And oh did I get back into it. So much so that I now face the decision of sticking with NHL hockey (and thus voicing my opinion about what I wish it would be) or leaving it be (only to be picked up again when my team nears glory). As I consider this I have a few complaints to register. I will group them according to three categories, and illustrate them with reference to the playoff season that just passed.
First of all, there is the culture of violence and retribution. Fighting. It is part of the game. It isn't just something that happens once in awhile, it is an accepted and even expected part of the game. In what other team sport is that the case? None. I think the best way to illustrate the problem is with reference to former NHL referee Kerry Fraser's comments on Brad Marchand's repeated shots to the face of Daniel Sedin at the end of Stanley Cup Game 6, to which Sedin did not respond:
“This is really a telling play, in my opinion, as to the series and moving into Game 7," Fraser said. "On that particular play, there is absolutely no question that the referee should have assessed at least two minutes for roughing for Marchand, and I probably would have given him a misconduct as well, to get rid of him.To add insult to injury, Daniel Sedin and his brother were repeatedly called the "Sedin sisters" for and castigated as "Europeans" because of this approach to the rough stuff. Putting aside the disgusting misogyny and ethnocentricity of these remarks, the underlying assumption at issue here is that hockey can't be played that way.
"That being aside, the captain, the leader of that team, he's a skill player, tremendously skilled player, not a physical guy, but sooner or later you've got to throw the gloves down and you've got to defend yourself on a play like that, especially when you're looking at a guy that might be an inch or two shorter than you, you've got to step it up. I don't think Ray Bourque as a captain — he would never take that kind of abuse, personally.
"But beyond that, nobody came to the aid of Daniel Sedin. He's their captain, he's their leader. Where are these guys that would want to stick up and say, 'Hey, we're going home, we've lost this game, we're going back home, and they're not going to do that to us?' ... You don’t let your captain get a rag-doll treatment like that. Either he does it himself — steps it up with the game lost and going back home for the hammer, or somebody's got to jump in there and take care of business, and that never happened.
We are unable to imagine, it seems, an NHL where the referees took care of the penalties and the players just played the game without violently taking matters into their own hands. Call me a purist, fine, but I find the hockey ethos reflected by Fraser's remarks harder and harder to stomach. And I find my future as a fan hinging on how much I'll be able to stomach it.
Now, I know that the Canucks are not innocent in this regard, but if I'm to watch the NHL anymore it is going to be for players like the Sedins, and not for the players that Fraser insists they should be.
(Of course, I'm sure there are examples that could be named where the Sedin twins actually did punch back, but please bear in mind that I'm using them as a general illustration, not as pristine messiahs. That said, let's note that at the very least these are some pretty honourable athletes. Not only did they top up the franchise's $5 million donation to the local children's hospital with £1.5 million of their own, but check out Daniel Sedin's response to the charges against him that I noted above. When Mike Milbury called the Sedins "Thelma and Louise" Daniel replied: “We don't really worry about those kind of comments. He made a bad comment about us, calling us women. I don't know how he looks at women. I would be pretty mad if I was a woman.” Genius.)
Which brings me to the second problem: Media coverage and the sports cliche. The chest-thumping idiocy displayed by Milbury is commonplace. But that's an easy target. Let's acknowledge that this isn't happening as often as it once did. But we still have the problem of tired cliches passing for entertainment. I know this is a problem in all sports but in this past playoff series the problem was evident in a massive way, and in fact seemed to be particularly bad when it came to the NHL itself.
Of course, there is only so much you can say, so maybe sports media will always be rife with cliches. Maybe it tries too hard to get beyond this. Whatever the case, it seems quite prevalent that as soon as a player says anything interesting, the media jumps all over it and abuses it, takes it out of context, sensationalizes it all the more, and makes it stupid. Take, for instance, Roberto Luongo's "jab" at opposition goaltender and eventual Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner Tim Thomas.
After the Canucks scored a goal where Bieksa seemed to fluke the puck off the end boards so that Lapierre could put it into the abandoned net, Luongo was asked to give Thomas some props for his great goaltending by admitting what a happenstance series of events it took to score on him. The assumption in the question was that the play was a mistake, and the assumption was that Luongo should provide fodder for that reporter's admiration for his opponent. (That Thomas ended up being the better goaltender in this series is neither here nor there, the point is that under no circumstances should we expect that Luongo ought to go in for those assumptions.)
Knowing that it was a planned miss by Bieksa due to scouting reports on Thomas, Luongo made an honest and competitive comment (rather than a cliche, which is what we usually get) which called it like it was. To his credit, he didn't get nasty with it, and admitted that sometimes it would work out vice versa - sometime Thomas would make saves which Luongo didn't, simply because they play a different style.
But the media blew it up and Luongo was chastised for his "jab". Questioned later he pointed out that Thomas never says anything nice about him, and Luongo was mocked all the more. Why should Luongo care if Thomas praises him? The point is that the whole thing started with the press asking him to give Thomas kudos precisely where they weren't deserved. See how dumb the whole thing is? Luongo's comments got away from sports cliches, and then he was roasted for it. Sports is supposed to be entertaining and competitive. This can get stupidly over-competitive, but it can also get stupidly unintelligent. I found the latter very frustrating - and it seems pretty common.
The third problem I want to mention is all those scrums after the whistle. This is relatively unique to NHL hockey and quite closely related to the first. It isn't quite the same as the culture of fighting and retribution. It is the prevalence of instances where players jostle and slash and facewach each other to prove a point and assert each other's territory. Sure, it is always going to happen, but does it have to be such a part of the game? I'd rather it wasn't.
Referring again to the Stanley Cup finals, let's recall the two major controversies that ensued. The biggest one was Aaron Rome's concussion-causing late hit on Nathan Horton. The scene was ugly and even horrific. Rome was suspended from the rest of the series. The other controversy was Alex Burrows bite of the finger of Patrice Bergeron in one of these after-the-whistle scrums. Bergeron was giving Burrows one of the classic facewashes with his glove, and Burrows caught a stray finger in his mouth and bit down. No suspension.
Obviously, the bite is silly. I won't defend it. But what really gets me is the ire that was sent solely in Vancouver's direction because of it. Why does this bug me? Because as silly as the bite was, its silliness is a subset of the silliness of the scrum to begin with! Sure, the facewash is not as downright dirty as the bite, but they are on the same sliding scale of absurdity. Burrows was dumb to do that. But the whole thing is dumb. Though everyone was all over the Canucks for that one, when the team all but eliminated that after the whistle rough stuff the rest of the series, they were mocked for it (see above).
The thing is, when it is all said and done, Aaron Rome's hit is actually a more understandable part of the game than those after-the-whistle scrums. I genuinely believe it was a mistake on his part that he went on with the hit after the brief window where it would have been safe and legal. I think they should try to cut down on these eventualities with strict penalization and rules, but that this happens on occasion is more acceptable to me, in principle, than the silly perpetuation of hack-whack-and smack hockey and all that monkey-business after the play.
I know I sound like I'm just frustrated that my team lost and that my team was the butt end of some of this, and maybe that's true to a degree, but these things were genuinely bothering me even when it looked like my team might prevail. As long as that's what hockey is, I continue to participate with one foot out the door. Having said that, I have been impressed with some of the things the Canucks franchise have tried to put forward and I am pretty interested in seeing what they can do next year. But before this season is lost to memory, I thought I'd register some of the things that bothered me as I got swept up in it all again.