Hockey begins Thursday, which has me nostalgic for longtime NHLer and Stanley Cup winner Mike Keane. He told the best stories. My favorite cannot be retold verbatim, only alluded to for reasons that will momentarily become very obvious.
Claude Lemieux was Keane's teammate for a while in Montreal. Les Habitants were playing the Los Angeles Kings, if I remember correctly. Whatever the team, they had a player dating a Playboy playmate. Lemieux suggested he had been able to peruse her fine work the evening before and rather enjoyed it, although this is not exactly how the sentiment was conveyed on the ice.
This is slightly sexist to some (not me), incredibly graphic and hilariously hockey, not only that it happened but they would tell the story to a female reporter. Which is exactly why I love hockey -- there is so little of that robotic plasticity that is so increasingly prevalent in other sports. There are no Peyton or LeBrons, Nike creations with their PC, pre-packaged sentimentality. What you see is who they are and they welcome anybody in and ask only in return that you don't judge.
And so I say this for all players and fans in America: Leave hockey alone.
No seriously, keep moving if all you plan to do is complain. There is so much to be seen here, and strangers are more than welcome. But if you are not one of us, do not bother telling us how this game is broken. If you think this game is broken, then you don't get it. You are one of these fly-by-night judges who only become interested when there is a death or slur or ratings to be made fun of, piously demanding changes for a sport you neither love nor understand.
It is easy right now, so unfortunately easy. This summer has been one disaster after another for the NHL. Real tragedy has touched the sport, not contrived percentage-point problems. Three enforcers (Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogaard) are dead, leaving questions about the role of fighting in the game and its affect on the well-being of players. A plane crash in Russia robbed the sport of more of its own. The greatest American born hockey player (Mike Modano) retired. The greatest player out there at the moment (Sidney Crosby) is sidelined with serious after affects of repeated concussions that may just be a tipping point for how head injuries are dealt with going forward.
And in sadly predictable fashion, randoms now seem to be interested or more interested than normal for football season.
The guise is the NBA is self-immolating, thus opening a door for fans to fall back in love with hockey -- a very worthy object of affection in my opinion. What else combines football hitting, hoops up-and-down pacing and soccer passion for scoring? Yet the interest comes off very much like that girl saying, "Why yes, I'd love to go out, just change this and this and this."
How about a couple of qualifiers before suggesting changes:
1. You have to have watched a regular-season hockey game on TV.
1a. The Winter Classic does not count as even hockey haters sneak a peek at that game.
2. You can never have told the joke, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out."
3. You have to be able to name a player other than Sid the Kid and Alex Ovechkin.
4. You have to be able to define a Gordie Howe hat trick, and name a player likely to register one.
5. You can not have liked the glow-in-the-dark puck.
Because while hockey may forever be an afterthought in America, count me as one of the 20,000 to 100,000 in each NHL city that loves this game like a Canadian. I am not blind to the many issues that are real and require attention. Hockey absolutely needs a better policy for head injuries, how to protect players while also maintaining the speed and ferocity that makes the sport great. There needs to be an honest and frank discussion about the role of enforcers in the game as well.
What it does not need are somebody else's knee-jerk reactions to tragedy (ban fighting, et al) to dictate policy going forward, or restrictive rules applied because of a few ugly incidents.
What initially got me thinking about the Lemieux story was the news that Wayne Simmonds called Sean Avery a homophobic slur a week or so after a fan in London, Ontario threw a banana at Simmonds, who is black.
I am defending neither of these things. The fact that we are in 2011 and some idiots cannot get past race and whom people choose to date is ridiculous to me. Seriously, who acts like this?
More than we might think. And people are kidding themselves if they think hockey scrums are unique for the salty language. Kobe Bryant dropped the same homophobic slur on a referee last season, yet nobody used that as proof basketball was rife with -ists. It was just a frustrated guy saying an idiotic thing, much like Simmonds.
They are not bleeping accountants. They are hockey players. They skate around at incredibly high speeds and bang bodies and play through broken jaws and shredded knees. And so, yes, the sport -- like most sports -- attracts guys' guys who behave differently than, say, my friends and I at Junior League meetings.
This is not to say hockey is some racist, sexist, homophobic mess. In my experience, something like 99.9 percent of the guys are exactly like guys you know. Maybe this is because hockey is not popular enough for them to have televised "Decisions," or maybe they do not engage is such narcissistic silliness because they are good guys. Whatever the causality, the "everyday dude" thing they have going on is one of the things that makes hockey great.
So get on board, or leave hockey alone.
Just do not insist on changing a game you neither love nor understand.