Some may find it hard to believe, but I actually was a ‘puckhead.’ Like many in this country, hockey was an obsession for me growing up, as I spent virtually every spare minute with a stick in my hands.
Saturday and Sunday mornings found me on the ice at McGregor Arena in Scarborough, Ont., playing in the Dorsett Park house league. Even now, I can vividly recall playing 6 a.m. games under the lights…outdoors! On the nicest days it was merely cold. But in the midst of a harsh winter there were also mornings with howling winds and snowstorms that turned the game into a battle of will more than a contest of skill, even for a seven-year-old.
But, without fail, we would head home from the rink, fingers and toes still tingling, shovel the driveway and begin a ball hockey game (we called it road hockey back then) that lasted until dinnertime. Weekdays were much the same, with school proving only to be a bothersome interruption. There was usually a quick game during lunch break followed by a full tilt after school. Unlike the NHL, there were no ‘off days.’
Saturday night was spent in front of the television watching the Leafs, which meant waiting until 9 p.m. when the game came on CBC. We didn’t get to see the first period back then. I never had the opportunity to get Leafs tickets, but I recall many Sunday afternoons at the Gardens watching Ontario Hockey Association doubleheaders featuring the Marlies and St. Mike’s. Usually, the Leafs were on the road Sunday night and I would lie in bed with my Heathkit radio to my ear, listening to Foster Hewitt for as long as I could stay awake. Growing up, nothing was more important than hockey.
Sadly, that passion has disappeared…perhaps more accurately, it has evaporated over time. There isn’t a single reason why I have morphed into no more than an occasional fan and while there are many things I don’t like about the way the game is played today, there are moments when I will watch with the same enthusiasm that enveloped my youth.
When you put the game’s best players on a stage, the result is usually magical. The World Junior Championship each Christmas and the Olympics every four years take me back to the days when nothing was more fun than hockey. The rest of the time, I am, at most, ambivalent.
Which brings me to the point:
If the NHL’s ambition is to sell hockey to the world (or more accurately, to Americans), nothing could be more counter-productive than participation in the Olympics. Every four years, people who would never be counted as hockey fans will sit in front of their televisions and watch. Even the uneducated can appreciate the speed and skill of the game when played at the highest level and for two weeks they will find themselves engrossed in the action.
The problem arises when the Olympics conclude and the NHL resumes its tedious march to the conclusion of yet another seemingly endless season. Doubtless, many non-fans, remembering their Olympic experience, stumble across a game on NBC or Versus only to discover the contest they are now watching bears little resemblance (in drama or skill) to the one played under the five rings. So back they go to football or baseball, basketball or NASCAR. The NHL keeps waiting for the Olympics to cultivate new fans. But it has never happened…and it never will.
Mr. Bettman, if you want to reward your existing fan base, by all means commit to Sochi right away. But if your desire is to grow the NHL through Olympic participation, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it hasn’t and won’t happen.
Bob McCown, author of the book McCown’s Law: The 100 Greatest Hockey Arguments, hosts PrimeTime Sports, the most listened to sports talk radio show in Canada. Reaching more than a million listeners each week McCown is known for his argumentative nature and acerbic demeanor. You can read more of McCown’s work at fadoo.ca.