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.

Comments (16)

  1. Years ago, in a conversation about one or another of the baseball labor disputes of the late 80 or early 90s, a friend and I realized that the money involved didn’t affect our sympathies; quite simply, labor is labor and management is management (and we both had grown up with labor in our blood).

    On another note, Bedouin poetry is far superior to 1000-year-old Bedouin graffiti, which seems to consiste mostly of tedious geneological lists and puerile insults like “so-and-so is a she-camel”.

  2. I’ll post my hockey haiku just to keep my spirits up:

    The island was dry.
    Captain bring us some water.
    We drink from the cup.

    Go Kings!!

  3. you go, Comrade.

  4. It’s an addiction pure and simple. The only thing I’d say is that we don’t only watch because of the players. Otherwise the OHL and AHL would be much more popular. There is great, exciting hockey played at those levels. We watch the NHL partly because of the history behind the league. To accomplish something in this league is to put oneself among the elite in the history of the sport. The continuity that connects players like Kessel and Phaneuf to Gilmour, Sittler, Salming, Armstrong, and Smythe is a huge part of what makes the NHL so popular, and for that we do, unfortunately, need owners.

  5. Forgive me for quibbling but this is more like an Aeosop fable or even a Shakesperian tragedy than an Arabian love poem. it’s more a Homerian epic. Who wrote Sisyphus? That’s the ticket, the cabal of hockey builds the NHL up only to figure out a way to make it roll back down.

  6. We need to change how leagues and teams are owned. We have charitable corporations that are allowed to exist for purposes other than profit. Why could we not have specialized sports corporations with specific bylaws that explicitly state that the purpose of the corporation is to maintain at least a neutral balance sheet while pursuing championships? Allow people to buy shares in this company with the understanding that the purpose is not ROI, but to actually own a part of your favorite team.

    Or have the league be the corporation and each team operates like a separate division that competes with the other divisions for the Championship. Share revenue evenly across every team and link players pay directly to revenue. Instead of signing players for specific dollar amounts they would sign for a certain percentage of that team’s salary cap and as the cap increased due to larger revenue the player’s compensation would increase and vice versa. Fans of the sport could buy stock in the corporation with the understanding that the purpose is still not ROI, but to support and own the sport you love.

  7. The problem with your posts is I can never decide between the following responses:

    *fistpump*

    *sniffle*

    PREACH IT.

    … Have you considered running for politics?

    What she said.

    That was the most beautifully-written thing I’ve read all week.

  8. @Mig We already have that in the British football leagues (soccer) and its quite a common model in Germany too I believe.
    It is also something that North American sport in general could certainly do with to help it ‘reconnect’ with its fans.

    Fan ownership of clubs through supporters’ trust is becoming increasingly common and many teams now allow the supporters’ trust a seat on the board even if the trust is not a share holder.
    It’s a movement that really is growing pace and many clubs’ supporters are starting to consider bids, prepare for ownership changes or even step in at very short notice when their teams hit problems.
    The more proactive owners are wisening up and working with these groups to keep them onside and prevent any kind of ‘supporter-revolt’ against the vast excesses of the modern game.

    Of course the way the leagues and financing works is different over here compared to the North American league structure – not the least due to the cartel-nature of the ownership.
    As the Ellen alludes to – NHL ownership cartel is not helpful. They get to say who owns the clubs and I’m pretty certain that Bettman would gladly contract or relocate a team rather than allow a group of supporters to take control of it and run it on a not-for-profit basis.
    Typically any profits are saved for a rainy day or used to reduce ticket prices or boost the playing budget – however the Trust is drawn up.
    Phoenix would have been the perfect place to start the experiment as I suspect those fans still there are the most passionate and active ones – the ones who will go the extra mile for their team.
    Such a mentality is required in those situations. I suspect though that we will never get to see if fans really can have a say in how their team, let alone the NHL, is run.

  9. Am I alone in being sick of millionaires quibbling over MORE? I love hockey and my team and am sick to my stomach over this, which begs the question. WHY?? Why don’t I just say f00k it and move on? I really think I might if they do this ish again. Who’s with me?? Look there’s the door! Lets use it!!!!

    GAAAAAAAAA

  10. This article and July’s “On chancing the culture of violence…” by Goldsbie are the best hockey blog entries I’ve ever read. Keep up the good work!

  11. Here’s a link to a Facebook Group I created: Pissed Off NHL Hockey Fans (https://www.facebook.com/groups/271854122928135/) It’s an open group.

  12. Beautiful as always, Ms. Etchingham. I think the line that resonated with me the most was:

    “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.”

    It applies not only to hockey, but the housing market debacle, the automative industry, and so many other failures that have come crashing down on the world in the past decade.

    At some point we, the people, the consumers, the taxpayers, need to say “enough’s enough”.

    I was a season ticket holder with the San Jose Sharks before and after the lockout. Pre-lockout, my seat was $38 per game. Post lockout, it was $35. When I was forced to give it up in the summer of 2011, that same seat had skyrocketed to $52 per game. It went even higher this summer.

    There is clear cause and effect here: the owners charge more for tickets, driving up the salary cap which in turn drives up player’s salaries. What they want is to be able to continue to charge a 60% mark-up but pocket the 15% difference a 24% salary slash would net them.

    This fan, for one, has already been squeezed out by the broken economics of the NHL model. It’s only going to really change if the fans say “enough is enough” to the abusive relationship.

    • Yes, I generally disagree with bailouts. If a person or group decide to start a franchise and it fails that’s their problem. Successful market teams being required to fork money over to the small market ones is a bailout that IMO shouldn’t be. If they can’t make a go of it for whatever reason foreseen or otherwise, so be it. They fold or are bought out or whatever. Fewer teams in the league would be a good thing in my mind and lead to better quality hockey.

  13. Very good article. Three things resonate with me. 1- ” The N.H.L. can fuck it’s fans forever and they’ll never leave”. So true and exactly why nothing will change. You see to me, and I’m generalizing but not too much I believe, the majority of hockey fans don’t feel liked they are being screwed and like it the way it is. 2- We do have a choice! Stop going and stop paying. I was able to manage it fine until my son got to the age of being interested and liking it. What am I to do now? I have to monitor and talk to him about hockey as I would a violent movie or x-box game. 3- “art of hockey”. Most fans don’t truly appreciate art. Skill and talent it seems are nice, but not a necessary priority. Hockey is no different than anything else in our society. People are complacent and of the opinion “oh well, that’s just the way it is”. I have directed this before to Ellen. While I applaud her efforts and agree with her ( it’s good to have that voice – it is needed ) and I think it is her point, nothing is going to change any time soon because there is just no will for change. It does seem like one of those – it’s too big and overwhelming what can I do? kind of thing. So, go to the games, watch hockey and buy your kids their hero’s jerseys, but talk to them in an effort to change a fans perspective and mentality and maybe one day there will be a new generation of fan to promote change.

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