The Heart of the Matter
It was a wonder to be in Pittsburgh Saturday night.
There, at the league's oldest arena, were hundreds of young Ontario female hockey players, all gathered for the first annual Thanksgiving Weekend tournament sponsored by the local girls hockey organizations.
Many got to meet Mario Lemieux during the day, for No. 66 coaches his daughter's peewee team and made himself wonderfully available to meet young players from Stratford, Kitchener, Oakville, Burlington, Ancaster, Aurora and other Ontario cities.
On Saturday night, meanwhile, many of the teams had organized tickets to see the Penguins and Rangers and showed up wearing their various team jerseys, cheering wildly when the name of their respective hockey associations were flashed on the main video screen.
There was disappointment, needless to say, when it was announced that Sidney Crosby wouldn't be playing. His status was the chatter of the girls tournament - Is Sidney playing Saturday night? - and a measure of the young star's growing celebrity.
But while Crosby didn't dress because of his groin problem, there were two other legitimate drawing cards worth watching.
On the Pittsburgh side, super rookie Evgeny Malkin.
For the New Yorkers, the perenially brilliant Jaromir Jagr.
And here, watching these two play Saturday night in front of all those kids who had come a long way to watch, appeared the essence of the new NHL.
The heart of the entire matter, as it were.
You actually got to watch Malkin and Jagr play. It wasn't a wildly offensive game, but both were able to exhibit their skill on almost every single shift for which they appeared without being unduly grabbed, hooked, tripped or obstructed.
They were checked, that's for sure, which is why neither had a big offensive night.
But the "new" NHL allows the stars to play their game. Now, if you buy a ticket to see Joe Thornton or Jarome Iginla or Ilya Kovalchuk or Anze Kopitar, you actually get to see that player play the game.
What a concept.
In an over-expanded 30-team league, this is absolutely critical. Few teams have more than two or three players really worth watching, and so for this league to succeed and be interesting on a nightly basis those players have to be allowed to play.
And that's what is happening.
So for those who got all bent out of shape about the officiating in the Leafs-Sabres game last week or tried to perversely use the nasty hit on Detroit's Johan Franzen as evidence that the manner in which the league is calling the game is somehow hurting the sport, a word of advice.
Look beyond your navel at the big picture. Just for a second.