His recent appearance here railing against the raising of Patrick Roy’s sweater was read by a great number of people, with many having a strong say about his slightly opinionated slant on things.
Now he’s back, and Jim takes aim at shoot-outs.
The imposition of the shoot-out on the hitherto respectable game of hockey is a travesty, a sad and sorry reduction of the sport to the status of a tawdry sideshow act. And the smug showmeisters – supported by the time-tested and true advertising maxim that anything can be sold to anyone at any time if only `x’ is repeated often enough and loudly enough – shrilly proclaim that this is `the most exciting play in hockey’. Bah, humbug! It is an abomination that should be exorcised from the game.
The shoot-out is NOT hockey. It is at best related to it in a peripheral way. Yes, it takes place in an arena, the playing field is made of ice, the players wear the same regalia and shoot pucks with sticks at goalies in nets but, even on a simple observational level, this event is clearly not the game of hockey which involves two teams of players contesting for possession of the puck in a prolonged and continuous effort to score more goals than the other team – unlike a shoot-out a game of hockey necessarily entails coordinated play between several players, passing plays, bodily contact, penalties, odd-man rushes, and etc etc. The differences are so overwhelmingly definitive that it dismays me that we, as hockey fans, have collaborated with the showmeisters in permitting this cheap gimmick to play a measurable role in evaluating the performance of teams: a team does not `win’ a hockey game in a shootout – the game ended in a tie which is more often than not an acceptable result – rather it wins a bonus point which gain to our shame counts in the standings. If the shoot-out is so relevant then why isn’t it used to decide the issue in the playoffs? Ahhh, there are no ties in playoff hockey, eh? Imagine, deciding the Stanley Cup champion on the basis of a shoot-out. I cringe at the mere thought of it. Do you? (I think soccer is a great game but it certainly needs to rethink itself re deciding World Cup champions on the basis of free kicks – what a sad self-contradiction.)
Even more disquieting is how we fans have so blithely accepted the shoot-out as representative of the game. Yes, the penalty shot on which this sham is modelled is part of the game but unlike the shoot-out even it’s staged quasi-drama emerges in a organic way from the natural flow of the game, is of relatively infrequent occurence and, in my opinion, ranks rather low in the scale of possible exciting events – tic-tac-toe passing plays, startling saves, impromptu feints, great hits, breakaways, and etc etc are a lot more thrilling. This conceit is worse than bad poetry, it is downright synechdochal abuse! Where are the outraged poet-fans? Okay, nerdy sarcasm aside, it is clearly insulting that the-powers-that-be deem us so gullible as to swallow this humungous humbug and even more reprehensible that we should do so.
And no, I am not a dinosaur in the sense that I am adamantly against any innovation. For example, I’m fine with 4on4 overtime, moving lines about, tweaking goalie equipment. Changes of this kind remain well within the domain of `hockey’ and possess the potential to enhance the game not detract from it as is the case with the shoot-out. So, the cynical marketing ploy notwithstanding, how is it that this patently anti-hockey vaudevillian schtick has been successfully grafted not only onto the game but much more importantly onto the fans’ mindset such that our collective understanding and appreciation of the game has been so distorted that we tolerate this bastardization, indeed a distrubingly large number of us enthusiastically embrace it? Why have we been so remiss in our commitment to the well-being of the game?
The answer to this question is expressed in this Porkian phrase: I it’s sh show t time, f folks!
Yes, sports fans, willy-nilly, the shootout is not rooted in the nature of the game itself rather in the larger social/cultural context in which it plays itself out. Hockey, like all pro sports has been filed under that all-encompassing all-American category, ENTERTAINMENT. And it is this reductionism that underlies my discontent. Hockey in particular and pro-sports in general should not be lumped together with singing and dancing and acting (I’m excluding politiking, hot-dog eating and etc. here for practical reasons) except at the crudest most general level in two principal ways: yes, hockey is a spectacle and as such there is a certain amount of stage-management (arenas, uniforms, promotion strategies) and shared elements such as drama and conflict; and, yes, the cult of the personality/superstar (wherein lies a much more sinister potential for manipulation of our perceptions, again, not to be addressed here) has been mined in order to sell the game (Gretzky, eh).
But the ressemblance stops there.
First, a professional sporting contest, including a hockey game, is not a pre-scripted, carefully rehearsed presentation of irreality as reality, of fiction as truth – it is a one-time-only physical contest between real people taking place in real time, a test of will and of skill that is subject to the vagaries of error and chance that cannot be contrived. Call it what you will, honesty/integrity/authenticity – THIS MATTERS! The crucial importance of this is shown by the effort that is put into maintaining it, hence the relevance of: prohibiting betting thereby ensuring that results are not predetermined, cf. the recent basketball scandal and the sad case of Pete Rose; the ban on steroids and other performance enhancing drugs that are deemed to be artificial aids and therefore detrimental to the competitive integrity of sporting competitions; the objection, in hockey, to the instigator rule which is, in my opinion, rightly deemed to violate the intrinsic nature of the game not only artificially constraining players but also by inducing other kinds of violence that are inimical to the game (again, a topic for another blog).
Secondly, our hunger for glory, for bigger-than-life performers blinds us to the fact that unlike other forms of entertainment exceptional athletes cannot be created by marketing stategies, cannot be artificially constructed, packaged and proclaimed as de facto stars rather they emerge from the game not always unexpectedly but always uniquely with real-life drama which makes them fundamentally different from stars such as Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, Joli and Pitt, dinos and zombies, Cruise and Smith, et al. The recent controversy re Patrick Roy’s sweater retirement by the Montreal Canadiens illustrates this: agree with it or not, like him or not, Roy is a oner, a star (superstar?), a product of the game who in turn shaped it in his own inimitable fashion. To argue that, say, a movie star carves out his own identity in much the same way conveniently overlooks the crucial difference that he/she is doing so in a make-believe world and not one of real-life substance. Call it what you will, honesty/integrity/authenticity – THIS MATTERS!
Yes, hockey is very much in the business of entertainment but so what? That doesn’t mean that it is therefore first and foremost an entertainment package that can be jazzed up and sold any-which-way the showmeisters ordain. Hockey, like all pro-sports, has become central to our culture because it is much much more than a slice of `fun’: amongst other things it teaches us critical awareness, to look at what is done not what is proclaimed – something which we hockey fans, caught up in the crassly induced excitement of a bogus entertainment ploy, have obviously thrust blindly aside, at least in this particular instance; to value, perceive and acknowledge the oh-so-important intangibles that also define our daily lives, some of which are: spontaneity (personal creativity & honesty) and competitive spirit (tenacity and gritty effort), character (respectful comportment both on and off the ice – hence the value of a Jean Beliveau) and talent (great games, great plays, great players emerge from the game, they are not designed and designated). There are many many more, make your own list.
Hockey is considerably more than entertainment, it is very much a mirror of who we are and of what matters to us in fundamental and defining ways. When we diminish it, we diminish ourselves and this is what we have done by embracing the shoot-out – it is an abomination and our acceptance of it constitutes a betrayal of the game and therefore of ourselves because it undercuts the very dynamics and values and standards that make hockey so relevant to us. And our passive/willing complicity in this humbuggery should serve as a warning to us, of our vulnerability, of our susceptability to manipulation, of our essential irrational selves of which that great American character Pogo had this to say: Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.
Coda: The shoot-out could be a `fun’ event (akin to long golf-ball driving), something light with which to cap a night of hockey, only keep it emphatically separate from any direct impact on the results of games. Make it a kind of competition in which individuals and teams compete for perks at the end of the season say, charitable donations? cash prizes? trips to Disney World? A date with their favourite Hollywood Hottie? Whatever. Have a ten point scoring system: 5 for a goal and the rest for style. Get the local sports writers to judge – if nothing else, they know the value of major league bs. Maybe have the players wear tutus or some other kind of symbol that makes it abundantly clear that the shoot-out is NOT hockey