The REAL winter sport

If nothing more, give the lonesome cowboys of the National Hockey League credit for spunk. They’re beyond insult, beyond even indifference, the great devourer of anything having to do with show business. But then the league itself has always been its own worst enemy.

Beset on all sides by the powerhouse, allegedly “more American”, games of baseball, football and basketball. Snubbed by the networks and dismissed by the media. Routinely used as a pincushion by every tinhorn moralist on the block. Our gritty hockey men nonetheless bear on.

This year’s launching featured raucous rock-band frolics in many towns, gala openings in the glittering crown capitols of Stockholm and Prague, and, in Philadelphia, vice-presidential wanna-be Sarah Palin dropped the first puck and was politely booed. What else could she expect in a town where Eagle fans once drove Santa Claus fleeing for his life, whiskers asunder, under a bombardment of snowballs.

Hereabouts, they had another opening for another show just the other night and it was sufficiently merry, if in the end another of those dreary shoot-out losses. If you missed it -- wedged as it was between the agonies of post-season baseball and the rage of high season football, with basketball hovering in the wings -- you were hardly alone.

Still there remains deep in the heart of such few apologists for this great game as still linger in these parts the tender hope that one of these years there will be another “Great Awakening” and hockey will be back in flower. Boston would be a grand place for it to begin. If this game can’t fly in this town in the heart of this region, the NHL should pack up and relocate in Siberia.

The bad news is this year’s Bruins don’t have the immediate look of a team that will light a flame in many hearts let alone inspire a genuine awakening. On the other hand, they may not be as drab as first feared. More on that, in a moment.

What matters first is the state of the game and that does look improved. Season ticket sales are up. Revenues are impressively up. Only one team verges on bankruptcy (at the moment). Television packages everywhere have improved as has their network connections. Greater exposure is likely. With the salary cap climbing, labor problems are minimal. The players have more enlightened union leadership. Aside from some petty squabbling with the fledgling Russian league, peace prevails throughout the hockey universe. It’s the NHL’s most promising scenario since the nineties.

It should be noted that all these factors were in place before the ongoing international financial crisis. How recession -- or worse -- might impact the highly vulnerable fun and games industry so dependent on optional spending is anyone’s guess. In the fragile NHL it looms as the season’s wild card. Equally unclear is whether Mrs. Palin’s advocacy in the name of “hockey moms” will prove to be a boon or an embarrassment.

All that stuff, though, is beyond any league’s control. What’s very much in the NHL’s control is the growing issue of just how this game should be played at this level, what’s correct and what’s inappropriate, how much rough-stuff can be curbed without reducing the game to a skater’s waltz complete with the organ music as a substitute for crowd noise.

Every game has its delicate balance. In baseball it has to do with all those relative lines and distances and Euclidean determinations that Updike raved about. In hockey, it has to do with the preciously thin line between too much hitting and too little.

The other night, in a tightly contested renewal of the Bruins-Canadiens eternal feud, a couple of amiable thugs -- Boston’s Lucic and Montreal’s Komisarek -- got socked with 12 minutes in penalties for merely yapping at each other. They hadn’t even touched, let alone tussled. The Refs were anxious to quash the mere “potential” of alleged unpleasantness lest the basketball man who serves as the hockey commissioner be upset with them for permitting -- heaven forbid -- fisticuffs to break out.

At the risk of sounding like a Neanderthal, may I suggest it is that “potential”, that sharp edge of passion, that raw scent of anger, even blood, that gives a hockey game an emotion that charges through a building and brings people roaring to their feet. And without it what you’ve got is something a lot closer to the skater’s waltz.

It is so fundamental. Could you have football -- especially at the ultimate level -- without blocking and tackling that borders on mayhem and is inspired by a joyful determination to maul, maim and darn near annihilate? Not likely! Why do so few notice that what is roundly accepted and enjoyed in the NFL is sneered upon in the NHL.

There’s much confusion and contradiction on the subject. They’ve successfully reduced petty ante stuff like clutching and grabbing or holding your opponents stick or impeding his progress without first saying “excuse me”. But they can’t do anything about the truly brutal and outrageous head-hunting and intent to injure stuff that mainly occurs along the boards where guttersnipes are ending careers with their vicious cross-checks, high sticks, and flying elbows. Fistfights are not a problem in the NHL. Boarding is.

That the problem lingers for another season was dramatized the last night of the pre-season slate when the Islanders’ Chris Lee was drilled along the sideboards with his back turned by a Florida bushwhacker named Rostislav Olesz. Lee is out indefinitely with orthopedic issues and the inevitable concussion. Nothing like seeing a kid’s season ruined in a meaningless exhibition. It recalls the terrible impact similar assaults on Patrice Bergeron and Andrew Alberts had on the Bruins’ fortunes last season.

True hockey men should be allowed to sit down and re-define this game and decide how it should be played while the vastly overpaid NHL Czar from the NBA keeps his mouth shut. I propose Harry Sinden as the chairman of such a committee.

Meanwhile, Harry’s old club bears on with the increasingly tedious task of breaking out of the league’s large and uninspired middle-pack of average to slightly above-average teams, all of them gritty, willing, hopeful, and destined to come up short.

Early impressions suggest the Bruins may be marginally improved over last year, maybe not. It will depend on the injury factor, as usual; the concussion barometer, if you will. It’s risky and potentially foolish to peg a team so rigidly after a handful of games. But highly relevant signs are already discernible.

An example: A week ago a most revealing three-game string of games in six days ended with the Bruins losers in all three. They were against successively Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo; arguably their three most important foes and the teams they must be able to beat to contend in the Eastern Conference. In all three games, they were gritty, dutiful, well coached, and determined to the bloody last gasp. And in all three they got beat by one goal (4-3, 2-1 and 3-2). It’s not too early to develop a strong hunch on what’s to come, lots more of that. It’s a plucky team but it’s a stride late and a dollar short.

It should also be noted that two of those three losses came via that ghastly, Little-League gimmick they’ve instituted to settle games called ‘the shoot-out’. What an appalling way to lose a hockey game. But then in the NHL such a loss is counted as a tie. When do you not lose when you lose? Where else but in the National Hockey League.

This team has much work to do before it gets out of the woods. And so does this league.