Entering into the final week of the regular season, I feel like doing some reflection.
I’ll start with the topic of fighting and get it out of the way. It’s an issue that’s not going away. It’s not going to be banned or cracked down upon any more than it already has, at least until the NHL gains the national status of the NFL, MLB, and NBA (some folks just need to find room in their hearts, I guess).
The problem with fighting is that there are few explanations, by way of logical reasoning, for the meaning it holds in the game. Fighting in hockey is more closely linked with the emotions of the game. Sure, it’s about regulating aggressive and voracious acts against teammates, and it is a way of giving the team a surge of energy and confidence.
But fighting is also not the only way to achieve these things. What the league needs to focus on is preventing the truly predatory—the Jonathan Roy incident comes to mind, hot off the presses—so that fighting is another way of competing on the ice.
Incidents like the Roy attack just point out that, if it is to be accepted as a part of the sport, it needs to be about doing something on behalf of the player’s own team. It should not be a measure taken to overcome the other team by injuring or debilitating them.
Now that that is out of the way…
Over in the East, Sidney Crosby returned to action this week, which is good because he is the new “face of the NHL” and it’s not good to go faceless for too long.
I remember just last year it seemed that dubious title also included Alexander Ovechkin. By the All-Star break, there were comparisons between the two young players on every analyst’s tongue. Yet Crosby took the crown this season—at least until he went on the IR.
I think it’s interesting to consider just how much more press Ovechkin received in the interim, due to his goal tally no doubt, but also because of a lack of Sid the Kid stories. I suppose that when you consider what the face of the NHL should be like, Crosby has a pretty good-looking mug. He’s also a solid leader, a talented athlete, and fun to watch.
But I have to wonder if he got more attention earlier in the season because his name is easier to say and spell, in addition to being voted the hockey player most likely to be pictured on the inside of a girl’s locker.
Speaking of Crosby, it would be hard to think of the Winter Classic in Buffalo without remembering the performance of the Penguins star center. He put on a show for the biggest crowd to ever see a live hockey matchup, an official attendance of over 71,000 people who stuck out the terrible weather. The conditions were very difficult, and the way people talked about it, there was a very real possibility of a player losing a limb.
And yet Crosby felt good enough to do some puck juggling into the attacking zone and made some quality moves to win the game in the shootout. The specter of injury is in every minute of the game, no matter where it is played—a bit of snow on the ice seems less ominous than foaming-at-the-mouth gorillas sent out to swing a stick. People wanted to see the Winter Classic, and the teams played to enjoy themselves.
I think if all parties agree to play and feel safe enough in the environment to give it a go, why should the NHL cancel the event? The results seem to only prove the point—a large TV viewer share and the most media attention that anyone can remember that didn’t involve blood or a stretcher.
The other flagship meeting, the annual All-Star game, produced the usual grumblings from people who take the world of professional sports so seriously that they think no amount of fun, goodwill for the fans, and honorable sportsmanship can outweigh the pre-eminence of regular season play.
Not only is it an entertaining 60 minutes, it is a chance for hockey lovers to see the players as more than their stats and gruff game-face demeanor. As athletes of stature and notoriety, I think that the displays of easy camaraderie and the lighthearted competition are invaluable to young sports fans that are inundated with the mindset of an antagonistic approach to competition.
These guys are the best because they love the game of hockey and the team mentality that is very much a part of it. In my humble opinion, some of the best things this league has to offer come out in the pregame events like the skills competition. To top that off, this year’s breakaway challenge demonstrated that there can be a lot more to hockey than what a normal sports fan sees in an average televised game.
My only suggestion is that it would nice to see a little more leeway for the players that have to travel to the event. Who would complain about having an extra day or two to prepare for the run to the playoffs?
I’d also like to point out here, for my own selfish reasons, that Evgeni Nabokov gave a jaw-dropping goaltending performance, putting up the first perfect period in five years. The memorable highlight-reel save was on a one-timer from the slot, a shot that Nabby miraculously gloved down from the high right corner even though the pass came from behind the net. The victimized shooter, Ilya Kovlchuk, fell on his back in disbelief, but got up and congratulated the Sharks goalie with a friendly pat. Now that’s an All-Star sequence.
As a final note about the possibility of rule changes, I’ll just say this: let’s not get too crazy people. The sport is growing, but television viewership is shrinking. There are a lot of issues with coverage. But is that a reason to make significant changes to the whole sport?
Don’t make the nets bigger. That would be like making major league pitchers throw from further back or allowing the players to swing bigger bats.
After the Curtis Foster injury, I definitely support giving officials the option to whistle no-touch icing if the race for the puck is a dead heat or injury seems to be a higher than normal risk.
What I would not support is stopping the play every single time the puck skips all the way down the ice during five-on-five play. Hockey needs to maintain the element of speed for the sake of competition and entertainment—let the guys skate hard. Reward players who have the wheels and the foresight make the play by giving them more time of possession in the attacking zone.
This may not have been the best year for the NHL or for professional sports in general. But hey, if things were great all the time, where would the drama be? How would anyone enjoy triumph without a brush with defeat?
Sports have importance and meaning in our society beyond the dollar sign and bottom line. Some people have so many emotions tied into the games that the result is often impassioned, if not entirely reasonable, criticism. And that’s okay—I understand and respect that.
It’s just important to step back every now and then, like when the season is coming to a close, and get a fresh perspective when a little distance can paint a clearer picture.
You have to take the good with the bad. You can’t win them all. There are countless metaphors derived from sports about the challenges in everyday life, and there is a reason for that. I, for one, will keep watching, jumping at every opportunity to watch hockey in particular, to enjoy even its most modest contributions to my world.
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