Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Play for Something

Gary Bettman doesn’t like the Olympics. He offers a few reasons for it: the risk of injury to NHL-property, the disruption of the NHL schedule, the loss of the NHL All-Star Game. These are slightly reasonable concerns. Yes, it’s possible an NHL player will get injured in an Olympic game, but the Olympics consist of a small number of relatively bloodless matches- the probability of a serious injury to an NHL regular is tiny. An NHL team is likely to take many more careless risks with its bodies than an Olympic team, and if the owners were so very concerned with the health and well-being of their assets, they’d do well to look to their own League before complaining to the IOC. Yes, the Olympics require some tinkering with the schedule, but that’s mainly a headache for the poor schedule makers, as there isn’t a lot of evidence it actually results in a more arduous pace for players. And yes, it does involve the sacrifice of the All-Star Game, but… well, there’s a reason Bettman never leads with that objection.

In essence, Bettman’s problem with the Olympics is the same problem that money men have traditionally had with children, Christmas, and the sun: it gives people happiness without making any money for him or his masters. It’s simple greed, and there’s no way to gloss it over with any appeal to the good of the game or the desires of the fans or the regrettable compromises necessary to keep the League afloat. No matter how worthy the cause or small the losses, the NHL goes to great lengths to demonstrate that it feels no particular sense of charity towards its own sport.

To be sure, the Olympics do the NHL no favors. The quadrennial international competition highlights all the flaws in the NHL’s product- not so much the on-ice product, which is probably as exciting as can be expected from day-to-day hockey under any regime- but the storylines that underlie any entertainment product. The NHL isn’t in the business of producing hockey games, it’s in the business of producing Hockey. But the Olympics aren’t just Hockey, they’re HOCKEY!!!!!!!- without the NHL’s narrative.

The NHL sells stories, and it profits from our beliefs. For the NHL to make money, it is useful that we believe that the Stanley Cup is The Greatest Prize in Sports, the Stanley Cup final is the most exciting hockey to be had, and Alexander Ovechkin bleeds red, white, and blue. It is useful that we think of players who happen to have been purchased by our local team for a set term as Our Guys. It is useful if we believe that head hits, retaliatory violence, and goons are critical to the intensity of the game. And it is especially useful if we think of our franchise as our community.

Olympic hockey undermines a goodly portion of these beliefs, if only by suggesting the possibility of something better to play for. The great problem of most hockey, and most competitions in most sports generally, is that there’s no substantive reason to play. Fun, yes, but if that is the measure of excellence then the best hockey players in the world are all under the age of 12. The very talented have the option of playing for money, which is pleasant enough for them but hardly inspiring to the rest of us. But for the most part, the struggle has no grand purpose. There is no worthy cause benefitted, no lives saved, no sacred ideal affirmed. What value there is lies in baubles and metaphors, and the occasional meritocratic satisfaction of seeing the best get their due. But for all the emotional investment fans put into the game, there isn’t a lot of depth to the outcome.

Both the NHL and the Olympics appeal to a sort of tribalist instinct in human beings, but the Olympics does it better, precisely because in offering national competition, it offers a better reason to play. The oldest, strongest, and most beloved NHL franchises achieve a simulacrum of the communal resonance the Olympics has intrinsically- the phrase ‘Leafs Nation’ is more truth than hyperbole- but those franchises are few and far between, and NHL teams in their home regions tend toward obscure hobby rather than cultural touchstone. In order to broaden its appeal, the League has fragmented it into thirty unequal shards, and in any given season half of them are depressed and alienated months before the playoffs. The average NHL fan is going to see a lot more success from their Olympic team in a lifetime than they can expect from their local team, and that international success is almost inevitably of a radiant, sentimental variety, the kind that makes you feel close to people you’ve never met, the kind that makes you feel like you, personally, somehow did something grand. It’s still tribalism, but it’s a substantive tribalism, a tribe with two hundred years of shared narrative behind it. International tournament hockey is hockey with memory, hockey with echoes, hockey that lingers with a lot more people a lot longer than any particular NHL season. Sidney Crosby was the captain of a Stanley Cup winning team last year. That’s his 2nd greatest accomplishment to date.

I don’t know if all Leagues are loathed by their own constituencies, but the NHL has a tumultuous relationship with its fans. In trying to please everyone- the classicists and the modernists, the bloodthirsty and the timid, the uninitiated and the long-experienced- it is defined by half-hearted, middle-ground policies that satisfy no one, and those things on which it does take a strong stance seem to be calculated to piss off their base. There’s a widespread disgruntlement with the NHL, which the League is pleased to ignore because it can. Three years out of four, Bettman runs a monopoly serving a captive audience. The NHL is The Show, it is Hockey, and if you don’t like it, move to Russia.

But then the Olympics fly by like a bright chill wind and everyone, for a brief second, wakes up and looks around and realizes ever so briefly what we should remember every day: The NHL owns the franchises, the players, the arenas, the logos, and the trophy, but it doesn’t own Hockey.

In a more beautiful world, we’d take that revelation more to heart, and for our own good might try to break our thrall to the League’s product, should they make the ridiculous decision to ‘pull out’ of Sochi. Ovechkin already said he’s going, League sanctions or no, and would that we all had such courage. Could we quit the League, for two dull February weeks? Could we empty the stands and turn off the television and leave our CHs and orcas and absurdist Christmas-toned wolverines in the closet, put our eyes and our money somewhere else? Could we all go to the Olympics anyway, in spirit if not in body, and fuck Bettman’s attempts to keep us home? Could we ditch the NHL for a while at will, for the sake of Hockey? Just exercise our right to care more about something else, before that capacity atrophies wholly?

Well, we could, but we’re not going to, because that would involve having to watch games that are on at weird times rather than convenient ones, and we do have to work, plus we haven’t even thought about dinner and what on earth is there in the pantry that the kids will eat anyway? We’re going to watch the NHL so long as it’s on, which is probably as it should be. Keeping hockey on the ice and the airwaves day by day, week by week, is a scrambling, undignified business, but somebody’s got to do it, and the NHL deserves a hell of a lot of respect for doing the shit work of the game. The Olympics are a hockey feast, but the NHL is its daily bread, and the latter is in some regard more admirable- despite the overdeveloped profit motive and diluted product. If you’re a hockey fan in North America, chances are you’re indentured to the NHL, and nothing is going to change that, nor would you want it to.

Nevertheless, it’s worth a plea: Please Mr. Bettman, Sire, Overlord, Accountant of Passions, Administrator of Dreams, be a fan for once. Act like somebody who enjoys hockey. Put on a Team USA jersey, smile big, and talk about how pleased the League is to be supporting such a great event, and how good it is for the game, and how much the players (fine, your players) love it, and how happy it makes you to see so many people going apeshit for hockey. Get on the motherfucking bus already, you and all your wealthy friends, we’re very inclusive out here in the international community. Say hello to Latvia, I don’t believe you’ve met before.


J.T. said...

Lovely post. You really nailed it in your last paragraph. As much as we wish Bettman would bow his garden-gnome head to the greatness of Hockey the Game rather than Hockey the Business, he can't because he's not a fan. If he's the emperor of the NHL, the bottom line is the religion his reign has spawned. He wants the storylines that make the money, and he doesn't give a damn about about those that don't because he doesn't cheer for the game itself in the first place.

He could try to put on the sweater and cheer for the glory that is Olympic hockey, but I think he's not a good enough actor to pull it off. And I think he probably couldn't be bothered to try.

Jeff J said...

Imagine you're a greedy, corrupt NHL owner. You're mandated by the CBA to pay your employees an outrageous 57(?) percent of all your hockey-related revenue. That doesn't include all your other expenses - arena staff, your lease, taxes, travel ,etc. It's a hard road to hoe, but you cope.

Now along comes the IOC. Although you've long admired the incredible heights of their greed and corruption and their constant innovations in the fields of greed and corruption, you can't help but feel a little bit jilted. Under the guise of pure amateur athletic excellence, they sell tickets and broadcast rights but carry almost *none* of your usual expenses. A handful of your most heavily marketed assets offer to perform for free. Event staff is largely volunteer. Taxpayers provide many of the facilities. All because of the cachet of the "Olympic Experience." On top of everything, you're being asked to shut down your industry for weeks. You expect that this will cost you *several tens of thousands of dollars*.

Immediately after you googled the IOC's PR firm and tucked their number into your rolodex, wouldn't you be a little bit outraged too?

E said...

j.t.- you're right, of course, but i can't help but think there's gotta be some point at which it befits the nhl to give some small condescension to the desires of the little people. a good-humored support of the olympics would make the league look vastly better and do something to mend the increasingly adversarial relationship it has with it's own audience.

jeff- the core problem may be that i just can't imagine the situation you present. frankly, i don't care if the ioc is making unimaginable assloads of money on the olympics: they're putting on a dazzling show that brings damn near euphoric pleasure to millions of people. if that doesn't deserve money, then very few things do. if their greed and corruption ever get to the point where fans, athletes, and potential host cities reject the experience, that'll be the day of reckoning, but until then- they're making it work, and good on them for doing so.

frankly, if i had the wealth and desire to run a hockey team, then yes, i'd be willing to forgo a few tens of thousands of dollars to support the olympics. greed is a luxury, not an obligation, and there's no thought-experiment in the world that's going to make me believe it's justified to this extent.

which, come to think of it, is probably the reason i'm never going to be rich.

Carly said...

Hi Ellen,
I'm currently interning at Vancouver Magazine and I would really like to speak with you.
If you could email me at vmintern2@vancouvermagazine.com it would be much appreciated!
Thanks in advance.