Mike Smith, then of the Chicago Blackhawks, talks on the phone during the 2003 NHL Entry Draft in Nashville.
My first NHL job was as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers in 1976. On most Mondays the players had an East-West Game. Players from Ontario comprised the East and ones from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia made up the West. How about the players from Quebec and the Maritimes? Well, they were considered to be somewhat less equal, but this was all done with good humor.
There was clearly a sense of superiority linked to where you came from. Yes, good humor, but also divisive.
A few years later, Americans began to arrive in growing numbers. Evidently, it was common knowledge the Yanks were lesser players. One Washington Capital even went so far to say: “Americans are taking Canadian jobs.” How dare Americans be bold enough to think they could be NHLers. It was pretty hard to have an East-West-South game.
The 1980s ushered in a significant influx of Europeans. First to arrive were the Swedes and Finns. Quickly labeled “chickens,” they were surely lacking the masculinity needed to play at the NHL level.
Next came the Czechs and Slovaks. Their unfortunate fate was quickly dictated by the fact that their country was ruled by the Soviet Union. Surely they should stay at home and fight the Red Army. Ah, another group not good enough to play in the league.
The late ‘80s brought the Russians where each man was no doubt a communist; and the NHL could not have any “commies.” No doubt the ghosts of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin would haunt the corridors of the rinks. No Russians; definitely no Russians.
It seems from the different perspectives of many people then, you were not of sufficient qualities if you were from the 10 Canadian provinces, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia or Russia. Where would the players come from? Germany? Switzerland? Where?
You may think this story borders on fiction, but unfortunately it does not.
Ethnic/geographic biases clearly did exist, and probably still do for a shrinking number of hockey people.
But if you ask any player what they want in a teammate, the good person will say two things: First, will he improve our team? Second, is he a good guy?
What else is important?
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.