You’d never guess it from the hand-wringing and the hair-tearing, but there are certain upsides to an NHL lockout. Like, um, more free time on Saturday nights! And… uh… higher quality AHL games!! And, best of all, a whole lot of slightly batshit hockey thinking. Normally, hockey discourse is not very batshit-idea-friendly. So long as the machinery of the League is chugging happily along, the public conversations about the game are almost numbingly rote. If there was labor peace in the NHL right now, everyone and their grandma would be writing preseason previews for various teams, bickering about whether Player X’s performance will sustain/improve/regress, and speculating about the number of games Coach Y has to turn his team around. These are the traditional conversations of fall, the every-September talk.
But, because there might not be a season, those conversations are not dominating hockey chatter these days, and in their place are springing up all kinds of eccentric, bizarre, and fanciful notions. Tremors in the foundations of the NHL destabilize our assumptions. All the things we take for granted about the game- where the teams are located, how revenue is distributed, how players are represented, the scheduling of the season, the interests of the owners- are now up for questioning. These days, people aren’t just talking about the NHL. They’re re-imagining it.
And so now we get to read Tony Gallagher writing about the possibility of the NHLPA decertifying. We get to boggle at Jesse Spector propounding a theory of promotion and relegation. We get to debate Cam Charron’s speculative team relocations. But of all the speculation, the very best has been Colby Cosh’s call for the liberation of the Stanley Cup- or, at least, for Canadians to start feeling strongly enough about their claim to the Cup to entertain the idea of liberating it. Cosh has an excellent point and a 2006 legal ruling to back it up: the Cup does not belong to the NHL. Unlike most trophies in most major sports, it is something the League claimed, not something it created. Lord Stanley gave it to the Dominion to recognize a hockey champion and put in the care of trustees to determine who might qualify as such. While it has always been customary for the trustees to designate a particular league to whom the Cup defaults in the absence of credible alternate leagues, and the NHL has obviously occupied the role for a long time, that does not mean that it is the NHL’s property. The NHL’s control of the Cup is contingent upon there being an NHL champion to take it. In the absence of an NHL season, the Cup should be free to be awarded to some other winner of some other contest.
The defense of the NHL’s exclusive claim, season or no season, will say that the Cup can only go to the best, and if the best aren’t playing, then it cannot rightly go to anyone. But is this true? Does the Cup have to be awarded exclusively to the best possible team? Or can it be won, as a challenge cup, by any team with the gonads to put themselves into the ring and the skill/luck to get ‘er done, as the poets say? Lord Stanley intended that the Cup be awarded to “the champion hockey team in the Dominion”, but a champion is defined only as one who has won a competition, not the best imaginable winner of the most difficult hypothetical competition. Certainly in the early days, the trustees allowed challenges from teams of wildly differing skill levels. They allowed a bunch of teenagers from Rat Portage to challenge the best of Montreal’s talent and a rowing club from Winnipeg to challenge the elite club of the capitol. Once upon a time, there was a beautifully free-wheeling notion of what might be considered a valid challenge, and therefore, of what kind of team might conceivably be the champion of the Dominion. The current trustees, both ex-NHL officials, are likely to be less friendly to such ideas, but the precedent is there. The Stanley Cup is a promiscuous punch bowl. It likes to get around.
With the NHL gone, we need our bizarre and fanciful notions. They’re what give you a future to hope for and controversy worth arguing about in the absence of our customary autumn debates. So here’s a batshit idea that you might find either worth hoping for or arguing against. Here’s my dream of how we might redeem a long, locked-out winter:
We should play for the Cup.
We. Us. Me and you and everyone we know with skates and sticks and a dozen acquaintances who can play. I’m talking an immense, open-access, season-long, cross-Canadian amateur hockey tournament*. Open to any team, at any level, anywhere that meets a certain minimum age requirement and contains no players who have played in a professional league. Men’s league teams, women’s league teams, ad hoc shinny groups, old-timers, intramural college kids, all of them mixed together on one crazy-ass roster, whatever. The whole pan-regional pan-ethnic pan-class pan-sexual pan-gender pan-age panopoly of Canadian hockey obsessives. Every goddamn player in the country who has never been able to have even the faintest hope of an NHL career.
Before I go one word further, I should specify: I know exactly how crazy this is and how close to impossible it would be. When I drafted this post, I clogged up the middle with long paragraphs of logistics, but the practicalities are so numerous and so complex they’d take pages to explain to everyone’s satisfaction. It would require thousands of volunteers and dozens of sponsors, years of advance planning and legal maneuvering. The NHL would fight it at every turn, so much so that perhaps they wouldn’t even have a lockout if they thought it had any chance of happening.
But nearly impossible is not the same as completely impossible. The planning would be a million migranes and the results full of clusterfucky goodness, but every needful thing could somewhere be found. There is fanatical enthusiasm enough in this nation to guarantee that. A coterie of qualified officials could be drawn from the ranks of ineligible pros. Participants could pay some fee equivalent to what a couple of hours of ice time would cost in their local area. Ice could be scavenged on a game-by-game basis from local leagues and clubs. Some games could even be played outdoors. Sponsorship money could be drawn to cover travel expenses and pay some full-time organizers. Volunteers could be solicited to help with the smaller jobs. A schedule could be made up filtering teams up from their local level to the regional to the provincial, and then in some nice round number to the playoffs. It wouldn’t be easy to do, but there’s no reason it cannot be done.
With completely open participation, of course, there wouldn’t be many games per team. This is a tournament, after all, not a league season, and tournaments are never quite fair. In honor of the old challenge cup formats, two-game total-goals series would be fun and give plenty of occasions for the tied outcomes so dear to the Canadian hockey heart. But personally, I’d be content with the entire thing pre-playoffs being single-game eliminations. Yes, single games are a very small sample size, and yes, anything can happen in one game, but that’s exactly why such a format be ideal for this Pan-Can-Am Tourney: it gives the widest range of people the greatest possible chance of advancing. Yeah, some good teams would be eliminated on bad bounces, and some weaker ones would luck their way through farther than they should. Perfect. That’s what we want from sports anyway, right? Titans toppled! Underdogs ascendent! My God, imagine all the opportunities for ordinary people to make super-clutch game-saving tear-jerking puppy-pile-inspiring plays! Is a single game too small of a sample size to determine the objectively best team? Sure. But so is seven games. So is 82 games. Hockey is a game of inadequate sample sizes, and often victory is nothing more than a tautology: the team that won is the team that won, be they better or worse or exactly the same as their opponents. The Stanley Cup has already been hoisted by a great many lesser players of lesser teams, men who did little to earn the title and got it anyway.
Obviously the quality of hockey would be pretty weak, but if we were truly honest with each other, most of us don’t watch hockey games for the nuanced details of elite quality. Most of the fun, excitement, drama, and passion of an NHL season have nothing to do with the fact that it’s the highest level of hockey in the world. The most popular playoff hockey of the last postseason was a Penguins-Flyers series that consisted mostly of shitty goaltending and shittier goonery, and you don’t need to be able to deke out three guys in a row to provide that kind of entertainment. The games would easily feature enough drama, joy, and heartbreak to be worth watching, and if the viewers at home spend 20% of their time talking about how they could do it better, well, that’s part of the fun. But value of the tournament as entertainment wouldn’t come primarily from the hockey, but from the story of the whole thing. For any media outlet willing to do the 24/7 treatment on some of the participating teams or regional sub-competitions, it would provide oodles of widely varied of human drama.
We don’t want to admit it, but a lot of us have gotten a little bit bored with what passes for ‘human interest’ stories in the NHL. Our image of what a ‘hockey player’ is has become so defined by the NHL’s needs and preferences that when we hear the words we almost invariably imagine a 25-year-old guy with an affectless stare and a preference for Nickelback who uses phrases like “It is what it is” in normal conversation. This, despite the fact that such men represent only a tiny fraction of the hockey players on the continent, despite the fact that their lives are completely isolated from our own experience, despite the fact that we, truth be told, often find them deadly dull. The best, nicest, wildest, sagest, silliest, awesomest rec league players could blow these guys out of the water in terms of saying interesting things about the game and having crazy-ass life stories to share. And those stories, rather than being diminished by the fact that they don’t come from millionaires with superpowers, might be all the more fascinating for their normality. In seeing them, we might see the possibilities of our own ordinary lives. Me, I’m hoping for an adorable middle-Ontarian grandma with a good wristshot and a proud puckbunny past who can tell a few deeply shocking stories about Bobby Orr.
Of course, a lot of the stories would be every bit as tame as the standard Hockey Day in Canada narratives, but this tournament could never be all sunshine and saccharine. Intermixed with the stories of plucky underdogs and might-have-beens and sudden local heroes, there’d be darker things. Disturbingly over-aggressive guys throwing nasty hits in the hopes of reclaiming the NHL glory they felt entitled to and never had. Ex-pro ringers snuck onto teams under false identities. Lovable losers getting blown out 40-0. There would be suspensions and fights and pain. Some people would cry and some people would swear on TV and some people would take their toys and go home. And as unpleasant as some of it might be, that kind of drama is important too. Looking up close at the problems and dynamics of an amateur tournament would force the hockey world to consider, collectively and deeply, the problems pervasive in rec leagues across the country. We could finally have the sort of debates we are forever having about the ethics of the NHL, but have them about ourselves.
And that, maybe, would be the best thing about it. Hockey would learn about itself. It’s true self, the kind of hockey that makes up 99.999999999% of the hockey played in the world, which is to say, bad hockey. Ordinary hockey. Filtered through the mass media and dignified by the Cup, this tournament would teach us more in one year about the game, about the country, and about ourselves than we would learn in a decade of NHL spectating. The knock on this concept is that it’s basically transforming the Stanley Cup into the Allan Cup, but this would be more populist than that. It would be open to everybody, and even though most of the bodies would get left behind along the way, at least we would have seen them, the whole great unsung breadth of the game in this cold, crazed land.
And at the end of it, some lucky group of ordinary people would get to hoist the Cup. Not just put an arm around it or stand reverently nearby, not just a quick look and a photo and be-on-your-way, but actually, properly get one had on the lip and another on the base and hoist that motherfucker. Skate around with it, hands over their head, screaming animalistic sounds of happiness at a frantic crowd. Take it home to their diners, schools, barbeques. Put their babies in it. Fish with it in their lakes. And in the little space on the bottom ring, rather than that depressing ‘Season Not Played’, there would be inscribed twenty-some ordinary names.
We would play for nothing.
We always say it, when we’re criticizing the millionaires, and it’s not entirely true. If you had sacrificed thousands of hours of your time and thousands of dollars of your family’s money, year after year, in the pursuit of this dream, you wouldn’t do it for nothing. If your blood and sweat, your hundreds of tedious afternoons in the workout room, your excruciating ACL rehab, your days on end away from home and family, your obsessive dedication brought you to the NHL, you wouldn’t play there for nothing. If you knew plainly that billions of dollars were being made off of your gifts and your sacrifices, you wouldn’t sit back and let some guy shuffling papers in a fancy suit take all of it and just pay you whatever he feels like. If we were there, me or you or anyone we know, if we had a skill that was worth millions, we would want millions.
But we don’t have skills that are worth millions, and we know that. I would play for nothing isn’t always a complaint. Sometimes it’s more like a lament. For although we are plainly lacking in all the abilities it would take to play hockey in the NHL, there are uncountable numbers of us who love the game just as deeply as the pros do. Ordinary hockey players, the kind no one would ever pay in a billion long winters, still grow up dreaming of packed arenas and game sevens and the Stanley Cup. We do not want it less just because we’re pathetically incapable of getting it. In fact, maybe we want it more, because as with any permanently unfulfilled longing, the desire dims but never totally fades. We want it the way the young long after ponies and the middle-aged long after sweaty nights with starlets ten years younger, a sad dreamy longing that takes place behind closed eyelids, doodled in the margins of our lives. Some of us ordinary people love the Cup so much we make little effigies of it, models in tin foil and cardboard, cake and frosting, ink and skin.
Sometimes, I think, when we say I would play for nothing, we’re trying, clumsily, to say something about the depth of that desire. We’ve become used to the fact that playing important hockey, Stanley Cup hockey, is never going to happen for us, but that doesn’t mean we’ve accepted it. The gap between our desires and our abilities is so great that, yes, if we were us and not actually gifted players, we would truly do it for nothing. We’d do it just to be able to actually feel, once, the feelings we’ve always fantasized about feeling.
Of course, most of us would lose. Most of us know absolutely, right now, reading these words, that we would lose in one game or two and that would be the end, again, of our Stanley Cup hopes. But, for mine own part, I would do it anyway. In a fucking heartbeat. Because although the fantasy is always win it, just to be able to play for it at all would be an honor beyond reckoning, the small fulfillment of an impossibly big dream. Those one or two games of hockey, that inevitable 18-2 blowout, would be better than getting a thousand ponies and hundred celebrity fuckathons.
The Cup was brought into existence to reflect the popularity of hockey across Canada and further the unity of the game. In its capacity as the NHL trophy, it still does those things somewhat, but over time it has grown slowly, inexorably estranged from most of the people who love hockey and the way they play it. It’s becoming alien to most of us, and that ain’t right. When the NHL doesn’t play, the Cup should go out among its people and spend a season furthering the ordinary hockey of its ever-expanding dominion.
I think Lord Stanley, in his dead patrician way, would approve.
I’m absolutely sure his punchbowl would.
*If you’d like to formulate an adapted version that includes the States, please do. I imagined a Canadian version on the grounds that it would generate more enthusiasm and interest in Canada, and therefore more of the corporate and media support necessary to make it successful, but hey, if you want to argue it’ll play in Philly, I’d be thrilled to listen.