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Exceptionalism – the precursor of our downfall

September 21, 2020

Exceptionalism! I’m referring to Canadian exceptionalism.

“Huh?” you say. There is no such thing as Canadian exceptionalism. Just a middle-of-the-road horse-with-no-name kind of saloon. We’re not special, certainly not exceptional. Perhaps the only thing anywhere close to exceptional in Canada is our modesty. Our modesty is a thing to be marveled, for sure. It’s our finest quality… we’ve got the best modesty… perhaps better than any modesty known ever before in the history of the world.

To be clear, there may well be something for which Canada is exceptional… but the Commission to study that possibility has not yet been struck. Exceptionalism is something, when we’re in our right minds, we try not to think or talk about too much. We’ve been down that path before, and thinking straight, are now prudent to steer clear.

In the Summer of 1972, Canada absolutely DOMINATED the world of hockey. That year, there were 378 players in the NHL. 359 of them were Canadian. That’s 95%. Ninety-five per cent of the best hockey players in the world were Canadian. Now, that’s exceptional!

Actually, it’s more than exceptional. It’s also exceptionalism, the real or imagined ‘perception’ of superiority. Our collective mistake was in seeing the NHL as ‘the world’.

Much to our surprise, we were wrong… and wrong in a big way. Success, coupled with complacency, is one of the best predictors of failure. While we were spinning around our own reputation, the rest of the world was quietly at work, catching up, and in some cases, passing us by.

The Summit Series of September, 1972 was an eight-game hockey series fought between the best Canadians in the NHL and the National team of the Soviet Union.

This series was heavily promoted by Alan Eagleson. Eagleson was a player agent, and had his fingers in every pot of honey that existed in the world of hockey. He is now seen by many as a swamp-dweller who, with a promise to drain the swamp, could sell like there was no tomorrow, and did. In the beginning, he was the catalyst in creation of the NHL Players Association, ostensibly representing the little guys in the battle with the big guys. In the end, he was accused of embezzling player pension funds, disability insurance benefits, and writing off huge sums of personal expenses against the holdings of the NHL players he claimed to represent. In the end, Alan Eagleson was for Alan Eagleson. In the end, he was charged by the FBI with “34 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, embezzlement and fraud in the United States”. He did prison time in Canada, though not nearly enough, in my view.

But I digress… maybe…

Like every other 15 year-old kid in Canada who’d never traveled outside of the country, I knew… I just knew, that this was going to be an eight game rout. There was no way the Russians could bring the game to us. Created 200 years ago by a couple of out-of-work Zamboni drivers, this is our game (or so we believed). We invented it (that’s disputable). We own it (check that on Bay Street/Wall Street). And no one will ever take it away from us. (Don’t look now, but our exceptionalism got very badly punked in 1972.)

While we simple Canadians were basking in our glory, naively electing ourselves champions of the world, the Russians were busy interfering with our election, and ultimately served notice that we were no longer exceptional. 

As it turned out, we won that series, with 4 wins, 3 losses, and one tie. It took us to the last 34 seconds in the eighth game to secure that victory, so in one respect, this was a huge loss. Exceptionalism is the delusion of those rising to the pinnacle in any pursuit. In short, we delusional Canadians were schooled in the science of athletics by exceptional performers who appeared to us as from another planet. Their science-based successors now dominate every nook and cranny of the world of sport.

This may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. In the end, it is what it is.

You’re only at the top until you’re no longer at the top.

When you think you’ve arrived, your journey is over. Step aside so someone else can get by.

Today, only 43% of NHL players (295 of 690) are Canadian born. We’re still a leading contender, but it’s not just “our game” anymore. We taught the world to play. Regularly, the world returns the favour. The entire landscape of the world is changing with each passing day. Exceptionalism is an early warning sign. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Can we read the signs?

I’ve chosen here to employ the traditional, courteous, self-deprecating Canadian voice, known also as passive-aggressive. As always, I’m trying hard to be nice… or at least, to appear nice. Sorry we stole all those Emmys last night. Modest… and funny as well, it seems.

Kevin Graham

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