I think my hockey heart is broken. Or, if it's not broken, it's seriously bruised. I've loved this game since I was eleven years old. I love the speed, the impossible move that turns a defenceman inside out, the goalie strrreeeettttccchhhing for a spectacular save. The game; the one I read about in King Leary and Hockey Fever in Goganne Falls when I was a kid, the one we played on our backyard rink and on the canal late at night at university in Ottawa, is a beautiful thing.
What the beautiful game has become under NHL guardianship is something I don't really recognize. Systems and goons and injustice have turned it into a "product," not a "game." We still see real hockey in the playoffs, but to get there, a team must run the gauntlet of thuggery, cheap shots and league indifference to justice. Every decision the NHL brass makes is driven by money. When many teams were building new rinks, the league could have increased the size of the ice surface to give bigger, faster players more room to move and improve player safety. That didn't happen, because it would have meant the loss of too many paying seats.
We see empty arenas and dismal teams in US markets because the NHL commissioner believes the elusive national TV deal the league chases like the Holy Grail won't happen without teams in all the major centres. And we see devastating injuries to really good young players swept under the rug as the commissioner smiles his plastic smile and explains how they're unfortunate, but all part of our fast, exciting game. Rule changes are made to increase goal scoring because that's what paying customers and TV audiences want. Nothing happens to reduce violent hits or fights, because the league thinks paying customers and TV audiences want those too.
This is all to say that I watched the Canadiens play the Blues last night, and I didn't care what happened. The defence was disorganized, Pouliot was terrible and Cammalleri non-existent, but I didn't feel a spark of frustration or anger. Even when Matt D'Agostini scored, it didn't matter. The destruction of Max Pacioretty with the league's tacit approval has had the effect of a kick in the heart.
Lost in the business of the NHL is the fact that young, talented hockey players are taking their lives in their hands every night, and nobody cares to protect them. That's not something I enjoy, and I didn't blame the Canadiens for playing with no heart last night. They were the ones closest to their teammate as he lay on the ice, and the ones who heard the gunshot of his head hitting the stanchion. If they're a little queasy or heartsick, that's to be expected.
I don't know if my passion for NHL hockey will come back. I expect the Canadiens will recover because they're professionals who've trained all their lives to play this game, and most of them know nothing else. I wonder, though, how many other lifelong fans have finally had it with the NHL? How many others are watching games with the disinterest inspired by heartbreak? The Stanley Cup may be sport's greatest trophy, but how much meaning can a championship really hold, when it seems like the league has a say in who wins it? Those are questions I'm asking myself today. I expect a lot of you are too. I also expect the NHL brass won't bother, until the disinterest of formerly loyal fans starts to hit them on the bottom line.