After outing myself as a Canadian who dislikes snow, I suffered the virtual slings and arrows of outrageous readers who called me a snow (w)itch and wanted to send me to Siberia. Funny. I have another Canadian tradition to reject: I don’t like hockey either. (The comment section is below, or you can tweet your opinion to us, but if you read on, you’ll probably find something to really sink your teeth into.)
When I was a kid, I watched hockey with my dad. It was more about being with my dad than interest in the sport, but I did enjoy the games. Back then players had quirky nicknames based on something about the player’s skill or personality—Rocket Richard, the Golden Jet, Boom Boom Geoffrion. These colourful characters played for the love of the game and salaries reflected that they played a game for a living. Today’s players have nicknames based on their names. Olie the Goalie. Ebs. The Nuge. Iggy. Where’s the imagination? Some nicknames do exhibit a spark of imagination, like the Bulin Wall (goalie Nikolai Khabibulin), whose moniker is more about his name and where he’s from than any resemblance he bears to a wall.
Back in the day, those colourful names and personalities provided colourful commentary. The announcers said goofy things, like “Clickety clack, here comes Shack” when Eddie “the Entertainer” Shack had a breakaway. There was even a song about tough guy Shack that went “Clear the track, here comes Shack, he knocks them down and he gives them a whack.” Mr Hockey, Gordie Howe, has an unofficial play named for his assertive style—the Gordie Howe Hat Trick (a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. Howe racked up only two eponymous hat tricks).
But I don’t dislike hockey because of the unimaginative nicknames or colourless commentary, though the lack of both don’t help. I dislike hockey because of what it’s become, or rather, what it no longer is. It’s no longer a sport, and hasn’t been for some time. It’s all about big money, franchises, new arenas, spin-off revenue and injuries.
Where is the passion for the game? I miss that. You can see it sometimes in kids playing road hockey or shinny, and in a few rare kids at the rink—the ones who are eager to go to their 6:00 AM practice. But often that passion is ruined by parents with visions of NHL careers, living vicariously through their little boys. They bully and push their kids, and bully and push other parents, organizers and officials. Kids playing a game should involve having fun. Those pushy parents are goons and I have no doubt that goons beget goons. Maybe they have realized that thuggery, rather than skill, offers a better shot at making it into the NHL. There certainly are a lot of goons playing the game professionally, ostensibly to protect their team’s highly skilled players, but their actions suggest they are on the ice to maim the opposition’s best players.
In the past, there were fights during games. There was even a joke about it—“I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.” A cheap shot or a rough check and the gloves came off. The players waltzed around a bit until the refs pulled them apart. Bobby Orr’s knee injuries notwithstanding, you didn’t hear about career-ending injuries or concussions. Today’s players—mainly the goons—are bigger and faster. It’s appalling to see these huge guys flying through the air, feet off the ice, to crash into another player—essentially a colleague—and smash him into the boards. A flying leap is not a check. A check is supposed to be about controlling the puck, not taking a player out of the game for good. Sid Crosby is an example. He missed 41 regular season and seven playoff games last season due to two concussions and 20 games this season due to concussion symptoms. After a spectacular return in November in which he scored two goals and two assists, he was off the active roster indefinitely due to more symptoms. At 24, his professional hockey career may be over and the rest of his life affected by his injuries. The NHL is eating its young by allowing this kind of savage play that targets star players.
Are there more injuries now, or do they just get more attention? Or is this generation of players actually a bunch of glass tigers? In the past when a guy was checked into the boards, he could usually shake it off and resume playing. Today, players often miss several games due to injury, the most newsworthy being concussions. According to the Messier Project, more than 750 NHL players have suffered concussions since 1997, with an average of 639 games missed per season. In the 05/06 and 06/07 hockey seasons the number of NHL games missed due to concussions rose by 40 per cent.
Clearly the game has become rougher. Besides larger players, the game is surrounded by a culture of violence. Fans scream “hit him, hit him.” Commentators talk approvingly about bone-crunching checks and fights, justifying them by noting that extreme fighting is a popular “sport.” If people want to watch moronic cage matches and extreme fighting (comment section below), they can. But brutal behaviour should have no place in a game that is better when played with strategy and finesse.