Monday, September 17, 2012

What the Hockey Lockout Means to Me


Nothing. 

Thanks for dropping by.




All right, all right. Since you went to the trouble of coming here, I guess I can muster up some reasoning.

I'm sick of the NHL. I have loved the sport of hockey since I was a very small boy. I've played it since I was six years old. I've coached kids in the game for ten of the past twelve years. My dad used to put a rink in our backyard and some of my fondest childhood memories are of the myriad Sunday afternoons he and I spent at Maple Leaf Gardens, watching the Toronto Marlies (Junior A team) from the Greens, because they were "high enough up in the stands so you can really get a feel for the game".

But the NHL doesn't share my enthusiasm for the sport. The NHL doesn't care about the fans, the players or even the integrity of the game itself and it hasn't for many, many years.

Last summer, three "enforcers" died in the space of about four months. The NHL reacted by saying that there was no connection between these deaths and the "job" these men performed for their professional hockey teams. "Too soon to really know", they said. They seemed unwilling to divulge how many deaths would constitute a fair sample size, but I can't imagine it's a single digit with Gary Bettman at the helm.

I've been arguing for years that the NHL desperately needs to cut down on head injuries, mainly by changing their culture of violence. I love a hard-hitting hockey game, but it's become a life-and-death challenge every time a player laces up his skates in the league these days. It's become Rollerball on ice. It seems to me that the very barest of minimum steps forward would be to effect an outright ban on head shots, league-wide. But even that easiest of all beginnings simply eludes the brain trust (how ironic a name is that?) of the NHL. Most head damage is caused by "accidental or inadvertent" concussions, they say. Because, apparently, nobody in charge of the NHL actually watches NHL hockey.

My personal feeling is that there should be an automatic minor penalty awarded for any contact with any other player's head. If another penalty is warranted on the same play, it is added on. The minor penalty may be made a major or worse, at the referee's discretion. Start from this point and work forward. I realize this rule would have ended Scott Stevens' career about three seasons in, but that would have been 100% fine with me. I don't ever need to see his career-ending check on Eric Lindros again in my life -- a check that every hockey "expert" said was a "good hockey check" even though the principle point of contact was the temple of a severely-concussed player. There was nothing "in the rules" specifically prohibiting that at the time and Lindros himself received, ridiculously, the lion's share of the blame for that tragic assault.

But let's say for a moment that Bettman is even partially correct in his claim that most concussions are accidental. This, to me, is also easily resolved: let's take some of the risks out of the game and cut down on the number of players on the ice. Yes, you read that correctly. I believe the NHL should immediately adopt a four-on-four style of play and make that the new "norm" for hockey the world over. The size and speed of the current crop of NHL players has increased far too much to be contained under the old rules. It would make no economic sense to force every team to increase the ice size of their arenas and, in any event, the middle of the ice would really not become any less congested. The more obvious choice is to reduce the chances of "accidental" contact by removing the threat right out of the picture. With the extra room, I would suggest that "non-accidental" contact would also go down, because it would become harder for players to be trapped in a vulnerable position.

Furthermore, in an effort to inject excitement into a game that is barely understood by many of the residents of several American cities with NHL franchises, the league adopted a four-on-four regular season overtime format several years ago. We've had plenty of time to get used to this kind of hockey and if it did not work the way they intended it to, then why hasn't it long since been abolished? Personally, I like the pace of the four-on-four game and, although it would be an adjustment at first, I could easily get used to watching it for sixty minutes instead of just five. There would need to be some tweaking of such things as penalties and the like, but the league seems to have plenty of time on its hands right now to get started on it. And right now is exactly when they should get started on it, because the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players has just expired. The move to permanent four-on-four hockey would mean the loss of jobs for a great many marginal players as roster sizes would have to be pared down. If they added this to the current negotiations, there would likely be an increase of maximum contract size for each player, with an overall smaller roster size, such that each team's payroll was roughly the same but fewer players were earning the money. The time to figure all of that out is right now. And who would be the first type of player to be released from each team? Enforcers. Which would help to solve even more of the head injury problem without even trying.

But the NHL won't adopt any such idea, even though there is precedent for just such a thing (once upon a time, professional hockey teams had seven players on the ice at one time). This lockout will continue without any regard for the fans; it will ultimately end with roughly the same salary rules that are currently in effect (such as the hilarious "Restricted Free Agent" status wherein a player is "free" to sign with another team....except every team has agreed to never offer a contract to these players); at some point the same teams will play the same game with the same injuries and everything will be back to square one, because all of the anger will have been diverted from the head injury problem to the greediness of the players and owners. And, eventually, someone else will die, either on the ice or from a constant pounding being doled out to his head through years of "incidental contact".

I could sit here, stamp my feet, hold my breath and say, "I'm done! I'll never watch another NHL game again!" But that won't happen and, even if it did happen, who would really care? As it is I hardly ever watch an NHL game from start to finish any more, at least not during the regular season. In the playoffs my interest picks up a little bit, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that, in general, teams stop trying to kill each other for the first game or two of each series. Not last year, though: last year the first round featured some of the most disgraceful hockey I have ever seen in my life. The lack of respect for each other is a natural extension of our cultural malaise in general, but that doesn't make it any easier to watch.

No, what will probably happen is that when the NHL finally returns to action I will watch the occasional game, but with the same kind of detachment I have for the Grey Cup or a gold medal tennis match. I'll watch until I get bored and then I'll stop watching. Will I miss it? I already miss it. I watch some of the "classic" games of my youth on television rebroadcasts and I remember how exciting it was back then, when I was really "into" the games. But four work stoppages in under twenty years combined with a complete and utter lack of respect for the welfare of the very athletes that pay the bills of the NHL and its owners has taken away much of my enthusiasm for the league. Some of that has trickled down into my feelings for the sport itself, but not all of it. To me, it's still the greatest game on earth.

I can just no longer defend the professional version of it.

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I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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