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Hockey Gold and NHL Brass…

On Friday afternoon I was out for a run* and as I passed by the local elementary school, a boy, perhaps no more than nine years old, emerged from the parking lot on a skateboard, a Canadian flag tied as a cape on his back. As he skated off, the flag flapped behind him, a vision of the supermen he had surely watched win hockey gold only five days before.

I was struck then by how many young Canadians became hockey fans last Sunday. Fandom is on many levels an obsession and it is an obsession born in various ways. Sometimes it is developed through the love of a parent (for instance, Big Sexy cheers for Les Canadiens, because his father cheered for Les Canadiens), sometimes it is created out of a repetition of watching, but mostly the obsessive quality necessary for fandom is generated supernova style when a juvenile mind watches a superlative game on the grandest of stages.

The passion, the intensity, and the simple poetry of witnessing the very best in the world compete, creates a love of the game and a love of the victorious team. This is a strong bond that can survive decades of lethargy. When I was twelve the Jays won the World Series, when I was thirteen they won again. Since then they’ve never won ninety games in a year, never been to the playoffs, never played meaningful September baseball. Yet, year after year I watch them. I know the names of all forty guys. I know the youngsters who might help one day, and I get excited when in May they’re randomly leading the division.

Last Sunday’s game, which can only be considered one of the greatest games of all time and was nothing other than hockey gold, had that effect on thousands of young minds. It was probably so powerful that it had that effect of thousands of young adults, perhaps even American adults who watched in record numbers to bear witness to a potential upset.

What they saw was not just a game played at the highest level, on the grandest stage, with a last second comeback, and a hero’s ending. What they saw was also unsoiled, pure hockey. Did you know that there were only two penalties each per team? The final thirty-seven minutes of hockey were unblemished by high sticks, by reckless boarding, by holding, tripping, or cross checks. They were quintessential.

The real question then, is whether the NHL can capture any of the audience that witnessed that perfection and keep their attention. As many of you know, while I love Olympic hockey, I’m largely indifferent to the hockey played in the NHL. There are too many teams, which means too many players, which means too many guys who can’t compete with their talent and thus must compete by slowing the game to their skill level.

Over the last five years, blessed with an influx of breathtaking young talent, the NHL has worked hard to improve its product, speed up the game, increase scoring and eliminate the clutching and grabbing that saw 2-1 games become the norm for a decade of play. They deserve credit for this, I guess. But it has not been enough. The game that was played in Vancouver last Sunday, was not the same game I watched this week upon the NHLs return.

Perhaps the biggest issue, is also the most controversial. I’ve long thought myself apathetic to fighting in hockey. It’s not that I want to watch the fights, but I never really felt that they were detrimental to hockey. I was wrong. Fighting has no place in hockey. Why should it? What does it bring to the table?

Supporters of fighting in hockey argue that because it’s an aggressive, physical game, it is necessary for the players to occasionally shed their hostility through fights. A logic that might be dubbed, the self-policing mentality. Yes, hockey is a tough physical sport, but it is no more physical than football and fights in the NFL are rare. NHL players need to fight, because they’ve always been allowed, or more accurately encouraged, to fight. But continuing to do something because it’s always been done is a form of cowardice.

Are there a few fans that follow hockey only for the fights? Sure, probably, but if they are only interested in the sport for the fighting, are they really fans at all? The alternative camp, is the exceptionally larger one that considers NHL hockey to be a mere step above MMA as a violent cult sport. Did some of those people watch on Sunday? Did they reconsider their opinion? And if so, did they then tune in to watch Friday night’s Vancouver-Chicago game, where 37 seconds into play, gloves were dropped and players were fighting. To what point? To settle some previous score? Really? I certainly would not blame fans who tuned in after the Olympics saw that display and thought, ‘nope, not the same game.’

I want the NHL to become stronger and for Canada’s game to be more than a niche sport. I want the league to capitalize on the gold that was last Sunday, but mostly, I want the league to ensure that all those caped children riding down the street on skateboards have a thriving sport to follow for the next fifty years. The first step in ensuring that future, is shedding the brass knuckles whose time has long passed.

*In no way does Sports on the Brain condone the use of exercise, this was a one time mistake brought on by the unseasonably warm weather. The author regrets it and apologizes to any he may have harmed.

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