Vancouver Canucks: Jim Benning is wrong about European stereotypes

Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning announces Jake Virtanen (not pictured) as the number six overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 27, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning announces Jake Virtanen (not pictured) as the number six overall pick to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning is in Europe this week to do some scouting, but his comment about European players’ heart – or lack thereof – reflects a tired old mythology that needs to be put to rest.

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times.

The old story, told for at least 30 years now, is that European players have lots of skill but lack the heart, the grit, the determination, the commitment, of North American players. Despite a complete absence of evidence to prove this claim, North American hockey analysts repeat it ad nauseam. It is forcefully asserted in the ravings of Don Cherry or Mike Milbury – pundits whose entire brand is xenophobia and bloodlust – but manifests at all levels of hockey culture.

This week, it was Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning who, in describing his approach to scouting in Europe, offered this nugget of wisdom:

"“I tell our guys we want European skill with North American heart.”"

The comment was part of a broader discussion about needing mobile, puck-moving defenders and finding European players who can transition to the smaller NHL ice surface. Fundamentally, all he is really saying is he wants to find highly skilled players who also possess an indomitable will to score goals, win puck battles and otherwise do things that win hockey games.

Which is, well, pretty obvious.

Nothing wrong with that. The Canucks certainly need such players, indeed, every team in the NHL does. Why on Earth would you be looking for anything else? Hardly anyone plays in the NHL without those qualities; even traditional goons like Senators’ Chris Neil have to justify their spot in the lineup by putting up some points.

On the flip side, the idea that anyone could make it to the NHL level without determination and strong will is farcical. There are no lazy people playing in the NHL.

And yet, the mythology persists: European players have no heart.

Heartless-Henrik and Doesn’t-Care-Daniel

Benning’s franchise is led by two of the greatest players of their generation, each having won an Art Ross Trophy, who took their team to within one game of a Stanley Cup Championship. At 36 years old, Henrik and Daniel Sedin are still among the most physically fit players on the team and continue to be effective NHLers, despite being nearly eight years older than the average retirement age. They are also remarkably generous and gracious off-ice personalities in Vancouver.

They’ve played injured. They’ve played big minutes. They’ve been head-hunted by opponents. And yet, they persist, putting the team first for 17 seasons in Vancouver.

When times were good, they deferred credit to their teammates. When times have been bleak, they’ve protected their teammates, facing the media and taking responsibility.

Through it all, they have been mocked by opposing players, members of the media and fans (including in Vancouver) for being “soft.” They have been relentlessly subject to bizarre homophobic nonsense and implications of incest (because they’re twins, right?) and have shown incredible poise and patience in deflecting these claims and refusing to be bullied by them.

They will retire as arguably the greatest Canucks ever, appreciated far less than they deserve.

That, Jim Benning, is the definition of heart. Naturally, they will rise above this idiotic comment by their GM, as they have risen above so much else in their careers. But why should they need to? Can’t the Vancouver Canucks have a GM who doesn’t repeat Don Cherry’s talking points?

The Heart of a European

It’s not just about the Sedins. Consider a handful of other Canucks, past and present, whose heart is evidently in question because they were born in Europe.

Former captain Marcus Naslund, who was the heart of the franchise during the West Coast Express era. NHL Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, whose time in Vancouver was short but who was a force of nature in his prime. Defenders Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund, who anchored the Canucks’ blueline with grit and poise. Exceedingly popular Eddie Lack, whose decent goaltending was often overshadowed by his fantastic personality. Or the tenacious forward, recently departed Jannik Hansen, whose NHL story checks every single box in the “against all odds” and “by force of will” questionnaire.

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And then there are the current Canucks. One of Benning’s success stories – they have been few – is Sven Baertschi, a Swiss forward who found his game this season in part by playing hard and going to the net. He did this despite a history of concussions that included one this season.  Meanwhile, Finnish forward Markus Granlund scored 19 goals this season despite a wrist injury that required surgery in the offseason.

There are no shortage of examples of European players with heart.

Of course, Benning’s defenders would say that it is precisely those players’ hearts that set them apart from the typical European player. Ah, how convenient. So, you are European until you have heart and then you’re an honorary North American. Presumably, North American hockey players are similarly incapable of playing with speed, skill, finesse, finish – and if they do they’re honorary Europeans?

Why does this stupidity even need to be taken down in 2017? I expect a bit of it on Twitter, but not from an NHL general manager.

Double Standards

It’s not that Benning hates European players – he has drafted and traded for several – it’s that he accepts and repeats a stereotype about them that ought to have long since died. And yet, the myth is alive and well. Indeed, Benning is only reflecting what is commonly held in North American hockey culture, which can be extraordinarily hypocritical in its assessment of European players.

When the Washington Capitals fail to win the Stanley Cup, the discussion is about Alex Ovechkin (who by the way, played most of the second round injured, thanks to a vicious check by Nazem Kadri) and his lack of heart. When the similarly unfortunate San Jose Sharks fail to win the Stanley Cup there is nowhere near the same reaction directed at Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

Or how about this bit of hypocrisy: when Evgeny Kuznetsov celebrated a goal in an opponent’s face in Round 1 of these playoffs, he was criticized for being a showboat who doesn’t respect the game. When that same Kuznetsov laughed with the opposing goalie after a great save in Round 2, he was criticized for not being competitive enough.

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In both cases, the European player is being criticized for his perceived attitude, and in both cases the criticism is related to the question of heart; either he is an individualistic hotdog who doesn’t care about the team, or he is so disinterested in winning that he’s joking around on the ice.

But either situation could be read the opposite way: in the first, he is giving it to his opponents because he plays “on the edge” and likes to “get in the opponent’s kitchen,” as we might hear about Brad Marchand. In the latter case, he is laughing with Marc-Andre Fleury because he loves the game and respects an opponent who just made an incredible play, which is probably what would be said of Jerome Iginla.

While these are just a couple of recent examples, they reflect a broader dynamic in North American hockey culture. For most European players in the NHL, you’re subject to criticism about heart, attitude, grit, etc. no matter what you do.

Benning isn’t responsible for that whole culture, but he is an actor within it, and he has a choice to either perpetuate it or not. He made a disappointing choice, and one can‘t help but wonder to what extent that attitude permeates the organization. After all, this is the franchise that recently lost a key defensive prospect to the KHL, after catastrophically failing to support that player in his transition to North America.

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That’s why these offhanded comments matter. For Canucks fans desperate to see their team get back to being a contender, we really can’t afford to be limiting our potential because our GM is stuck in the 1970s.