The lockout has driven hockey bloggers batty looking for things to talk about, and thus Chris Lund wonders whether the IIHF should impose stricter citizenship requirements, given that the Croatian National Team has a guy from Halifax named Kenny MacAulay on it. His argument is that this impairs the development of native Croatian hockey players because they don’t get top National Team spots.
While I heartily congratulate Lund on achieving a level of concern trolling that is rare even on the internet, let me say why I disagree. For one, I think the concern is invalid from a training point of view, since the training you get is probably not going to be mostly after you’re already on the national team roster. But even if it was, there’s good reason to ignore the advice. E., who actually has some second-hand experience in “non-traditional hockey countries,” points out in comments that foreign-born players can help develop native-born players by bringing in new skills, methods, strategies. She says the adoption of these methods works better, and is more likely to be accepted if the messenger is a player with some connection to both the “hockey power” and the “non-hockey power” world.
All of that seems true and enough to support rules that allow foreign-born players. I, however, want to go back to 1993, and talk about Ramosu, the Brazilian who played with Kawasaki Verdy and the Japanese National Team. Ramosu (born Ruy Ramos) came from Brazil to Japan to play soccer. He is (obviously, see picture) in no way ethnically Japanese. And yet, at least at my elementary school (where, to clarify, almost everyone was Japanese), he was the key for all of us caring about Japanese soccer. He was the reason we were all Verdy fans. And Verdy fandom is partly what inspired us to go out and play soccer most recesses and lunches. Sure, there were downsides to caring about the Daihyo. I remember the day after the disastrous stoppage-time goal to Iraq that tied the game and put Japan out of the running for World Cup 1994. We were sitting counting rice (did I mention Japanese school is not very fun?) and everyone felt as terrible as if they’d just lost an election. But we couldn’t help it – we cared about soccer. We played soccer because we wanted to be like the crazy, cool, mysterious Ramosu. Part of that craziness, coolness, mystery, was that he wasn’t a native-born Japanese, of course, but we weren’t that stupid: we liked him because he was better than the other players.
And, look, I think my school wasn’t the only place where this transformation happened. You can see the effect of that popularity of soccer: probably no one at our school ended up being all that good at soccer (I certainly didn’t), but some kids did. The “next crop” of Japanese soccer players was markedly better. Now, the Japanese men’s team is ranked #24 in the world – and they haven’t missed a world cup since that disaster in 1993. The women’s team is even better – they are #3 in the world and defending World Cup champions. To attribute all or even much of that to Ramosu would be crazy. The big change was the creation of the J-League, of course. But to attribute none of it to Ramosu isn’t right, either. If Kenny MacAulay (or whoever) can do that for Croatian hockey, that’s worth much more than a National Team roster spot.
So maybe this plan has some problems: it’s kinda hard to imagine a Canadian, let alone a Canadian hockey player, becoming a celebrity that can excite a nation. But, hey, maybe it’s worth a shot? At the very least, what if MacAulay (or whoever), after retiring, starts his own hockey school in Zagreb? That’s gonna be worth a lot in player development.
So to me the roster spot is not a concern. What might be a concern is that this isn’t a good way of evaluating which countries are “honestly” best at hockey in some biological way. But why is that so important? After all, one might argue that being a country someone wants to come and represent is an achievement, too. This is a weaker argument, and so I don’t know for sure how I would feel about cases of player “poaching” between elite teams. But other than in terms of this rather arbitrary type of birth fairness (which I think is overrated anyway), there’s a lot of potential good from Canadian-Croatians playing on Croatia’s national team, and not a lot of bad.