Kukla's Korner Hockey
by George Malik on 01/15/07 at 06:40 PM ET
By George James Malik
Hockey players and fans are probably the most reflective sports people on the planet. We play and follow the fastest sport this side of jai alai, a game whose intrircacies and subtleties can break the simplest 2-on-1 down into a hundred events, all happening at the same time. We’re unbelievably perceptive, reflective, and sensitive as a rule.
There are no perfect games, for both fans and players, because goals are usually the result of one team capitalizing on the other’s mistakes. As a goaltender, every shot that gets by me is a learning experience (I apparently have quite a bit of learning to do ), and every difficult save helps me refine my technique.
Reflective fans and players translate into a steady stream of rallying cries for change, especially at the NHL level. Given that we’ve got a commissioner whose bases for staging a lockout were “stretches” of the truth at best, owners who’re equally willing to say “Thank You, Fans!” and then jack up ticket prices, and a game that’s doggedly determined to sell itself in markets where hockey is a foreign sport at the expense of its core, in the words of the Roaming Gnome, “All is not well!”
Add in a schedule that most fans dislike, concerns about the crackdown on obstruction and the strict instigator rule sapping passion from the game, the post-honeymoon wake-up by smaller-market fans to the realization that a capped system has nothing to do with allowing teams like Buffalo or Edmonton to “keep their own players,” mediocre TV exposure south of the 49th parallel, and this week’s worries that the “new” NHL jerseys will look like college football jerseys instead of the tried-and-true hockey sweater, and things seem downright gloomy.
For as long as hockey’s been a money-making sport , the Jeremy Jacobses, Bill Wirtzes, and Lou Lamoriellos of the world have regrettably held more sway in the league’s decision-making processes than more progressive thinkers. The NHL’s status as a “good old boys’ club” whose powers-that-be are disconnected from and somewhat insensitive to the needs and wants of the paying, ticket-buying public has remained the same since the league was founded in 1917.
Pundits, players, and fans have always held widely disparate views as to how we can make our game “better”—more fan-friendly, more exciting to watch and play, more appealing in terms of marketability, and more likely to give the paying ticket-buyer maximum “bang for their buck.”
The problem we have as hockey people? All the constructive criticism we have of and for our game can transform into nothing but negativity because we’re unbelievably passionate about our game, how it’s played, and the business aspects surrounding the sport we love.
A good hockey rant can manifest itself as a thing of beauty in itself, but when we lose sight of the “constructive” part of criticism, we join the ranks of hockey’s biggest detractors. I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion, and as a person who hopes to write about hockey on a professional basis, I have to remind myself that the line between a good hockey writer and a poor one comes down to being constructive in one’s criticism of the game.
The din of suggestions and complaints from hockey fans on every topic provide tremendous food for thought, and the answers to the biggest questions can come from the most natural sources: Sportsnet’s Jim Hughson recently suggested that a sort of cap credit to teams who re-sign their own draft picks may, in the end, help keep salaries down while allowing teams that draft successfully to keep their home-grown players. Brendan Shanahan’s theory on reducing the number of penalty calls involves giving referees the leeway to determine whether an extended arm or stick parallel to the ice in the vicinity of another player actually impede his progress toward the puck before calling an obstruction penalty to simply call it. The players themselves are making sure that Reebok will have to admit that their new “form-fitting jerseys” are a work in progress when they’re unveiled on Wednesday because, as Jonathan Cheechoo suggested, skin-tight jerseys reveal where players have padding—and where they’re not protected, which poses an injury risk.
Whether you were for or against the phenomenon that “Vote Rory” became, the fans not only generated a tremendous amount of interest in both the NHL and a classy, classy guy in Rory Fitzpatrick, but they also showed the marketing-unsavvy NHL how “viral marketing” through Youtube, MySpace, and fan-generated websites can promote the game more efficiently, effectively, and cheaply than big-budget MyNHL commercials.
Hockey is by nature an ever-evolving work in progress. Players, fans, media, and bloggers are the ones who bridge the gap between the detachment of the league, its ownership, and what happens on the ice. Rants, raves, and tirades give fans a powerful voice and and endless supply of rallying cries for change in the hopes of making the game better, on and off the ice.
So keep it coming. Just remember one thing—after you get that frustration and dissatisfaction off your chest, look for solutions, whether they’re obvious or off-the-wall, because putting the “constructive” in criticism separates reflective, creative hockey minds from ones who simply bask in negativity. There’s no denying that the game isn’t played, ran, or marketed as most of us would like, but in its own way, that’s a good thing, because we players, fans, and pundits are ultimately the ones who know the sport we love best.
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