Burn

If I told you the NHL lockout reminds me of maple forests, would you think I was insane? Because I think I might be.

Despite learning about it every year of my elementary school life, I don’t think much about ecology.  Or I didn’t, anyway, until the lockout. It’s one of those things that urbanites- even waste-recycling, local-eating, carbon-footprint-reducing environmentalist urbanites- tend to understand in dualistic, romantic terms: the pristine harmony of untouched wilderness vs. the corrupted, polluted haunts of man. A few years in the city and it’s easy to fall into the platitudes. Balance of nature, circle of life, etc etc. I forget the details of how ecosystems actually work.

In the fall, when the lockout was just beginning and the world was still green and there was still hope the hearts of hockey fans, I took a trip north, to spend some time among plants. The northern forests are the ‘nature’ of my childhood, the familiar wilderness. The Canadian version is a little rockier, a little lakier, but it has a homey kind of beauty. Spare, thin trees reaching to great irrational heights, spindly leafy ground plants, chipmunks and deer, everything a pale green light splotched with shadows. I’d never been to that forest before, yet it felt like I’d been there a thousand times, like I’d been going there every year since I was four years old. I am that much of a city girl, that it seems to me as though they are always the same trees.

They’re not. What looks to me like pure, beautiful, balanced nature, preserved in a pristine harmony by the zealous care of the Parks Service is no such thing. It’s full of havoc and death. What we think of as the balance of nature is no happy equilibrium. It’s a constant succession of traumas, of disease, murder, starvation, suffering. The state of nature is a perpetual imbalance. Although it always pulls back in the direction of the happy medium, that point of perfect harmony is seldom reached and never holds for long. Something is always overgrowing. Something is always dying out.

Animal populations are, it seems, in constant flux against each other, millions of tiny lives extinguished daily in the digestive juices of something just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger. Among the flora, though, it works differently. Plants compete with each other, yes, for water, sunlight, and soil, but unlike the animal kingdom, where the scarcity of food and the difficulty of hunting act as a check on the dominance of apex predators, among plants it is entirely possible for a single species to dominate and extinguish all rivals. In this forest, those plants are the maples and beeches. As children, these trees flourish in the shade; as adults, they spread wide canopies that absorb all the sun. They grown up under the shelter of earlier species only to crowd them out, their stands becoming long homogeneous tracts of themselves, mile after mile.

They call it climax forest, when the few species of tree at the top of the plant succession hierarchy take over an area entirely.  This climax forest, the one I was in, the one in the picture at the top of the post, is beech-maple forest, meaning virtually all the trees are of those two varieties.  Climax forest is not necessarily “the best” kind of forest.  It may have some of the oldest, grandest trees, but it’s a poor habitat for a great many other species. It’s inhospitable to shrubs and bushes and many kinds of flower, hostile to fast-growing, light-hungry trees.  Many kinds of birds, and especially the large mammals of which we are so fond, flourish in newer, younger growths of pines and birches, not among the venerable old groves.

But of course we always want to preserve climax forest, thinking that because it’s old it is somehow traditional, the way it has always been. Anxious of our own imbalanced impact on the world, humans are desperate preservers. We love nothing more than to keep something exactly the same forever. Think of all the ancient buildings we’d rather see deprived of all purpose and meaningful function, cordoned off behind velvet ropes or dismembered into glass cases, anything but worn down. For years we tried to preserve the forests by fighting all destruction with the full force of technology: pesticides and herbicides to kill what there was too much of, fertilizers and targeted plantings to make more of what there was too little of, helicopters full of water to stop any fire. The obsession with preservation of things exactly as they are blinded everyone to the fact that all our saving and protecting was, in fact, no more than another kind of human distortion of the natural world.  We were preserving forests that needed to die.

I wonder a lot lately why we are so desperate to preserve the NHL.

It is the climax forest of hockey leagues, composed of such solid trunks as have been able to withstand the tests of time. It has weathered floods and droughts, fat years and lean years, it has put a half dozen rivals in their graves. Look, I love the NHL. NHL hockey is great. It’s the best hockey in the world, or the closest extant approximation of the best hockey in the world. It has venerable old teams with deep histories and sexy young stars with petal-soft hands. It has enormous comfy arenas and high-definition television broadcasts. As a person who loves hockey and lives in North America, there is no denying that they have a phenomenally attractive product. If it’s on, I’m going to watch it, and if you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you will too. We like it. There’s no shame in that, nor harm neither.

But somewhere along the line, our enjoyment of the NHL product has curdled into something a little bit pathological. Both the lockout and the increasingly crazed sorrow over the lockout are symptoms of a larger problem: the hockey ecosystem in North America is fucked up. It’s all out of whack. Like a stand of sugar maples, the NHL has gotten so big, so strong, and so dominant that it’s become destructive. It’s sucked up such a huge percentage of hockey fan devotion that it’s actually become harmful to the overall ecology of the sport. It’s not good for hockey for the NHL to be so powerful, and it’s not good for hockey fans either. Our experience of and relationship to the game gets richer as we participate in more levels and varieties of the sport, and the dominance of the NHL has atrophied all other levels of the sport. It has killed off any peers that might compete for fan or player loyalty. It has transformed its affiliated minor leagues into little more than storage sheds for grinders. It has usurped the pleasure people used to take in their local teams- I mean the really local teams, the juniors and the amateurs- and replaced it with abject devotion to a roster of millionaires dozens if not hundreds of miles away. When the NHL is on, most people don’t care about any other kind of hockey, which would be fine- if the NHL was always on. But when the NHL doesn’t play and can still nevertheless prevent the development of any other hockey that might fill its place, then we have a problem.

If there were no fires, no pestilences, no wind storms, then half the eastern continent would be covered in beech and maple. We might never have seen an aspen or a spruce, and countless species would be long extinct that cannot grow in maple shade. It would be a prettier world- in fall, at least- but a poorer one. There are a thousand things that cannot grow unless, sooner or later, the maples come down. All those catastrophes things that humans used to spend so much time trying to save the forests from- those are the natural controls on climax vegetation, the things that keep those elite plants from crowding out the rest. Eventually, the grand old trees have to burn.

They don’t go down easy, of course. A strong, healthy climax forest can weather a lot of storms, just as the NHL has survived everything for nearly a century. But eventually, when the time is right, things come together- a parasite, a drought, a bolt of lightning- and the conflagration comes.

Does anyone think, now, on day 95 of the third lockout, that the NHL is a strong, healthy league? It should be. At the end of 2012, professional hockey in North America was as profitable as it had ever been. But somehow, despite the record profits, despite the league being larger, more dominant, and more wealthy than ever before, it still made more sense to the powers-that-be to kill the season rather than play it. That alone is the proof. Something is sick in this League. Something is disordered.

Maybe it’s the finances. Maybe it’s the number of mismanaged or misplaced teams that either can’t make a competitive product or can’t sell it.  Or maybe it’s the hearts of men. Maybe the NHL has become too much a business and too little a hockey league, dominated by dudes who are in it for profit and not pleasure. As Gladwell famously said, owning a sports team should be something that one does for the psychic benefits rather than the financial ones, but clearly NHL owners don’t feel that way.  I don’t know if we created the wrong franchises or just sold those franchises to the wrong guys.

But whatever the cause, the NHL is cannibalizing itself. For nearly eighty years, we had a climax hockey league in North America which thought it was in its best interest, every year, to play hockey. We had a League that wanted to put on the game. Now we don’t. At some point, the ostensible reasons don’t even matter anymore, because the consequences are so painfully obvious. We’ve transcended the point of negotiation and reached the moment of tautology: this system is fucked because it’s fucked. Because the National Hockey League is not making hockey anymore. This forest is dying.

Decertification would be a fire. Not, mind you, some kind of oh-dear-my-flambe-got-a-bit-out-of-hand fire, but a ANGEL-WITH-A-BIG-FUCKING-FLAMING-SWORD-RAINING-DOWN-CHAOS-AND-DEATH fire. Contracts could be voided, the entry draft abrogated, revenue sharing might collapse. Careers would end, teams would fail, and all those rules and regulations you spent so much time learning- salary cap, salary floor, term limits, that crazy-ass cap-hit averaging thing that never made any fucking sense anyway- would vanish. Up could become down, red could become blue, Bill Daly might turn into a rutabaga for all I know. It will be sheer bloody anarchy. The labor market in hockey would be uncontrolled in a way it hasn’t been since the 1920s. It would completely destabilize the NHL, and quite possibly destroy it in all but name.

I don’t think it will actually happen. This is hockey; these are hockey men. They’re fundamentally conservative guys, protective of their position, jealous of whatever marginal gains they’ve made. Look at them next time you see them standing up there in front of you; look into the twinkling eyes of Gary Bettman and the cold, dead eyes of Sidney Crosby and ask yourself: are either of these guys the Joker? Are these the type of men who want to watch the world burn? Fuck no. These are guys who want to make money. They’ll pull back and guard what they have before going to the mat over something they want. This time.

But as much as they want to protect what they have, they’re not doing much to build for the future. There’s nothing going on here that is going to make a stronger League. There has been, as far as I can tell, no deep discussion in these CBA negotiations about how to solve the core problems that lead to these lockouts, the financial imbalances that make it worthwhile for some owners to destroy their own product. We’re not having a serious conversation about revenue sharing or a luxury tax or the prospect of relocation for franchises that cannot find stable ownership where they are. Because the Players’ Association exists, the owners have the option of offloading their problems- and make no mistake, the problems of the NHL are overwhelmingly the owners’ problems; there is no 50/50 responsibility here- onto the players. So long as they can take from the PA, they don’t have to figure out how to control their own spending, how to regulate their own contract terms, or how to support franchises they sold for the expansion fees and now can’t keep afloat. Nothing that has happened in the past four months has made the NHL a healthier institution. I’m not sure at this point that anything can.

I hate to say it… Wait, understand, I really hate to say it. Because I loved the NHL as it was and would like nothing more than to see it continue on it’s merry way, much the same this year as it was the year before. Because I still worry about the fate of fourth liners and role-players in a system with no mandated contract minimums. Because I have no faith in the utopia to come. There are those who think that, if the NHL burns, a better, brighter League will grow up in its place, a lovely Bundesliga of Manitoba or something like- which is akin to believing that if you burn down a stand of sugar maples, you could use the land for growing cacti. This soil only grows certain kinds of things, and absent a huge climactic shift in the world of North American sport, what this soil grows is NBAs and NFLs and MLBs. I don’t think that, when the NHL goes down, we get a Premier League in its place. I think when the NHL goes down the conflagration lasts for years, and when it’s all over we end up with something very similar to what we had before.

But this thing is dying anyway. The only question is how many more spasms it has left in it. We’ve seen the playbook now, this lockout unfolding before us with the measured rhythms and cued hysteria of grand opera. We’re being taken in a long con whose final moves will be played out two lockouts down the road, when ever more extreme measures have led again and again to the same predictable result. The only trick they have, either side, is to push this thing as close to the brink as possible and see who pulls back first. Eventually, one or two lockouts down the road, it’s going over the edge.

Eventually, it’s going to burn.

Might as well be now.

I hate to say it, but…

Fuck it, decertify and see what happens.