When Play Resumes

Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo

Eventually the ice will be made and painted, teams will take the ice, Roberto Luongo will be traded, and the NHL will go on. One of the more persistent narratives during the lockout is will fans come back?

I wouldn't blame anyone if they didn't. Maybe you're a relatively new fan experiencing a soul-destroying first lockout. Maybe you're just now old enough to understand the dynamics at play and the true shittiness of the situation. Maybe this is your third lockout and you just don't give a fuck anymore. All of you are right.

But I'm staying.

It's not that I don't have any strong opinions on the lockout - I do - I just haven't once thought it will prevent me from coming back. Some fans and hockey commentators would have us believe that fans like me are part of the problem: when we spend, watch and discuss our teams and the game we are part of the problem. They suggest that our unquestioned devotion to the game only encourages the inevitable and all but ensured destruction between the owners and players.

And there certainly is some validity to that argument; however, just as the polemic between the owners and the players isn't about the fans, the fact that'll I'll be watching the Sens next game (whenever that may be) isn't about the league and its problems.

***

When I was a little kid I loved Mark Messier. Consequently I was an Oiler fan. Like many kids, I gravitated to players and teams were secondary. I had Oiler pajamas when I was three years old and got a jersey when I was five for Christmas. I loved collecting hockey cards - Messier ones were my favourite. I was constantly drawing hockey players, turning one simple drawing on scrap 8 x 11.5" paper into an endless game by taping multiple sheets together, creating a rink of dozens of players, usually playing for a few teams.

As I entered grade school, it became increasingly apparent where the allegiances in my new hometown lay - to the Leafs. I played mini sticks and foot hockey at recess with a group of boys and at the end of the day imagined myself walking off with the Stanley Cup. When the Leafs traded for Doug Gilmour, I had a new favourite player. It was hard to be a kid who liked hockey in the Toronto area during the early 90s and not love Doug Gilmour. Not that you would try to deny it. When I was ten I found myself at my school's annual BBQ and raffle bidding on a gym bag and a couple of coffee mugs donated by a local car dealership. Why? Because the package also included a Doug Gilmour poster from his milk advertising campaign, complete with painted cow legs. I put all my tickets, all $4 worth, into it and won because no one else bid.

Yet when Mark Messier came calling again during the 1994 playoffs I was rooting for him again, this time as he led the Rangers to Stanley Cup glory.

My hockey focus started to expand. I was not just interested in the superstars of my time or the league's ever expanding catalogue of teams, but I was also interested in hockey's past. I poured through my dad's hockey books, painting watercolours of Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, and Frank Mahovlich. I started playing organized hockey when I was nine years old, when the neighbouring town formed the first girls' league in the area. There were only four teams in my age bracket and only two age brackets during that inaugural season but it was wonderful. I had always wanted to play hockey, when I day-dreamed as a little kid I imagined myself winning the Stanley Cup or more modestly playing in the NHL. No matter that during that first season I was a horrible skater, my stick-handling skills and shot were honed from years of road hockey. And while it's been a decade since I've played organized hockey, I spent ten years playing minor hockey and the league I played in from its inception until I went to university is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. Despite such humble beginnings, the league now organizes the game for girls and women of all ages.

***

But something changed. More accurately, a lot of things changed. As I neared the end of elementary school my connection to the game altered. Sure, some of the reasons for the change were typical: my friends were no longer interested in hockey and at school most of the kids had moved on to other interests. But those were just the cosmetic issues. The league locked out their players in 1994-95. Dougie Gilmour had just led the Leafs to two straight conference finals and Mark Messier had just raised his sixth Cup, but there was no hockey in October and the season was threatened.

The clutch and grab era of the mid-to-late 90s was horrible. I hated it. I hadn't noticed (and still don't remember) the violence and cheap rule breaking that occurred in the game frequently when I was a kid. The fact that this violence seemed to be so natural and inherent to the game and to me when I was a kid becomes increasingly more concerning the older I get. Mark Messier was my favourite player as a kid but his style of play meant he couldn't be my favourite player anymore, not with the way the game was going. For the first time I had a player I hated: Scott Stevens. I hated the way he played, the risks he took, and the careers he derailed. While his style of play was legal, at the time I felt it shouldn't be. For the first time I feared I might watch someone die when I watched a game. When I saw Kris Draper crash head first into the boards during the 1996 playoffs I thought I had. I was shocked when I saw pictures of his face, heard about his reconstructive surgeries and wired jaw, and Claude Lemieux's paltry two-game suspension. Skill play was diminished and hacking, slashing and grabbing won games. The rule book was ignored. When those things happened in my minor league games, I hated it. I even stopped playing for a year.

At the time there seemed to be two ugly sides to loving a team. The full brunt of living in Leaf Nation showed me that commitment to a team had repercussions far more serious than wins or losses. The anger and aggression unleashed with every loss and expression of minority opinions were unsettling. Even more unsettling was what loving a team could do to some people. When the Maple Leaf Gardens sex abuse scandal broke in 1997 the denials and hatred spouted by adult fans at rinks, in the neighbourhood and on sports radio call-in shows towards the victims was stomach-turning. Of course the reaction was not limited to Leaf fans nor was the problem something that could happen only at that particular club. But one of the implications for fans was that the team you love might actually be corrupt and criminal. Your team could exploit the most vulnerable among its fans while you buy tickets and tune in on game night.

That period illustrated another heavy cost of fandom. Relocation. I was born in the mid-80s during the heyday of Canadian teams in the NHL. When I was six the NHL began the 90s phase of expansion. It all seemed normal to me as a kid. But then the Nordiques left, followed by the Jets and Whalers and the league didn't seem to do much to stop it. The Canadian dollar sucked and it seemed impossible to cheer for a Canadian team when the NHL seemed against them.

So I stopped.

I stopped cheering. I stopped wearing fan gear. I stopped imagining I won the Stanley Cup. I stopped listening to Joe Bowen on the radio and borrowed a Born in the USA cassette from the library. I stopped drawing and painting hockey players and instead turned to emulating different artistic styles and you know, painting Bruce Springsteen. On Saturday nights I often watched TVO's "Saturday Night at the Movies" and learned a lot about classic cinema from Elwy Yost. We didn't have cable but I was concerned about how much Star Trek I would miss, not the games I wouldn't get to watch. I followed other sports. I pursued other interests. I still followed the game casually, skimming the sports pages and occasionally my dad's The Hockey News, but there was no commitment. I was bitterly disappointed when Canada didn't win gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, but not because the introduction of NHL stars had led to embarrassment for the nation but because the women's team had lost a heartbreaker to the Americans in the gold medal final.

I even stopped playing minor hockey for a year, the culmination of several years of frustration with the game at the NHL level and its influence on lower levels of hockey.

***

But I came back.

I missed the game. A year removed from playing and I wanted back in. The year-long hiatus from playing was long enough and during my first year of high school I was back playing hockey.

My separation from the NHL was a long time coming and consequently took longer to repair. While I always watched the Stanley Cup Finals, I was still disillusioned by the outpouring of fandom (and all its negative side effects) in my high school whenever the Leafs made the playoffs. I started to cheer against them in 2000 and became a Senators fan during the first Battle of Ontario. However, living 40 minutes north of Toronto meant my NHL viewing was still determined by my location. I had to rely on the playoffs for glimpses of the league as a whole.

The 2002 Olympics was another step back to committed hockey fandom. Sure I listened to the men's gold medal game on the radio and marvelled at the performance and chemistry of Iginla and Sakic but it was the women's triumph that I really celebrated.

It wasn't until I moved to Ottawa for university in 2003 that I was finally willing to fully commit to hockey and the NHL again. Once again I became a feverishly committed hockey fan.

Because I had already come back a lockout wouldn't force me to walk away. Coming back to the NHL meant acknowledging and accepting the problems and limitations of the NHL game. To become a fan again meant coming to terms with the persistent failures of the league. It meant acknowledging the tenuous economics and the poor labour relations in the NHL. It meant coming to terms with the inherent violence and the lack of repercussions for that violence in the game. It meant coming to terms with the negative side-effects of fandom and the discrimination in the game and among its fans.

***

Many fans think they can become agents of change by opting out. If enough fans show their disgust for the current state of affairs by not spending money on tickets and merchandise then maybe things will change in the NHL. That is certainly one possibility.

But after only casually following the league for several years, I'm not willing to give up any more time. I don't want to miss Daniel Alfredsson's possible last season or watch Erik Karlsson as he defends his Norris Trophy. Boycotting the NHL will only hurt me.

Sport provides the opportunity for fans to feel part of something, to make connections and form community, and to celebrate achievement. But it also affords fans the opportunity to improve the game, opportunities that don't exist when we step away from the sidelines. I have long been troubled by the violence in hockey but by writing about that concern, by not celebrating it in game threads, I do more good than I would if I simply ignore the game I love.

I am troubled by fandom that turns into fanaticism. When rivalries between clubs turns into aggression between fans and when a healthy debate about last night's game results in hatred and discrimination everyone's experience of the game is lessened. If I leave the game behind, I can't bring about even the slightest change. But I can do something if I continue to participate.

I'm not trying to convince you to return once play resumes. Undoubtedly, some of you have already left for good. However, I'm not giving up something I love because the league is dysfunctional. But if you do return, I'll be here.

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