Hockey as it could be
Congratulations to Canada for winning the gold medal last night, and to both teams for playing up to their potential and putting on a show. For one glorious night, viewers the world over got to see a demonstration of how incredible the sport of hockey can be.
Sadly, it is now Monday, and hockey comes crashing back to earth. Sure, the NHL does a fairly brisk business filling arenas and thanks to its salary cap is on relatively solid financial footing for the time being. But who will be watching hockey in the US tonight? That’s right: those who live in NHL cities and fill the arenas and those intrepid few who can find televised games buried deep in the bowels of cable television. Most of us are left out in the cold, wishing hockey could be a little less remote.
What last night’s game offered was a chance to see hockey as it could or should be played, all the time, everywhere. Physical, but not chippy, for example. Plenty of solid checks and collisions, but none of that “message-sending” headhunting and boarding so rampant in normal games. Eight total minutes of penalties, for infractions that were fairly obvious and only one of which (Malone’s high stick) was utterly pointless. If one caught the camera shots of the players in the box, particularly Malone and Toews after he was called for tripping, one saw players mad at themselves (reading lips helps) for taking the penalty and genuinely worried about how it would affect their team, instead of the whiny, hell-bent-for-vengeance truculence one sees from many players in the box during NHL games.
The place was going nuts last night, and there were no fights, minimal pushing and shoving, and no cheap shots. I know hockey purists love fighting and they all spout the same “fighting is a part of hockey and can’t be taken out” line, but that is just brainwashing. Fights are so scripted and tedious, and given the rise (and popularity) of all this mixed martial arts whatnot, no one needs hockey to see men beat the crap out of each other. Fights drive away people not looking to see human ugliness on display, and constantly push hockey down into the niche it has unhappily occupied for too many years now. Most casual sports viewers’ mental picture of hockey is dominated by all the ugliness–Bertuzzi, Cormier, Downie, Danton et al.–that makes it into mainstream sports news and lands on YouTube, rather than by the artistry of skilled players or the outcome of the games themselves. As an ex-player and a hardcore fan, even I find my willingness to pay for such a product slowly fading as I lose interest in the silly antics of an undertalented (too many roster slots wasted on cro-magnon enforcer types) and formulaic league.
For one glorious night football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and even German biathlon fans sat before their televisions glued to the spectacle that is the fastest game on earth. It is a beautiful dream to think that hockey could always be so spectacular.