Fans of the current game should probably avert their gaze. I don't hold opinions, I speak eternal truths, and sometimes the truth hurts. You are free to disagree with me, of course, and I will defend to the death your right to disagree and voice that disagreement — but you'll have to do so with the certain knowledge that you will be wrong.
The mere fact of my Canadian birth and life-long residence in my Home and Native Land makes me eminently qualified to comment authoritatively and in depth on the state of the game of professional hockey. It is my stereotype, my heritage and my birthright. And now, with news of a lockout of the NHL players eclipsing coverage of events of genuine social, political and economic import throughout the Canadian media, it is my wont.
The current NHL game blows buffalo-bladder bagpipes. Badly.
I am just old enough to remember the Original Six, but even the Gump had given in and started wearing a mask in net by the time hockey began to rule my life. (That Age of Ascension was once an inevitability for Canadian lads.) Even though there were very few players who were not Canadian-born playing in the NHL, at eighteen suited players per team and only six teams, you can be sure that the players who made it to the NHL were better than just good. There were guys that could handle themselves in a confrontation (even Bobby Orr, the Gretsky of his day, could go ten rounds with the baddest cat on the other team), but there was no Designated Goon (the player whose only purpose is to cause injury to an opposition target). Helmets? Unthinkable, unless (like Stan Makita) the player had suffered an injury of such a kind as to make continued play without a helmet suicidal. No, children, there were no armoured players in those days. The pads that were worn were made of stiffened leather over a thin layer of felt. The game was chippy, but because the guy doing the chipping was as likely to get hurt as the guy being chipped, there was nothing like the level of violence you see today. Yes, there were abominations, such as the Two Handed Clubbing, of which you can read in the Saga of Maurice the Rocket, but I'm talking about the day-to-day style of play.
At the same time, the team/player relationship was such that a player would likely be with a team for his entire career. More often than not, that player had spent his entire junior career in the team's farm system. Sure, some of them may have had to work at normal jobs in the off-season; after all, free agency had not been invented yet. I'm not saying that professional players should be making the equivalent of eight bucks an hour in this day and age. The old, bad system meant that fans knew their players (hereinafter referred to as The Good Guys), and could hold some real enmity for the players on the other teams (Them Bums). The change to free agency and the player movement that it brings has pretty much killed the Habs. Les Canadiens were not just a team in Montréal, they were the team of Montréal and of all of Québec. My team was the Leafs, and by Leafs I mean Davey Keon, Tim Horton, Norm Ullman, Ronny Ellis, Johnny Bower, et al. None of them was picked up on a short-term contract for a playoff run.
Then came The Expansion. Twelve teams. The game seemed to survive it. At least I found it not only watchable, but exciting. A few years later, Buffalo and Vancouver were allowed in to bring the total to fourteen teams, and the roster size was increased. At about the same time, I began to lose interest in the game. I still watched it, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much. Given my age at the time, I put a lot of that disinterest down to the inability to easily collect a full-league deck of hockey cards and memorize everyone's stats.
The horrible truth was that the game was changing, and not for the better. I finally realised that there was a problem during the historic Canada/Russia series in '72. It wasn't just that the Canadian team looked out of shape and sluggish compared to the Russians, it was that Bobby Clarke had to deliberately cripple Valeri Kharlamov for life in order for the Canadian team to even appear competitive. I could not celebrate the Holy Goal of St. Paul of Henderson; I was in the can puking.
I demanded emancipation from hockey's oppression the day I saw Dave Schultz of the Philadelphia Flyers in a playoff game skating with one leg actually thrown over the back of an opponent, as if to ride him like a pony. Something about that just told me that this wasn't My Game anymore. The Howie Meeker game was gone, the Don Cherry game had come to take its place.
I have watched the odd game since then, and I can honestly say that I have seen nothing to improve relations between me and The Game. Checking is no longer about puck control, it's all about inflicting injury. More armour equals more injuries. Hearing rabid Leafs fans cheer as Brian McCabe makes yet another deliberate and obvious dive at an opponent's knees arouses such a depth of anger in me as to endanger innocents around me. This may be what they want to see in Phoenix and San Jose, but it ain't Hockey, and I ain't a fan.
So the NHL team owners have spent themselves into a hole, and now they want to take a mulligan on those player contracts. As much as I am sickened by the idea that some kid who can hardly spell his own name (because he was playing major junior when he should have been going to high school) can make seven million U.S. a year doing something that, in the final analysis, makes absolutely no contribution to the betterment of mankind, I am nauseated more thoroughly by people who, in the course of operating their businesses, have wilfully and knowingly spent more than they can reasonably hope to take in, and then expect other people to pay the price for their mistakes. Neither side is particularly right in this dispute; the owners seem more wrong, but I'll have to go with "C: Let's start all over again", Regis. Final answer.