Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12: Nothing terrible in The Moncton Times today - but an interesting comment by Brent Mazerolle

"Fewer and fewer kids and parents think hockey is worth playing." That's the headline on an intriguing op ed piece by Brent Mazerolle in which he argues that fighting is destroying the game. He's right. But  hockey will never clean itself up because the owners won't let it. Fighting is what the commercial game is about. So let's take a look at why it happened, and why owners won't change it.

Modern hockey was invented in Montreal in the 1870s.  Yes, I know there is a picture of a Haligonian skating with a hockey stick before that. Yes, I know that a Nova Scotia school had a "hockey" team before that.  For that matter, there are paintings of Dutch children with skates and sticks playing on the canal ice in the 1700s.

They even sometimes called it hockey - a corruption of "hoquet", the French word for the curved stick. For that matter, I'm sure playful cavemen knocked enemy skulls along the ice with their clubs. But none of this was really hockey. More properly, the English called such a game "shinty", meaning a pickup game with no standard rules. (From that, we got the "shinny" I played on the street as a kid.) In fact, virtually all modern games have roots that go back to ancient times.

But a game is not invented until it has a standard set of rules which are the same in Toronto as they are in Moncton as they are in Moscow. That happened in Montreal. And the rules most certainly did not make allowances for fighting.

Organized sports in those days were almost exclusively for "gentlemen", a word that meant the wealthier classes like business families. They regarded it as their class right to provide national leadership in all areas of life  (not unlike modern New Brunswick). The purpose of organized sport lay in its supposed ability to make them leaders over the lower classes.

But, alas! Clubs soon learned that the wealthy often couldn't produce the quality of player that was needed. So they lowered themselves to allow free club memberships for gifted poor people.

It got worse. Within a generation, the railway had made it possible to transport teams, and so to develop leagues and professionalism. But Canada was still a small country, too small to support a pro hockey league. Owners had to tap the US market (notably New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston). But people in those places who understood hockey were too few. The answer was to offer them something they could understand - speed.

The original game copied most of its rules from British rugby (another game of the rich and the aristocracy). Rugby didn't allow substitution. So early hockey didn't, either. That meant some spretty straggly games by the third period. So the owners changed the rules to allow substition so they could offer speed. And the Americans bought it.

Professionalism also put paid to the job of creating gentlemen because gentlemen were losers at the box office. Fighting appeared (though usually less of it and less vicious than today.) By the 1940s, though, as Maurice Richard was being prepared for the NHL, he was given boxing lessons. Trust me on t his one. His boxing coach was my uncle.

But television was an even bigger challenge for hockey. For NHL owners, the game promised possibilities for huge profit from advertisers. But TV took us all the way to Florida and California where even speed wasn't enough to pull them in. That was when the owners decided to make fighting and injuring (the two are not necessarily the same) the central attraction of the game. The owners could put a stop to hockey goons in just one game. But it would cost them. That's why they have never done it. Remember, big profits don't mean providing hockey for experts on the game. Big profits mean pulling in people who think Don Cherry  is an intellectual.  It means drawing fans who think the WWF is for real. They love watching people get injured. Fighting in hockey, like the "sport" of extreme fighting, might be telling something upsetting about our society.

The common people of ancient Rome (usually referred to as the "mob") were among the most useless people in the world. They were given enough food by their rulers to stay alive (food that came from conquered peoples), enough housing to shelter them in filth and disease, and great pits their bodies would be thrown into when they died. They were contemptible people. They knew they were contemptible and useless.

But the emperor and the aristocracy had to keep them quiet or they might turn to riot and looting. So it diverted free with free shows at various stadia. The shows were not only free,but designed to keep them from thinking - the same sort of job The Moncton Times does. But it charges.

As the humour of farting elephants and human freaks waned, the ruling class introduced increasing brutality - sham battles in which hundreds died; and then, even further down the scale, just watching people getting ripped to pieces by wild animals.

An historian of Rome has argued that they enjoyed this because they knew they were contemptible and deserved punishment. They loved watching others die because somebody else was getting the punishment they deserved, and because the shows gave them a sense of somebody who was inferior even to them. (It's  something like the reason we watch Judge Judy on TV.)

That is the direction we are going with pro hockey. On balance, then, maybe it's a good sign if both parents and kids are losing interest in hockey

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