Requiem for a Lost Season

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For those of you who don’t care about hockey, and I’m betting that’s damn near everyone, you can look at this or this. The rest of you, read on.

Hockey: a game played on an ice rink by two opposing teams of 6 skaters each who try to knock a flat round puck into the opponents’ goal with hockey sticks.

I figured a definition might be necessary as those of us currently living in the Land of Milk and Honey, or the Land of Plenty, or Titletown, or Trophytown, or, you know, New England, might have forgotten about a little game called hockey. Can’t really blame you if you have. No one’s been paying much attention to it for a few years now. You might have heard though, in and amongst the rumblings about pitchers and catchers reporting and Trot laying the verbal smackdown on A-Rod, that the NHL has been forced to cancel its 2004-2005 season after the players and owners couldn’t reach a decision on a collective bargaining agreement. This is too bad. This is a bad thing. Hockey is in trouble, people. And you should care.

No, no, don’t you shrug your shoulders at me. This matters.

I understand in a town that’s delivered us three sports championships in the last calendar year, we’re having trouble paying attention to something that isn’t somehow Red Sox or Patriots related. I get that. I know. Me too. But we’ve got a team ‘round these parts that’s been known to win their share of things too. No, I’m not talking about the Celtics. They’re still playing, or they will be once they return from the All-Star Break. I’m talking about the Bruins. The Black and Gold. Orr, Bourque, Neely, Middleton, Raycroft, Thornton, Samsanov and Bergeron. Past and present. And, *gulp* hopefully, future.

The National Hockey League is in shambles. Fans don’t watch it on television because it does not lend itself to the format. People don’t attend games in person because the tickets have gotten prohibitively expensive. Anyone who cares enough about hockey to go to a game can go watch college hockey for a significantly lower price. But it’s not the same.

There are many reasons why professional hockey is in trouble. Not the least of which is the fact that the players and owners are deadlocked over the ideas of a salary cap, revenue linkage and contraction. But there are other problems as well. Hockey, unlike football, does not translate particularly well to television and therefore, does not have the same lucrative contract that football does. Networks have attempted to remedy this in the past but aside from the disastrous addition of the “glowing puck” that Fox introduced a decade or so back, little leeway has been made.

There are too many teams and therefore, too much market saturation. There is little need for a team in Nashville or, god help us, Phoenix. Who plays, or cares about, hockey in Arizona? Yes, I know that the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year but they beat out the Calgary Flames (Calgary, now that’s a hockey town!) to do it. True, some of the teams in traditionally non-hockey areas are expansion teams (Carolina is the former Whale of Hartford) but really, do people in the hot, Southern states need this much hockey?

Perhaps to fix some of these problems, hockey needs to, as has been suggested, stop thinking of itself as one of the Big Four. Previously, that had been football, baseball, basketball and hockey. But recently, hockey’s popularity has dwindled at an alarming rate and Nascar has replaced it as a spectator sport. Nascar, people! This is not good. If you are more fascinated by watching a guy drive around in circles for hours than you are by a bone-crushing hip check, then you’ve got more problems than I can solve.

But that leads me to my point (‘bout time, yes I know). Aside from all the problems and issues and backbiting and arguing and labor disputes and egos and contracts and the giant mess the NHL finds itself in right now, hockey is still a fantastic sport. It is, as Mer points out, “the most beautiful, artistic, poetic sport in the world.” And it is worth watching.

I grew up in a hockey family. My brother started playing when he was young and he continues to this day in a men’s league. I’m used to being around the game. I figure skated myself for many years and I was forever sharing ice time and warm-up room benches with hockey players. (My own personal attempt at hockey ended with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and bruised patellas so let’s just leave it at that). So maybe I appreciate the game more than most people considering that it has always been at least a peripheral part of my life. But the fact that people can’t or won’t care, is staggering to me. In an email to Mer, I said: “I’ve long thought that hockey, if you don’t know anything about it, looks like complete chaos. Guys strap blades to their feet and skate all over the ice while trying to put a little rubber disk into a net with a curved stick. But, as you said, if you do understand it, it is poetic. There are few things more breathtaking to watch than a perfectly executed butterfly save or a top shelf wrist shot.” The adrenaline is addictive.

Picture it: a forward takes the scorching pass from his center. He crosses center ice, stickhandling and moving the puck from left to right. He dekes out one then two defenders. It’s just him and the goalie who he fakes out with a sweet move to his right. Wrist shot, top shelf. Goal! It’s a beautiful thing. And we’re missing it.

Hockey is such a throwback game, when it’s played right. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for the good ole days of hockey, most of which I didn’t even live through. Quoth Mer: “I have good-old-days syndrome when it comes to hockey. I definitely think the sport was so much better in the mid 70s. I love watching video of games from that era. No advertising on the boards or ice, very few helmets, goalies with scary-as-fuck masks and faces of stone, and absolutely no clutching and grabbing. Just hockey in its purest form.” Exactly. Today there is far too much Steve Moore/Todd Bertuzzi, Marty McSorley/Donald Brashear business, but when the sport is played right – clean hits, sharp passes, crisp shots – it’s a fantastic thing to watch. I said: “You are right. And hockey goalies have the coolest freakin’ nicknames. Razor, The Bulin Wall, Felix the Cat, Beezer, The Dominator, Cujo. What’s cooler than that?”

Come on, people. Get on board.

Yesterday, right before the season was officially cancelled, the players and owners agreed on a salary cap in principle, a concession the players weren’t previously willing to make. Then Commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled the season: “It is my sad duty to announce that because a solution has not yet been attained, it is no longer practical to conduct even an abbreviated season,” Bettman said. “Accordingly, I have no choice but to announce the formal cancellation of play.” Now we’re back to square one.

I can only hope that this is not the death rattle for what will be a slow and painful demise to the NHL. The players, many of them barely old enough to shave yet possessed of some superhuman talent, are missing out on their formative years. The fans are being robbed of some extremely good competition (or it could be, if the right circumstances are met). And the owners are missing out on what could potentially be hugely lucrative if they’d only learn how to market their product correctly.

I hope this is not the beginning of the end. I sincerely do. I appreciate the Patriots and the Red Sox more than anyone but from one hockey-deprived soul to the greater nation as a whole, I implore them: Bring it back.

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