March 25, 2004
Less than 40 seconds to go. The home team is down by 2 points. Tension grows as the clock counts down. The players and referees dart back and forth, and the action never slows. This isn't some staid, gentlemanly game like chess or golf. This is a full-contact sport, a sport in which the difference between winning and losing is a matter of wits, reflexes, subterfuge, and luck. Occasionally fists fly and blood flows.
This is hockey!
For all of the sport's appeal, the final 37 seconds of this particular game shouldn't have been very exciting. During the previous 59 minutes and 23 seconds of play, the opposing teams had scored a grand total of four goals. What could happen during the last 37 seconds, anyway? No telling, but the real fans were glued to their seats, waiting to find out. The fair-weather fans had already trudged solemnly out of the arena, having assumed the excitement and the game were over.
As it turned out, a lot can happen during the last 37 seconds. Even in hockey.
It was December 22, and the United Hockey League's Rockford (Ill.) IceHogs were battling the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Wings at the Rockford MetroCentre. The score was 3-1 in the Wings' favor, and the pace of the game picked up noticeably during the last 10 minutes or so as the IceHogs poured on the effort.
Even though nobody really expected any more goals, the IceHogs managed to sneak the puck past the Wings' goalie with little more than half a minute remaining in the game. Invigorated by the goal and probably a little desperate because of the clock's relentless advance, the IceHogs kept the momentum going and, unbelievably, managed a third goal with just six seconds left in the game. The score was 3-3.
From the stands, it looked an awful lot like international trade. The players seemed to represent businesses in two nations, battling for supremacy. The referees were similar to officials of the World Trade Organization (WTO), watching for infractions and calling penalties. And the fans symbolized the workers, supporting the team (or the company) with all the effort they could muster.
The sport isn't pretty, but the teams have to participate if they intend to win. Forfeiting the game and going home—the equivalent of shutting out foreign competition—simply is not an option. And although the game is chaotic and sometimes messy, it's up to the referees (or WTO officials) to maintain some sense of fair play. It doesn't always work out that way. Occasionally the referees are looking the other way when a stick is swung too high or a punch is thrown. Meanwhile the fans sit on the edges of their seats, waiting to see who will score the next point and gain the upper hand.
Right now U.S. manufacturing faces dire circumstances too. How can the U.S. score the next point and regain control of the game? We need to concentrate on maximizing our strengths and minimizing our weaknesses.
The U.S. has the world's largest economy, with a GDP of nearly $11,000,000,000,000 per year. The U.S. is rich in natural resources and teeming with colleges, universities, and research institutes. We need to develop a strategy that combines these assets—that is, siphon off some of that $11 trillion to fund a comprehensive research and development effort—to keep U.S. manufacturing at the forefront of the world economy. We need more advanced materials and more high-tech manufacturing processes. And we need more vocational learning opportunities. Who would be in charge, and when will it start? It already has started. Take a look at the Department of Commerce's Web site at www.commerce.gov—nearly every item on the home page is dedicated to manufacturing. If you want the DOC to know what's on your mind, send the commerce secretary your thoughts by letter, fax, or e-mail. It's the only way he'll know what the forming and fabricating industry needs.
Back to the game. It went to a shootout—five shots for each team—that ended with the score still tied at 4-4. The game then went to sudden death, and tension gave way to jubilation when the IceHogs netted the final goal and wrapped up the game at 5-4.
Hockey isn't a perfect analogy because international trade isn't a game and it won't end. That aside, we need to concentrate on our strengths to help advance U.S. manufacturing's competitive position. As the fans who got up and left the IceHogs/Wings game early learned, now is not the time to assume that it's over.