I opened a recent copy of Sports Illustrated and read an article by one of their best writers. He surveyed a number of people whom he respected to pick the best covers in the history of the magazine. With a 56-year history of publishing weekly, my mathematics lead me to conclude there were approximately 3,000 covers to choose from.
Thirty covers were selected for the elite group. Most of them exhibited the top athletes of the era in individual poses, but the overall winner was somewhat different. It was the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team in the midst of an on-ice celebration of their gold medal victory in the “Miracle on Ice” in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Significantly, the celebration of a championship hockey team superseded all other events depicted on Sports Illustrated covers. Not bad for a sport sometimes referred to as second tier or regional in the United States. The result is similar to a 2000 survey that chose the Lake Placid victory as the greatest American sports moment of the 20th century.
Let’s look at the Canadian situation. A 2000 poll in Canada named the 1972 victory of Team Canada over the Soviet Union in the Summit Series as Canada’s top sports moment. I have no doubt that the most famous sports photo in Canadian history would be Paul Henderson scoring the winning goal in that series. The only other sports photo in the running would be the famous shot of Bobby Orr flying through the air after his 1970 overtime goal gave the Boston Bruins their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.
It is important to note both the Henderson and Orr goals were not primarily celebrated as individual achievements. Rather, they stood the test of time as depictions of great team triumphs. As with the 1980 USA Olympic team, the championship itself was the accomplishment. The individual goals were component parts of realizing the championship dream.
Hockey players are raised with different values. They do not enter the NHL as “potential Hall of Famers” who concentrate on achieving 500 home runs or triple-doubles or 100-yard games. Instead, impressive newcomers are examined closely to see if they could become “franchise players.” One of the major trademarks of an NHL franchise player is that he can lead his team to the Stanley Cup. That is the most sought after characteristic of a top-level hockey player. Can he play a key role in winning a Stanley Cup?
No sports Hall of Fame is revered more than that of baseball. So-called experts state that you have to go purely by the numbers. Selectors for the Hockey Hall of Fame take a somewhat different course. Their committee chairman states quite openly that they consider a candidates’ contributions to team championships as an important criteria for being selected.
Some marketing experts in the U.S. believe hockey does not do an adequate job of marketing its key players. From a marketing standpoint, the criticism has some merit. However, the implications of such marketing are foreign to the hockey culture. Even the best players have always been marketed as great players for their respective teams. In the hockey culture, great players derive their identity from being an important part of a strong team.
Look at the different approaches in the NBA and the NHL. Basketball clearly focuses on its greatest players to entice fans to go to games. Hockey emphasizes team success. At the trade deadline, NBA teams try to roll the dice and add an elite player who can provide leadership. NHL teams are more likely to attempt the addition of a depth player. NHL GMs understand the rigors of a Stanley Cup run and use this approach to augment their depth in order to fulfill team objectives.
As we have seen in other areas, hockey, in this case, is different. The nature of our game and the people who play it are what give hockey its unique culture. Let’s celebrate our differences and make our sport a leader in the changing dynamics of modern-day life.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.