Complicit in the NHL’s Demise: How the NHL & its players hate hockey, and how the fan is at fault (from The Barnstormer)

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.

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The Barnstormer: Hockey’s Worst Year

The following can be found in its entirety on The Barnstormer. Link below.

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.

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While the Rest of Us Watch

The following can be found in its entirety on The Barnstormer. Link below.

Falling in love is easy. We’re conditioned for it. It can happen in an instant, a natural sensation born of basic human need and desire. Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, like when your eyes meet another’s on a morning subway commute or when a song reminds you of a moment long thought passed. Sometimes it lasts a bit longer, it penetrates the being, it becomes like oxygen, or blood, or whiskey. A need. A constant. Sometimes, it seemingly lasts forever. It is unsettling, and yet it is everything. It wakes you in a cold sweat. It asks how your day was. It promises to take you to Nicaragua. It complains about its mother. It tells you it’s all going to work out. It lies.

But as easy as it is to fall in love, falling out of love is apocalyptic. It writes songs. It bears poetry. It drinks. Heavily. And within this context, within this slow spiraling death of what once had nothing but life, is the curse of audience. Of being a spectator in the film version of your own life, watching, hopelessly, as something, someone you love disintegrates. Becomes something you loath. Becomes that which you once, together, swore you’d never be. And as spring lists gently towards summer, and another long season of hockey comes to an end, we’ve collectively been witness to the sad, slow, merciless downfall of CBC’s Hockey Night in CanadaHNIC. Baby. We could’ve had something special.

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Two Minutes for Being a Minority

A few Saturdays ago I was at the Air Canada Centre to see the Leafs play the Canadiens. It was my first time to the ACC for hockey game, my only other visit coming in 2001 to see Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, a memorable show and the only time in the seven I’ve seen Neil Young perform that he played Down By the River, which has been proven by NASA scientists and Harvard academics alike to be the greatest song ever. But what a dichotomy of crowds in my two visits to the arena. One was an evening filled with a solid team effort and a celebration of Canadiana, and the other was a hockey game. Though I have witnessed the booing of the Montreal Canadiens in rival arenas throughout the NHL on television, with a special amount of vitriol coming from the ticket holders in Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, I had never witnessed it first hand. I came prepared, wearing my Larry Robinson vintage Canadiens jersey, and I fully expected a playful boo or an occasion of drunken derision. But what surprised me, what offended and saddened me, was the unparalleled level of hatred the home crowd had for Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. I had seen it on game broadcasts, but in order to fully appreciate the level of animus that the opposition has towards Pernell Karl Subban you really have to be there. It’s more than playful chiding of a respected opponent. More than an attempt to throw a valued foe off his game. What it is, and having seen it first hand I am convinced, that it is pure unadulterated hatred. And it’s because P.K. Subban is an African-Canadian.

I have wronged a good woman or three, so I know the difference between anger and hatred. I have seen it up close, and it is a tangible and violent emotion born of a fierce rage. But to have seen the manner in which the ACC faithful booed Subban, to have seen it from those in Philly and Boston and New York on television, the hopeful peacenik in me tried to resolve the spite and hostility as simply a part of pro sports. Subban, admittedly, plays with an edge. He has what the hockey community like to call “sandpaper”. But while those in the NHL of Subban’s ilk, those who get under the skins of their opponents with their combination of talent, wit, and lip, are often celebrated as players with “character”, Subban is almost universally derided by fans, media, management, and players. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why that is, except to argue that the NHL and the culture of hockey is one that fosters and accepts racism.

I’ll admit that I am biased in that I am a Montreal Canadiens fan. My winters are spent living vicariously through the Habs, and my springs rise and fall on their successes and failures. And I really like Subban. He has a personality, something I have argued in the past that the NHL notably lacks, and often eschews in favour of cliché and a culture that toes the company line. To attribute this double standard to racism may seem simple, perhaps in and of its self inherently racist, but consider the following non-scientific study. I took 10 players from a recent Bleacher Report article on the most hated NHL players since 2000, and I googled their names in quotations and the word hate. I tried to vary the players in terms of age, conference, position, market, and ethnicity. Additionally, I’ve noted their average ice time, points, and penalty minutes. Here are the results (as of February 6):

Player

   Google Results

Ice Time/Game

        Points

           PIM

Sean Avery

1 470 000

7:00

3

21

P.K. Subban

   871 000

23:35

20

64

Matt Cooke

   595 000

15:52

19

20

Jordin Tootoo

   396 000

14:01

21

66

Colby Armstrong

   390 000

11:17

1

4

Daniel Carcillo

   198 000

11:24

11

82

Trevor Gillies

   160 000

2:52

0

0

Patrick Kaleta

   111 000

13:27

6

69

Brad Marchand

   106 000

17:09

38

77

Maxime Lapierre

     46 700

11:10

10

96

It should be noted Armstrong has been out most of the year, but he still gets a lot of hate. Sean Avery is the clear winner in terms of internet hatred, but he’s a veteran, one the most hated players to have ever laced up a pair of Bauers and insulted another player’s starlet girlfriend, and has been dispatched to Connecticut of the AHL, most likely until his hockey career ends and his fashion career begins. But P.K., in only his second full NHL season, has 276 000 more Google hate-results than his closest competitor, Matt Cooke, who fancies headshots more than an aspiring actor. Trevor Gillies, whose only NHL accomplishment is his moustache, has also been dispatched to the AHL but maintains a hefty web-based hatred.  And even if you double Max Lapierre’s totals to account for bilingualism, he’s still nowhere close to Subban.

What truly surprised me about the survey, which admittedly has the scientific acumen of creationism, was that none of the players even approach Subban’s level of talent or importance to their respective teams. Subban’s average ice time per game is 23 minutes and 35 seconds. The next closest on this list is Cooke at a good 8 minutes less. Though Subban is the only defenseman on the list, the fact remains that hatred at the professional level is typically reserved for 4th line pluggers and fringe pros, who need to play the role of pest in order to maintain a roster spot. Arguably, Marchand is the only other player on this list whose team value approaches Subban’s, and it’s interesting that he has been Subban’s foe since their junior days, but with a substantially smaller hate-base.

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O to Copa: Home and the Local

I miss a lot from my former lives. I’ve spent time living in Ottawa, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Montreal, and now Toronto, and with each move, each shift of life, I’ve left something special behind: a girl I loved, a friend I cherished, an apartment I felt right in, a diner that burned my grilled cheese just right, a quiet street I liked to stumble home, a spot on the beach to celebrate the eventide, a girl I loved. I like moving. I enjoy that sense of displacement. The rush of adrenalin born of fear of solitude and loneliness. The way a new place smells. The way it tastes. Of walking unfamiliar streets completely alone. And what I like best of a new place, a new temporary home, is discovering a local, a pub or tavern to call my own. And on a recent visit back to Montreal, I stopped by a former local to find it turned inside out, contemporized, changed. And I realized, much to my disappointment, that I haven’t had a local in some time, that I’m without a true home.

Many more intelligent folks than I have considered what we “need.” Virginia Woolf claimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Why this only applies to women and fiction is beyond my two degrees in English, but it didn’t turn out all that well for Ginny did it? Neil Young claimed a “man needs a maid” but Neil is notoriously messy, and that all turned pretty bad for Carrie Snodgress. Hunter S. Thompson told us “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” which some of us have tried to varying degrees of success, Thompson himself on the low end of that measurement. For me, a man needs a home, and that home is a local, a bar to call his own, a place where you can drop in at 11am without judgment for a cold 50 and read the paper. A place where a stool is always empty, where you can have both conversation and silence, where a hockey game plays on a TV quietly in the distance, where a friend will drop by, or not. And where it doesn’t matter.

My first local was an Irish pub in Ottawa called Gentle Annie’s. My friends and I went there because, well, it was close to our homes and they’d serve us even though we were sixteen. The owner, Des, whose nose had burst so many blood vessels it looked like an irrigation chart, and his staff very much knew how old we were, mostly because we would drunkenly admit it in the wee hours. We were peach-fuzzed little drunkards, but we could hold our liquor and we tipped well. We knew all the words to all the Irish songs, and we belted them out as best we could. The only problem with being so close to our homes, was that from time to time a friend’s parents or one of our high school teachers would come in. We’d all pretend not to see each other, except for on one occasion when a rather inebriated algebra teacher struggled to his feet to declare he was taking attendance, and proceeded to call on the five of us by surname over and over until someone settled him down.

On one of my last visits to Gentle Annie’s, I accidently broke my buddy Joe’s front tooth with the end of my pool cue. Opinion on how it happened differs, as Joe claims I hit him and I maintain that he face planted into my cue as he bent over for his pint.  Joe, suffering from too many drinks and a bit of vanity, naturally called 911 from the bar payphone. We were a little surprised when two cop cars, a fire engine, and an ambulance showed up upon hearing of a broken tooth at a local not averse to the occasional scuffle. The cops laughed at us, the fire engine quickly departed, and after the ambulance attendant explained to Joe that he would be charged a $95 fee for the ride, he thought it best to just go home and sleep it off. To this day his cap doesn’t quite match his teeth, and his mother holds me responsible for his now slightly less than perfect smile. He’s still very pretty, though.

There were a few places when I moved to Vancouver that I considered my local, but I never really felt at home in that city until I found The Fringe Café. The Fringe was like a house party with all your closest friends, every night, all night. I would imagine that the party is still going on, but I haven’t been there in twelve years. The Fringe was special, in that you could go in at any time and feel comfortable whether you were reading a book or hitting on the barmaid or doing shots of Jäger. The staff was more than friendly, and it was not uncommon to stay drinking right into morning, and greet the day staff as they came in for their early shift. On two separate occasions I put my ball cap down on a candle, nearly setting fire to the table, and perhaps the bar. Another time I left the bar not by walking out the front door, but by somersaulting the length of the room and out the back. I remember once refusing to leave the patio, and being carried, pint in hand, by Karen the bartender to an indoor seat. I remember great music. I remember feeling light. I remember good people. I remember being three thousand kilometres from home, and not at all.

Eventually, the sane man sobers up and leaves Vancouver. And in the years that followed I was without a local. There were a few weeks in Ottawa where the Alibi Room was close, but it was too small and dark to find any real comfort. It was, however, the place that supplied my roommate and I with toilet paper, as we were broke and he was handy with opening the locked dispenser in the men’s washroom with his Swiss Army knife. But then one night a girl I was seeing decided to pour an entire litre bottle of water over my head in the middle of the bar, and after that it wasn’t really a place I wanted to go back to.

In Montezuma, on the Peninsula de Nicoya in Costa Rica, there were a couple of little hotel bars I liked, where eventually the staff acknowledged me as a pseudo-regular. If I was a true regular anywhere there, it was the breakfast place that would whip up my eggs and café con leche as they spotted me coming down the beach, or the groceteria that had cheapest pilsners and discounted guaro. But down there, we were always happiest to drink on the beach, and no one is in Costa Rica on any permanent basis. No one is home.

It wasn’t until I got back to Canada, and moved to Montreal that I found a local again. The Cock n’ Bull was one of the first bars I had been to in my youthful visits to Montreal, so it seemed natural to return. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I liked going there alone in the afternoons for pitchers of 50 and to read the paper, maybe try and do some writing. There were always these sad old men at the bar, Bukowksi’s without pens or poetry, drinking draught beer from white wine glasses, contently awaiting some kind end. I kind of admired them, their comfort in solitude, their confident quiet. It was here that I wrote most of my first book, where I could look into the future of my speakers as they sat at the bar next to me. As I found a community, when we called each other, we didn’t even need to say which bar to meet at, just when. The Cock n’ Bull became a home. Many nights would start at a large table, pitcher upon pitch being devoured, and inevitably end up with just myself and Nick McArthur as 3am rolled around, doing shots of Southern Comfort, wondering where everyone went, talking about how one day we’d be writers.

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