If Ya Gotta, Ya Gotta. But Leave Me Out of It.
VANCOUVER--Never been a fan of the NHL's Winter "Classic." Never will be.
So if you're thinking you've got a convert on your hands just because the team in the city where I spend most of my time, the Maple Leafs, is going to be in the 2013 version, no chance of that happening.
Not that I object to the Winter Classic on moral or philsophical grounds. It's just that I've always seen it for what it is rather than what the NHL tries to sell it as.
The league wants you to believe in this thing like the Easter Bunny. It wants you to believe this is an homage to a purer, simpler time when the game was played outdoors on rivers and lakes with cow patties and frostbitten fingers. It wants you believe in the mythology, and there are lots and lots of people in my business more than willing to spread the myth, to get the public to ingest this along with motherhood, apple pie and hockey in June.
Well, I don't know anybody who grew up playing in a stadium designed for other sports, although they did once play an NFL championship game at the now disappeared Chicago Stadium. So I'll never see this as getting back to any roots I recognize.
I see it as a way to use big football and baseball stadiums to make a big score, to get crowds twice as large or more than a regular NHL audience to pay ridiculous prices and buy seats from where you can't actually see the game and clamour to pay yet more for merchandise designed for that one game.
Then the game itself is a compromised bastardization of NHL hockey. Sometimes it is played in the rain, sometimes in the wind, always the ice is chipped and crappy and almost always the end product, the quality of the game, is sub-standard and essentially unwatchable. Never watched one from beginning to end. Seriously, other than being a coming out party for Mike Rupp, was there anything memorable at all about the Winter Classic played in Philly last month? And now they're dragging oldtimer games into the mix, re-packaging them as "alumni" contests. Ick.
The nicest thing I've ever been able to say about outdoor games is that they've sometimes struck a chord in individual markets, like Edmonton, and produced pretty pictures for television, like the year it snowed in Buffalo.
The worst thing I can say about them is that I still believe that forcing Pittsburgh and Washington to play late at night in the rain two years ago at Heinz Field was a contributing factor in the concussion/neck injury sustained by Sidney Crosby that still threatens to destroy his career. How the NHLPA just goes along with this stuff, permitting it's players to be put in a compromised work situation, is beyond me. Then again, this is a union that defends the right of players not to wear equipment that would protect their eyes.
Outdoor games, meanwhile, are gradually turning into a stale cliche. Everybody has them. Junior hockey. College hockey. Minor pro hockey. The NHL. You name the league and it is breathlessly announcing a plan to play a game without a roof. These football/baseball parks can't believe their good fortune as dates once dark in the middle of winter suddenly become filled.
The cliche will be taken to new heights in Detroit next year when all of those leagues play an outdoor game in a gigantic festival, most of them in Comerica Park in downtown Detroit - who didn't dream as a child of playing hockey outdoors in that bleak, scarred urban landscape? - with the Leafs and Red Wings skating at the Big House on the grounds of the University of Michigan on Jan. 1st.
That's the really big score. More than 100,000 fans coughing up their dough in tough economic times at absurd prices in a spectacular, brazen Ann Arbor shinny score that would make Harold Ballard blush.
Well, good for them, I guess. If people want to buy, they want to buy. The consumer is never wrong, I suppose. Then there's the more applicable P.T. Barnum, theory. . .
That there's finally a Canadian team involved is, at least, somewhat of a good thing, as NBC is forced to recognize the existence of teams in Canada. Or even teams other than the Wings, Hawks, Pens, Caps, Flyers, Bruins and Rangers.
But this game had to turn to the Leafs because they're one of the few franchises that offer a real opportunity to sell the record number of seats this game will try to sell. Moreover, this event, rather than expanding its scope, has shrunk, becoming mostly about the city in which it is played rather than something to appeal to a much larger, continental audience that was the original idea. Involving the Leafs, with that team's legions of supporters across the U.S. and Canada, may help accomplish that. The Wings, meanwhile, are similar, and probably the club most sellable in the southern U.S. for TV purposes.
The HBO 24/7 coverage is part of the deal, and goodness, isn't that what we need? Yet more coverage of the Leafs. The team with the league's least open dressing room suddenly bares its soul. The team with its own TV channel now purports to show it's subscribers what they're not already seeing. The team that believes it should be a Criminal Code offence to speak to the blood relations of any player now wants to invite the world into it's living room for an inside peek?
That said, people do seem to like this HBO coverage, completely fascinated as they are, apparently, by the notion that professional hockey players swear, and swear a lot, thus making it negligent parenting to allow a child under the age of 12 to watch.
Now that's growing the sport and contributing to our culture, all in one enormous f-bomb.
Think about this, however. What if there's a lockout in the fall? What if that lockout stretches into December? Or later? Maybe this is a way of the league leaning on the union a little bit, putting more chips into the pile to try and motivate the players to cut a deal and avoid killing this particular payday.
Just a theory.
The battle for me will be trying to avoid having anything to do with this game. My boss might insist, as he does from time to time, and it will be difficult to fight back against the idea that Toronto's biggest newspaper needs to provide comprehensive coverage for it's readers.
But why force a guy who doesn't believe in the fairy tale to recite the fairy tale? Why invite an unrepentant Grinch to Christmas? Instead, how about Rosie? She's our franchise player, after all. Or that Feschuk guy might be free. Cathal's a much better writer than me and surely could capture the joy better. Zorro and McGran can easily provide the necessary reports and insight. Surely Doug Smith would love a break from the Raptors, plus it will allow him to realize his dream and work 365 straight days.
I'm gonna start my own ABC (Anybody But Cox) movement. Yeah, that's the ticket.
I'm thinking instead of an eco-trip to Costa Rica over the holidays and getting as far away as I can get.
Boss, are you listening? Boss, don't make me!