Tuesday, October 23, 2007


from InsideHockey.com

It usually happens to me early October, Hockey Night in Canada on the little television upstairs, Maple Leafs home to Tampa Bay maybe. Colour man Don Cherry pitches his first mega-snit of the year, tells the kids at home that hockey players should be manly warriors and not visor-wearing Franco-sissies, and my teenaged daughter leaves the room because I’m shouting and shaking so much she can’t enjoy Vincent Lecavalier’s post-goal hug with Martin St. Louis. This year, though, my first rage came late, and Dandy Don didn’t start it.

Another network—the usually relevant TSN—recently commissioned a poll to track Sidney Crosby’s relative celebrity status in Canada. He’s likely the best hockey player in the world, they figured, but does that make him a cultural icon? Quiet the irritated voice in your head shrieking why why why would anyone waste the time of 1000 (500 men, 500 women) busy folks. On a list of Can-stars of all ilk—actors, musicians, celebs—Sid finished #6, between Avril Lavigne and Nelly Furtado and a couple behind Wayne Gretzky. (Even though they didn’t ask anybody in Quebec—huh?—Celine Dion was still #1.) On its own, the poll seems a silly and undignified way to treat athletes, but not enough to make me shout and shake.

But then: “In a game dominated by male fans,” says the report’s voice-over, and my mad-o-meter starts to rise, “it’s no surprise that men appreciate Crosby’s play with the Pittsburgh Penguins.” Men, ya see, know what it takes to finesse circus-assists from your knees while demon d-men hack your Nova Scotian face with sharp sticks, or to use your impossible quadriceps to power through a surly Slovakian centre’s desperation backcheck. Because men get it. They know stuff. They dominate the game with their amazing hockey sense.

And women? They who make up close to half of ticket buyers, depending on where you find your stat? “Crosby’s popularity is surprisingly high among women.” Cue the cute blonde on the street: “He’s young, he’s hot, he’s got tons of money…” she says. And cue the pretty gossip girl-slash-cultural critic from Entertainment Television: “You know what?” she sporty-spouts, “Youth and wealth are powerful aphrodisiacs.”

Back to HNIC. The Canadian public broadcaster is doing fine work to respect female fans and to acknowledge that women watch the game, understand it, are passionate about NHL hockey and its players, and get it from the inside, too: women play. Cassie Campbell—of the gold-medal-winning 2002 Olympic team—interviews players rinkside and gets them to seem personable; between periods, we get on-ice lessons with a veteran player/coach drilling pre-teen co-ed players. The goalie usually has her hair ponytailed. For a league desperate to woo new fans and re-stoke its old ones, this approach to broadcasting seems not only sensible, but strategic. There’s plenty of game for everybody.

Do women enjoy the next-door handsomeness of hockey players? Do men see in Crosby the boy they couldn’t be or the son they never had? Of course, and vice versa. Fans choose athletes not only for talent and competitive star-power, for their ability to bring home the Cup. They also align themselves with character. In Vancouver, veteran Trevor Linden sets the standard for civic duty and humanitarianism, and men admire him as a gentleman and a saint who raises his game for the playoffs. He’s also the one guy women from 14 to 90 would marry in a minute, providing he quarterbacks the 5-on-3 kill, wins every draw from Joe Sakic, and doesn’t stiffen those curls with too much gel. Drafted into the city at 18, Linden has grown up in front of fans for almost two decades and has shown skill, grit and heart on the ice. His hand-eye may be on the downslide, but his appeal is still complex and important.

One day, Crosby’s appeal will be, too. In the meantime, those who profit from the game and its #1 draw are a little too desperate to assign legendary status to a kid so young his whiskers droop.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

New Game, Same Old

An interview I did a few weeks ago with www.thetyee.ca reveals the startling revelation that I did not pick Markus Naslund in my hockey pool this year and tells why. But so guilty and disloyal did I feel after that interview, I joined another pool and chose Naslund while others scoffed. I’m glad I did.

Last night versus Calgary Flame Mikka Kiprusoff, he picked up the puck in his own end, powered Swedishly—teamless and bleak like an Ingmar Bergman character—down the wing and wristed a quick, off-balance and screened shot between goalie and post. Jim Hughson—congenial, articulate and smooth Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play dude—has said Naslund-of-old could shoot into a teacup, but this retro-Nazzie goal drew only excuses and justifications: Kiprusoff, as they say in the latest and lamest of hockey cliches, “would like to have that one back”; it was a softy, a fluke. Seriously?

In overtime, a handful of seconds to go, Hughson was already mid-chewout—he believed that had Naslund not left the point to dig for a scrambled draw he would have been in position to grab it and shoot—when Naslund found the puck anyhoo, muscled around a defender, passed improbably to Mattias Ohlund who shot hard and clean high-slottishly. Daniel Sedin, as always, tucked the wee rebound across the line.

Fave moment of the game: third period and amazing hulk, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, chases down the puck in his own end thinking icing call; Naslund goes after him on the boards, believing no-call. Phaneuf is about 6’3” and 210 pounds. Naslund is 5’11” and 195 and 12 years older than the gifted 22-year-old. The whistle to signal icing comes late, just as Naslund bumps him as he should. And we catch young Phaneuf outraged and shouting at Naslund like a cranky kid up past his bedtime, “That was fucking late!” as Vancouver’s captain does his familiar fed-up and testy removal of mouth guard, reasons tilty-headed with the ref, and stutters off to the penalty box for so-called roughing.

So the Canucks win the game with seconds to go. Daniel: goal and assist. Naslund: same. Ohlund, too. Alex Burrows was a wizard on the penalty kill, five-on-three a couple of times. And who gets picked for the 3 stars (remember: a couple of nights ago analyst Kelly Hrudey referred to Calgary as “we”)? First: a Flame. Second: a Flame.

In the earlier televised game—Montreal and Toronto—what last year was the Mastercard 3-star selection is now sponsored by Steelback beer, which host Ron MacLean suggested should make sidekick Don Cherry happy. Steelback, we recall, acquired naming rights to the new home of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, and so what used to be the Sault Memorial Gardens became the Steelback Centre, yet another hockey arena named to erase the ghosts of veterans in favour of the false god of commerce. (Here in Victoria, the new arena for the Salmon Kings was to be called Save-On Foods Arena until veterans and their families lobbied to restore the Memorial from the original Memorial Arena.) Later, the Steelback beer commercial comes on: gorgeous blonde shimmies her estimable cleavage up to the bar, asks for her beer in a can, and then a double-entendred flirt about size ensues with the bartender. The punchline: “size matters.” Beer, blondes, boobs and boytalk: if this is the new NHL, axe the shootout and sign me up for the old game. Saturday night shouldn’t be so confusing, or so adolescent.

It was an evening of mixed messages. I love the new instructional breaks. Former players get host MacLean on the ice to run drills with a bunch of hotshot kids and they learn a new skill. Smart, clear, fun: hockey. But then, later in the broadcast, MacLean and Colin Campbell (Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL) and retired winger Scott Mellanby, sit suited and handsome in their sleek leather club chairs, and they watch a pornographically large flat screen play and replay and play again and again—slower this time—young (and now ultra-suspended) Steve Downie’s headshot on veteran Dean McAmmond. We watch them watch. We have all seen this hit many times. And Mellanby’s expertise is welcome, but the three men look at the screen and so do we, and none of us is given the option to look away. Over and over, Downie leaves his feet, launches himself to attack another man’s head, and we are expected to watch.

Once—the night it happened—was enough. Why must we see it so often and so slow? Cherry tells the kids it was a dirty hit and wags his don’t-do-it finger at his implied audience. But any kid still awake and paying attention can see that if you do that kind of thing, the world makes it look big and important, watches and seems to enjoy watching.

We’re told that over the summer, the League sent teams instructional DVDs in order to qualify and quantify the criteria by which to judge a shot to the head not only illegal but punishable by suspension. Players were warned; it didn’t sink in for Downie. Instead of watching MacLean watch the hit last night, I’d like to hear those criteria and hear the pundits apply them to certain hits that have stained my imagination. Kyle MacLaren’s playoff clothesline of Richard Zednik a few years back. Should Chris Pronger’s elbow to the same concussed head of Dean McAmmond in last year’s playoff have gotten more than that measly one-game suspension? Would the outcomes of Steve Moore’s unpenalized hit to the head of the reaching and vulnerable Markus Naslund—the concussion, the bone chips vacuumed from his elbow, the missing wrist shot, Moore’s own broken neck—been different had the League made Moore sit for a few games?