How the NHL and its players hate hockey, and how the fan is at fault
IN JUNE, I wrote an op-ed piece called “Hockey’s Worst Year” about the sport’s complicity in tragic events like the suicides of three enforcers, the abuse of young players by coaches in positions of power, the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash, concussions, and the downfall of the game itself. Readers flocked to condemn the piece, celebrating the game they loved and failing to believe that the sport could be to blame for deaths, for injuries, for failures, for flaws. NHL fans, especially those in Canada, champion the game to the point of fault. And yet, as a new Cup victor was crowned, and a summer passed, nothing in the sport changed. And over the weekend, as billionaires fought millionaires over percentage points that redefine the trivial, the game, once again, came to a standstill. Eight years after the lost 2004-2005 NHL season, the league locked out its players, and for the foreseeable future there will be no NHL games played, no practices, no Hockey Night in Canada, no Don Cherry. And as fans, fans who so fiercely defend the game, we’re left to ask, why? And the answer is simple.
The NHL hates you.
Not only does the National Hockey League hate you, but it hates itself. It hates the beautiful game, of whose legacy is its caretaker. It hates its players. It cares not about their skill, their speed, their passion, and their soft skulls, their proclivity towards abuses both physical and substance. Most of all, the NHL hates its fans. It’s a disdainful hate, a righteous hate, a smug and conceited hate. The kind of venomous, vitriolic, ruthless, mercenary hate that is born of an abusive, spiteful, alcohol-soaked relationship, when each partner is seven gin and gin and gin and gin and tonics into an evening. Unnerving. Sad. Egotistical. Childish. Selfish. Petulant. Entitled. The NHL hates its fans more than any other sports league, more than any other sport, and as the CBA expired on Saturday and with no new deal soon to come, the NHL proved once again how much it hates its fans, by locking out the players.
The NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, all make concessions in order to appeal to and placate their fanbases. Not always, and not to the detriment of the games, but rather to perpetuate their financial and cultural stability. The NFL avoided a work stoppage, as both management and players knew that the obscene amount of revenues they shared were enough, and the risk of losing fans wasn’t worth missing games for a few million dollars here and there. The NBA also avoided a lengthy work stoppage, and though the sport is not without its own issues, and its own lack of loyalty to fans (see: Supersonics, Seattle) the sport understood that missing a season might be a void from which it could not return. Baseball caters to and serves its fans like no other. The MLB website is a tribute to fandom, the sport still manages to sell reasonably priced tickets to games, there is a healthy mix of parity and tradition, and when it does tweak the game such as this season’s extra Wild Card playoff teams, it is done so with the fan in mind as well as the sport. Because, at the end of the day, the other leagues realize that the fan and the sport are essentially the same animal, an animal that needs to be coddled at times, and scolded at others, but loved and nurtured throughout.
The NHL, conversely, beats its fans and the sport like a red-headed step-child.
THE MUTUALLY PARASITIC dependency between the NHL and its fans is enabled by Canadians. The only reason the NHL has yet to fold is because Canadians are hockey addicts. It’s a genetic disease, passed down through generations. So deeply ingrained and so manically flawed, that we, as Canadians, have been complicit in allowing the game to deteriorate, to disintegrate, to dilute, to devolve. We’ve watched the game grow slow, to become a satire of what it once was. We’ve excused savagery and scandal because we love our memories of the game, and we love our teams. We’ve allowed the two marquee teams in the sport, once two of the marquee teams of any sport, the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, to become also-rans, laughing stocks, mere sad shadows of what they once were, and what they always should have been. We’ve left our children to the care of demons for the impossible promise of spectacle and folly. We’ve bought into the notion that encouraged violence is essential to the game—excused it, pardoned it, reveled in it. We’ve allowed misogyny and fear a voice in the game’s stewardship. We’ve allowed prices to rise, and scoring to fall. We’ve allowed Don Cherry.
And we’ve allowed it all to happen on our watch, with our children on our knees, and we’ve paid handsomely to do it.
This is our fault.
And because we’ve allowed the NHL to mistreat us, by coming back game after game, season after season, era after era, the league knows we are at its will. That’s why it bent so easily to the equipment makers, whose armed forces-like padding and composite sticks not only adversely affect the professional game, but forces parents in a downward economy to shell out hundreds upon thousands of dollars in equipment. What sport that loves its fans, would steward an era that went from $10 wood sticks to $500 composites that break easily, and yet are the norm? What sport that loves its fans presides over a rise in ticket prices that keeps the middle class in its hottest markets (read: Canada) from attending games? What sport that loves its fans lets a network that doesn’t understand it dictate much of its mandate (read: NBC)? What sport that loves its fans allows Don Cherry, a shameless racist, to participate in its discourse? What sport that loves its fans allows itself to exist without a proper drug testing program? What sport allows abject violence? What sport allows three of its citizens to commit suicide within a few months? What sport encourages children to beat each other? What sport treats those who love it most without respect, or love, or compassion?
And what sport that loves its fans would allow the game to not only devolve, but stop, twice in a decade, and four times in the reign of its commissioner?
And what sport’s players are so willing to sell themselves out, as well as their fans, and their peers?
THE NHLPA IS A SHAMEFUL bunch. It took no less than a few hours for Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin to sign KHL contracts, to take jobs away from countrymen, from colleagues, who couldn’t make it in the NHL. There will be many more, as with the last lockout. Players whose only care in the world is themselves, who will go to the Czech Republic, to Germany, to Switzerland, and take jobs away from players who never quite made it, who never had the luxury of signing a bloated contract that the sport couldn’t afford. The players are a spoiled bunch, coddled from the age of 15, who have taken the reign of a union once the strongest in sport, and turned it into a fickle association who will turn on themselves without notice or guilt, as they did in 2004, as they did to Bob Goodenow, and Ted Saskin, and Paul Kelly. The PA is absent of strong voices, both within the context of the union and the game. Hockey players make vanilla look interesting. They are so brainwashed at such a young age to follow the leader, to spew the stock answer, to take it one game at a time, with their sticks on the ice.
And at the end of the day, a loss of hockey does not adversely affect most of our lives. It a frill, a privilege, an accessory but not a necessity. But there is a community of ushers, hot dog vendors, bar workers and owners, parking lot attendants, apparel store workers, rink attendants, and supplementary staff, and everyone else whose job is tied to the business of the NHL that will be seriously hurt by a work stoppage. Because, dear NHLPA, they can’t just jump on a Gulfstream G200 and jet over to Europe to steal a job from an old friend. They don’t have a war chest of savings to pay the rent, or their kids tuition, or their hydro bill. These are the forgotten, the marginalized in these battles between the rich and the richer.
So what now? Well, we all know they’ll be back eventually. Maybe next week, or next month, or next calendar year. There’s money at stake, and truly that’s the only variable here: an obscene and undeserved pile of money from your pockets, dear fans. The New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic between the Detroit Red Wings and sports most consistent failure, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the HBO show that will document the lead-up to the game. But what will return? Unfortunately, the same game that left us so effortlessly, so selfishly, so easily. It will still be slow. There will still be staged fights. there will still be cronyism, and nepotism, and Don Cherry. And I’ll watch, and you’ll watch, and we’ll act like nothing happened. Like a lover returned from a quiet infidelity, an evening in drink and error. I still love you, baby. I’ve always loved you, baby.
But we shouldn’t. We should make a stand. We should let our voices and our wallets be heard, because we’re sick of it. I’m not naïve enough to believe that a full NHL boycott is possible, not from you and certainly not from myself, nor my friends, nor my vocation. But something, some message. A knife to the throat of the NHL to remind it that we’re here, and without us, they are nothing. They need that reminder. I suggest, humbly, that the first regular season game back from the work stoppage be unattended, unwatched, unblogged, untweeted, ignored. In a sport that has removed its fanbase from consideration, from the discourse, from the conversation, we must change the conversation. Make that first night back, that first onslaught of games about empty arenas, absent TV viewership, and quieted social media. Take Hockey Back. Go watch an AHL game, or a CHL game, or a Pee Wee game. Do anything other than continue to enable the abusive relationship. And then, sure, go back. I know I will, eventually. But tell the NHLPA, the NHL, the teams, the networks, the old boys presiding over the sport’s unforgivable failures, that if the dollar leads their way, then we retain the right to withhold that dollar.
Because otherwise, it’ll come back as it left us. Broken. Selfish. Unloving. Unloved.
And that’s not the NHL we want, but right now, given our complicity, it’s the one we deserve.