The Glory Days...Probably gone forever...

The Glory Days…Probably gone forever…

Day 87 of millionaires squabbling with billionaires.  All the National Hockey League (NHL) games up to 30 December have been cancelled.  Other than shopkeepers and restaurateurs and the hundreds of other fringe businesses that have lost income for their livelihoods, who gives a hoot?

Not me.

Once upon a time I would have cared tremendously that the NHL was not playing. Not today. Save for the fact that a winter morning’s Sports Centre just isn’t the same when limited to only the latest Dog Show or Equestrian event highlights, I wouldn’t care at all.

I have fallen out of love with the NHL.

Why and When? Who knows?

ICheap Shot Torrest is not like it was a tragic “fall-of-the-cliff” event.  Nope, it has been a “death of a thousand cuts”.  It has been seasons of diluted talent, of absurdly high ticket prices, of mediocre hockey played by commercialised teams more worried about Third Jersey sales than hockey perfection. It was bringing in The Dump and Chase and The Trap, and how the size of the players has grown out of all proportion to the size of the ice surface and has suffocated the entertaining free flow game. Add to that the concussions and the cheap shots and the clutching and the grabbing, and this is not the game that I grew up watching. Add to that, this is the fourth lockout/strike in the last 20 years, and my patience is gone. And though I would be lying to say that I haven’t been entertained by the odd game over the past few years, the NHL does not mean the World to me like it did when I was younger.

1973...Leafs v Bruins...did it get any better for a 9 year old Canadian boy?

1973…Leafs v Bruins…did it get any better for a 9 year old Canadian boy?

My brother and I still reminisce about the “good old days” when we bled Maple Leaf blue and white and followed the League like a religion. It was a simpler time when the first two periods of the Wednesday night game on CHCH Tv11, and if we were lucky, the full Saturday HNIC game on CBC were the highlights of our week. It was a time when we sat in our pyjamas, glued to our 14-inch black and white television, fiddling with the rabbit ears, watching the double-ghost images of the players at Maple Leaf Gardens on a snowy screen, hoping (usually against hope) that the Hometown Heroes would win.

kendrydenI remember all the players…Sittler and McDonald, Turnbull and Salming, Ellis and Thompson. And I remembered their arch rivals like Cournoyer and Lafleur and Dryden and Park and Esposito and Cheevers and Vachon and Dionne and many others.

But if I recall correctly, none of these players, though heroes, were ever greater than the crest on their jerseys. “Franchise players” did not exist back then. Multi-million, multi-year contracts did not exist either.  Rosters changed and players moved – but the very sight of Les Habitants versus the Blue and White, the Red and White versus the Black and Gold, the Blackhawk versus the Ranger, the Broad Street Bully at the Igloo…that was the essence of hockey…it wasn’t Ovechkin versus Crosby, or Gretzky versus Lemieux…it was team versus team. Loyalty to the team was much more important than idolizing a player.

Like most of my generation, so much of my childhood revolved around by major hockey events.  I recall mike_palmateerDarryl Sittler’s 10 point night (7 Feb 1976) – against the Bruins. I remember watching Brad Park, and Bobby Orr, and

Sittler's 10 point night Box Score

Sittler’s 10 point night Box Score

feeling sad watching Jacques Plante’s final NHL game with the Bruins in ’73. (He played for the Oilers in the WHA after that!).  I remember Hockey Night in Canada with the baby blue blazers.  I remember being able to draw every NHL goalies’ mask and name who was who.  And I remember the disagreements during the street hockey games as we all called out who we were – Mahavolich or Ellis…Dryden or Palmateer (which I modified to “PalMann”teer). It was magic.

Goaliemasks

It is just not the same on the Xbox or Playstation with EA’s NHL2013 video game.

edwards california golden sealsAnd I remember collecting the Loblaws stickers for my NHL scrapbooks. I remember the myriad of teams that

Every year we tried to fill in all the stickers....

Every year we tried to fill in all the stickers….

changed cities and names like The Atlanta Flames, or the California Golden Seals (to the Cleveland Barons), or the Kansas City scouts (first the Colorado Rockies and then the New Jersey Devils)…

And I remember the 1978 Playoffs.

The Leafs had a good start that year, knocking off the Los Angeles Kings in two games…back in the day when the first series was  best of three. We were chuffed.  Until we learned that the next team was the New York Islanders, an “up and coming” dynasty – Billy Smith, Resch, Trottier, Potvin, Gillies, Bossy…dammit…the Leafs would never take it. We were crestfallen.

But we held on to the dream, and the series did not disappoint. Game One to the Islanders 4-1; Game Two to the Islanders again, this time 3-2 in a crushing OT period.  You could not imagine the tears on our pillows…the dream was slipping away. But the next two games were at the Gardens! Two wins on home ice and the Blue and White evened the series at 2-2. Back to back games at Nassau Coliseum and the Gardens evened the series at 3-a-piece, which took us to the seventh and deciding game in the Dragon’s den. It was a nail biter…tied 1-1 after 60 minutes of hockey. And then lo and behold, against all odds – in an away game – Lanny Mcdonald scored the winner to take it 2-1 (6’43” mark)

It wasn’t quite a Game 7 overtime goal during the Stanley Cup Final, but to a City that had not experienced hockey glory since 1967, it was a big deal.

Lanny Scores!!!

But as good as that was, no season has lived in my memory as much as the 1978-79 season – the Season we saw out first live NHL game. My little brother and I were 12 and 14.  And as I said, we lived for the NHL.  Pooling our paper-route money together, we managed to scrimp and save up $37 dollars –a 1979 treasure trove. And with our parents’ permission we headed to the Gardens immediately after the last regular season game to try to get playoff tickets. Jumping on the subway immediately after school – remember that this was an era when parents were not fazed to send their kids by themselves into the core of Toronto – we joined a disappointingly long line for Maple Leaf Tickets. Two and half hours later, we made it to the ticket booth, only to be told that all that was left was “nose-bleed” Grey section seats for the second playoff SERIES.

What? The Leafs had to make it to the SECOND round in order for us to see a game?  We were stunned. Yet, after much gnashing of teeth, for the princely sum of $35.50, we managed to get two Greys, side by side, in row QQ, for the second playoff home game of the second series …we had a whole $1.50 to spare and we had two promissory notes for a live playoff game.

So with our pseudo-tickets in hand, we watched the ’78-’79 playoffs begin.  First round – the Flames (of Atlanta, not Calgary!)

Oh! And the joy on 12 April 1979! The jumping, the yelling, the hugging in our living room when the Leafs knocked out the Flames in two games.

And so, it came to pass that Montreal and Toronto would meet in the Quarter Final Series – Montreal with home ice advantage.  The continuation of an age-old rivalry! Game 3 of the Quarters was a Leafs home game – and we were a lock to go and watch it because there was no way that Leafs would not make it to Game Three in a Best-of-Seven series! No one really expected Toronto to take the series from Les Habs…but who cared. Watching this rivalry was a dream come true. Watching a game live was unbelievable. And even after the Leafs went down 2-0 in the series, we knew that April 21, 1979 was going to be a day to remember.

Mtl_Tor_1960_1969

We went to the Gardens early, watching the pre-game warm up, hoping for a stick or a puck.  No luck. And as we made our way up and up and up and up to our seats, I remember the formality of the 1979 Saturday night NHL game. Men in suits, women all dressed up and Ushers stopping movement until  an appropriate break in the action before letting you up.  I remember walking out of the corridors and into the seating – my breath taken away by the sight of the blue maple leaf at centre ice, the crisp, pristine and shiny ice, the monolithic scoreboard suspended above centre ice like the Star Wars Death Star…and all around the ice the colourful ribbons of seats – gold, red, green, blue, grey.  It was so different than our black and white TV…it was unbelievable.

Maple Leaf Gardens...unfortunately the Death Star Scoreboard did not last forever...

Maple Leaf Gardens…unfortunately the Death Star Scoreboard did not last forever…

And the game…oh my… what a topsy-turvy affair. To quote Danny Gallivan, it was “dipsy-doodling” and full of “Savardian spineramas”. After falling behind, the Leafs finally forced it to OT. The first OT ended and it was time for a second OT.  The Gardens was abuzz, and though we were excited, remember we were only youngsters and as midnight loomed closer, we worried if perchance we should go home before we got in trouble!!  But we stayed and “Oooohed” and “Aaaaahed” at every shot and two-on-one and every hit. It was truly magical. But the dream ended when Cam Connor …who you ask?…fanned on his breakaway, fooling Palmateer, and as if in slow motion, we watched Palmateer’s arm sweep backwards frantically, missing the puck as it slid in to the net…Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuudge! (or some other Queen Mother of a swear word…) It ended, disappointingly for the Leafs Nation.

And so it ended.  The first game we ever saw live. What a game, what an era of hockey!

I moved from Toronto a couple of years later to go to University, and while always a Leafs fan (mock me now), I have  only had a few moments of delight since the late 70s…like the Gilmore years and the Second Swedish Era (Sundin).

But it is over now – just like my childhood with its naivety and innocence.

Severe Weather Edmonton 20110901

If I  watch hockey I watch it with heavy  disinterest – occasionally marvelling at a hockey highlight, but overall despising the League. Watching the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in June is just not hockey the way I want to enjoy it – and definitely not the way I remember it.

I doubt that they will ever get my loyalty back – not unless “pigs fly” or “hell freezes over” and the Leafs have a good run. And if that happens, I could care less about who is on the team roster.

I say scrap the League. Fire all the millionaires and save millions by putting the Toronto Marlies or the Brampton Battalion or the Peterborough Petes or the Oshawa Generals or the Hershey Bears in the major league uniforms. It would rekindle the spirit and the joy – just like the Boxing Day fever when the World Juniors start. That is hockey with passion…not hockey for profit.

But that will not happen, and we will still see millionaires squabbling with billionaires. A travesty when you consider that some Canadians can’t even afford housing or food and that hockey players make more in a day than the normal Canadian makes in a month – that the average Canadian will be lucky to earn $1 million in their entire working life.

And the owners? Their earnings are “private”.  What cost me $17.75 in 1979 would set me back $300 in 2012.  WTF?  Who but the corporations and over-privileged can afford to go to a game.

And still…

The average annual salary for a Canadian teacher is about $55K; a policeman’s is $65K; an infantry Sergeant makes about $70K a year.  The average NHL salary in 1978 was $90K or about $250K in today’s dollars; the 2012 average salary is $1.6 MILLION!!  All that money for an 82+ game season.  Yet still, the owners and the players are fighting over a bigger piece of the pie.  The only losers are us..

All I have is one word:

Bullsh*t.

End the NHL now. Start a new league with a new, realistic pay structure and affordable tickets. A game based on passion and honour.

Bring back the game I loved as a kid…

Later,

ASF

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