I have a confession that may lead to me following the lead of Conrad Black and abandoning my Canadian passport. Nothing criminal, I must hastily stress. But definitely something that would currently qualify as un-Canadian.
Every morning when I read the sports pages, and during the day as I browse the web for news updates, I feel enormous relief—nay, deep satisfaction—that the NHL lockout continues.
In fact, I felt something approaching jubilation to learn games have been scrapped for the rest of 2012. True jubilation would be confirmation that games have been scrapped for 2013 as well. All of 2013. Like, a year from now and even, in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear, to infinity and beyond.
Don’t get me wrong. I love hockey. I just hate the NHL. I love the Montreal Canadiens. I just hate the NHL. I love hating the Toronto Maple Leafs. I just hate the NHL.
How much do I hate the NHL? I wish, devoutly and fervently, that the whole league would self-destruct into a smoking heap of its own arrogant, selfish-hearted absurdity. I would love nothing better than to wake up to the headline: “NHL No More. Talks Underway for Six-Team Replacement League.”
That is not, I hastily stress for a second time, mere nostalgia for the old Original Six teams that I grew up watching, defiantly wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey while living in a town in the Interior of B.C. With no disrespect to the hockey gods of my youth, there is no question that today’s players are faster, far better conditioned and much more skilled than all but the very best of their predecessors. Professional hockey as a crucible of meaning has, however, emptied in inverse proportion to the improvements in mere physical quality of play.
A bit of that, of course, is merely a function of, errr, advancing adulthood. There comes a point, often a very sharp point, in almost every adult North American male’s life when he clues in to what the women around him have known since childhood: that screen in front of you where those players are playing that game is not a mirror. On the contrary, that screen is delivering the reality-check message that the game those players are playing actually has nothing whatever to do with you, the observer. Nothing. Nada. Bupkas. Or in my favorite line ever to come out of Jerry Seinfeld’s mouth: “They won. You watched.” It’s not even a continuum. It’s a total disconnect.
Even when the disconnect becomes incontrovertible, though, it remains possible as an adult North American male to watch sports in the mode of a kibitzer or a cherry picker: “They shoulda benched McDoon; they wuz robbed by the instant replay booth; you wanna watch the paint dry or the baseball game?”
Cherry picking is the approach I currently take to the National Football League. I no longer care about the NFL. I follow the New York football Giants because I feel an almost obsessive-compulsion need to know whether their quarterback Eli Manning really is an idiot savant. And I follow the New England Patriots for the same reason I would go and watch brain surgery being performed at the local hospital were it a public activity: coach Bill Belichik and quarterback Tom Brady are fascinating archetypes of ruthless alpha genius. In their working lives, they carve and crush whatever’s in front of them with an awe-inspiring, amoral efficiency that is not about winning hearts and minds. It’s purely about winning. Why? Because, like brain surgeons, winning is what their working lives require them to do.
Such utter cold, calculating character would be incongruous with hockey, despite it being a game played on ice. Hockey, because so much of the game is played at anerobic levels, is paradoxically a game of the heart. It is a game of high, raw, driving, adrenalized emotion. Watch the classic video clip of Paul Henderson scoring the tournament winning goal in the 1972 Summit series and tell me that’s not so.
Hockey is that kind of game, but the NHL is not that kind of hockey league. It is a league without a heart, and I don’t mean just that the owners are being heartless in the current lockout or that the players are all greedy gobblers at heart. I mean that in the place where heart should be, there is an empty, increasingly insupportable, shell. Pray that it remains locked up, locked down, locked out . . . whatever—until the inevitable happens and the roof caves in.