If you were driving around Tuesday night listening to the Red Wings game on radio — and as it turns out, that could be the last hockey game of the year
— you might have heard a segment between periods called “Spotlight on Amateur Hockey.” It’s an odd little program in which announcer Budd Lynch, with his deep, resonant voice, talks to kids about their hockey, in this case a 13-year-old:
“So . . . I see you play defenseman.”
“Do you enjoy that position?”
“How’s your coach?’
Not exactly riveting radio. But it’s cute. And I bet the kid’s parents like it. I sat in my driveway and listened to this squeaky little defenseman and Lynch, all coming to me between periods of a big pro sporting event, and I laughed. That’s the kind of next-door feeling that has always separated hockey from other money sports. That, and players who call each other “Spudsy” and “Jonesey” and who take their teeth out and who say hello to strangers and who visit places such as Moose Jaw and Flin Flon in the off-season to do charity events.
And who don’t go on strike.
On the list of awful things I expected to see in sports — and that includes rape charges, gambling scandals, recruiting violations and Don King
— I must say a strike by pro hockey players was at the very bottom. They had never done it before. They never seemed the type. It would have been like watching a Boy Scout playing poker.
For me, and I think a lot of other writers, hockey was always the last bastion of sanity in pro sports, an island of normalcy in a sea of money, egos and endorsement contracts.
A clean and well-lighted place to go.
Hockey went on strike? They have the right, but is it right? I feel like I have lost a friend. Like I just watched my neighbor take up with a bunch of hoods and spit at me. It’s not that I’m the world’s greatest hockey expert. I am not. And it’s not that NHL players don’t have the right to walk out, same as any American worker. They do. It’s just that I never thought they would. And I took comfort in that.
Young men who skate and grunt and sweat through their pads and lose teeth and break noses and bash each other against the boards, then take a shower and slap each other and say “Good one, eh?” Well, it seemed to me young men like this would find the whole idea of a strike repellent. A man works. A man gets paid. If he has problems with his boss, he goes in and straightens them out. But he doesn’t walk out with work to be done. He doesn’t say good-bye when the playoffs are one week away.
He doesn’t strike when his salary doesn’t increase 50 percent over the last two years.
A strike? Hockey?
Right until the end, I thought they would avoid this. I thought something would click in their heads that made them say, “Wait a minute. We’re not the NFL. We’re not the spoiled- rotten baseball players. We’re hockey. We have Zamboni machines. We do interviews between periods. We’re different.” I wanted to run to the house of every NHL player and remind him of this. “Don’t do it!” I wanted to yell. “Don’t ruin it!”
I couldn’t. And they did.
And so we have nothing. No NHL games. No playoffs to ponder. I know about the issues in this strike; to be honest, I couldn’t care less. The world is full of people griping about money and about keeping their “fair share.” Owners say it. Players say it. When both sides are done blustering, it all comes down to greed, ego and stubbornness. On both sides.
All strikes do.
But when they happen in sport, they have this one bad side effect. Fans get angry. Fans get disillusioned. And nobody is the same when the strike is over. Money and sports never mix A couple years ago, I took three big-time athletes to a baseball game: Joe Dumars of the Pistons, Barry Sanders of the Lions and Steve Yzerman of the Wings. The purpose was to meet Cecil Fielder, the Tiger slugger, and see what sparks flew when four superstars stood in close proximity.
I remember introducing them on the field, and I remember Fielder bellowing to Dumars, “Hey, Joe! I can hoop, you know!” And then he turned to Sanders and laughed, “I can play me some football, too.” And here was Yzerman, off to the side, with his hands in his pockets, smiling and looking uncomfortable. Cecil didn’t say much to him. I don’t know if he knew who Yzerman was, to be honest. Only one of the greatest hockey players in North America. But it didn’t bother Yzerman. He just smiled.
Hockey always has been a little off to the side. If you ask me, that was a strength. It might have lacked the following of baseball or football, but hockey never had the anger, either, or the cynicism, or the fans who said,
“That bum! He makes all that money and that’s the way he plays? . . .”
I’m not saying that will start now. But the seal has been broken after 75 years of uninterrupted labor, hockey players have walked out, and it’s over money, it’s always over money, and money and sports will never fit in the same pocket of the heart.
I think about that junior hockey radio program. I think about that 13-year-old kid. I wonder what he makes of all this. I bet it’s not good.