Thursday, February 11, 2010

wayne gretzky: a canadian icon of . . . what?

as of late, i've been spending a lot of time contemplating my irritation with canadian identity and evidently with the olympics moving into vancouver, i'm getting more than my fill of canadian flag-waving.

as i try to put my finger on the nature of my anti-canadian disdain, i came across this article by Toronto Star Sports columnist Rosie DiManno which trumpets Wayne Gretzky's cause for lighting the "olympic cauldron."

dimanno's exact argumentation is this: "canada is hockey. hockey is gretzky."

now i like hockey as much as anyone. love playing it, love watching it. when my head gets overwhelmed at night with the various monologues that embody my latest frustrations, I can always ease my nerves by thinking of the sweet feeling of crossing the blue-line and quickly pulling up to feed a streaking forward. 

so, get it. i like hockey and will even admit that as a kid in central canada, staying up late to see an oiler's game was a truly spiritual experience. on ice, number 99 was magic. awesome and beautiful. my god, i even remember being in kindergarten and getting all weak kneed seeing an edmonton oiler hockey card in the playground dreaming that i might've come across a gretzky card. so yes, as a child he really was all that.

but for the love of god, let's grow up.  where do i even start?

nevermind that professional hockey in this country is run and largely owned by americans. gary bettman league commissioner, american. nhl headquarters, new york city. indeed until ever so recently even the montreal candiennes were owned by an american.

nevermind that,  gretzky himself was a huge part of the americanization of hockey that ultimately cost winnipeg and quebec their professional teams. gretzky effectively orchestrated his sale from edmonton to the hockey hotbed of los angeles where he attempted to become an american sports icon. 

nevermind that professional hockey in this country has become somewhat of a bloodsport. repeated incidents of huge guys wearing plexiglass armour attempting to literally knock the heads of their fellow union-members is just the symptom of a sport where pugilism is well thought of.

forget all of that. let's just contemplate gretzky who for all of the sports flaws was indeed a grand master, maybe even the best. and sure, let's acknowledge that to a generation of predominately white canadians, he was an idol.

what has he done with that? 

well for starters, he was an extremely well paid spokesman for such glorious companies as Tylenol, Bud Light, McDonald's and Ford. 

effectively, he cashed in his celebrity to pitch garbage. in particular, it's pretty damaging that an elite level athlete would endorse MacDonald's as a food of choice to his adoring child following. i mean, that in itself is damaging to Canada and Canadians. all for his personal financial gain. for god's sake, even ronald mcdonald himself has remorse for selling that product. effectively, the arteries of canadian children and our over-extended health care system have helped subsidize gretzky's opulent los angeles lifestyle. what a guy!

but, in sifting through the fragments of all of this and its relation to canadian identity,  i'll take a pass on further characterizations of gretzky's deeds in the world and refine my argument:

the canadian value system is largely underpinned by cliche, meaningless corporate sloganism and external validation.

i would argue that gretzky's predominance as a corporate pitchman is a great part of his appeal to canadians. his visibility in concert with corporate goals makes him seem lovable, beyond reproach and perhaps most importantly, uncontroversial. in the millions of public appearances that gretzky has made, he has very carefully avoided saying anything to rock the boat. effectively, he has wiped a value system clear out of his discourse.

at the end of the day, honouring gretzky is simply an exercise is honouring the underlining irrelevance of the canadian national identity. being canadian it seems, is about being bought and sold while still being able to keep a smile on your face.

8 comments:

  1. Attaboy.
    Right on the head.
    I'm linking this on my hockey blog
    You could write on it too, that would be fun!

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  2. love to do a little hockey blogging. problem is . . . i'm a leafs fan and. . . my french is laughable. in my mind these are both significant problems.

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  3. Well, I didnt expected you to write in french, I wouldnt mind some english input from time to time!
    But since you're a leafs fan it could be complicated.
    Ahahah!
    I'm so funny.

    Come on in!

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  4. Are there, really ?
    Leafs fans, I mean ?
    Err. I know there used to be.
    But really ?

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  5. "at the end of the day, honoring gretzky is simply an exercise is honoring the underlining irrelevance of the canadian national identity. being canadian it seems, is about being bought and sold while still being able to keep a smile on your face."

    that is a very shot sided way of looking at it. while i'm no fan of selling out to corporations (though it's something we both have to be somewhat okay with given the industry we wish to take part in), to make this into argument about canadian values or nationalism, or even race, is silly. gretzky is a person, and does like people on this planet do these days. it doesn't reflect on canada, or white people, or athletes. it speaks more to the way the material world is run. it doesn't change how important hockey is to canadians, nor does the NHL's offices being in NYC. the fact is, to do anything at the level at which gretzky played hockey is inspirational. especially to a country that loves and values hockey so much. i neither blame canada for admiring him still, nor him for taking his endorsement contracts. i'd like to think that i'd do it differently in his shoes, but that's quite a luxury.

    i really don't think being canadian is about "being bought and sold while still keeping a smile on your face" part of the reason canada loves gretzky so much is because he exemplifies hard work, determination and excellence. qualities that i find to be important. as someone who lives in the USA, and who works in the prison system here, i can see first hand how canada and it's national values has avoided some of the pitfalls that are turning parts of the USA into a third world type country. there are a lot of things that define a canadian national identity that go beyond the endorsement deals of our athletes. health care, multiculturalism. while it's true that canada does have a hard time distinguishing itself from it's southern neighbor, i'm still proud to call myself a canadian and hope to live there again one day. i don't think that canada deserves to be run down for gretzky's endorsement deals, nor do i think it's really accurate to the heart of our issue. nor do i even agree that hockey has been americanized. perhaps some of the, behind the scenes goings on happen in the USA, but so does most of televised english content. it doesn't change how most canadian boys, black, white or brown, spend a good chunk of their winter months, and the year for that matter, either playing, or watching hockey. it invades our mind. it's become somewhat of a core of a national identity, as much as we can still have one in this globalized world.

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  6. there are two issues which i would like to distinguish with respect to gretzky. first is his athletic performance and the second is public character.

    clearly gretzky was an elite athlete in a sport greatly cherished by canadians. no question about that.

    however, gretzky's character is what i am scrutinizing. should a man who aligned himself so closely and completely with corporate values, throughout his whole adult life, be revered and honoured as a national role-model? if so, what does it say about the value system of that nation.

    we're not talking about an induction into the hockey hall of fame, which was, as it should have been, a slam duck. we're talking about honouring the national spirit of amateur athletics. a different kettle of fish, requiring a consideration of different values. the essential question i'm asking is "what did gretzky stand for in the world?" to my eye, he tried to establish a strong connection between athletic excellence and corporate excellence, for the benefit of his own profile and wealth. the conflation of these ideas is damaging especially when considering, in the example of mcdonalds that he targeted his message to children and the product of his endorsement is toxic. not too noble is what i'm saying. but the canadian public disagrees.

    look at mario lemieux. surely he too represents excellence, hard work and dedication. indeed, let's not forget that mario lemiuex returned from radiation treatments to lead the league in scoring. throughout his whole career he fought through injuries and was an extremely successful and dominate player. his achievements are historic and many call him the greatest player of his era. moreover, as a hockey executive following his playing career, he has been instrumental in building a powerhouse franchise is a small market city.

    however, lemiuex is not afforded the same national reverence as gretzky. not even close. part, i believe, is a cultural bias, gretzky a good ontario boy, lemieux a quebecker. but, what really distinguishes their fame in canada is their role as corporate pitchmen. gretzky throughout his career established himself as a significant and visible corporate icon which has given him a far more esteemed role in hearts of canada.

    not that i think lemieux should be canonized for any particular deed he's performed in the world. but, neither should gretzky. the fact that gretzky is, in effect a candian icon, speaks to an underlying value system of the canadian identity. an identity that values corporate prominence as much or even more than other values such as "excellence, hard work and dedication."

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  7. right. my point is that to say:

    "being canadian it seems, is about being bought and sold while still being able to keep a smile on your face."

    is quite inaccurate. if that's the case then that's what being from almost any country is about. look at tennis's Feder (switzerland), or soccer's Beckham (england), or hundreds of american examples. this is what professional athletes DO in this world. some are more careful then others, but i do think it's hard to judge them on their endorsement deals as we have no idea what it's like to be in their shoes. it's also hard to judge the value system of the nation that that athlete comes from. i think it's a interesting thing to talk about though; the value system of a nation, but to me it's misses the mark to say that to be canada is "about being bought or sold while keeping a smile on your face." that may speak to part of the human condition, but not really to the differences between countries values. or perhaps i'm wrong. maybe that's what being canadian is about and i'd just like not to think so. either way it's doesn't ring true to my ears.

    i think that there is a innate understanding, even in children, that what athletes endorse is part of the business of sports and doesn't really effect the inspirational quality of their being or accomplishments. i remember watching roberto alomar on commercials as a kid, and to this day i still don't remember what the hell the commercials were for. and he was my favorite baseball player. i find that as we get older and our opinions get stronger, that's when their deals bother us and we note what product gretzky seems to be hawking.

    while i agree that all of the western world is money and materially obsessed, and athletes cash grab is certainly a part of that, i don't think it's a cut and dry canadian issue. canada is certainly trying to keep up in this insane world, and perhaps the core of western values is rotten. perhaps capitalism is pure evil. but as far as gretzky is concerned, i think canadians, and the world take it for granted that athletes endorse things for money. it's pretty obvious to me that he doesn't ACTUALLY think eating macdonalds is a good idea.

    and i do agree that there might also be someone better suited to represent canadian amateur sports. but this is also the world we live in. name recognition and star power go a long way. you know that from the films you're trying to make. it's not always the best actor to represent a character in your movie. it's about the name power a famous actor can lend to your movie. and i'm sure you'd have no problem taking advantage of that name, and paying handsomely for it. but i still don't think that's a canadian value.

    ReplyDelete
  8. right. my point is that to say:

    "being canadian it seems, is about being bought and sold while still being able to keep a smile on your face."

    is quite inaccurate. if that's the case then that's what being from almost any country is about. look at tennis's Feder (switzerland), or soccer's Beckham (england), or hundreds of american examples. this is what professional athletes DO in this world. some are more careful then others, but i do think it's hard to judge them on their endorsement deals as we have no idea what it's like to be in their shoes. it's also hard to judge the value system of the nation that that athlete comes from. i think it's a interesting thing to talk about though; the value system of a nation, but to me it's misses the mark to say that to be canada is "about being bought or sold while keeping a smile on your face." that may speak to part of the human condition, but not really to the differences between countries values. or perhaps i'm wrong. maybe that's what being canadian is about and i'd just like not to think so. either way it's doesn't ring true to my ears.

    i think that there is a innate understanding, even in children, that what athletes endorse is part of the business of sports and doesn't really effect the inspirational quality of their being or accomplishments. i remember watching roberto alomar on commercials as a kid, and to this day i still don't remember what the hell the commercials were for. and he was my favorite baseball player. i find that as we get older and our opinions get stronger, that's when their deals bother us and we note what product gretzky seems to be hawking.

    while i agree that all of the western world is money and materially obsessed, and athletes cash grab is certainly a part of that, i don't think it's a cut and dry canadian issue. canada is certainly trying to keep up in this insane world, and perhaps the core of western values is rotten. perhaps capitalism is pure evil. but as far as gretzky is concerned, i think canadians, and the world take it for granted that athletes endorse things for money. it's pretty obvious to me that he doesn't ACTUALLY think eating macdonalds is a good idea.

    and i do agree that there might also be someone better suited to represent canadian amateur sports. but this is also the world we live in. name recognition and star power go a long way. you know that from the films you're trying to make. it's not always the best actor to represent a character in your movie. it's about the name power a famous actor can lend to your movie. and i'm sure you'd have no problem taking advantage of that name, and paying handsomely for it. but i still don't think that's a canadian value.

    ReplyDelete