Saturday, December 23, 2006

Learned helplessness: A concept Hamilton NHL fans know all too well

The news
First, in case you have not heard, here is the breaking news that inspired this entry: Jim Balsillie discussed the possibility of bringing an NHL franchise to Hamilton with Gary Bettman last March (Paul Waldie, Globe and Mail, December 22nd, 2006).

Upon finding out what most of us had suspected, that Jim Balsillie was the person behind the mystery group trying to bring an NHL franchise to Hamilton, I became sad, very sad. Not because of Balsillie’s heroic act, but once again Hamilton was an arms length from landing an NHL team. It made me wonder if there is a circumstance, if any, that would land Hamilton an NHL team (apart from relocating our city to somewhere in the States, like Utah). When Copps Coliseum was the best arena in North America, there was too much politicking against such a move. Now that Copps is aged and looking tired (though it wouldn’t take much to raise this phoenix), Waldie reported that Bettman would consider a Hamilton team if Balsillie built a new arena. My brain could not believe what my eyes were reading, but my brain needed to make sense of what was happening. An epiphany: Hamiltonians are the dogs of the NHL.

Hamiltonians are the dogs of the NHL
So you might be thinking ‘I’m a Hamiltonian, but learned helplessness is not a concept I know all to well’. With some explaining, I assure you that you do. What has happened over the last, say, 20 years, has been a natural experiment following the behaviourist tradition. In the 1960’s, Martin Seligman conducted a series of experiments to better understand the causes of depression. There were two conditions. In the first condition, a dog was placed in a cage where a sound signaled the onset of an electrical shock. When the sound was made, the dog learned to avoid the shock by jumping over a small barrier to the other side. In the second condition, a dog was placed in the same cage, sound and shock were paired together, but this time there was nowhere for the dog to go to avoid the shock. Over and over again the sound was made, the shock was elicited, and the dog had to sit there and take it. Eventually, the dog just laid down and at least received the shock in a comfortable position. This sad response is learned helplessness.

Nothing Hamiltonians have done or tried to do over the past 20 years changed the outcome—there was always a reason the NHL would not go to Hamilton, even if these reasons were addressed. We built a state-of-the art arena, but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because of territorial rights to Toronto and Buffalo. We can get a wealthy owner (who could deal with territorial rights), but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because Copps Coliseum is old and a new arena needs to be built. We organized the best bid for an NHL franchise, but the NHL would not go to Hamilton because they wanted to negotiate how to pay the NHL. We can… well, you get the point (if not, see What we have learned from this NHL pursuit, my friends, is helplessness.

The consequence of helplessness is complacency, and I worry that too many Hamiltonians have become complacent when they do not have to be. The philosophy of an American-centric bureaucracy should not impede the interests of Canadians in general, nor Hamiltonians in particular. Hockey is Canada’s game, and all of us, from the Dofasco employee, to the Mayor, to business leaders, to all Canadians, should be lobbying the NHL to give us fair representation in a league that was ours.

Despite this rather depressing story, keep this in mind: we were dogs once before—Bulldogs in fact.

Jim Balsillie: Thank-you for your interest in bringing back Hamilton’s Tigers. You will be successful and revered if this ever works out.

Gary Bettman: You have an opportunity to make the NHL great, not good. Please learn from a successful businessperson like Jim Balsillie—a person who believes the NHL would work in Hamilton.

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