Organizers of the World Cup of Hockey spent part of Wednesday grappling over whether or not national anthems would be played prior to games in the upcoming tournament. It was one of those things that, until recently, was a minor detail that needed to be worked out. But with the Colin Kaepernick situation and John Tortorella threatening to bench any player who refused to stand for the national anthem, it has become an issue that needs to be addressed.
Ultimately, organizers decided the national anthems of each participating team will be played prior to the game. In the case of the under-23 Team North America, they will play both the Canadian and American national anthems. But Team Europe will not get "any form of musical tribute." As is the case with anything involving the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, there are multi layers or approvals and vetting that need to be done.
And as Ron Burgundy observed in Anchorman, “Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”
First, you had Kaepernick taking part in what was originally a quiet protest with his decision not to stand for The Star Spangled Banner because of his feelings towards the treatment of African Americans by the police and justice system in the United States. The usual firestorm of criticism followed, with people bringing in disrespect for the military into the equation, all the while somehow conveniently forgetting that one of the rights for which those brave people fought was the right to sit during the national anthem as a matter of choice. Then Tortorella, the Columbus Blue Jackets coach who is also handling the coaching duties for Team USA in the World Cup, was asked about it and responded by saying he’d bench any player who refused to stand for the national anthem. The Stephen A. Smith of ESPN said Tortorella’s stand was “un-American,” and that, “He should be stripped of his duties and he shouldn’t be allowed to represent the United States of America.”
Tortorella then doubled down on his comments, and Canadian coach Mike Babcock dismissed the whole thing saying nothing like that would ever happen in Canada. Although it would be interesting to see what First Nations players in Canada think of standing for a national anthem belonging to a country that essentially committed cultural genocide on an entire race of people.
But the real point is, this shouldn’t even be a debate. Why do we even have national anthems played before hockey games anyway? Consider this. In International Ice Hockey Federation events, where players are representing their home countries and playing against one another for little more than national pride, there are no national anthems played before the game. Never has, and probably never will. There was some discussion over whether national anthems would be played prior to games at the Olympics in Sochi, but it was decided to go with the status quo, which calls for the anthem of the winning team to be played after the game.
And that’s as it should be. People go to hockey games to be entertained and to watch the best athletes on the planet compete against one another. Full stop. They do not go to have a dose of nationalism shoved down their throats. Some people love national anthems and everything they represent, and that’s fine. Others are ambivalent about it. (Full disclosure: Your trusty correspondent has, on occasion, sat and continued to work through national anthems when on a tight deadline.)
Chances are, this won’t become an issue in the NHL, but the league has to be prepared to deal with it if it does. How would it look upon a coach who benched a player for something that had nothing to do with his performance on the ice or his behavior off it? You’d think that if Tortorella, or any other coach for that matter, benched a player for an NHL game for not standing for the national anthem, that player would have pretty good grounds for a grievance against the league.
So here’s a solution. The national anthem isn’t necessary when players are playing for their countries, so why should it be for NHL games? The NHL has always prided itself on being different from the other sports. Indeed, hockey seems to wear its outlier status as a badge of honor sometimes. So why not become the first sports league in North America that ends the outdated and needless ritual of playing national anthems before games?