Last week, Edmonton came to a virtual standstill as Alberta’s capital city honoured a “hero.”
Was the two day love-in to honour a firefighter who rushed into a burning building at his own peril to save the life of a trapped child? Or perhaps to remember fallen police officers who died in the line of duty?
Or maybe the celebrations were to recognize the accomplishments of a scientist who discovered a new therapy to prevent Down Syndrome, the developmental disability that strikes more than 1 in 800 children? Then again, just as worthy of honour would be the two sons who each donated part of their lung to their ailing mother, suffering from incurable lung disease.
No, Edmonton wasn’t honouring any of these brave and courageous men and women. The hero who got front page and lead story coverage from every newspaper and television news station in the city, and a road and arena named after him too, was Mark Messier, the 45-year old Edmonton-born athlete who now makes his home in the United States.
Most Edmontonians had little to say about the blue and orange Messier banners flying in Winston Churchill Square, or St. Albert proclaiming February 27th Mark Messier Day. But the renaming of a 3km section of St. Albert Trail, the artery linking Edmonton to the northern satellite city, had residents seeing red.
Three historical societies formally complained, and scores of Edmontonians wrote scathing letters of outrage to the newspaper and city council, objecting to renaming the historic highway after a hockey player.
A lot of shots were fired. Of dozens of letters to the editor, one sent to The Edmonton Journal summed up the general feeling — the writer suggested the city name the departure lounge at the international airport after Mark Messier. Guess some fans haven’t forgotten that Messier ditched low-paying Edmonton back in the ’90s to play for the New York Rangers and went on to earn a reported $60 million.
Messier didn’t win any new fans, either, when he told an Edmonton reporter that he envisions himself as the next GM of the New York Rangers, but of course only when Glen Sather retires or gets canned. It was a cocky slap in the face to the city that was in the throes of honouring him, even as he made plans to move his family from Hilton Head, S.C. to the Big Apple. “New York fits best for me and my family,” Messier said.
If big ego is a big problem for professional athletes, it’s at least partly our own fault. For many little boys across Canada, and many big boys who should know better too, hockey players are the most amazing of heroes, talented and skilled athletes who walk on water because they skate on ice. This is true for many professional sports — football, hockey, basketball, baseball, and definitely wrestling. But hockey players aren’t heroes. Like all professional athletes, they are talented, lucky, competitive men with generally very little education and even fewer teeth. They aren’t brain surgeons, they aren’t astronauts, they don’t run into burning buildings and save lives, they don’t lead their fellow soldiers on a rescue mission in Afghanistan, but they do get paid outrageous sums of money to hit a black disc of vulcanized rubber around with a stick.
And as we found out in 2005, Canadians can survive without their hockey, even if we don’t like it very much. In 2005, the NHL became the first major pro sports league in North America to cancel a season from start to finish, because the league wanted a US $42.5 million per team salary cap, and the players’ union wouldn’t budge from a US $49 million per team cap with a luxury tax clause. Women rejoiced, because their significant others were no longer glued to the television night after night, yelling and swearing at the idiot box.
Fans found new heroes. Attendance at little league and junior hockey soared and younger athletes got a little more credit where it was due. Odds are, a lot of little boys and girls saw a lot more of their fathers. The stereotypical hockey couch potato, with his bag of chips and his beer, had new motivation to live life, not just as a spectator, but as a player, showing his kid how real hockey was played long before it became a multi-million dollar business. At the very least, a lot of fans realized any hockey is good hockey, and has nothing to do with how much money the players playing get paid.
But in North America, the idea persists that hockey players aren’t just athletes, but celebrities and heroes. It’s not because the most popular place to get coffee and donuts in Canada, good old Timmie’s, was named after a hockey player. Or even because hockey has its own holiday, of sorts — Hockey Day in Canada, when the CBC covers hockey for a full programming day.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve lost genuine opportunities for courage. It’s true that ordinary men don’t find much call to be heroes. There are no bears to slay, prey to kill, castles to protect. There’s not much need for shining armour and white horses, and a short supply of stranded distressed damsels in tight corsets to rescue. But surely we can find better examples of heroes than hockey players. There must be noble and worthy people to name roads after, people who are simply making the world a better place.
Messier once elbowed Soviet hockey player Vladimir Kovin so hard he broke most of the bones in the Russian’s face. But all was forgiven (or forgotten) as Team Canada won that game, then went on to trounce Sweden and win the 1984 Canada Cup. In game four of the Stanley Cup semifinal, in Chicago in 1990, Messier threw his weight around, elbowing and pushing past opponents, prompting then-Blackhawks coach Mike Keenan to say Messier “deserved 15 stick penalties.” But The Oilers won that game too, and they desperately wanted that victory, to stand a hope in hell of winning their fifth Stanley Cup, without their golden boy, Wayne Gretzky. Back then, former Oilers teammate Dave Hunter spoke in glowing terms about Messier, saying he was “like a pit bull . . . he could burn you with his speed, pop you with his stick or drop his gloves and beat you with his fists. . .”
That’s all part of the game. But is it part of being a hero? Is a hero someone who wins at any cost? Is a hero someone who pounds on someone else for sport? Has our society been sucked into a cult of celebrity, where a hero is anyone rich, famous, beautiful, or in abundant supply of athletic ability and talent?
The age-old definition of a hero is someone who sacrifices himself for the greater good. A hero uses his life to make the world a better place. A hero is courageous, brave, and noble. A hero performs a heroic act, like saving the life of a drowning child, a pregnant mother, or an incapacitated senior citizen. A hero gives a perfect stranger on the street CPR for 10 minutes without tiring until an ambulance arrives. A hero tackles an armed robber in a bank before he shoots the teller. A hero opens a door for an elderly lady, or returns a large sum of money in a lost wallet. A hero dives into frozen waters to pull out a child who’s fallen in. A lot of people say their father is their hero, standing as a shining example of everything a real man should be — kind, compassionate, strong, wise, and honorable. Or, their mother — nurturing, selfless, devoted, and always there.
u’ll know a true hero when you see him. He’ll be risking his life for someone else, or overcoming enormous obstacles to accomplish something worthy, and he won’t want any reward or recognition for doing it. He will be doing something to make the lives of those around him, his community, or his world, a better place. Most importantly, most heroes are just ordinary people, who through chance or opportunity, do something extraordinary.
Next week in Living, I’ll bring you some real Canadian Heroes.
If you think there’s a hero that should be on the list, and you
can keep it short and sweet, drop me a note.