March 11, 2011
I'm an NHL fan more than I'm a hockey fan. I know this puts me into the minority of North American hockey fans, although I'm sure a good number of U.S.-born fans share the experience.
I wasn't born into a hockey family; I was born into a hockey fan family, in which my father had New York Islanders pennants scotch-taped to the wood paneling in our basement and read the game stories in the Daily News to me. The NHL was my entrance to learning the game, playing the game and exploring other levels of the game. It was my gateway drug.
I've never felt the desire to turn my back on the NHL, but there have been times when I wanted to pimp-slap the league. Like when my team, the New Jersey Devils, flirted with relocation during a Cup run; when I felt the NHL's leadership was encouraging the move to Nashville. Like when the majority of the 1990s were spent as a rudderless sport with an identity crisis, missing out on captivating a generation of fans.
Like when they stole a season from us.
That last instance was also the last time I heard fans say "that's it, no more, I'm quittin' you NHL." It took a while for many of them to return after the lockout; I imagine there are some who never did, the scars having run too deep. By now they've worn out their VHS tapes watching classic games.
In 2011, I'm hearing it again. Just rumbles. A veiled threat or two. Fans that have sat through Marc Savard(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes) and Max Pacioretty(notes) having their careers altered, and feeling as though the NHL hasn't done a satisfactory job of policing or prosecuting these acts. Wondering what the next escalation of injury will be, and not wanting to be there when it happens.
A National Post columnist Friday has attempted to mobilize this feeling into a quasi-boycott of the NHL, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, a question for you to chew on in the comments:
Have you ever considered giving up on the NHL, for any reason? And does the NHL run the risk of losing you now for any reason?
David Berry of the National Post wrote about the Zdeno Chara(notes) hit on the Montreal Canadiens' Pacioretty, and thinks that the responsibility is on the paying customers to instigate change:
The good news is, we may finally be waking up to this fact. At least one major sponsor has seriously considered ending its affiliation with the NHL if the league doesn't clean up its act. If the legions of people willing to look down on Chara are even halfway serious about how grave a threat this is, they should consider their own version of the same. All too often, our response to misbehaviour in sport— a rash of unnecessary injuries, morally dubious behaviour — is an outrage that quickly withers into a shrug, as though the institution is so inescapable that the best we can do is meekly (or, occasionally, stridently) encourage it to change, usually in-between periods of the next game.
The plain fact is, of course, that sports is a business. A threat to the bottom line, whether its serious sponsorship dollars, fewer season tickets sold or even just lower ratings, is often the only kind that is understood. If a check like Chara's really starts your moral compass a-quaking, if you really think that the NHL is being grossly irresponsible by allowing these incidents to happen again and again, grow the courage of your convictions and tune out: They won't play if there's no one watching.
The key phrase for me is "outrage that quickly withers into a shrug." That's one way to read it. The other way is that when you're in the middle of an explosion, you have no context of what it looks like from a distance.
The Chara thing is a good example. I wanted a suspension. Maybe you didn't. When it didn't happen, and when Pacioretty's injuries and opinions were made public, then KABOOM. Suddenly the entire hockey world is spilling bile, yelling, debating … until the police got involved, and then we did exactly what we do as a community, which is circle the wagons to keep the marshals outside the city limits.
Will we ever treat the Chara incident with a shrug? Perhaps. More likely, it's on his permanent record like the Savard hit is for Matt Cooke.
But our outrage? That fades.
The NHL has taken some admirable steps for player safety. It's an acknowledgment of the dire nature of these injuries, and of the consumer pessimism that they breed. If those voices of dissent grow louder, the changes will continue. And as of Friday morning, there are over 1.3 million returns on Google for "done with the NHL" (not all of them from disgruntled fans, mind you).
I've heard people say they can love hockey without loving the NHL. Because of my experiences as a fan growing up, I find them inseparable. Your experiences are likely different. And that, in the end, will likely determine if you could walk away from this league for personal or political reasons. If at all.