Vancouver Canucks: Henrik and Daniel and what makes a good man


The Sedin twins have officially announced their retirement, and the topic will get a lot of discussion over the next week. Rightly so. They are the greatest Vancouver Canucks of all time.

They almost singlehandedly transformed the modern game, creating set-plays, dekes, and breakouts that are now standard on many teams. They together have over 2000 points, a Hart Trophy, two Art Ross Trophies, two President’s Trophies; they are undeniably future Hall of Famers.

But I’m not here to talk about how good they were at hockey. You all know how good they were, and if you don’t, the only legitimate excuse is that you are six years old and missed the Sedins in their prime, dominating every NHL team on a nightly basis.

No, I’m here to talk about what the Sedins have meant for young men desperately in need of better idols.

“Be a man”

Masculinity is complicated. For young men trying to figure out how to be in this world, a lot of emphasis is placed on “being a man,” but what that means is rarely spelled out.

When it is, it usually isn’t very appealing. It often involves some combination of being physically intimidating, exerting dominance over other men and women, and a whole range of macho behaviors and posturing that, in practice, betray the fact that you are emotionally weak and acting like a jerk.

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Henrik and Daniel Sedin gave us a model of a good, healthy masculinity and they did it while spending nearly two decades under attack from the toxic masculinities that dominate this sport.

They were constantly attacked by pathetic, insecure men who think that “sister” is an insult, or that not being violent makes you “soft.”

By men who glorify violence (usually because they don’t have to deal with it themselves) and think sports are better when teams “hate” each other.

But Henrik and Daniel never played with hate. They played the game with joy, creativity, and respect. They played the game they loved and they played it better than nearly everyone around them. But they never forgot that it was a game, and they never once decided that game was important enough to try to injure or insult another person to prove that they were “men.”

Amazing what can be accomplished when you aren’t trying to prove your manhood.

In their long careers, Henrik and Daniel took so much abuse and never once – not one time in 18 years – did they ever attack anyone for it, verbally or physically. Not other players, not their teammates, not their coaches, not the fans, not the media, not the officials, not each other. Whenever that instinct bubbled in them, as surely it must have, they rose above it.

They were commanded by respect, for themselves and for others, at all times.

Take a lesson

Every man in this world would be a better man if they took a lesson from Henrik and Daniel. I know I am.

My childhood was split between Vancouver and Winnipeg. I liked Pavel Bure and Trevor Linden, but I was a Jets fan first. I watched Teemu Selanne and Alexei Zhamnov and marveled at their speed and creativity. But the Jets were sold in 1996, and I gave up on hockey, barely even watched the trap era. In 1999, Brian Burke’s deal to draft the Sedins together caught my attention.

My favourite story about that draft wasn’t even the draft itself: it was while Burke was scouting the Sedins. As legend has it, the first time he saw them play in Sweden after the World Junior tournament, he was underwhelmed, convinced they didn’t live up to the hype. What he discovered later was that their poor play in that game was a result of their having pulled an all-nighter… to study for a math test.

I’ve never been able to confirm the truth in that story, but it sure fits. The Sedins were the best kind of nerds – thoughtful and studious – and their careers bore that out. They invented set-plays, redefined the cycle game, wrote up new power play breakouts, and treated the game less like war and more like a game.

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Watching them was a joy. Hockey could be fun! It wasn’t just a war of attrition, with trapped up neutral zones and big, burly men beating the crap out of each other on skates.

Not surprisingly, this made a lot of hockey men uncomfortable. The Sedins were subject to constant and vicious abuse, on and off the ice, from a hockey world deeply committed to a violent, macho ideology. The commonly used “Sedin Sisters” came to encapsulate that abuse, and it was used as often by Vancouver fans and media as anywhere.

The strength of a Sedin

In modern parlance, it’s called bullying. A combination of physical and emotional intimidation to maintain a rigid hierarchy, in this case, that of the hockey men. Bullying in young men is often wrapped up in our insecurities about manhood.

A lot of men, if they search themselves, know exactly how this kind of bullying works. We are subject to it for most of our lives, and many of us play along, hoping to avoid its worst outcomes. If a big guy picks on you at school and calls you a f*g, you find a smaller guy and pick on him and call him a f*g, hoping to deflect the awful feeling of being bullied. If you get in with the bully, you’re mostly safe, as long as you play by the rules; defer to the head bully, pick on those below you.

We think it’s over after high school but it persists; at work, at the gym, on a rec league team, on twitter, the same damn dynamics always pop up.

It may be more complex as we get older, but the logic is still there; the realm of masculinity being policed by jerks. Men being bullies, other men trying to fit in, and slipping into a version of themselves that they might not even like. But after awhile, it becomes natural, and then – lo and behold – we have a society full of weak, insecure, unhappy men.

In my early 20s, I struggled to figure out who I was going to be in the world. Watching the Sedins persist and remain true to themselves, in spite of the litany of abuse they took, was more inspirational to me than any of the “he played with a separated shoulder” stories that hockey culture loves to serve up. (Which Daniel Sedin did do, this year, though I’m not here to celebrate that.)

To the extent that I was able to forge an identity as a man who is kind and respectful to other people, I owe the Sedins at least some of the credit. If Henrik Sedin could rise above all that crap and be strong enough to be unaffected and continue being Henrik Sedin, surely Tyler Shipley could do the same.

The Sedins’ integrity and inner strength was far more important than their pain threshold. They not only became arguably the best players in the NHL at their height, they did it on their own terms, without compromising their principles or changing their approach to the game. In a culture that chews young men up, prays on their insecurities, and turns them into macho jerks, the Sedins suffered every taunt, shook them off, and continued to be an example of how to be a good man in the world.

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In two decades, they taught me a lot about how to be a better man. The Sedins have been competitive, driven, hard-working men who desperately want to win the game, without ever devolving into sexist, homophobic, or otherwise disrespectful slurs against their competitors. They chose to treat people with genuine respect, at all times, not just when it suited them; after the devastating game 7 Stanley Cup loss in 2011, the Sedins skated across the ice to shake hands with the officials.

The Sedins taught me that being strong doesn’t have to be “being a man.” That violence and posturing doesn’t prove that you’re a man; that, in fact, the whole business of proving that you are a man is flawed. That what matters is being a person: a decent, respectful person.

Yes, it matters

I get periodically drawn into debates on twitter about whether a player’s politics matter. “Politics,” of course, means more than “who do you vote for.” Politics is about values, what you think is right or wrong, how you think people ought to treat one another.

It matters.

Imagine what kind of tunnel vision one has to have to think that the only important thing is whether the business franchise called the Vancouver Canucks wins hockey games. Fandom is complex, but for most people, cheering for a team means cheering for the players. So it does matter who those players are. They’re not just avatars; they are real people whose triumphs or failures we are celebrating and commiserating.

I dove deep into Vancouver Canucks fandom in part because of the Sedins and the example they set. Their success meant greater attention and accolades placed on people who were putting something out there that I admired.

Rightly or wrongly, every time the Vancouver Canucks won during the Sedin era felt like a validation of the way they play and the people they are. Cheering for them was real, because I took genuine pride and joy in supporting them. Every goal was a reward for persisting through so much crap to become the superstars that they were.

If men as good as the Sedins could survive and flourish in the NHL, anything was possible.

And you know what? I look around in 2018 and while there are still a lot of jerks and old boys, there are also a lot of young players who are genuinely decent. Look no further than the Vancouver Canucks own Bo Horvat.

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Meanwhile, the hockey media has been dragged into the 21st century. There has been a proliferation of analysts, writers, bloggers, and podcasters who reflect Sedinlike qualities. Who genuinely try, and often succeed, at being better men.

Needless to say, one of the effects of that is that hockey culture is not as dominated by men as it once was, as women are finally asserting space in this culture. Women’s hockey is growing, more women are becoming writers and broadcasters, and woman are less and less willing to tolerate the macho culture around the game.

Those women deserve all of the credit for that, but it is worth at least a nod to a more thoughtful and respectful generation of men who are learning to give women space in the conversation; a far cry from pundits and fans whose favourite insult for the Sedins was literally to call them women. Surely example set by the Sedins has helped.

The meaning of a role model

Hockey culture often gives us role models, but few of them really deserve that status. The Sedins, however, have been the best role models I could ever ask for.

Last year, friends of mine lost their infant daughter. She suffered from a rare disease and, despite the best efforts of the medical team at the BC Women’s and Children’s Hospital, she could not be saved. The family was very thankful for the support they received at the hospital and also from the staff at Canuck Place.

Their story is a sad one, and it is not mine to tell, but it acts as a reminder to me that players’ values really do matter. In this case, the Sedins’ generosity had a direct impact.

In 2010, Daniel and Henrik Sedin donated $1.5 million to the BC Children’s Hospital, directing some of it specifically to the intensive care unit. They wanted to do it anonymously but were convinced to announce it because of the boost it would give to fundraising efforts. Indeed, for many years before and after, the Sedins have supported the hospital by doing public campaigns and events to help generate donations.

In addition to this large donation, Daniel and Henrik and their wives Marinette and Johanna contributed to a variety of different local charities and even started one of their own – the Sedin Family Foundation – which works with schools and community and social service organizations. The foundation supports children by building playgrounds, and providing equipment for physical activity, and even running extra-curricular programs.

These donations, and the public service work that the Sedins do alongside them, are admittedly the low-hanging fruit of NHL player activism. Henrik Sedin was awarded the NHL’s King Clancy Award in 2016, in recognition of his efforts in the community, but charity won’t save the world and plenty of NHL players make contributions to hospitals.

But what sets the Sedins apart from most is that they are genuinely positive role models every single day – for kids and adults alike – not just in their charitable contributions but in the way they carry themselves in their community. They make charity – the act of giving – a central part of their public persona. They have consistently shown respect for marginalized groups like LGBT people, no doubt opening themselves up to even more of the homophobic taunting they have taken for eighteen years.

They have treated their fans with respect, never complaining about those many years of abuse they took especially early in their careers. They have treated their teammates with respect, preferring to take personal responsibility for poor play than blaming others. They have even treated their opponents with respect, never taking any opportunity to injure a vulnerable player or trash talk anyone in the press.

They even retired respectfully. Though they made the decision earlier this year, they kept quiet to avoid being a distraction to their teammates. They have set a fabulous example of how to be a decent man in this world. I hope the rest of us were paying attention.

Celebrate the Sedins

The next week will be full-on Sedin celebration and I would have it no other way. They deserve every ounce of it and more, and I’m sure I am not the only one endlessly watching highlight clips and preparing a box of Kleenex of each of the last three games.

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Everyone except the troglodyte Don Cherry will come out of the woodwork to say nice things about the Sedins, and that’s great. Of course, that includes all the pundits that have spent much of the last eighteen years screaming at them for being “soft.” It includes all the twerps who laughed and repeated jokes about the “Sedin Sisters.” It includes the blowhards who recently claimed it was the Sedins’ fault the Vancouver Canucks haven’t committed to the rebuild.

Just FYI: we see you, we know who you are, hiding behind pithy tweets about the Sedins’ great careers. We remember.

But we will rise above it because we learned from the very best: the Sedins themselves. We will choose to believe that you’ve learned. That watching them for eighteen years taught you to be better. And if not, well, it’s a big world and you’re just not worth our attention.