Thursday, October 06, 2005

game on

So hockey's back, and my team, the New York Rangers, somehow pulled a win out of its collective patoot last night. Of course, I didn't see it, as I turned the game off when the Flyers went up 3-1. Not that I particularly regret turning the game off - for one thing, I'm sure that there will be many, many, many 3-1 deficits the Rangers will fail to come back from this season, and turning off games will be a useful habit to acquire; for another thing, turning off the game enabled me to turn my attention towards helping my girlfriend pick out a sexy Halloween costume.

The restart of hockey is a little bittersweet for me. It's a game I grew up absolutely adoring. I threw myself into its history and tradition with absolute abandon. I revered the Original Six, the Expansion Six, the Stanley Cup, the golden age of the 1980s and the best year of NHL hockey ever - 1994, of course. I loved how hockey reflected its place and time - it could be at once a distinctly Canadian game meant for cold winter nights, a warm living room, comfy sweats and thick, syrupy lager (not that I drank much thick, syrupy lager growing up), and also an social game, meant to be enjoyed in good company (or, at least, enthusiastic company). Like baseball through the spring and summer, it marked time as we all slogged on through the colder seasons. It would never be as huge as baseball or football, but it didn't have to be - it was a charming, entertaining sport mindful of its past.

And then it all sorta spun out of control, leaving my fandom behind in a spray of ice. Whereas other leagues would weigh the question of expansion carefully, NHL teams multiplied like a virus (seemingly just so that the existing NHL owners could keep on collecting those sweet franchise fees), throwing the sport's competitive balance and the talent pool out of whack. Players with skill and creative minds drowned in a sea of guys who represented the new ideal in a hockey player - at least 6'3", at least marginal on skates, at least a semblance of playmaking ability, and could clutch and grab a lot. The ice shrank when the players grew, choking those who could provide the spark that catapulted the sport to success in the first place. Players began switching teams at a dizzying rate. And yes, my team, the Rangers, decided to take a decade-long sabbatical, with Madison Square Garden's head doofus Charles Dolan leaving the fate of its proud hockey franchise (and the franchise's passionate, beleaguered fans) in the hands of a has-been who would rather be fishing anyway (though to be fair, his frequent vacations means there's less time in which he can fuck things up).

So it might be a long, long time before I appreciate hockey again the way I used to. The sport has a lot of work to do. It has to reconnect with a history it disrespected, and it has to prove that it will let the cream of the league rise to the top, as it once did. Third-line checkers and grinders have their place (the third line, for instance), but no one wants to see a sport dominated by them. People, myself included, want to see skill and want to have fun, and it's not even the primitive desire to see cool shit like one-timers and breakaways go down (though that's part of it) - I think sports fans appreciate excellence in performance, and the NHL has to prove that excellence - not brute strength - will be its main requirement for on-ice success.

For what it's worth, it's always fun when one of my teams causes Philly fans to start booing their team (especially after coming back in droves following a year-long "fuck you"), so hockey's reboot can't be all bad.

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