I attended the two Canada-Russia Challenge hockey games at the Halifax Metro Centre last week that marked the 40th anniversary of the great series staged between the two countries 40 years ago. As I watched these youngsters demonstrate their immense abilities, I couldn’t help but think how lucky National Hockey League teams are to have such great young talents coming out of junior ranks.
The two teams in Halifax had no current NHL stars in their lineups. Instead, the rosters were made up of 18- and 19-year-old players who were picked high in the NHL’s draft in June. It’s obvious, from watching them in action, that these kids are going to be the stars in the years ahead. Some of them could probably skate into the NHL right now; others will surely follow in the next few seasons.
With players like them arriving on the scene, the NHL will continue to showcase the best hockey players in the world. When today’s all-stars skate into the sunset, young players like those playing for the Canadian and Russian squads will definitely be worthy replacements.
It’s another example of how great it is to be a hockey fan. Of course, there have always been reasons to enjoy the sport.
I can think way back to the post-war years of the late 1940s and early 1950s and how much fun it was being a kid growing up in Pictou County and becoming a die-hard hockey fan. Going to senior hockey games in New Glasgow, Stellarton and Pictou whetted the appetite to see as much hockey as possible. It would have been the same, of course, for people anywhere else in this great land of ours.
But it was much more difficult then to satisfy that thirst for on-ice action. We didn’t have the many sports channels on our televisions that spoil us nowadays. Fact is, we didn’t have television sets, period. We could only follow our favourite teams on the radio, and then, like baths, only on Saturday nights.
Seeing great rushes and dramatic scoring plays was left entirely to our imagination – and the words of play-by-play announcer Foster Hewitt, an icon in our minds.
It was with that backdrop that I became a Toronto Maple Leafs fan as an eight-year-old. Though I couldn’t watch his playmaking magic or his on-ice leadership, Ted (Teeder) Kennedy became my first hockey hero. And get this, in my first five years as a Leafs fan, the blue and white won the Stanley Cup four times. (Yes, things were different six decades ago.)
There were other good things too. We didn’t hear or read about players getting ridiculous multi-year, multi-million-dollar contracts.
We didn’t have to be infested with the ins and outs of collective bargaining between owners and players and the threats that a hockey season could be shortened, or even cancelled, when agreements weren’t attained.
With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine, as training camps approach, that we may be heading into another labour standoff, perhaps as serious as the one that resulted in no NHL hockey at all eight years ago. Didn’t anyone learn from that deplorable situation? Do the owners and players, so enraptured by the mountains of money they’ve been bandying about, not remember that the game is supposed to be played out on the ice, not at a negotiating table? How often must fans – those who provide the financial backing for the sport in the first place – put up with this kind of behaviour? Must the people who buy game tickets always be the losers?
In a column I wrote here in The Advocate midway through the devastating loss of the 2004-05 season, I wrote this comment: “Right now, I couldn’t care less if the National Hockey League returns this season, next season or whenever.”
Yes, I was angry that hockey at its highest level was shut down, and I was trying to convince myself that, even as a life-long fan, I was prepared to turn my back on the game if and when it returned. Of course, like many, many fans across the hockey map, I was willing to forgive and forget as soon as the league returned in 2005-06.
Yes, I was quick to get back into my fantasy hockey league, a sideline hobby that I’ve enjoyed immensely the past decade and more. I was quick getting back to regularly reading The Hockey News (I didn’t bother with it during the game’s shutdown), I was quick to pick up the flicker that switches me from sports channel to sports channel, from game to game. Yes, I did forgive but, mark my words, I didn’t forget the frustrations and withdrawals I suffered through during that no-season season.
Now here we are in 2012, less than a decade later, going through the whole mess again.
As each day goes by, the chances of another winter without the NHL becomes greater and greater. The latest “negotiations” between owners and players didn’t seem too serious as this off-season moved along. Teams, with all their money, were busy signing players to huge, long-term contracts that, to those of us who have always worked to make a decent living, seemed nauseous and gross, to say the least. Players, meantime, couldn’t get their signatures on the contracts fast enough.
But union talks nowadays, in any sector of our society, never seem to get much attention until a deadline gets close. Hockey talks are no different, With a mid-September date threatening to bring on a league shutdown that will delay or even cancel the new season, more and more concern is being expressed.
Instead of reading about Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and the many stars who make us fans, instead of focusing on young prospects like the ones who performed in Halifax last week, the spotlight is back on NHL president Gary Bettman and union head Donald Fehr.
Hugh Townsend, a New Glasgow native and Nova Scotia sports journalist for almost 60 years, can be reached at 204 – 435 Portland Hills Drive, Dartmouth B2W 0A8.