Vancouver Canucks: Hockey culture is ruining the growth of this game

WINNIPEG, CANADA - APRIL 20: Don Cherry and Ron MacLean of Hockey Night In Canada pose for a photo following an overtime game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Anaheim Ducks in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 20, 2015 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
WINNIPEG, CANADA - APRIL 20: Don Cherry and Ron MacLean of Hockey Night In Canada pose for a photo following an overtime game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Anaheim Ducks in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 20, 2015 at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images) /

Ice hockey is rapidly evolving, yet its most prestigious league is still stuck in the past. The National Hockey League lags behind its North American counterparts and hockey culture is impeding its own growth.

Culture is a difficult concept to explain. You can go anywhere and see many definitions for the word. It’s not quantifiable and I rarely see complete agreement in what it means. This is true for hockey as fans of all generations theoretically have their own ideas about hockey.

Opinions vary, but you would hope hockey culture is important for a reason. The same tired lines offered by teams such as a winning environment, good leadership and a tight-knit group. They are nice sentiments, but they don’t mean as much as people seem to believe.

In reality, a locker room is a group of cliques in a hierarchy. Certainly, intangibles are interesting things to have, but a base has to be established first. Those phrases are purposefully vague and not precise to allow for failure.

You can reflect on these stories later on, but those intangibles are meaningless if you are not accomplishing anything. I appreciate leadership, but if your team is devoid of talent, what’s the point? Otherwise, I would say you are just living in the nostalgia of what hockey used to be and not what it has become.

That’s why I like this definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

"the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations"

Cultures are malleable. They change over time. No matter what country you live in, its culture has changed. You have changed. There is no reason why hockey culture cannot change either.

Don Cherry and what he represents

The game is always changing on the ice, but lags off of it. Vancouver Canucks fans are not strangers to do this since they are seeing it happen at home. But they are not alone. In fact, most of the Canadian teams are run by management groups with the same narrow-minded way of thinking.

What do I mean by narrow-minded? Let’s start with how stubborn hockey culture is. Fans can choose to ignore it, but there is an unsettling amount of homophobia, misogyny, racism and xenophobia in hockey’s history. Some of it still persists to this day.

Without getting preachy, they are dozens in this sport that have no business being here because of their moral shortcomings. However, they can skate well and score goals, so they get a free pass. Even more so if they are Canadian.

Every single week Don Cherry hammers in why he thinks Canadians are the best hockey players. To me, there is nothing wrong with national pride. However, the way Cherry brags about Canada is by disparaging other countries, specifically in Europe.

He calls them soft and lets us know how much he does not trust Russians. Americans tend to get a pass because they play hockey “the right way.” Although, I would argue that each nation offers something unique and everyone borrows something from each other.

Worst of all, he popularizes this fetish for “tough” players, which is just code for injure your opponent and try to get away with it. I like bone-crushing body checks into the boards and open ice hits, but you cannot justify trying to break ankles or wrists through slashing. You can’t say that hits to the head are acceptable. Maybe give your head a shake if you do.

Hockey players and fans have accepted this as hockey culture, when it’s just a showcase of their insecurity. Players resort to dirty tactics because they can’t win a battle of skill on the ice. This behaviour is positively reinforced by the clueless pundits who don’t have to eat these punches themselves (or the ones that have received too many, like Nick Kyrpreos).

Unqualified and ignorant management

This brings me back to Jim Benning. Firstly, I think Benning is a kind and genuinely good person. However, is he horrifically unqualified to be a GM. His only strength is scouting and as the last four years have taught you, that is not nearly enough.

It doesn’t help Benning’s case when he makes comments like these last year. He meant nothing malicious by it, but Benning implies that Europeans don’t have a “winning” or “tough” attitude to the game. To him it’s a harmless phrase, but to a team led by a European for 15 of the last 17 years, it came off as tone deaf to put it nicely.

Those words were just indicative of Benning being stuck in the past. You can see it with the haphazard ways he constructed the current Canucks lineup. Toughness, grit and leadership is grossly overrated. There comes a time where you need to see the forest from the trees and Benning has failed to do that.

Despite being the worst team in the NHL since 2015, he honestly believes that the Canucks are a playoff team. This is not about corsi. It is about wins and losses. Defending that face is an erroneous assertion. But, because he is building a team in the traditional mold, he gets a free pass for his mediocrity.

That’s the problem with this league. If you try anything new and fail, you get humiliated for your incompetence. However, if you copy what everyone else in the Old Boys club and fail, you are given chance after chance after chance.

More from The Canuck Way

Fear of change

The NHL is very slow to adopt changes. Conservative managers refuse to take risks. Many of them are passive when they need to be aggressive and I believe part of this has to do with fear. These managers are scared of being ostracized for acting out of turn.

Do you notice that nobody submits offer sheets anymore? There is no risk for an RFA because GM’s are more afraid of being blacklisted from trades than losing the multiple picks in compensation.

The league’s managers are far too friendly with each. They work together to suppress change. Back then it was the introduction of European players. Today, it is this arbitrary war on evidence-based research. Although, this current level of ignorance may persist for a long time.

NHL executives fear being replaced by businessmen. They continue to push this narrative that only hockey minds should make decisions. Businessmen run teams in the NBA, MLB and NFL. On average, those teams are far more valuable than the average NHL club. Their leagues make a lot more money and are more prevalent in North America.

When you fear change, you can’t move forward. Risks are necessary and failures can happen. But I would trust someone willing to learn from failure than cowardly waiting for good luck to come their way and undo mistakes.

Worst of all, nobody in the Old Boys club will admit they made a mistake. There is little personal responsibility for NHL managers and it’s despicable. They will keep saying believe in the plan. We have the right culture. Trust us. The average hockey fan is a lot smarter than they were 40 years ago.

Fans have changed

Modern technology makes the most invested fan incredibly knowledgeable. Teams can’t deceive their customers when we record everything they say and contrast it with what they do. None of us want these people to fail, but if they are not fit for the job, we have the right to demand change. The problem is, this tainted hockey culture is too stubborn to embrace it.

This old guard will hold the game back. Owners treat these hockey teams like an expensive toy and not a potentially lucrative business venture. Maybe if they did, they could realize that chasing playoff dollars from two home games is irrelevant compared to the money brought in on a championship run.

By tolerating 10-year rebuilds, these owners reward poor management. It shows me there are no consequences in this league, which is sad when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Wouldn’t it be nice if every team was worth at least $1 billion like it is in the NBA? That can’t happen without change.

The NHL wants to continue to grow this game around the world. However, if you want new people to care, you have to sell a fun and exciting product. And a boring game won’t do that. A sport that displays an incredible level of skill is something you can sell. But it does not stop there.

Athletes should be interesting, not the lifeless robots that look dead inside when they interview, spouting off the same dumb phrases over and over. Let player personalities flourish. It makes them unique and removes this idea that hockey players are zombies out there.

Next: Who the Canucks should cheer for in the playoffs

Preaching inclusion while the league and its fans struggle to do that will close many new doors. I would love to see this game continue to grow, but the rest of the NHL needs to get to 2018. It is not just the Vancouver Canucks that are stuck in 1978. I’m sad to say that most of this league is happily there in blissful ignorance. Step into the present. The light isn’t that blinding.