Hockey is Dead, Long Live Hockey

So in the wee hours of this morning, a deal was finally struck to ‘save’ hockey for the year. Yes, the owners and the players have finally decided on a way to split their huge fat stacks between them ‘equitably’, and everyone is willing to lace up, open the gates, and give the crowd what they want.The thousands of ordinary Canadians, small-business owners, service employees, and others who depend on the league, and its famous Stanley Cup tournament, for their livelihoods can return to work. But this return is different: the NHL has likely shot itself in the face in a number of small markets- already in desperate competition with basketball and football, the absence of hockey this fall could very well be the last nail in the coffin for Phoenix, Nashville, and others besides.

For this lockout is different- at the start of the 2005-06 season, at least, we got some fun new rules to open up the game (eg. two-line passes, shootouts, a point for overtime losses, and the behind-the-goal safe trapezoid for goalies), and so when hockey came back there was the promise that we’d be seeing something new on the ice. Hockey game back from its break rejuvenated- if not better, at least different. Not this time, though: we left hockey at the start of the blocked shot era, and it looks like that’s where we’re going to pick it back up again.

Now, far be it from me to criticize the league’s business model. Ill-conceived expansion south of the Mason-Dixon line aside, they seem to have done alright for themselves, and the fact that there are so many millions to be divvied up is proof of the fact. But that said, there is a malaise. In a Toronto Star poll this morning, 31% of respondents indicate they will not watch the shortened season as they are ‘no longer NHL fan(s)’- a further 38% will watch, but feel the lockout has ‘soured’ the season.

This, don’t forget, is Toronto- I can only imagine the results of a similar poll in Phoenix. Indeed, some serious damage has been done. We seem to have come a long way from the heady days of the Original Six era, where hockey was the thing that mattered to Canadians, where Maurice Richard’s suspension could set off riots, when the Leafs needed to put a decent team on the ice to ensure their revenues, where hockey could be seen as a metaphor for our nation, rather than a perfunctory pageant populated and promulgated by the very richest. There was a time, in other words, when hockey was real, when it was visceral, when it served its ancient purpose (as with all sports) as a proxy, or metaphor, for war. Our boys versus theirs, us versus them, in the spirit of fair competition for the honour of victory itself.

I have seen it repeated as a truism this fall that hockey players ‘used to be different from other athletes’: that they were motivated by love of the game, not by profit. It’s worth considering where this trope comes from, as hockey players, and hockey owners, have in fairness been making money hand over fist for a good long time, well before even the Original Six. But the history of the Stanley Cup can point us in the right direction. The Canadian Encyclopedia reminds us that it was “(d)onated by Governor General Lord Stanley in 1893 for presentation to the amateur hockey champions of Canada.”

That’s right, the amateur champions. In fact, the NHL gained control of the cup in 1926 only, 33 years after its dedication. The NHL at this point was recognized to be the pinnacle of hockey competition in the world, and because there were Canadian teams playing in it, it was a safe bet that whoever won the NHL championship was indeed the champion of Canada. The fact that American teams could, and can, win the Cup is an act of charity on the part of all Canadians. The fact that professional teams can win the cup is a testament to the power of commercialization.

Of course, I am not the first commentator to notice this. The following two paragraphs lean heavily on Colby Cosh’s manifesto from August 23 2012. Effectively, during the last lockout, in 2004-05, the NHL was sued by Gard Shelley and David Burt, a couple of Toronto rec league players, to allow the trustees of the Cup to award it to a non-NHL team in the event that the NHL, for whatever reason, declined to organize a tournament in a given year.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, and the result subject to a strict confidentiality agreement. In the one part of the settlement that was addressed publicly, however, Shelley and Burt’s lawyer, Tim Gilbert, affirmed just that: “The current agreement…between the Trustees and NHL shall be amended to acknowledge that nothing therein precludes the Trustees from exercising their power to award the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL team in any year in which the NHL fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner.”

There is one important element outstanding in this analysis: the Cup’s origins as a challenge cup. The Champions held it as long as they could keep defeating challengers, and the trustees were responsible for ensuring the fairness and timeliness of these challenges. Thusly, small teams from small towns could put themselves together and go after it. The victory of the Kenora Thistles in 1909 was not the product of efforts by paid professionals from Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and the United States- it was truly, deeply local.

There is a certain metaphor to be seen here- just as liberal economics have opened up the world to trade, disconnecting us from the sources of things we buy, economic considerations have caused the NHL to expand to the point where maybe one player out of ten is ‘local’ in any meaningful sense. The NHL is a league unrooted, and maybe here we have hit on some of the problem.

The Cup, as we’ve seen above, still has trustees: it is rightly the property of the people of Canada. Returning the Cup to its rightful place as a Challenge Cup, and stripping it of its corporate overtones, can only help restore some nobility to the game. In his column linked above, Colby Cosh proposes justly this: allowing any eligible Canadian hockey player to form or join a pick up team to enter a tournament for the express purpose of challenging for the Stanley Cup. The definition of an ‘eligible player’ is tricky, but for the moment let’s limit it to any player who makes their living from hockey.

Assuming an upper limit of 24 teams, and a lower limit of 12, such a tournament would look a lot like the world cup of hockey- a round robin with four (or two) divisions of six teams, who each play each other once (or twice), with the top two from each division advancing to the knockout round. If we’re trying to condense this tournament, they can play single-elimination knockout games until someone wins. If removing the Cup causes the league to finally collapse under its own sclerotic weight, and we have plenty of time to do this, they can play best of three, best of five, or even best of seven series until the end. It would certainly take place only during winter months, as I don’t think Lord Stanley ever envisioned his hardware going anywhere in June.

The advantages to such a tournament are easy and obvious. The big one is that the Stanley Cup would no longer be the personal purview of Gary Bettman or any of the other big-wigs (read: clowns) at the NHL head office. It would be awarded annually to a Canadian team comprised of only Canadians. The tournament itself would be played in many venues- any city with an AHL arena should be able to host a game or a series, and teams would decide amongst themselves or draw lots to determine who would play from which ‘home’ arena. It would bring top-flight hockey to places where it either does not presently go, or where it is too expensive to see. Profit from this tournament would go exclusively to funding boys’ and girls’ minor hockey programs from coast-to-coast- playing for the Cup, after all (in this perfect world), is about the love of the game, not making money. Professional players would thus be amateur, in the true sense, for this tournament only.

I am not an expert, but I am a hockey fan, and a proud Canadian. It pains me to see one of our national symbols, an important part of our national identity, abused and defaced and held hostage in the name of profit. Lord Stanley’s Cup will be awarded this year, but its unclear whether those who hoist it will be ‘worthy’ of it, in the sense he envisioned: amateur, playing for the love of the game, and Canadian, playing for his countrymen. It is time to do something about this- time to make a change to reclaim our heritage. Hockey is dead- long live hockey!