I went off to war during the NHL lockout of ‘04-’05 and missed what could have been a great distraction from the every day realities of the war in Iraq.  For Smythe, a man who loved the war effort and who nearly sank his beloved Maple Leafs as he strongly encouraged (if not forced) enlistment during WWII, war was a reality not a metaphor.  In WWI Smythe was taken as a prisoner of war and held by German forces for four years.

In a few days the captain of a championship team will hoist the Stanley Cup and skate around a sheet of ice celebrating what is arguably the most valued prize in all of sport.  Shortly-there-after, the NHL commissioner will announce the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy, for the MVP of the playoffs.  This is a great honor won by only 40 players in the 46 times it has been given out since it was introduced in the 1964-65 season.

Conn Smythe’s triumphs as founder, owner, general manager, coach, and practical god of the Toronto Maple Leafs will more than likely never be forgotten as they are enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada.  What though is said of the legacy of Smythe’s “lost four years” that he spent as a prisoner of war during World War I? 

Today the National Hockey League exists in a sports culture that consistently offers us athletes as warriors without an understanding of the implications behind these false comparisons. Not only does it lift athletes to an unobtainable level in the minds of our youth, but it also downplays the horrors that are the realities of war for real people.  

Let’s make some realities very clear and dispel some major rhetoric right now.  Sports are nothing like war.  At the end of a hockey game the (winning or losing) teams are not burying their dead.  Maybe the most offensive of the war terminology for hockey is in the term sudden death.  The idea is that on the next goal the team that scored will win and the team being scored upon will lose.  But that’s just it, win or lose there is no death.  I have lost friends to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have participated in the killing of Iraqis — it was never winning.  

I would hope that the term “sudden victory” could replace sudden death because it better describes the situation.  The UFC has learned this well and the NHL should consider how their language affects its fans.  

Some war metaphors are just fine by me.  Take the phrase “battling for the puck” for example.  A fan will hear this a multitude of times during any given game as the puck goes into the corners or when there is a race for it at open ice, and I think it is just fine.  The players are fighting and battling for the puck, but no one will die as a result and so it is not a war.  Therefore even as the players battle for the puck they are not warriors.  furthermore when they prepare for a game they are not preparing for battle or war.  They are preparing to play a game.  This may be splitting hairs to some, but it is more a complex. understanding of the situation at hand.

Language is important and the politics of hockey are forever with the game so let’s embrace it all.  Let’s have an open informed dialogue about the issues in our game.  We need to more fully understand the complexities in our sport.  Given that the Conn Smythe Trophy is about to be awarded, I think it is a great time to critically analyze its namesake.  Smythe was a hockey visionary, a war veteran, but also a racist and sexist.  If we are to celebrate his hockey genius then we must also understand his failings as a person. Taken together, Smythe can help guide us through the complexities of heroes, wars, sports, and the true meaning of sudden death.

POPSspot sincerely welcomes Geoff Millard as a POPSspot writer and contributor. He is a hockey aficionado, war veteran, and he currently fights against homelessness right here on American soil. His perspective is our privilege.

One Response to The Hockey Warrior Myth vs. The Ignored Story of POW Conn Smythe

  1. Alan says:

    Conn Smythe was a hockey visionary, a war veteran (rather, a war hero), and maybe even a racist and sexist. He latter two, however, are somewhat of an unfair label.

    Symthe was nothing more than a product of his generation. Women, non-whites and non-protestants were second-class citizens in the eyes of his generation. In fact, it is difficult to find an Canadian hero of the time who didn’t subscribe to similar cultural beliefs.

    All-in-all, Major Symthe was a Canadian patriot who deserves our respect and admiration. Like any historical figure, Symthe’s legacy must be looked upon in context of his time, not using 21st century beliefs and values. That would be completely unfair.

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