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Mark Hill: Don’t like dictators and domestic abusers? Shh!—the NHL has money to make


The NHL has concluded its All-Star festivities, marking the start of the season’s home stretch and the eve of interminable jokes about the Maple Leafs’ playoff struggles. While Toronto’s woes are the closest Canada has to a Homeric epic, the league is valiantly fighting its own mighty battle against fun and taste. 

Viewership is down for a variety of reasons I won’t bore you with, but those still tuning in are increasingly cognisant of the fact that the NHL’s greatest priority is to remind fans that Canadian Tire and Nestle are still extant. The continued use of aggressive digital board ads has annoyed everyone aside from the supposed silent majority commissioner Gary Bettman insists take no umbrage; players and pucks vanish in them, their sudden movements distract from the play, and they’re apparently a threat to the epileptic

It’s arguably ridiculous to pine for the good old days of advertising, but it could be charming to see what local businesses popped up on the boards as you followed your team through a road trip. Now every rink feels like an identical construct that exists to badger you about Tim Hortons, and I’ll have fewer opportunities to warn outsiders that Pizza 73 tastes like cardboard and regret.   

If you aren’t too distracted by the overactive digital boards sucking pucks and players into the shadow realm, you’ll probably notice that more and more of the latter are sporting advertisements on their helmets and jerseys. They haven’t yet become the moving billboards of European hockey, but they’re still vandalizing beauty. The Hockey Sweater loses much of its impact if you imagine its sacred jerseys shilling RBC at the reader. 

Hockey is a business, and the NHL would make players pull the Stanley Cup out of a Subway bag if they thought viewers would tolerate it. The league will keep profiting, and Canadians will keep watching, if only because we need to keep believing that our continued march toward liver failure will eventually be justified with a championship. There was probably a cadre of fans who complained that the introduction of the forward pass ruined the game they knew and loved, yet the sport survived. But then there’s Alexander Ovechkin, who the league continues to fête for toppling Gordie Howe as the number two goalscorer in history.   

Ovechkin is both one of the greatest hockey players ever and a long-time chum of Vladimir Putin, and the NHL’s handling of this dichotomy has passed beyond annoyance and into moral cowardice. When Russia seized Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, Ovechkin dutifully posed on Instagram with a sign stating “#SaveChildrenFromFascism,” the pathetic propaganda line the Kremlin trotted out to justify their revanchist land grab. In 2017, Ovechkin led the charge on a social media campaign to pump Putin’s tires before his 2018 re-coronation. 

Whenever Ovechkin is asked about this, he insists he’s an apolitical athlete (presumably he hoped to save children from naturally occurring fascism). He’s made mealymouthed calls for peace, but has also reiterated his support for Putin. A smiling picture of the pair still adorns his Instagram profile. It’s true that it would be difficult for Ovechkin to disengage himself from Putin’s machine. It’s also true that other Russian celebrities, like singer Alla Pugacheva, have made the painful decision to protest the war while using their financial resources to insulate themselves from the fallout of their stance. 

Ovechkin is just another man who will have to live with the consequences of his poor opinions, but it’s cowardly for the NHL to continue celebrating him. Treat him like any other player, sure, but don’t produce cutesy bobbleheads, market videos of his son at the all-star game, profit from overpriced photos of his historic goal, and make him the star of a high-profile outdoor game. Ovechkin may have scored more than Howe, but only one of them helped slander Ukraine as a country full of Nazis in need of rescue via murderous artillery bombardment. 

The NHL’s politics have always been those of convenience. This is the same league that continued to trot out Bobby Hull, who recently passed into the arms of the Lord so that Hull could try taking a swing at Him too, whenever the chronic domestic abuser could be crammed into a photo-op. But it’s disingenuous to pretend that hockey is apolitical after a Ukrainian team did a fundraising tour of Canada. We all know why they visited, and it wasn’t because they needed new skates. 

Don Cherry emerged from the cave to which he’d been banished to speak in Ovechkin’s defence, arguing that his critics “don’t care about hockey.” But you have to love hockey to sit through its obnoxious commercials every night. Right now, however, it’s hard to love a league that looks at a Putin apologist and just sees more dollar signs. 

Sean Speer: Despite all the attention, the health-care funding plan is not a big deal—and that’s a good thing


The elevation of single-payer health care to something of a national icon means that technocratic discussions about funding formulas and service delivery provisions tend to loom larger over our politics and society than they probably ought to. The wall-to-wall coverage of this week’s first ministers’ meeting is a case in point. 

If one strips back the political hyperbole and the tendency on the part of governments to obscure facts by mixing new and old funding and choosing long timeframes, the crux of the federal-provincial deal is itself not that big of a deal. And that’s actually a good thing. 

Let me explain but bear with me: it requires a bit of policy context including the evolution of the growth rate for the Canada Health Transfer over the past decade or so. 

The Harper government (of which I was part) inherited its predecessor’s 10-year health accord with the provinces which included a promise to increase the CHT by 6 percent annually. We sustained the commitment and even extended it for three more years. 

Yet Finance minister Jim Flaherty informed the provinces in December 2011 that thereafter CHT’s growth rate would be set based on a three-year rolling average of nominal GDP. The shift was designed to put CHT’s growth on a sustainable footing that tracked the economy on a cyclical basis. 

But we also included a 3-percent floor as an insurance policy. If for some reason nominal GDP dropped precipitously over a three-year period, federal transfers would remain stable. At the time, then-Prime Minister Harper asked Finance officials to check the historical data to see if such a scenario had ever occurred. Their answer was no: if the formula had been in place over previous decades, the 3-percent floor would have never been triggered. 

As Flaherty told the media and his provincial counterparts, the expectation was that under the new policy, the CHT’s annual growth rate would change from 6 percent to something approximating 4 or 4.5 percent on an ongoing basis. 

The pandemic confounded Finance’s analysis. The massive economic contraction caused by a public health crisis would have reduced the growth in federal health transfers at the precise moment that provincial health-care systems were facing once-in-a-lifetime pressures. The Trudeau government rightly stepped in to stabilize and ultimately augment federal health-care funding to the provinces. 

Then as the economy jolted out of the pandemic, the CHT’s growth rate grew along with it. At least for the next couple of years, tying the CHT’s growth to nominal GDP has the effect of essentially restoring its growth rate to roughly 5 or 6 percent. 

That brings us to this week’s federal announcement. The Trudeau government’s proposal is somewhat complicated involving a combination of a short-term boost and a medium-term increase to the escalator. But, according to University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe, the cumulative effect is to essentially raise the CHT’s floor from 3 percent to 5 percent and change its average annual growth from just over 4.5 percent in the baseline to just under 5.5 percent.  

Put differently: federal health transfers will now be a bit higher than they would have otherwise been in the coming years and a bit less than they were in the previous decade. We’ve essentially ended up somewhere between the growth rate under the 10-year health accord and where the Harper government set it back in 2011. 

It will translate into incremental health-care dollars—the federal government projects $46B over the next decade—spread across ten provinces. But it doesn’t fundamentally change the basic challenge facing provincial governments which is a structural gap between health-care supply and inexorable demand. 

In that sense, those who are understandably concerned that an infusion of federal funding would blunt the incentives to pursue the kind of reforms recently announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford can find some relief. The marginal increase in federal funding shouldn’t in and of itself cause provinces to abandon their reform ambitions. A one-percentage-point increase in the growth rate of federal health transfers is no substitute for solving the supply-demand disequilibrium at the heart of Canada’s health-care conundrum. 

The real question will be whether there are any incremental federal conditions attached to these funds. While there’s a strong case for loosening the pre-existing conditions under the Canada Health Act (including permitting greater experimentation with co-payments and other forms of extra billing), they haven’t been a major impediment to the recent string of provincial reforms to leverage greater private delivery within the single-payer model. 

If, however, these federal funds come with greater strings attached—especially given that they don’t fundamentally change the equation for the provinces—they would be wise to reject them. It wouldn’t be worth it. 

But if the extra dollars come with few conditions—and in fact, validate the current trajectory of provincial health-care reforms—then this week’s announcement is a mostly innocuous development that, notwithstanding the noise and attention, leaves us in the same position we were in last week. 

Meaningful health-care reform is ultimately going to come from the provinces using a mix of policy tools, including the private sector, to expand the supply of doctors, nurses, surgeries, tests, and so on. It was never going to come from Ottawa. And this week’s federal-provincial deal merely confirms it.