Dear Hockey fan I have never met,
What I present below for your enjoyment and consideration is more or less a rant held loosely within the confines of a sort of philosophical framework. It was written a few weeks before the lockout ended, at the height of my anger and frustration with the NHL.
Anyone who has every played the game of hockey knows there is nothing in this world so real as the game of hockey. For anyone who has played a game of hockey, a stick in the mouth, or a broken nose, is a tremendous source of pride. An elbow to the mouth is something one will gladly take in order to clear the little black puck past the little blue line, late in a game
Those reading this who have never played a game of hockey might very well imagine this to be ridiculous or primitive, and likewise cannot imagine how or why one would to go through so much for something as trite or frivolous as a game. These individuals are severely lacking in imagination.
Our lives and the roles we play are little more than games. The difference between a hockey player and your average accountant is that a hockey player is willing to bleed for what he believes in. Whereas most individuals in this world are so defeated that they no longer believe in anything, let alone themselves, a defenseman will bruise a rib cage because he believes in the good of blocking a shot and will put his body where his mouth is (sometimes literally); an enforcer will break his knuckle defending someone skilled with his hands in an altogether different way, but who is maybe too small to reasonably stand up for himself in that way, that same individual will gladly take a hit to make a pass (if he is worth anything).
For these reasons and more hockey is something real and precious; something to believe in. The status quo of the National Hockey League’s bureaucratic executives led by Mr. Bettman and other financially-motivated individuals took this innocence and purity, which is what is real and precious about hockey. Something about this most recent lockout seemed too scripted, too inevitable, too par for the course, so to speak. This is what happens when the game is in the hands of these dispassionate individuals. They do not care if there is hockey or not beyond how much money it generates for them.
Now that the lockout is over I still follow the league, I still watch the highlights, I know the Blackhawks are a beast (Patty Kane has really stepped up), and the Devils are a franchise that defies all logic. But something is different.
I cannot quite tell if this is merely an unfortunate symptom of getting older but I cannot give myself over to the NHL like I used to. I watch fewer games, I don’t get as riled up over missed calls, I could care less if my team loses most nights. Something is missing. I will always love the game of hockey and I will play and skate until I cannot skate anyone. Even if I lost my legs I would slide around on one of those little sledges and I will gladly take a little tiny stick into my little tiny mouth to make a play, because I love hockey. But I do not have the same passion about the NHL anymore. Something tells me that Mr. Bettman and those other parasitic individuals don’t care either. And I think that is why we’re all so frustrated, that’s why I wrote this.
I have played ice-hockey since I was 6 years old. I, like most of you reading this, hate Gary Bettman. Unlike most of you I am a poet. This is merely to say that I earn my living selling poetry which I make with my hands and sell to people in the street; whereas a majority of individuals earn a salary for a useful and tangible function they perform or service which they provide. This is the only legitimate difference between us that needs to be pointed out. I would say nothing except that this difference affects the work you are now reading in a simple but fundamental way: namely that I will be talking about the game of hockey from a purely aesthetic perspective. Therefore when I speak of things which I feel are “good for the game,” what I am actually saying is that these things (whatever they might be) contribute to the aesthetic richness of enjoying a game of hockey (whatever that means). Conversely, as a point of departure or comparison, if I were an attorney or an accountant writing a paper about things “good for the game,” they would naturally take into account concepts like fiscal growth, various questions of financial dispersal, and other economic questions. A poet does not care about these things.
A poet does not care about the so-called business side of hockey, and I do not think that the hockey fan (which this poet is) cares to read about or follow the business side of hockey. However, in locking out the NHLPA this is what the league essentially forced followers of the game of hockey to do. When one follows hockey he is following teams and players, he is following “The game.” A hockey fan does not follow the “business side of the game.” To follow the business side of hockey is no more exciting than following the business of mortgage rates in Tuscaloosa, or the shipping logistics of the mid-Atlantic states for the fiscal year. When I, for instance say, “I follow hockey” I am saying that I follow the New York Rangers, and I have cared at various times about the number of assists Brian Leetch has, or the number of shutouts Henrik Lundqvist has. As a hockey fan I will say things like “did you see that toe save on Chara?” or that hit on so and so, or more specifically, “I hope someone lays out that pussy Cooke” (Cooke, if you are reading this, you are not a pussy, I did not mean this). And all of these statements make perfect, clear, legitimate sense if you are a fan of the game of hockey.
Gary Bettman is not the commissioner of hockey because of his love and attachment to the game of hockey. He would be just as happy as the commissioner of the NFL. This would be a huge step up for him, in fact. In his mind Gary Bettman exists only to grow the financial side of the game. What I am saying, and what many players have argued brusquely in various expletives, is that Gary Bettman has sold the soul of a beloved cold weather game for the sake of hot sticky corporate American dollars.
If we truly cared about the goodness of the game of hockey, the world’s most prestigious and visible league would be in the hands of “thoughtful custodians,” as opposed to pencil-dicked lawyers. I can think of none better than Ken Dryden or Wayne Gretzky. Dryden: an intellectual and measured voice, in his way a poet and a thinker who will no doubt steward the game forward with the same eloquence as his smooth sentences. Gretzky on the other hand exudes a calm passion which is clearly stifled and under utilized. Anyone who saw this man play understands in some way his fire for the game above all else, and we know he has not had enough of this game. Both you, I and Wayne himself know that one hundred lifetimes would not satisfy his hunger for the game. What he does not have the time for is this petty business, this bureaucratic prattling and posturing which has taken too prominent a role in the NHL. Whereas a few financial minions and subservient attorneys would be necessary to ensure the smooth running of a large league, they would be a necessary evil and not the driving force. As it stands now, however, it is the other way around. And a 5’6” man who can’t skate makes 8 million dollars a year to steward the greatest hockey league in the world. Something is not right there.
J.B Pick, obscure man of British letters, writes:
They (sports viewers) experience their drama from a performance which is in no way falsified through arbitrary decisions by author or producer. It lives and grows as they watch and the excitement or disappointment is accordingly greater . The satisfaction gained from watching a game may be deeper than that gained from watching a stage drama even for a highly cultured spectator, if the mysterious alchemy of interaction between players achieves its full stature and the game becomes both beautiful and intense. The very transitoriness of game makes it inevitable that it is played for its own sake and not for the sake of prosperity.
I hope that when one is reading the preceding sentences he is imagining a back and forth tilt, a come from behind win, and overtime goal (game 2 of the ‘93 finals, perhaps).
The quote also describes with a certain verbal lucidity the interplay of what we love about watching a game of hockey, but it cannot replace the feeling of watching that spontaneous combination of hits, saves, passes, and goals. It also opens up a different question, a different component of our discussion of the game of hockey: Whereas the question which drives the commissioner of hockey today is “how do we make the NHL profitable and equitable?” it should be “What measures might we take to ensure that the game of hockey is played at it most spontaneous, for the sake of its own goodness, and presented in a way which minimally infringes upon that purity?”
I would like to stress that I am by no means arguing for any concrete things; I do not believe I have put forth any legitimate solutions. I merely hope to provide some framework to begin to discuss this beautiful game, with its beauty in mind. Also, I understand that my reading of the National Hockey League and the game of hockey at large places a certain impetus on the players to perhaps accept lesser pay in order to assure the game of hockey at its highest level is in the hands of hockey people making decisions for the hockey fan and the hockey player alike so they don’t have to worry about lawyers shutting down the league. I know this. This is just something to to consider.