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On European skill, North American heart, and tired cliches

In an intermission interview with TSN Radio at the World Hockey Championships, Jim Benning said, “ We want European skill with North American heart .
Shadowy Jim Benning

In an intermission interview with TSN Radio at the World Hockey Championships, Jim Benning said, “We want European skill with North American heart.”

Unsurprisingly, that phrase got a whole lot of attention, as various people pointed out the offensive implications of his words: "heart" is an innately North American trait and Europeans, as a general rule, don't have it. This was followed by the completely expected backlash from those who saw nothing wrong with the statement or thought it was taken out of context.

In context, Benning was responding to a question about the size of the ice surface in Europe as compared to in North America. That doesn’t really make what he said any better.

It's also something that is said all the time in hockey circles and Benning said it very casually, almost as an aside. That doesn’t make it any better either.

I get it: it’s just shorthand for describing the type of player Benning wants. It’s a quick and easy way to say “skilled, but tough” or, in regards to the context he said it in, “capable of playing on a smaller ice surface.”

I’m just so tired of “European” being shorthand for “soft and skilled” and “North American” being shorthand for “gritty and tough.” It’s lazy, it’s insulting, and it hints at some unexamined and alarming underlying beliefs.

If a player from Europe is gritty and tough and plays with heart, it’s not because he plays like he was born in Scarborough, Ontario or St. Paul, Minnesota. If a Canadian has soft hands, it’s not because he’s secretly a Swede.

So can we please just retire this tired cliche?

If Jim Benning means that he wants European players whose style of play will adapt well to smaller ice in the NHL, he can just say that. He doesn’t have to use the phrase “North American heart.” It’s not a big deal. Just don’t say it. Don't say that dumb thing. Because it's dumb.

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