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Cornered Coach: Stand on Guard for Thee


It's one of the best memories of any hockey parent's life.

The first time your little Gretzky or Wickenheiser-wannabe stands at attention for "O Canada.”

A lot of Canadian kids first strike the pose in the basement – the prelude to chasing a tennis ball around with a mini-stick. It's learned behaviour from gathering around the tube on a Saturday night with the entire clan watching "Hockey Night in Canada.” But you can also get first-hand anthem experience at the local rink. Our family spends a lot of time at historic old St. Michael's Arena in Toronto, home of the Junior A Buzzers. We usually sit right behind the net and, when they were really young, our two little lads would leap to their feet for the playing of "O Canada,” rocking back and forth from one foot to another just like the "big guys" on the ice. Our seats are right in the line of sight of the Buzzers bench, and the players would always get a big grin on their face when the kids would break into their anthem routine.

Lately, however, national anthems and smiles aren't such a natural fit.

NFL Quarterback Colin Kaepernick got the ball rolling last season, taking a knee during "The Star Spangled Banner" to protest racial inequality in the United States. This season, with allegations that Kaepernick has been black-balled by the NFL, more and more pro athletes have joined the cause, which was fueled even further after President Donald Trump ripped players who, in his opinion, disrespect the flag.

The issue is obviously complex, as it revolves around the always-contentious issue of free speech. 

My own speech on free speech?

It has always struck me as kind of funny that most people strongly believe in free speech – unless, of course, what somebody else is saying doesn't fall in line with their own beliefs, and then it gets a little dicey.

One of the schools of thought to come out of the current debate is that we should just go ahead and eliminate the national anthem before sporting events. The idea being, of course, that if you remove the anthem, you take away to opportunity to protest.

It seems like an easy move to make and, besides, the anti-anthem crowd can come up with other reasons for its dismissal.

In the NHL, for instance, players come from all corners of the globe –Canada, The United States, Russia, Sweden, etc. So why should we 

just play "O Canada" when Montreal's American captain Max Pacioretty and his Canadiens are hosting Ottawa's Swedish captain Erik Karlsson and the Senators? 

In the interests of "free speech,” I'll respect that argument. But I'd also point out that Pacioretty, Karlsson and all of the transplanted shinny superstars from around the globe are making a pretty nice living here in North America. So, is it really that difficult for them to take a two-minute timeout before the opening face-off to pay tribute to the land of opportunity and big puck bucks?

Just because something is the easy thing to do, it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

Yes, the national anthem has become a hot button issue in sports. A lot of military personnel take great offence with athletes who refuse to stand during the anthem. However, many other people from the armed forces have come forward to state that an athlete having the freedom to take a knee is the very reason they decided to defend their country in the first place.

The fact of the matter?

Once people experience freedom, it's very difficult to set limits on how they choose to express it.

Suddenly, the national anthem has become a crucial stage for the whole idea of freedom of speech.

And guess what?

That's  a big part of what the song is all about.

We've all seen adults keeping their ball caps on, stuffing their faces with nachos and discussing the home team's power play – all while "O Canada" echoes around the rink.

And yes, we've all watched cute little kids rocking back and forth, just like the big guys down on the ice.

But in light of the current climate, all of us will actually begin to think about what the words to our national anthem really represent.

Because, in the end, a song worth fighting over is probably worth keeping around.

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