one gold. She also broke a junior world record, shares an Olympic record, holds several national records...oh, and by the way is also the first Canadian to win four medals in a single Summer Olympics. Only one Canadian, speedskater Cindy Klassen, has won more medals in a single Olympics ever (in the 2006 Turin Games). She was picked to be the flagbearer of her country at the closure of the games, a signal honour.
She then proceeded to win four medals at the Short Course World Championships in Windsor, ON in front of her home crowd, giving her eight Olympic and world medals in a year.
She's 16, by the way. Did we mention that?
You'd think that most rational people would say that there is no real debate here. Penny Oleksiak was the best athlete in her country this year.
Unfortunately, hockey media is seemingly not all rational. While the vast majority of sports media, including hockey media, reacted with praise and congratulations, this was how some in the NHL media in Canada reacted:
A swimmer who had a good week, vs a hockey player who had the best year by a hockey player almost ever. Really, there was no debate. https://t.co/vJkjTUbuCX— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) December 13, 2016
The tweet linked in that tweet, by the way, was since deleted, but it was basically, "why didn't Sidney Crosby get it?" McGran then doubled down on his bitchiness by taking a shot at the hockey media members who actually recognised Oleksiak:
I love it when all the hockey guys try to prove they're not hockey guys by not voting for the hockey guy at the #LouMarsh— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) December 13, 2016
This was fairly typical of the reaction of a certain section of hockey media - we also had TSN's Dave Naylor saying Oleksiak "could have done better" and Sportsnet's Chris Johnston firing off a (since deleted) tweet wondering how Oleksiak could have got it over Sidney Crosby having his "best year ever" (a year which was only his sixth-best statistically and saw him win the Conn Smythe trophy over the better Phil Kessel while failing to win the NHL's MVP trophy, by the way-strange definition of "best year ever")
Aside from all the problematic issues raised by the hockey media refusing to recognise a female athlete's achievement, and the sheer disrespect shown (ironic in a media corps known for preaching it, most recently in the Gerard Gallant affair in Florida) in referring to a 16-year-old having the best summer Olympics anyone from her country has ever had as "a good week" and even more so saying someone who won four Olympic medals "could have been better", this affair is merely the latest demonstration of the attitude affliction almost unique to hockey and hockey fandom referred to mockingly as "Please Like My Sport syndrome".
Hockey is a sport seemingly riven by its own insecurities when it comes to the way it presents itself. It's obsessed with always showing that it's a game that does things that somehow elevate it above other sports. The most common way of doing this is boasting how hockey players are "tougher" than other sportspeople, which has its own problems in that it propagates and supports a culture that, as we wrote earlier this month, is arguably complicit in killing people. How often have you seen memes comparing the way hockey players deal with injuries to other sports, or heard players lionised for it? This, more than any other, is a trope that the media loves to propagate wherever it can, because it's an easy way to get hockey fandom to like you and drive traffic to your page, as here by Sportscenter:
It's the "because hockey" bit that's most interesting here. That changes the tweet from merely "look what this athlete did" to "this is why this athlete and his sport is the best sport".
It's a trope that can be seen happening right now, in fact - perhaps most obviously in the way hockey talks about basketball and soccer. Now, this is probably partly due to the fact that all are winter sports competing for an audience, but there's also an unsettling subtext of racism or at least stereotyping in the way it's done by some fans. Take a look at this tweet, for instance (which, for avoidance of doubt, is an NBA fan expressing views hockey fans have fired at him, not his own view):
Hockey players fight to honorably protect their teammates, NBA thugs fight because they have no self control. #PleaseLikeMySport— Tribune of the Plebs (@Handsome_Jake_) December 5, 2016
The original tweet that sparked this is since deleted, but it's interesting to see the way that NBA players are often talked about by hockey people (see, for example, the meme that compares LeBron James and Jonathan Toews talking about a title win, which is basically "look how arrogant NBA players are") There's a dangerous undercurrent in the way basketball players are discussed which is mirrored by some of the coded language used in the debates around PK Subban, Josh Ho-Sang and others. It can also be seen in hockey meme Twitter's reaction to Colin Kaepernick protesting and attempting to bring attention to the very real racial issues in American society, with lots of memes like this floating around when that controversy was at its height:
Once again, we're in a situation where hockey is presented as somehow "above" the other sports, and even the same actions are presented as somehow more "noble" when presented by a hockey player. The fact that both the above tweets are also presented at the "expense" of predominantly athletes of colour adds another layer to this particular attitude - one that takes it into very worrying territory. Worrying territory that, as well as racism, is often used as a cover for homo- and transphobia, as here:
Soccer, meanwhile is a particularly fun target for hockey meme makers. The injury meme is one that the "please like my sport" people love to throw at the spot for hockey.
We should get something clear at this point. There is nothing wrong with praising a sport - nothing whatsoever. There's nothing wrong with praising the ability of hockey players or the good things about hockey.
But there is a significant section of hockey fandom (and some sections of hockey media) that seem unable to merely praise their sport. They have to emphasise that their sport is not just a great sport - it is the best sport in every fashion. The whole mention of anything great in hockey can't be viewed on purely its own merits, but has to be better than anything else. Any praise of what goes on in hockey has to be tempered by pointing out how much better it is than anything else.
It's not just complicit in the NHL, either. Watching hockey in Britain I've noticed a major trend among hockey fandom here to react to any charity initiative with "this is why hockey is the best sport-you wouldn't see this in football" or similar comments. Even pointing out that hockey is not the only sport that is active in charity initiatives will gain you a barrage of accusations that you're "mocking" or "insulting" the hockey people involved by denigrating their efforts, as if charity is apparently only something that can be bestowed with any sincerity in the UK from hockey players. Even pointing out the myriad initiatives from football and rugby teams over here creates a kind of vicious circle of moral outrage and self-denial, as the "no true Scotsman" logical fallacy runs rampant - this is a trend that also gets seen in North America when anybody attempts to challenge the assertion that HOCKEY IS BETTER BECAUSE IT JUST IS.
That's the kind of insecure thinking that you simply don't see in most truly popular sports. It's the thinking of a sport that deep down doesn't feel that it's found its place among the truly "mainstream" sports and needs constantly to yell how great it is, at the expense of any and everything else.
In this respect, hockey is the angry, insecure relation of the professional sport family. It's full of bluster and boasting because it's constantly gripped by the fear that people might look behind the successful, confident facade and see the flaws in the personality - issues like the worrying treatment of female fans, staff and players. Issues like the fact that coded racism and sexism is still very much a part of the language of the game (and clearly present in this particular attitude, as demonstrated above). Issues like the fact that the sport still has a real problem with progression in certain areas.
And like that hypothetical angry relative, this urge to constantly score points, to emphasis how much better hockey is than anything else, can be taken to ridiculous levels by those within the game. Perhaps this is better demonstrated nowhere else than the fact that during a rain delay on the night the Chicago Cubs' 108-year World Series drought ended, there were many tweets along the lines of "they didn't stop the Winter Classic because it rained". Aside from the fact that outdoor hockey games have been postponed because it's too sunny, the fact that hockey personnel (including agent and NHL powerbroker and influencer Allan Walsh) are scraping so hard they're still trying to tell us how hockey is better at the expense of one of the biggest sports stories of the decade is...well, tragic.
The trouble is, it's not surprising. Hockey has spent so long convincing itself that it's the poor relation of mainstream sport that this has bred a self-destructive, clannish, siege mentality - one where both fans and media have somehow, as a community, convinced themselves that they are "better" than more popular sports. Rather than seeking ways to become more mainstream and embracing them, hockey is keen to emphasise both its "otherness" and the fact that it doesn't have the problems of more mainstream sports.
Simply put, hockey has managed to convince itself that in the battle of which sport is the best in terms of the way its culture conducts itself, every other sport is in the wrong - it tries to present itself as some great, upstanding, moral community populated by people (although it's notable that you don't often see women's hockey or women's hockey players held up as these paragons of selflessness and virtue) of honour and respect.
At this point, though, it's the opposite. By using the politics of separation and the very tactics it rails against those outside hockey using when criticizing the game, hockey is internalising its own discontent about being only the fourth most popular sport in North America and falling. Deep down, hockey is not happy about the position it's in, but rather than adopt the strategy of open, inclusive marketing and attempting to grow the game through winning the hearts and minds of the public, hockey chooses to attack the perceived ills of others while ignoring its own, and venerate its good deeds while ignoring those of others.
This is only harming the game in the long run. It's causing current hockey fans to become disillusioned with the community they're a part of. It's causing outsiders to look at the game with the same attitude many would view the boastful drunk outside a city centre bar on a Saturday night, with a mixture of caution in approaching it too closely and disgust and pity at the way it can behave.
Hockey has convinced itself it's all the other sports with the attitude problems and self-esteem issues that need fixing, and those inside the game are happy to keep preaching to the converted.
The trouble is, everyone outside the bubble, and even many inside it prepared to examine their sport without putting on rose-tinted spectacles first, can see through the lie. Until hockey accepts that it's not the only game in town, it'll be left on the sidelines, desperately yelling for attention over the roars of the much larger crowds in other sports, like a chihuahua barking impotently in a cage full of lions.
And like that chihuahua, it'll continue to be eaten alive by its bigger neighbours until it finds a new way to live alongside them.