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The Burden of Sport Heritage

Typically, when a sports organization represents it’s heritage, it is normally done for good reasons – or, at least reasons that benefit the organization.  Whether it be honouring past championships or superstars, famous games or performances, or even unveiling some form of retro jersey or souvenir, the organization is meant gain something through representing something of it’s past – be it legitimacy, loyalty and, often, some financial benefit.

Which is why two recent heritage-based stories from the National Hockey League are so strange.  Two teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers – both of which can boast of famous moments, players, and championship teams from their pasts – decided to remove many of the heritage “markers” from their dressing room/players lounge areas of their respective arenas.  In each case, the decision was made to remove the reminders of past glories in order to relieve the current players of, in essence, the burden of the teams’ glorious heritage.  Both were couched as “changes in culture” – and, perhaps it is not a coincidence that neither team has had much success in recent years.  Ultimately, the Maple Leafs decided to leave their heritage markers in place after a public backlash (The Oilers’ decision happened this past weekend, so it remains to be seen if the public in Edmonton reacts similarly to Toronto) but what makes these decisions strange is not that these teams cherry picked their pasts to address current needs and concerns (of course, if we understand heritage as the present use of the past, then this is the case with all heritage representations) but that these two teams seem to have abandoned heritages that, frankly, have been wildly successful.

I will admit to not knowing the uses of the Maple Leafs heritage as well as the Oilers, but I do know that the Air Canada Centre – the Maple Leafs home arena – is a repository of Leaf’s heritage.  Even though the arena is a little under twenty years old and hasn’t witnessed much hockey success the past two decades, it seamlessly adopted the heritage of the beloved Maple Leaf Gardens.  The last Maple Leafs Stanley Cup in 1967 is lore in the city of Toronto, though in the ensuing decades there have been many Leafs players that the fans have grown to love and honour as integral aspects to the team’s heritage.  In fact, it could be said that the Leaf’s heritage is one of its main assets – they were, essentially, English Canada’s team when the NHL was only six franchises and, as such, they formed a strong bond with hockey supporters across Canada.

In the case of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was one of the most dynamic and successful sports teams (not just hockey teams) during the 1980s and early 1990s.  They boasted some of the greatest players in the history of the NHL – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr to name just a few.  A decade ago, they purposefully commodified their history, creating an event called The Heritage Classic, an outdoor hockey game that brought back many of their former star players to play one last time (the organization also made a significant amount of money from the event, likely in the order of $6M CAD).  Simply put, the “glory days” for the Oilers is one of their prized possessions – and, one in which the organization has used particularly in bad times to remind fans to keep supporting the team.

In sport heritage, as with all heritage, organizations have inherited good legacies and bad legacies.  Normally, organizations will chose to represent the heritage that helps them today (no one at the Oilers waxes nostalgic for the mid 1990s, for example, when the team was terrible, the arena was empty, and the franchise nearly relocated to Houston).  But, it is strange for sports organizations to so hotly reject glorious legacies; legacies that have been very useful, that are popular, and that have become touchstones for supporters – whether they witnessed them or not.  It is assumed that heritage can be a commodity in sport – from banner-rasings of retired numbers, to stadium constructions that mimic historic facilities, to the plethora of retro (or retro-looking) apparel and memorabilia. I never thought I would see two organizations, steeped in heritage, that would see positive legacies as liabilities and actively choose to be, in essence, ahistorical.

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