As I write these words my country is in mourning. Television commentators speak in hushed voices of the calamity that is upon us. Their guests are red-eyed, ashen-faced, and choking on their words. They are uncomprehending. They seem inconsolable. This is Canada, and hockey is dead.
Well, sort of dead anyway. You still see backyard rinks with kids in replica jerseys swarming after frozen pucks. But the National Hockey League, showcase of the world’s best, is shut down. Having locked its players out since training camp, it has now cancelled the entire season. There will be no playoffs, no best-of-seven struggles, no overtime thrillers, no champions of the hockey world joyously holding aloft the prettiest trophy in all of sport. This year–it won’t happen. It’s almost too much.
Americans cannot comprehend our loss. Hockey was never more than the “fourth sport” in the U.S., after football, baseball and basketball. Now it’s fallen behind NASCAR into fifth, at best. Outside the Northeast and upper Midwest, the NHL has little more than cult sport status. American television ratings have been hilariously bad, dropping lower than broadcasts of Saturday afternoon bowling. Upon hearing of hockey’s demise, most Americans would be surprised to learn that it existed in the first place.
But in Canada hockey is supreme. Ask hard-core fans and they’ll tell you that hockey is like religion, only more important. It’s first, second, and third put together. We might have major league baseball in Toronto, and a pro basketball team too, but those are transplants from an alien sports culture. Hockey is different. It was born on our frozen ponds. It’s in our national soul.
So why have the lords of hockey shut us out? The answer is, of course, money. The players want too much and the owners have too little. For years the NHL imagined a bright future for itself as a big-league, bigmoney sport. Brimming with confidence, it expanded across the U.S. into markets like Miami, Atlanta, and Phoenix, cities with no hockey tradition or any kind of winter sport culture. (Have any of those people ever seen a frozen pond? Used a snow shovel?) In the wake of expansion, coaches adopted a tight-checking, defensive style of play that only hockey Moms can stand to watch. Now the sport is faltering in the U.S. Canadian “markets” are too small. Owners want a new deal.
The ten-year-old collective bargaining agreement between team owners and the players’ union has become ridiculously favourable to the players. Player salaries now eat up 75% of total league revenues. That is unsustainable even if hockey grows in popularity. The finances of professional hockey are overdue for a major correction, and everybody knows it. The expiry of the old deal provided an opportunity for that correction. Owners wanted a hard salary cap comparable to the National Football League’s. Players wanted to keep an open market comparable to Major League Baseball’s, with a modest “luxury tax” and a sprinkle of revenue sharing. Everyone expected that negotiations would be tough. Insiders speculated freely about a long lockout. The season began without training camps. Winter started with no games. And as the snows melt, there’s still nothing, maybe not until early 2006.
So…let’s make it a good hurt.
For Canadian fans, the hockey lockout can become a prolonged Lent, a penitential season spread over the entire calendar. We have time to reflect on the odd importance we attach to men playing a boy’s game. We can consider the dark underbelly of the sport: its culture of violence. We can ask ourselves how the innocence of the frozen pond has been kidnapped by the sports entertainment industry and turned into a money mill. We can ask why cities have been bullied again and again to build extravagant sports facilities with public monies. We can ask why, in spite of that, tickets are still so expensive. Why are caps and sweaters at the pro shops so overpriced? Do they take us for fools? Have we been fools? We can ponder the way collective greed tends to destroy what it desires most. You tend to blow off such questions during the playoffs when the game is into overtime. In the quiet of the lockout, we have distance. We can be thoughtful, maybe even wise.
In the grim aftermath of cancellation, talking heads warned that Canadians might learn to get by without their hockey fix. Maybe so. And devoutly to be wished.