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Fallen leaves…

October 29, 2012

The National Hockey League is at risk of losing the full season, owing to a player lockout by the owners. As Jimmy Buffett once said about the distinction between ignorance and apathy, "Hey, I don't know, I don't care."

Actually, that's not entirely true. I really don't care, but I do know why I don't care. Professional hockey lost my interest more than 30 years ago. It's not, as I sometimes joke, because the Toronto Maple Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, though that travesty is one symptom of the underlying disease. The late Harold Ballard epitomized, for me, much of what was (and remains today) wrong with professional sport, and not just hockey. As the owner of the Leafs, his interest was business and business before all else. For the past century, Toronto has been a hockey town. No challenge making money there. Win or lose, seats have been sold out since 1946. Ballard knew this and had no motivation to pay the premium for a winning team. He was no George Steinbrenner. It's true that Steinbrenner was no role model for me or my children, and his management style has been the subject of much debate, but he was motivated to win games more than he was to make money… and as a result, made money. That logical sequence is not to be overlooked.

Harold Ballard brutalized his team's players in the name of the dollar. His treatment of team captain Darryl Sittler in the late 1970s was outrageous. A soft-spoken native of the small farming community of St. Jacobs, Sittler was a leader, both on and off the ice. On ice, he set a record that still stands today, scoring 10 points (six goals and four assists) in just one game (February 7, 1976 versus the Boston Bruins). Off ice, he paid the price for being an advocate for his teammates. Hockey in Toronto has not been the same since. This conflict between Harold Ballard and the team's mild-mannered hero-captain, for me, marked the transformation of the Leafs into the Leaves. Fallen leaves… and still no regenerative Spring on the horizon.

When sport (or any venture for that matter) is taken over by the one-dimensional thinking of making money, the end cannot be far off.

Sport is about winning games. Sport is about developing and displaying character and values. Sport is about resilience and growth and courage and underdogs and role models for children of all ages.

Much, if not most, of what is presented under the banner of professional sport these days has little to do with these qualities. The NHL is not about hockey… not anymore. Hockey is not equal to the NHL. Contrary to popular thought, it never was. Hockey is about kids heading out into the frozen and freezing streets after school and on Saturday mornings – streets with a surface of snow and ice, perfect for sliding boots and tennis balls. Goalies with discarded chunks of foam strapped to their shins. Coffee tins as goal posts. The ubiquitous touque (also spelled tuque/toque; a.k.a. beanie or watch cap). Road hockey is hockey. A group of kids gathered at the neighbourhood outdoor rink (largely extinct these days, owing to our increasingly litigious society), lacing up their skates for a game of pickup … this is hockey. Pond hockey is hockey. Five-shovel-wide skate-powered zambonis are hockey. The notorious hip check into a snow bank is hockey. Steaming breath and steaming hot chocolate on a cold Winter's day… this is hockey.

Forty years ago, the NHL was the aspiration… the pinnacle of achievement… for hockey, but it was not equal to hockey. Since then, the League has very much lost its way and today retains little to offer. It's become no more than a collection of business transactions in the puffed up guise of a national pastime.

I will continue to play hockey as long as I am able (ask my wife… she'll tell you that I've long since passed that point), but I won't watch the NHL. It holds no value for me. It's now little more than a commercial exchange among titans. The owners, led by 'Darth' Bettman, comprise an oligopoly, intent on breaking the back of lesser titans, the players, in an effort to perpetuate their duping of the real victims, the kids who idealize these teams and players, and their parents who pay exorbitant prices for tickets way up in the nose-bleed section.

I'm not a huge fan of Don Cherry, but he can be entertaining at times. I can't verify attribution in this, but one of my favourites was to the effect of: "There isn't a 13 year old Canadian kid who hasn't forgotten more about hockey than [league commissioner] Gary Bettman will ever know." True, but Gary Bettman is not about hockey. Never was. He's about making money. End of story.

The NHL is nothing less than a gold mine for owners. When one discovers gold, of course, the next thing to do is close the door, burn the drawbridge, and line up the paperwork so nobody else can get to the gold. The NHL will never come to Hamilton… or Kitchener. The establishment of such a gold key elite club structure is no small feat, but when it works, the dividend can be significant and sustained. To survive, though, and to continue to earn a premium, such club structures need to circle the wagons and maintain a mystique of exclusivity. Well, the first cracks in that mystique began to show in September 1972. Just as the Watergate scandal burst on to the stage with its first indictments, Canada faced down the Soviets in the Summit hockey series. Victory secured by one goal scored with just 34 seconds to play in the eighth and final game in Moscow, this series was a wake-up call. We invented hockey. It's our game, but it's not just 'our' game. The call was shocking and the call was clear. Our system may not dominate the world forever.

In the grandest scheme of this game, players are not welcome at the table. Players represent merely the 'hired help' and need to remember that they've been invited only as far as the kitchen, and that for the purpose of serving up profits to the team owners. When you control a system, the cardinal rule of membership is one of limitation. Involve others only insofar as it serves your interest. Beyond that, nobody gets in.

Structure in place, regulations that sustain control of the league and the game are put in place. The system evolves to take on a whole new look. Corrupted for control, the league eventually acquires a dullness in the eyes of the beholder. Over time, the money dries up. In the end, faster than Foster Hewitt can shout, "He shoots, he scores!" the crowds will be gone and the sponsors with them. Will hockey die with the League? Not a chance! That's the point. Another incarnation will rise from the dust, born anew of the dream, the aspiration, perhaps the naïveté, that the little guy can make it in the big game.

Owing to increasing concentration of power, entrenched systems do not self-correct. Marx and Engels predicted an 'evolution' away from dominance by the elite. Dream on baby! Evolution takes a long time… for some, too long. Lenin saw differently and placed an 'r' in front of that word. Taxes on tea were an earlier symbol of the non-negotiability of imbalanced power. Nowadays, tea is quite the ironic symbol as sponsored and presented and propped up by those who would retain this imbalance of power.

As long as those in power see this game through the lens of a quarterly report, and in a framework of the zero sum, they will milk and milk and milk… until the cash cow runs dry. These people do not see the potential for a bigger pie, for the betterment of the game, through full and broad participation. They do not see relationships between the parties as a balancing teeter-totter. Rather, they see the device as more of a catapult. Here's the thing. As long as the powerful owners are able to create structure and regulation that perpetuate their dominance… and as long as secondary players can be convinced that there's something in it for them (get yours, then get out of town)… the system will be sustained. Within an existing system, disputes between the owners and the players will not resolve flaws. In an apparently stable environment, these disputes are conducted to the exclusion of the end consumer. Until and unless the consumer steps in, or is presented with a viable alternative (or league), no real change can come. To echo Sonny and Cher, "and the beat goes on."

At some point, I wonder what could happen if the players would stand up, as a collective, and say: "Guess what, Gary Bettman. Guess what, League owners. We don't need you anymore. Your cash cow has just dried up. We're taking our sticks and skates and skills… and fans… and we're not going to play with you anymore. We've gathered a new consortium of investors (the fans) and we're taking hockey back to the good old days. We're going to re-create this game… a game of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Current owners may go the way of the post office, the stock broker, and the dodo. After all, what do they bring to the table? They're just moneyed middle men. New structures have come about to eliminate so many middle men in the world. Who's to say that another paradigm won't outperform this one? All systems created to serve the collective will eventually degrade into self-serving oligopoly by way of increasing concentration of power.

In a state of imbalanced power, the entire system, as originally contemplated, is subject to corruption and ultimate collapse.

In a state of imbalanced power, any claims of action on 'behalf of the game' or on 'behalf of the collective' should be received with more than a modicum of doubt.

In a state of imbalanced power, only the collective can serve the collective.

But we're just talking hockey… eh?

With respect,


Kevin Graham

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