What just took place between hockey and me has probably happened to every one of us at one time or another. I saw hockey at the Olympics, we started having a good time, kind of got swept up in the moment, things got crazy, and let’s just say hockey and I went a little further than we should have.
Because the next thing you know, the Olympics were over. A couple of days had passed. The NHL was back. I was taking another look at hockey by the light of Tuesday and she wasn’t looking the same as she had back in Vancouver. She was looking like the same tired, ugly, unsightly hag I’d broken up with years ago.
That’s right — this isn’t my first rodeo with hockey. It was a reunion for us. I used to love her. She and I have had a couple of flings and tried to make things work. She was my first boyhood crush back in the days of Bobby Orr, Gerry Cheevers and Phil Esposito. But then the WHA came along and broke us up. The Don Cherry era was a whirlwind romance, but Harry Sinden got jealous and split us apart. The Miracle on Ice was the greatest romance of my sports fan’s life. And while I’ll always cherish the memories, it was just a one-time thing. And there were other moments along the way, but none of them lasted very long either.
Because every time hockey and I started getting serious, something always came along and ruined it. And I’ve finally figured out what that thing is: The National Hockey League. The only thing that’s really wrong with hockey is the NHL itself.
As that great philosopher Chris Rock once said, hockey is like heroin. Nobody just dabbles in hockey. You either never touch the stuff or it’s your whole lifestyle. And I know a lot of guys who are hooked. True addicts. So for most of my adult life I’ve made it my life’s mission to drive my diehard puckhead buddies insane by relentlessly tooling on their sport. It was I who proposed they switch from three 20-minute periods to 20 three-minute periods, with a Zamboni and end-change after every one. I said hockey would be better if they left a stationary puck in the middle of the ice and slid the nets around. And I suggested they scrap the goals altogether and just let guys skate, check and fight for 60 minutes. I said these things because I believed that the problem with hockey was the game itself. But I admit now that I was wrong.
Hockey is great. Truly one of the best sports ever devised by Man. I can see that now. The problem for me all these years is that just when things were really starting to get going between us, the NHL would come along like a vindictive mother-in-law and poison the relationship.
That’s never been so apparent as it was watching the tournament in Vancouver. The difference between the hockey we saw at the Olympics and that dog’s breakfast we’re subjected to every night on Versus is startling. The action was nonstop. The play was frenetic. But it was also physical; this wasn’t some mamby-pamby, no-stakes, gentlemen’s-agreement-not-to-hit-each-other-then-grab-a-Molson-afterward exhibition like the NHL All-Star Game. The hitting was relentless. The checking was vicious. And more than anything, the stakes were high and it was reflected in the caliber of play.
So, like a lot of Americans who were caught up in the excitement of Vancouver, I tried to carry it over once regular hockey started back up. And when I opened my eyes, what I saw staring back at me across the pillow was the same Medusa face that caused me to grab my clothes and sneak out the back door without waking her so many times before.
Because let’s be honest. Even the most hardcore puckhead — one of those humorless, uber-sensitive, Hockey News-subscribing diehards who defends their sport like Opus Dei guarded the Da Vinci Code — have to admit that 99 percent of all NHL hockey is pure dreck. Meaningless games no one cares about between teams no one pays attention to. Seriously, didn’t Reg Dunlop and his boys take a nine-hour bus ride to face the Columbus Blue Jackets?
Gary Bettman and the rest of the bungling idiots who run the NHL have done the impossible. They’ve taken a sport in which you hand sharp sticks to a bunch of Canadian goons and Eastern Bloc thugs and send them out on an ice rink together, and made it boring. Just on pure bloodlust alone, pro hockey should have the entertainment value of an old Roman bull and bear fight. But what we usually get instead has all the excitement of passive-aggressive dinner night at my in-laws’ house.
What the Lords of the Boards have done over the years is nothing less than take something I should care deeply about and ruin it through their own incompetence and mismanagement. And for that I can never forgive them. It’s akin to what Hollywood has done with Seth Rogen movies; taking the humor of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the hilarity of “Superbad” and squeezing all the fun out until we’re left with the joyless, annoying jackassery of “Pineapple Express” and “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” and they’re not to be forgiven for it.
I should love hockey. I should be following the league like I do all the others. I should be able to name all the guys on the Bruins’ fourth line or more than six NHL goalies. But the powers that be wrecked it for me and millions more like me.
They’ve run the league like a Ponzi scheme. Deriving their revenue not from putting a product on the ice anyone wants to see, but by finding some idle rich sucker willing to blow a piece of his inheritance on an expansion team. So, at least one-third of the teams in the league have no reason to exist other than to satisfy the midlife crisis of some douchebag who never saw ice before that wasn’t in his martini shaker. Which would be no business of mine were it not for the fact that watering down the league this way has cut into my fun. And I take that personally.
What more proof do we need that the NHL powers that be have FUBAR'ed things than this business of putting games on Versus? I consider myself more of a sports fan than your average schmoe. But I kid you not, if you came over my house right now and asked me to turn on Versus so you could watch the hockey, I wouldn’t be able to find it without the channel guide. Meanwhile, on pure muscle memory alone I can find you six channels that show nothing but World War II documentaries. The major difference is that while WWII had a lot more teams in it, it wasn’t watered down and everyone was at least competitive. Except for the French.
But if you need more proof of their stupidity, short-sightedness and general asshattery, how about the fact that Bettman right now is trying to decide whether to allow his players to play in the next Olympics? He can talk up the threat of injuries all he wants. But this isn’t the Sox losing Dice-K to Bud Selig’s stupid company softball tournament in order to promote baseball in Chinese Taipei. This is the flipping Olympics. And all Bettman is really worried about are the crowds at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, screaming their vodka-filled lungs out being contrasted with a Bruins-Coyotes game in which the TV mics can pick up the sound of people yawning and blowing their noses from the balcony seats.
Look, I understand that in a long season the league can’t make every game as competitive as the Olympic tourney. I get that. But there’s no excuse for taking one of the greatest sports in the world and turning it into something millions of hard-core sports fans have a hard time caring about. This might sound like one of those stupid ideas I like to come up with just to drive the puckheads insane, but maybe we ought to consider running Olympic hockey eight months out of the year and play the NHL every four years. It would work for me.
But until that day comes, what about us, hockey? We’ll always have Lake Placid.