Cut the bond
with one you cannot reach!
The best of those who make a bond
Are those who can break it.
- Labid, The Mu’allaqa
There is a traditional form of Arabic poetry called the qasida. It is Bedouin poetry, meaning it was developed in a nomadic society in the time before writing. It’s the kind of poetry meant to be composed spontaneously in front of a crowd, and was therefore both quite formulaic and flamboyantly unique. The themes were set by tradition, so all the artistry was in the execution, the mastery of rhythm and meter, the potency of the imagery. By modern standards, it’s kind of odd imagery (there’s a lot of camels and date palms), but the elegance of the expression is extraordinary.
Pretty much every qasida is about the absence of love. Not unconsummated love, not unrequited love, but gone love. They all begin the same way: the poet arrives at the campsite of the beloved to find her gone- her people have left, her tribe has moved on, and nothing remains but tent pegs and deer shit. From there it spins off in different directions- sometimes the poet tries to track her across the wastes, sometimes he reflects nostalgically on the time they were together, sometimes he falls into despair and dissolution. But they never get together at the end. He never finds her. There are no happily ever afters in a qasida. There is never any actual love. There’s just the hole in your life where the love used to be.
Fanaticism is a form of love, and it very much looks as if those of us who love hockey are going to have a hole in our lives instead of a season. The CBA negotiations have, so far, consisted of a brutal, ridiculous offer by the owners and an excruciatingly long and thus-far-unproductive contemplation by the PA. Given the absurd starting point and the geologic pace, it’s becoming difficult to imagine a resolution by September. Everyone I’ve met who knows anything says, November, at the earliest, because TV. The NHL can fuck its fans forever and they’ll never leave, but NBC is very capable of walking away from this relationship.
As a fan, it’s hard to see any good guys in the NHL-NHLPA confrontation. In a down economy, when unemployment, underemployment, debt and forfeiture are rampant, it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for either millionaires or billionaires. It’s tempting to respond to any PR gesture with contempt: Oh, poor baby, you’re only going to be able to get $8 million per year for five years, not ten? Cry me a fucking river. Oh, you spent a kajillion dollars to buy a shiny hockey toy and now it’s not giving you enough kajillions more? Sell it, princess, and buy yourself another Pacific island. On some level- the moral, ethical, humane level- every man in this NHL negotiation is a greed-soaked ingrate who cannot accept the immense good fortune he has already had and feels like the universe owes him more. That kind of entitlement may be normal, it may be what most of us would do in their position, but no matter what the stage- sports, theater, life- the spectators will never sympathize with it.
But, fair or not, just or not, there is ridiculous money to be made in hockey. That is just a fact. There are millions and millions of dollars there, and unless one of you wants to propose some sort of radical plan to give all hockey profits to charitable causes, someone is going to get very rich off this game. No matter who those someones are, you, ordinary person who counts your income in the tens of thousands rather than the tens of millions, are going to feel a little bit queasy about it, because there are certain things in hockey that are as true off the ice as on it, and one of those is this: nobody in this game is clean. No one. If you are looking for the ‘right’ person to give hockey money to, you will look a long time, and you won’t find him.
Nevertheless, as tempting as it is to call for a pox on both their houses, this time around, the players have a better claim. They have a better moral claim- and I know you’re going to say that’s irrelevant because capitalism pragmatism blah blah blah, but I’m going to make the point anyway- and a better practical claim.
The players make hockey. Period. They’re both the product and the means of production, they’re the spectacle, they’re the show. They are the thing, directly, literally, that we pay to see. They have a rare, exotic gift, and they have honed that gift to a point of such precision that they can do things most of us can not imagine, things so astonishing that millions of us will pay to see it. At any time, in any culture, that which is beautiful and rare, composed of extraordinary skill and years of hard work, commands a high price. Moreover, the art of hockey is neither easy nor safe. They do the work. They take the risks. They have a just claim on the rewards.
But even taking away the moral claims, there is the additional point that problems that hockey faces now are not the players’ fault, and given that, it is difficult to see how the players making concessions will solve any of them. Remember: the consensus after the last CBA negotiation was that the players lost. The owners wanted a salary cap, and they got it. The owners wanted a roll back, and they got it. The owners wanted contract limits, and they got them. Perhaps once upon a time you could make the argument that the escalation of player salaries was damaging the League, but now? The excesses and errors of the past seven years are uniformly the work of owners, GMs, and League officials.
Hockey ownership now looks very much like a cartel that makes a lot of terrible decisions and then expects others to pay for them. When a player fails at hockey, he loses his job to someone better. When an owner fails at capitalism- when he can’t figure out how to make his team as profitable as he’d like- he expects someone else (the players, the local tax payers, the other teams) to make up the difference.
So now they want more- more guaranteed years of labor at an artificially fixed cheap price, more revenue for themselves, more contract restrictions to keep them from voluntarily giving away their money in ways they will later regret. Of course they want more. If they weren’t the sort of people who always wanted more, they wouldn’t own hockey teams. Buddhist monks run no corporations. It’s nothing new to say that the world belongs to the greedy and the gluttonous, the people whose wanting has no limits, the people who are willing to most ruthlessly pursue their own self-interest.
Even if it means going to the absurd extreme of destroying the very product they’re ostensibly in the business of producing.
Even if it means stopping hockey.
A riddle: what’s the difference between an NHL fan and an NHL owner?
An NHL fan would rather have hockey than money. An NHL owner would rather have money than hockey.
Even at its best moments, sports fanaticism is never more than an unrequited love. The game will never love us. Hockey itself, being not a sentient being, feels nothing, and its representatives, despite their token fan appreciation gestures, despite the occasional free bobblehead or autograph signing, think of us as nothing more than hearts to be ground up for dollars. They learned long ago that our devotion is so deep, so strong, and so irrational that it will suffer an infinite succession of heartbreaks and indignities. We may whine, sometimes we may even weep, but we’ll keep watching, and we’ll keep paying. We’ll pay for their new arena projects and we’ll pay for their failed expansion teams and we’ll pay for their tax subsidies and in return we get… lockouts. And we’ll keep doing it, because we don’t have a choice.
There is so much love here, and so much hate too. It is no pleasant thing to be in thrall to a haughty, absent mistress, and as the latest end of hockey gets closer, more and more fans become desperate for another option, something, anything to avoid having to play this stupid fucking game anymore. People are dreaming desperate, fanciful dreams of rebel leagues, and class-action lawsuits, and boycotts. People are gritting their teeth and making vows, God help me, if you do this again I will never come back, I will never watch another NHL game, I will never care about another NHL team, I will defect to the KHL, I will revert to my beer league. Fan love is funding a machine that is destroying the thing we love, and there is nothing in life so horrible as being compelled to be the agent of one’s own suffering. People want a way out, or, failing that, some kind of stick with which to beat the owners.
Say what you will about the evils of religion, but once upon a time the fear of hellfire was enough to terrify the rich to some semblance of generosity. Say what you will about the idiocy of communism, but the threat of revolution helped us gain many of the worker and consumer protections we take for granted as necessary checks on capitalism. But hockey fans have never even had those options. The hockey gods are as dirty as everything else in the game, and have never been known to promote virtue nor punish vice. And revolution? Well, the players got their union and their money, although their collective bargaining has not been so effective in reality as it ought to be in theory, but the fans have never been able to organize and never will. We are too many, too diverse, and too deeply, stupidly, perpetually in love. If we had the sense to walk away from this game every time it broke our hearts, we’d be long gone already.
A player wrote a letter to the CBC, a long discourse on the obvious venality of the owners’ initial offer and a plea for our sympathy, and I thought, honey, what exactly do you think we can do? You think hockey fans and media are happy with the state of the NHL? You think things are the way they are because they please us? Oh, anonymous kitten, we’ve hated many of our owners for a hundred years. We’ve been booing Bettman since dinosaurs walked the Earth. But we’ve got nothing to give you but helpless rage and useless love. If you built a barricade, PA, you would not lack for bodies willing to defend it. If you picked a hill, you would find no shortage of fans willing to fight on it. But without some option, without some rebellious alternative to focus our money and our devotion and our anger, we can do nothing.
Come October, if we go to our arenas looking for our teams we will find them dark and shuttered, or uncomfortably warm and full of Justin Beiber concerts. There will be traces of the team we loved, signs and logos, probably still a store open to continue to take our money. But there will be no hockey. There will only be the empty space in our lives where hockey should go.
If you’re looking for comfort, I recommend Arabian love poetry. Gary Bettman doesn’t know what you’re feeling, but Imru-ul-Quais got it.
The follies of men cease with youth,
but my heart does not cease to love you.
Many bitter counselors have warned me of the disaster of your love,
but I turned away from them.