Eric Lindros has been voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I hear the sportsjocks talk about this as the correction of a horrible injustice. What none of them knows, remembers, or wants to talk about is the reason why, when he was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, Lindros refused to go. The subtext was an ugly bigotry towards Quebec and French Canada in general. This was at a time when tempers were running very thin, and the political situation in Canada was at its most delicate. The first separation referendum had lost by twenty points, and the second was on the horizon, one in which Quebec voted to remain in Canada by the narrowest of margins.
Lindros was an effective NHL hockey player, largely because he was the (literally) prototypical modern power forward. He was big, mean, and skilled. In the view of many in the hidebound hockey community (let’s call it the Don Cherry Worldview), he was a working stiff hero expressing himself. In my own view, Lindros and his family were classic Anglo bigots who expressed, consciously and consciencioiusly, an ugly old sentiment that this nation has yet to completely grow out of.
Hockey is culturally and symbolically important to Canadians; its strong associations with our youth and our climate give us a focus around which we can gather. Like everything, it has a political subtext. Sometimes the message is beautiful and positive: the whole conduct and life of Jean Beliveau evinced a grace that everyone in our sometimes divided nation could be proud of.
All too often, the sentiment is less worthy. Professional hockey players are, after all, not required by their culture or their calling to be philosophers. They are required to play a game that calls for the balletic balance of a figure skater, the hand-to-eye skills of a surgeon, and the motion-vector analysis of a WW 1 fighter pilot. It also requires the physical courage of a warrior. No other sport is played on a surface as hard as asphalt, with two knives attached to each foot, in the confines of walls that can break bones if you make uncontrolled contact with them, and carrying a spear. The very object with which it is played can– and often does– cause injury.
Occasionally, however, a player rises above the undercurrent of violence in the sport, and plays a transcendent game of skill. Those who have played hockey know that this takes superb talent underpinned by real courage. The combination is what makes us watch our national heroes, both men and women. And it is why the greatest hockey players are not the most brutal, but those who most transcend the brutality.
There is a reason why many people went into the Hockey Hall of Fame before Eric Lindros. The transcendent ones are very rare beings indeed, and deserve to be there first. Lindros was blunt in his approach to the game, and his whole family was blunt in their rejection of a city that is a unique cultural gem on this continent. Some of us have not forgotten that.
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And few have coached with the grace and humility of Clare Drake. Loved by his players, who feared disappointing him, Clare originated many of the strategies of the modern game, but never complained when others took credit. As Ken Hitchcock said: “His fingerprints are all over the game.” Clare Drake, almost alone, warned Canadians that the Russians would not be patsies in 1972. One of the pleasures of my life will always be sitting with Clare Drake in Clare Drake Arena, watching the Golden Bears play that beautiful and brutal game of ours.