September 28, 2004

The End of an NHL Fan

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‘Try one more time,’ my dad said as he again tossed me the three inch black disc. I sighed, but just like the hundreds of times before it, the puck slid across to me, landing gently against the black tape wound around the blade of my youth-sized hockey stick.

I had been taking slapshots all day, trying time and time again to get a little over a pound of rubber to lift off the ice. I had seen guys like Gretzky and Messier do it over and over at will, but it was so much harder than it looked, especially for an eleven year old who had only started playing a year ago.

I had a dream at the time to someday play NHL hockey — to someday take my school books, toss them aside, and hop on the ice for the New York Rangers, who had just won the Stanley Cup. Every day, people from Warbasse Apartment Building #2 in Brooklyn would come downstairs only to find the same little curly blond-haired kid rollerblading around the park, trying to imitate the amazing stickhandling maneuvers performed by Pavel Bure, Alexei Kovalev, Mario Lemieux, or Wayne Gretzky the night before.

The kid would fall down, but he would get up. He would fail, but he would try again. Usually, after many tries, he would succeed. Then he would do it again.

As the years went by, my dream slowly disappeared. A chance to play on a traveling team turned down, a decision between playing serious ice hockey in high school but joining a casual roller hockey league just for fun instead — that”s the way these things usually go. There is one thing that still holds true though: whenever I turn on a Rangers game, that little kid comes alive again for two and a half hours, and he can still smell the sweaty pads sticking to his skin after a hard practice.

Last week, the NHLPA and the NHL owners collectively decided that this year there would be no hockey. They decided that every 11 year old kid out there should watch tapes of last year”s season, and emulate the moves that they already practiced and learned in the park last year. They decided this because the players wanted to keep their inflated salaries in a struggling, over-expanded league and because the owners wanted to keep their profit margins. The owners and the players made several pathetic attempts to compromise. The players don”t want a cap — they want as much money as they have always made. They want money that only exists because an 18-year old named Wayne could play better than anyone in the country, in the world, ever. They would rather the greatest hockey league in the world not exist for a year than to compromise their money. They quit where they should have kept trying — until they did it right.

I really can”t even gather my thought process well enough to describe my feelings on this. After the 1994-95 lockout, when hockey was surging in popularity, I thought that we were past this crap. I thought that inside every single one of these players was a little kid who would play this sport for free. Players that would play in a rink or on a pond or in a broken-cement park on roller blades with a stick blade worn down to its core. Apparently I was wrong. For shame.

I haven”t watched NHL hockey regularly for a couple of years now with the exception of the playoffs, partly because the Rangers are terrible and partly because hockey has been terrible in the post-Gretzky era in my opinion. The game has become boring, dominated by defensive teams like the Devils, and owned by goaltenders with egos bigger than their pads. But this is it for me. Hockey thinks that they have the most loyal fans in the world. Well, they did.

I took the puck back, pulled my stick into the air and fired. The disc clanged off the crossbar. I skated over to where it skidded, hooked it onto my stick, and fired again.

Archived article by Mike Pandolfini