JIM HUGHSON DIDN’T UTTER A WORD. As the final minutes of the 2011-2012 NHL season came to a close, CBC’s Hughson turned off his microphone, took a breath, leaned back in the booth, and did what more sports broadcasts should. He let the images tell the story. The game clock slowed towards its destiny. The crowd stood, and cheered, as crowds tend to do. But not with a desperate fervor, or the pain of relief, but by way of habit, and tradition. Gloves and sticks and helmets were discarded. Grown men, proud men, cried and embraced. An aging goaltender, a native Montrealer, left the ice for what may have been the final time. A smug commissioner, an enemy of hockey patriots, stepped onto the ice. He was not booed, which is a custom unbeknownst to a Southern California crowd. He handed the Cup, a sacred chalice, to a 27-year-old from Ithaca, New York, a grinder, a winger who plays with grit, with sandpaper, “the way the game should be played”. A character guy. He’ll drop the gloves, you know? The Cup, the oldest of its kind, gets passed from player to player to coach to trainer to general manager. Slowly, reluctantly, one-by-one, they left the ice. The crowd remained standing. The crowd remained cheering.
To an outsider, it would appear to be the culmination of a beautiful season, the peak of winter’s game’s crescendo. The anthemic refrain that fades to a contented quiet. But that would be false. It would be a lie. Because beneath the tears, the character, the hyperbole, the pageantry, is what the moment really was. This, was the end of hockey’s worst year.
It began as last season ended. It began with a death.
On May 12th, New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard met up with his brother Aaron while on a recess from a California rehabilitation facility. Aaron provided him with a 30-mg Percocet tablet. They met friends. They went drinking. The next morning Derek Boogaard, all of 28-years-old, was dead by way of an accidental drug overdose.
On August 14th, Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien was scheduled to board a flight to Winnipeg for an evaluation on his knee. He never got on the plane. The next morning he was found in his home by a family member, dead of an apparent suicide. Rypien was 27.
On August 31st, former Toronto Maple Leaf Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto hotel condo, a death treated as a suicide by way of hanging by Toronto police. He left behind a wife and two daughters. He was 35.
On September 7th, a Yak-Service Yakovlev Yak-42 airplane departed Tunoshna Airport in Yaroslavl, Russia, carrying that city’s KHL team, the Lokomotiv, bound for a pre-season game in Minsk, Belarus. The flight never arrived. It crashed, killing all aboard save for one player, Alexander Galimov, who died five days later in hospital, and the flight engineer Alexander Sizov. 44 dead. Their nationalities varied. Their ages varied. They were men. They were boys. Sons. Fathers. Most, hockey players.
On September 22nd, during a pre-season game in London, Ontario, Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds had a banana thrown at him while attempting a shootout try. Simmonds is African-Canadian.
On September 27th, just days after the Simmonds incident in London, New York Rangers forward Sean Avery accused Simmonds of uttering an anti-gay slur at him during a game.
On November 21st, 20 games into the season, Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby, the game’s marquee player, made his season debut after a 61 game absence due to post-concussion symptoms. He lasted 8 games before he was sidelined again, again because of post-concussion symptoms.
On December 7th, Graham James, the former junior hockey coach, plead guilty to sexually assaulting two of his junior hockey players, one of whom was former NHL player Theoren Fleury. In February, James received a two-year prison sentence. Two years for abuses that are unquantifiable.
On February 10th, Ivan Pravilov, a Ukrainian hockey coach who had worked with NHL players Dainius Zubrus and Andrei Zyuzin, committed suicide in a New Jersey detention centre after being arrested for fondling two 14-year-old boys who were in his charge, in his home, in his trust.
These were the low points. These were shameful moments, stories that forced normally affable and aloof sportscasters to summon their inner-Mansbridge. There were less harsh stories that contributed to hockey’s worst year. The Montreal Canadiens fired assistant Perry Pearn in the pre-game, and fired head coach Jacques Martin at the morning skate a few weeks later. They elevated a good man to that position, though apparently forgetting their geography, and as a unilingual Anglophone, Randy Cunneyworth was in an untenable, unwinnable situation. The Habs responded by apologizing to their all too vocal fanbase led by the French media, and threw Cunneyworth under the bus, then backed over him a few times for good measure. Later, they traded forward Michael Cammalleri. A good move considering they were not going to make the playoffs, a bad move in that they did it during the second period of a game against the Boston Bruins.
The Bruins, the Stanley Cup champions from 2010-11, had their own issues. Goaltender Tim Thomas declined the traditional invitation to The White House because of his political opposition to President Barrack Obama, putting undue focus on non-hockey matters, from which the team had difficulty recovering. Later, Thomas added that not only did he detest the current state of “liberal” governance, but also was against birth control. Thomas capped off the season by announcing he was taking the 2012-13 season off, presumably to encourage American teens to abstain from using condoms.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, a franchise that should be the sport’s crowning jewel, but instead is its favourite punchline, made bold promises and finished the year with a new coach and old results. Alexander Ovechkin, whose star once shone as Crosby’s, became almost pedestrian in both effort and lustre. Winnipeg got its Jets back, but like the Jets of old, their results could not match the enthusiasm of their fans. Conversation often leaned towards collective bargaining agreements and salary caps, instead of line matchups and trade rumours. Sutters lost their jobs. Crowds in Miami, and Phoenix, and Long Island, continued not to show up. Hockey Night in Canada continued its savage journey towards parody. Pierre McGuire and Glen Healey claimed theirs was not the responsibility to report what they had heard between the benches, as members of the media. Between the benches. Hats and jerseys were sold, and tickets bought, but not out of love or desire, but rather an inherited sense of duty. Mike Milbury, slowly, made us all a little bit dumber. Don Cherry, well, Don Cherry represents a lot of what is wrong with this sport, and is a voice whose time has passed. His, at this time, is that the voice we need.
Are these important events? No, but in a sport that could use all the good press available to it, it fit within the context of the year.
And so it went, the year that unfortunately was. Scoring dropped. A form of defence that makes the 90s-era New Jersey Devils look like the 80s-era Edmonton Oilers rose to prominence, in which the entire group of five defensive skaters collapses in on the net, blocking every shot possible, like soldiers diving on live grenades. Except, instead of saving lives by sacrifice, they’re sacrificing the game.
The headshots continued. Not a week went by that someone wasn’t concussed by a shot to the head, shoulder to helmet, elbow to face, head to boards. The refereeing, in response, fell apart. No one, not the refs nor fans nor coaches nor management, and certainly not the players, know what a clean hit is anymore. What’s worse, is that no one seemed to care. Of course if a player does lay out another with a clean hit, it is cause for a fight, which makes about as much sense as starting James Reimer in goal.
And what of fighting? Fisticuffs. Players with sandpaper, grit, dropping the Coopers. Salt of the earth boys. Alberta boys. Farm boys, who have been fighting each other on frozen ponds since the good Lord Jesus walked across them. The fighting remains a superfluous part of the game, championed and sanctioned by a network of old boy Canadians who run the game, who dictate its culture, who wouldn’t know evolution if they were playing shinny with Charles Darwin.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, who could really care anymore? All but two Canadian teams missed the dance, and those that made it (Vancouver and Ottawa) lost out in the first round. If it’s a bad year for Canadian hockey fans, it’s a bad year for hockey, because really, when reduced to its core, what is the NHL but a Canadian birthright? An argument for winter, a unifying presence that brings this country together in ways that social programs, accessible education, and marriage equality can’t, or won’t. And yet, as the LA Kings soak their playoff beards in a Cup bath of champagne and Labatt’s, why is it that what I feel is an overwhelming anger, a disappointment in the game I love as my peers do?
It’s because the NHL is killing itself, and taking the sport with it. It has become complicit in its failings, and not just those on the ice, the reluctance to ban fighting, to eliminate headshots, to extinct the enforcer, to clean up the game and return it to its essence: speed, creativity, offence, ice. Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak were enforcers, fighters, forced parts of the broken machine. The stress and shame of their roles led to, or enhanced, their respective depressions and addictions, and when they asked their sport for help, the sport did the bare minimum in response, the way it did with John Kordic, and Theo Fleury, and Bob Probert, and Kevin Stevens. The Simmonds and Avery incidents occurred because the culture of the game has become one of ignorance, both fostered and encouraged. Crosby sat out nearly an entire season, because his game won’t protect even their brightest star, the way the NFL (an equally violent sport) has attempted to do. If you won’t protect your king, what use are the struggles of the peasants?
Graham James is a predator, the worst kind of predator, whose behaviours were unfortunately masked by the game’s incompetence, by the complacent and complicit actions of its culture, by the blind trust parents of children put in men asked to lead their kids into adulthood, and by the monsters that are James, or David Frost, or Ivan Pravilov, who make promises of stardom, and provide nothing but our worst nightmares.
And why, in the name of the forty some odd families that lost loved ones to a plane crash in Russia, why was anyone under the umbrella of the international hockey community, brethren, brotherhood, family, allowed to board a plane that had no business being in the air? And why are they boarding those same inferior planes now, in hopes of one last goal, one last game, one last breath of the game they love, a game that stopped caring about them a long time ago?
It began as last season ended. It began with a death. And now it’s over.
And now it’s summer, where winter seems an impossibility, an anomaly, a distant memory born of Saturday nights, backyard rinks, sacred sweaters, inconceivable springs, and an inevitability that could only end in absolute joy, or crushing heartache. It is a time when the stewardship of our game is left to men who have been willed their father’s suits and a responsibility for our birthright that they have ignored for commerce, for tradition, for pugilism over perfection, fostering a culture of hockey creationism, and encouraging its slow death.
So what now? The fans, holding golden tickets, begging at the gates to live vicariously through children, through heroes, are left without a seat at the table. We’re removed from the discourse, told we never played the game, we don’t know, we don’t understand. And so we come here, to open forums, to share our thoughts, and our fears. To cheer as one for a deeply flawed love in absence of anything else to love. And we wait. And we hope. Hope that once again the game will be beautiful, its culture vital and vibrant, and its players safe, both on the ice and off.