THE LOVE OF THE GAME

So…the NHL lockout is over. Hundreds of high-priced players are heading back to the rinks. I for one haven’t missed them and while countless fans that have been interviewed over the past week say they’re upset and won’t support the national game, they will. Arenas will soon be filled again and all will be forgotten and forgiven. That bodes well for the game…not necessarily the participants.

I used to be a big hockey fan. Twenty years ago it didn’t matter who played on what channel, I watched. I knew the names and the stats. Today…I don’t really care. Yes I’ll still watch the Edmonton Oilers. I lived in Edmonton during the rise of the franchise and met most of the players from back then. They were THE team and I’m not sure you could live in that city in those days and not be a fan. We haven’t had too much to cheer about the last decade or so but I’m still hanging in there with them. There’s a good basis for a great team right now, if management can keep them together. But I digress….

I played a little hockey when I was a kid. I played goal because I couldn’t skate all that well and I fell down a lot. It was handy, this falling down thing. In those days at our level you weren’t allowed to raise the puck so as a goaltender that spent most of his time stretched out on the ice between the goal posts I made it pretty tough for opposing players to score. My only reward for a good outing was hot chocolate but I loved the game. Today’s NHL players, those that have been sitting around for half a season trying to get a few more million in the old bank account, love the game too…or so they say. I think back over the years and a few interesting things stand out.

One…an interview with the coach of a team that had just won a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. His comment was that his job now would be keeping the “boys” motivated.

Excuse me?

Isn’t this what we all wished for back then…on our outdoor rinks with our toes frozen? Didn’t we dream of playing in Maple Leaf Gardens and skating that cup around in front of twenty-thousand fans? Okay, I would have still been falling down but I could have walked it around. I think it’s pretty sad when you have to motivate “boys” who “love the game” at any time, let alone the finals.

Another thing I enjoyed hearing was that hockey players have a short career, relatively speaking, so they have to make their millions ASAP. So you’re earning, say three million a year (low by some standards) and you play for ten years. Thirty million dollars in a decade and still it’s not enough? Guys…none of the people that pay to sit in those seats make thirty million in a lifetime, let alone a decade. They manage to survive quite nicely and still have the money to spend on those exorbitantly priced tickets. There was talk about the NHL hiring consultants to teach players how to manage their money. Give me five million and I’ll show you how to make it last for free. On the other hand I’m 65 years old…just give me a million…I’ll make it work.

Owners and management are probably equally at fault when it comes to lining the pockets but we never seem to hear too much about that. I know that when I went to watch the Oilers in the old days I could sit back and enjoy Gretzky, Currie, Messier…the top names, many times over a season. Now I might be able to take in one game for about the same amount of money but I’d better smuggle in my own drinks and snacks.

Playing in half-filled arenas for the next little while would deliver a wake-up call but other than perhaps a few smaller markets in the southern U.S. where hockey doesn’t have quite the draw, I don’t think this will happen.

I don’t know the terms of the proposed agreement and really I don’t care. I do know that in some way whatever this deal contains will filter down to the fan through increased ticket prices, parking fees, or concession costs. Somehow all the grandstanding by player and management reps…all the apologies and appreciation for “your understanding” will result in more money coming out of the little guy’s wallet.

Yeah, the little guy will be there. Maybe not this month or next but one day those seats will be filled…by annoyingly forgiving fans who love the game.

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