Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Puck Drops Here

The NHL probably got more publicity for being the first North American professional sports league to cancel a season over labor difficulties than it ever did by actually playing the games. Much has been said about the future state of hockey, and whether it can survive being out of the public eye for a year. My puckhead credentials are pretty good, as least compared to most residents of Baja Canada, and I have the following theory on that:

You don’t want to play? Don’t play. The only thing that might be killed is the National Hockey League. Hockey will be fine.

I stopped by the local rink last weekend and found myself in the middle of the semi-finals of several local leagues. I took a seat at a fourteen-and-under game with the score 2-0 and 6:45 to play. The underdogs pulled the goalie with 2:30 left and scored twice in the final 1:54. The two teams skated through a scoreless five minute overtime before the team losing when I got there won in a shoot-out.

I went back the next day for the sixteen-and-under finals. This game was tied 2-2 going into the third period. The final of 4-2 came about only after an empty net goal with 5.9 seconds to play.

All four teams left everything on the ice, as they say. There would be no newspaper headlines the next day. No groupies waited for them after the game. Most important, no money changed hands, except for the large sums of money spend over the year for ice time and equipment. The teams got their trophies, mom and dad piled the family into the car, and everyone was happy. My total cost for three hours of highly-competitive hockey: three hours of my time.

Sure, the NHL would be faster, rougher, and more skilled. My teams were evenly matched, and all anyone cared about was giving their best effort to win. Thanks to a media that too often takes the measure of a player by the number of championships won or money earned(?), we forget there is great enjoyment to be had from sport at any level, not just at the top of the pyramid.

Would baseball be better off with a return to the pre-farm system days, where every minor league team was an independent entity, making up their own rosters and playing for a championship that meant something? Sure it would, except for the major leagues. A very successful AA team is near to The Home Office, and the Sole Heir and I enjoy a game there at least once a year. I’d like to follow the team more closely, except for one reason: all games are essentially exhibitions.

Yes, they keep standings and have playoffs. It’s also true that a minor league team can be in the midst of a hotly contested pennant race and have its best player called up to The Show to sit on the bench because the parent team might need a pinch runner twice in September. How much true allegiance can fans build under those circumstances?

You know it’s true if you think about it. Which is a higher level of play, college or minor leagues? Minor leagues, certainly in baseball, since most college players still serve a minor league apprenticeship before going to the majors. Yet which level has closer bonds with its fans, even years after they’ve left the area. Colleges. Why? They play for their own victories and have control over their own hopes. Minor league teams don’t.

We railed last week about the NHL owners being more interested in breaking the union than in playing hockey. Let equal time be given to the concept that hockey players—all professional athletes—would play for a half, a fifth, a tenth of what they make now. Don’t believe me? How many NHL players and skating in Europe and in minor leagues right now?

The NHL might die; maybe it should. A new league would fill the vacuum within a year. Same players, pretty much the same cities, different players on each teams, but we’d recognize everyone. Too many people want to play hockey, and too many people are willing to pay for the privilege of watching them, for it not to happen.

So play, or don’t. People of all ages are playing hockey right now, as you read this, and they’re busting their asses doing it for nothing more than the joy of playing, even in rinks where the only attendees are the players, the officials, and the guy driving the Zamboni. Maybe some family members.

Go see them. It’s the same game. A little slower, not as polished, but the same game. Be amazed at the energy put forth by a crowd ranging from 20–200 people, depending on the relative importance of the game. You’ll be glad you did.

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