Monday, October 08, 2007

The Hockey Season Begins

A new post from Lorna Jackson on the national pastime.

New Game, Same Old

An interview I did a few weeks ago with reveals the startling revelation that I did not pick Markus Naslund in my hockey pool this year and tells why. But so guilty and disloyal did I feel after that interview, I joined another pool and chose Naslund while others scoffed. I’m glad I did.

Last night versus Calgary Flame Mikka Kiprusoff, he picked up the puck in his own end, powered Swedishly—teamless and bleak like an Ingmar Bergman character—down the wing and wristed a quick, off-balance and screened shot between goalie and post. Jim Hughson—congenial, articulate and smooth Hockey Night in Canada play-by-play dude—has said Naslund-of-old could shoot into a teacup, but this retro-Nazzie goal drew only excuses and justifications: Kiprusoff, as they say in the latest and lamest of hockey cliches, “would like to have that one back”; it was a softy, a fluke. Seriously?

In overtime, a handful of seconds to go, Hughson was already mid-chewout—he believed that had Naslund not left the point to dig for a scrambled draw he would have been in position to grab it and shoot—when Naslund found the puck anyhoo, muscled around a defender, passed improbably to Mattias Ohlund who shot hard and clean high-slottishly. Daniel Sedin, as always, tucked the wee rebound across the line.

Fave moment of the game: third period and amazing hulk, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf, chases down the puck in his own end thinking icing call; Naslund goes after him on the boards, believing no-call. Phaneuf is about 6’3” and 210 pounds. Naslund is 5’11” and 195 and 12 years older than the gifted 22-year-old. The whistle to signal icing comes late, just as Naslund bumps him as he should. And we catch young Phaneuf outraged and shouting at Naslund like a cranky kid up past his bedtime, “That was fucking late!” as Vancouver’s captain does his familiar fed-up and testy removal of mouth guard, reasons tilty-headed with the ref, and stutters off to the penalty box for so-called roughing.

So the Canucks win the game with seconds to go. Daniel: goal and assist. Naslund: same. Ohlund, too. Alex Burrows was a wizard on the penalty kill, five-on-three a couple of times. And who gets picked for the 3 stars (remember: a couple of nights ago analyst Kelly Hrudey referred to Calgary as “we”)? First: a Flame. Second: a Flame.

In the earlier televised game—Montreal and Toronto—what last year was the Mastercard 3-star selection is now sponsored by Steelback beer, which host Ron MacLean suggested should make sidekick Don Cherry happy. Steelback, we recall, acquired naming rights to the new home of the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, and so what used to be the Sault Memorial Gardens became the Steelback Centre, yet another hockey arena named to erase the ghosts of veterans in favour of the false god of commerce. (Here in Victoria, the new arena for the Salmon Kings was to be called Save-On Foods Arena until veterans and their families lobbied to restore the Memorial from the original Memorial Arena.) Later, the Steelback beer commercial comes on: gorgeous blonde shimmies her estimable cleavage up to the bar, asks for her beer in a can, and then a double-entendred flirt about size ensues with the bartender. The punchline: “size matters.” Beer, blondes, boobs and boytalk: if this is the new NHL, axe the shootout and sign me up for the old game. Saturday night shouldn’t be so confusing, or so adolescent.

It was an evening of mixed messages. I love the new instructional breaks. Former players get host MacLean on the ice to run drills with a bunch of hotshot kids and they learn a new skill. Smart, clear, fun: hockey. But then, later in the broadcast, MacLean and Colin Campbell (Senior VP and Director of Hockey Operations for the NHL) and retired winger Scott Mellanby, sit suited and handsome in their sleek leather club chairs, and they watch a pornographically large flat screen play and replay and play again and again—slower this time—young (and now ultra-suspended) Steve Downie’s headshot on veteran Dean McAmmond. We watch them watch. We have all seen this hit many times. And Mellanby’s expertise is welcome, but the three men look at the screen and so do we, and none of us is given the option to look away. Over and over, Downie leaves his feet, launches himself to attack another man’s head, and we are expected to watch.

Once—the night it happened—was enough. Why must we see it so often and so slow? Cherry tells the kids it was a dirty hit and wags his don’t-do-it finger at his implied audience. But any kid still awake and paying attention can see that if you do that kind of thing, the world makes it look big and important, watches and seems to enjoy watching.

We’re told that over the summer, the League sent teams instructional DVDs in order to qualify and quantify the criteria by which to judge a shot to the head not only illegal but punishable by suspension. Players were warned; it didn’t sink in for Downie. Instead of watching MacLean watch the hit last night, I’d like to hear those criteria and hear the pundits apply them to certain hits that have stained my imagination. Kyle MacLaren’s playoff clothesline of Richard Zednik a few years back. Should Chris Pronger’s elbow to the same concussed head of Dean McAmmond in last year’s playoff have gotten more than that measly one-game suspension? Would the outcomes of Steve Moore’s unpenalized hit to the head of the reaching and vulnerable Markus Naslund—the concussion, the bone chips vacuumed from his elbow, the missing wrist shot, Moore’s own broken neck—been different had the League made Moore sit for a few games?

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