The last of the NHL labour wars

Colby Cosh on what hockey can learn from the NBA
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2012, file photo, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, right, and deputy commissioner Bill Daly speak to reporters in New York. Bettman has told the players union that a deal must be in place by Jan. 11 in order for a 48-game season to be played beginning eight days later.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

The conventional wisdom on the NHL lockout, usually delivered with a sneer, is that Canadian hockey fans will belly-crawl back to the league uncritically now that all the bickering and all the tantrums have ended. Like all conventional wisdom, it is conventional because it is quite a safe bet. I know I’ll crawl with everyone else: I’m capable of intellectually segregating my fondness for the game of hockey from my loathing of the existing institutions of hockey. (It’s not all that difficult! Nor is it shameful!) What’s different about this lockout is that in the meantime I took the bait of regular-season NBA basketball with enthusiasm for the first time ever.

For me, even during hockey labour struggles of the past, the NBA had never managed to wriggle into the spare time vacated by baseball. Looking back over my life, it seems my interest in basketball has increased just a little every year, starting from a point at which it was rarely on television and was something I experienced mostly in the pages of glossy magazines. I think that as a young person I was prejudiced against basketball partly because of the premium it places on extreme height, even though I’m not short myself. I find something especially entertaining about watching a sport like curling, where a top competitor might not be distinguishable from my pudgy auto-parts-vendor neighbour. Hell, I’m from northern Alberta: he could actually be that guy. Basketball seemed more like some kind of unhygienic ceremony involving exaggerated deference to incomprehensible monsters. (I won’t say “dark-skinned monsters”, but if we’re being candid that may have been a factor.)

After a long time I came to appreciate that basketball offers some compensation for its gene-dependent one-dimensionalness, and not just because there are stars who are no taller than I am. The premium on stature actually encourages greater variability in all other traits and invites a huge amount of personal and stylistic eccentricity into the game. To put it in plain English, there is a certain delightful, inherent goofiness about basketball.

This would, I think, be the case with any competition that was dominated by people who stood at the right tail of the bell curve in some innate trait. Let’s say there were a sport in which growing a long, lush beard was virtually essential. You would expect the people who participated in it to end up being fascinatingly diverse in other ways, right? You’d have fat guys and thin guys, intellectuals and morons, violent agitators and people who were practically Tibetan lamas; and probably they would hail from every corner of the world.

Basketball will never make deep sense to me in the way that hockey does, because of where and how I grew up. But the style differences between pro hockey teams are mighty nuanced compared to the outrageous differences between the tactics, pace, and physical makeups of NBA teams. There are always a few basketball players around who can’t really run or jump, and some who can’t in any sense be called “athletes” without tacit embarrassment. Yet at the same time the NBA’s best athletes would probably defeat anybody else’s in a good all-round test of sheer athletic ability. Basketball fans trying to convert you to their cause will always try to sell you by talking about the specimens, the LeBrons and the Dwight Howards. I didn’t get hooked until I started paying attention to awkward or extraplanetary dudes like Big Baby Davis and Kenneth Faried and Alexei Shved.

Somehow a fast-changing internet diet of independent writers and podcasters left me ready, when the NHL decided to have another civil war, to enter into the NBA as a full-fledged environment rather than an occasional Lakers-Celtics buffet. Without consciously working toward it, I reached a point at which most of the league’s teams are real to me, in the sense that I know coaching tendencies and many non-superstar players and could tell you roughly where the “nail” is on a basketball court and, to a close-ish approximation, when a team is “in the bonus”. Lexemes like “Denver” and “Houston” now have an instantly-grasped general meaning to me on a basketball scoreboard, and possibly more meaning than “Florida” and “Columbus” do on an NHL schedule. Sports leagues are now, as a consequence of the net, totally immersive neighbourhoods of the global village, transmitting with a bandwidth far beyond that of any soap opera. This works to the advantage of any sport with a high diversity of personalities and a manageable cast.

I wonder if other people have had the same experience during the lockout, whether with basketball in particular or with some other pastime. Maybe you got super deep into macramé: I don’t know. Certainly a lot of my Twitter followers seem to have gotten fairly hardcore about soccer, domestic and international, in the last five years. Not coincidentally, soccer is a sport that isn’t entirely hostage to just one group of zillionaire greedheads. It’s fully international, and there exists useful tension between the professional leagues and the regulating bodies, so the zillionaire greedheads cancel each other out somewhat.

What was interesting about the latest NHL greedhead bloodletting, of course, was the sheer quantity of media resources devoted to intimate second-by-second chronicling of it. In the new media environment, off-ice drama is to some degree interchangeable with on-ice drama; the fan’s attachment to the NHL is participation in a world, and that world doesn’t stop rotating just because nobody is playing hockey. We all know this already from experiencing the way in which the NHL calendar has stretched out to help consume 12 months of our lives every year; between the last game of the finals and the opening of the regular season comes the panic of free-agency day, the theatre of the draft, the global-village homecoming that is training camp, and all the carping and quarrelling and inveighing and praying that comes along with those things. Meanwhile, Twitter and weblogs and team sites are rapidly intensifying our familiarity with, and access to, the participants in the game—and even the meta-participants: the coaches, the general managers, the reporters and commentators. Involvement is total.

One is tempted to propose cheekily that if the NHL could efficiently monetize not playing hockey, there is no reason they should bother playing it at all. The problem is not that people aren’t entertained by off-ice spectacle; the problem is that these specific off-ice events, the whole saga of the lockout, took a particularly unentertaining, unsatisfying form. Any sportswriter who stood around a building in New York City for 12 hours waiting for a brusque five-minute press conference could have told you that. Drama that takes place in secret isn’t drama. Secrecy is harmful to the functioning of the global village.

Whether the NHL arrives at a proper understanding of the new world of sports—which is to say, the new human world of multitasking and 24-7 connectedness, the world of total media involvement—is actually what will decide whether this lockout was worthwhile. The other major sports are further ahead in progress toward this kind of all-enveloping multichannel engagement. If you’ve seen the NFL RedZone channel you know what a revelation it is: all the games in your face, all at once. (And, believe it or not, Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday broadcast in the UK is to RedZone what Godzilla is to a newt.) If you’ve subscribed to MLB.TV you know that there is no limit to the amount of baseball you can siphon into your brain through your pupils during the baseball season. If you’re a fan of a team in any sport that has its own regional TV network, you get the picture—with all the McLuhanite multiple meanings that implies.

Hockey has nothing to compare yet with these mind-altering information firehoses. Its handling of the web is a poor cousin to almost anyone else’s in sport. Its production of advanced statistics is left mostly to generous amateurs. It has not been as lucky with podcasting as any of the three “major” rivals.

But it is getting there, and it is obviously aware of the issue. My local NHL team initially greeted the advent of social media—or, more generally, the whole emerging apparatus of unmediated fan-player engagement, independent critics, online parodies, and situationist détournements—with a hostility that bordered on violence. It actually made and enforced a rule against live content publishing from the press box: this would now incite an immediate riot amongst the old farts on the Oilers beat, all of whom tweet furiously around the clock as a condition of their employment.

The club has now relented on that sort of thing, and it also no longer tries to control the players’ Twitter accounts, or if it does it hasn’t had a damn ounce of luck. Taylor Hall trades sly, abominably spelled barbs with Jordan Eberle; Nail Yakupov gleefully retweets every cute girl who chats him up from anywhere between Burnaby and Birobidzhan; the relatively well-educated Ryan Whitney, nursing his God-botched feet, heaps irony on all.

Most of it is not very interesting, hockey players largely being incurious, horny small-town galoots even when they are not from small towns. But, then again, it is in the nature of Twitter that anything even slightly interesting is soon echoing off the hills at punishing volume. What all this tweeting really accomplishes is to bring the players down to the level of global-village neighbours, as opposed to faces on Mount Rushmore. Taylor Hall once tweeted memorably about failing an open-book test for his boating license three times in a row. This tells you that Taylor Hall is not the sharpest awl in the toolbox; it also tells you that he is pretty good-natured, and that he has the confidence to admit a ridiculous failing. You can’t not like a guy who would turn something like that into a joke.

Is it still possible for Hall (who is already better than almost anyone outside or inside Edmonton is aware) to become a mythic, revered player in the same way as the greats of old, whose personal lives were screened off from us? The option is probably not open, but then again, who gives a damn? Sports are making the transition from being an avenue of cold pagan heroism to being a noisy, lively reality show. There is no sense moralizing about a process that cannot be stopped. The games will still be tests of character and will, but the participants will seem nearer to us.

And there will be money in it. I think we all routinely underestimate the amount of hockey we can fit into our schedules; the world of the NHL has room for a lot more specialist media barnacles, whether they be podcasters or critics or stat-crunchers. There’s a Mel Kiper Jr. niche open, still, between the chairs of Bob McKenzie and Pierre McGuire: the job for the guy whose existence is so closely tied to the annual draft that it would be a revolting understatement to say it “revolves around it”. There’s a Will Carroll niche open for the injury specialist. NBC’s NFL broadcasts now feature a hired rules expert, a former referee who is on call in the studio to help explain unusual situations: there’s an open niche. We still don’t have a serious literature on the history of hockey, as opposed to a pile of tell-all books and journo memoirs: there’s a niche there. Does the NHL have an answer yet to NFL Films? Niche. Has anyone done for the NHL what Ken Burns did for baseball? Niche. Has anyone succeeded in doing a hockey blog with the hipster literary heft of Run Of Play or Free Darko? Niche. Is there a half-decent cotton-pickin’ reference source for scouting reports, a one-volume book or a website with a page apiece on 1,200 or so different hockey players that dares to go an inch deeper than “energy guy, superb penalty killer, poor on faceoffs”? No, there is not: niche. English-language reporting in any format on the Euro hockey leagues? It’s crummy-to-nonexistent: niche.

I am not saying that all of these things will spring into existence soon, or even that they should. The job of the NHL is to pave the way for them and to let go of its proprietary mentality, its overwhelming sense that it is in the business of selling the specific club good of personal game attendance. In the long run the gate is bound to be an infinitesimal fraction of the revenues from hockey. In baseball the gate revenues are already being displaced, which is one reason baseball now has labour peace; even though baseball is no more international than hockey, and even though the existence of the 4-6-3 double play will absolutely never be so much as suspected by a solid three-quarters of humanity, that sport passed through an era of tortured territorialism into a sort of abundant transcontinental technological singularity.

There is no reason hockey should not be able to pull off the same trick: it doesn’t even have to “reach new markets” to do it. Your favourite NHL team will probably be worth a billion dollars a lot sooner than you think. And hopefully something like that will have happened by the end of this hard-won collective bargaining agreement, and there will be no thought at all of squabbling over petty details of its successor.