His new book, Selling the Dream, presents the darker side of our national pastime, while also attempting to explain our eternal obsession with it. We caught up with the Hockey News columnist and all-around puck nut to discuss post-lockout play, Don Cherry’s big mouth, and why your kid is not, repeat not, the next Wayne Gretzky.
In the intro to your book, you say that hockey in Canada needs to be saved from itself. Can you explain?
We’ve seen a real change in the whole landscape of minor hockey. It’s less about enjoying yourself and having fun. It’s more about creating elite players, and about pressure, and a lot of money. It’s really become a very exclusive club. I find that a little bit troubling.
You talk about how Bobby Orr spent his childhood playing hockey for fun on frozen lakes in his hometown, whereas today that kid would have a personal trainer, an agent, and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in him by the time he reached his tweens.
Exactly. The career that Bobby Orr had—I’m not sure if it’s few and far between now or totally non-existent. If he were playing in this era, he’d have teams from the Greater Toronto hockey leagues trying to recruit him; he’d have agents trying to recruit him. People would have been talking about him from the time he was 13 years old.
With all of the obsessing over training and dedication and investment, are people forgetting about the concept of pure talent?
Talent is still an enormous factor, but people have been conditioned to believe that if you just put in the hours, it’s going to happen. Some of this stems from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and his 10,000 hours theory—that if you spend 10,000 hours doing something, you’re going to be an expert. When it comes to hockey and most sports, I think that’s a lot of rubbish. Some people have natural gifts that just make it easier or more conducive for them to have a career. And if you lack certain physical gifts, no amount of hard work is going to allow you to overcome that.
I’m always surprised by how many people you hear saying that they have a son or a nephew or a kid in their neighbourhood who is “the next Gretzky.”
Right. And the people who are telling you that—the odds that that kid will play even a single game in the NHL are astronomically infinitesimal. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player ever to play the game. For anyone to think that their kid, or someone they know, is going to duplicate his ability is beyond absurd.
Is there someone feeding them this idea, this next-Gretzky myth?
I don’t know if it’s next-Gretzky, but there are definitely people who stand to gain a lot by keeping the dream alive and by convincing parents that all they have to do is spend the money and do the hard work and good things will happen.
Do you see a lot of parents forcing their own dreams on their kids? You know, some dad whose own NHL dreams fell through?
It’s not something you can put a number on, but when you’ve got a seven- or eight-year-old kid on a skating treadmill, or taking 2,000 shots a month, let’s just say I can’t imagine it’s the kid who is coming up with those things.
Your own son is playing hockey now. What level is he at?
He’s playing house-league hockey and he’s a goalie. Of course, he would love to be able to play at the triple-A level and be an elite player, and what I tell him is, “You know what—in 20 years, you guys are all going to be playing in the same beer league together.”
You say in your book that no parent ever signs their kid up for hockey thinking, “My son’s not going to make the NHL.” So are you the exception?
Hey, I would love for my kid to play in the NHL. I’m just a lot more grounded in reality because of what I do.
Where do you see the future of hockey in Canada going in terms of our shifting cultural demographic?
Canada will always produce elite players. That won’t be a problem, but I worry about what’s happening to the numbers in terms of the kids who are playing hockey for fun. Where are the fans going to be coming from? The future beer-league players? I live in Scarborough, a city of 600,000 people, and there is one outdoor rink, which is obviously going to affect the game at a grassroots level.
Speaking of fans, are you surprised by how little the lockout seems to have affected fan loyalty?
Not even a little bit. It was supposed to be different this time around. People were saying that they’d really had it with the NHL and they weren’t coming back, but now we see that attendance is up, television viewing is up. I think it speaks to the loyalty—hockey fans really are the most devoted in the world.
My theory is that it’s like family as opposed to friends. You don’t even have to like your team, but there’s this overriding sense of loyalty.
Right. Like that saying: You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family.
And you can spend the whole time yelling at the TV, yelling at the players, yelling at the coach, but you’re not going anywhere.
That’s right. It’s like a covenant and it’s passed down from generation to generation.
Earlier this week, Don Cherry criticized Oilers rookie Nail Yakupov for doing a Tom Cruise in Risky Business–style victory slide across the ice. Cherry called him an idiot. Do you agree?
I disagree with almost everything Don Cherry says, and this is no exception. We haven’t had hockey for three months and this is what people were talking about! Can’t we just enjoy the game and enjoy a 19-year-old kid who scores his first goal in the NHL and celebrate it rather than finding something negative? I don’t get it.
Favourite Toronto rink?
Orr or Gretzky?
Wings or pizza?
Best pump-up song?
“Would I Lie to You,” by the Eurythmics.
Man crush on Guy Lafleur.
Favourite swear word?