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A GOOD STRIKE … AND ABOUT TIME « Douglas Fisher

Fisher

 

A GOOD STRIKE … AND ABOUT TIME

When is a strike a good one?

With the strike of the NHL players, opinions by the millions will rage around this question.

The strike vote showed astounding solidarity. What a tribute to the newish director, Bob Goodenow, and the union reps on each team.

I see it as a good strike. Overdue! It should be salutary for all, including the fans, and make for a more stable game.

Anyone who gets around knows Canadians have no more common denominator than hockey. It’s been a long preoccupation, even outpacing politics. In a cross-country sense it surpassed baseball, football and lacrosse three generations ago. This appraisal of hockey’s domestic status is not flip but made after 30 years of rummaging after the game in a century of newspaper files.

It was in the 1950s that hockey completed its progression from a tiny amateur base in Montreal (in the 1870s) to being an annual national competition, and became an international game beyond our proprietorship even though we still provided most of the abler pros.

By the time the NHL expanded in the late-1960s, the collective owners of its franchises had completed the subservience of so-called amateur hockey through drafts and farm systems. This was clear from the fading of nationwide interest in Allan Cup and Memorial Cup games, eclipsed by the NHL on TV.

One saw it in the mounting Canadian frustrations over hockey excellence in the USSR and (though less bothersome) in Czechoslovakia and Sweden. Hockey was now well beyond Canada in organization, techniques, tactics and training – and as a livelihood for players and promoters.

Hockey as we would recognize it was born at the new Montreal Victoria rink in 1875 and took roughly 30 years to push well past lacrosse and baseball in all the settled parts of Canada except the Pacific Rim.

Right from 1875, hockey’s had Jeremiahs and belittlers. Moralists have condemned its grossness. How dangerous – violent, mean, brutish! Excesses of misconduct on the ice and in the stands brought sermons and, in later days, governmental inquiries. Hockey, the outside critics argued, could never reflect pure skill and true sportsmanship. It wasn’t possible to officiate it competently.

Recently, the death-knellers have said the game as dominated from the top by greedy entrepreneurs focuses too soon on the ablest neophytes and has been pricing itself beyond most parents in equipment and ice-time costs for their kids.

With the strike has come a threefold chorus of laments. There’s much idiocy about lost fans – “the guys who pay the freight.” A collapse of many franchises, particularly in Canada, is predicted. So is a decline and fall for hockey from the roster of widely played entertainment sports.

Some 20 years ago interest and chance got me involved in hockey at a high level, dealing with officials, managers and franchise holders, including the NHL, its players’ association, and with the leaders of so-called amateur hockey throughout the world.

What a cast there was (and still is!) of egocentric, one-track, tunnel-vision characters. So much cunning and bamboozling; so little care for the longer run.

The players’ disinterest in the livelihood aspect of their trade was the norm. Managerial outlooks were conservative unto reaction. Both the traditions and the argot were crude, symbolized by thuggish or stupid NHL owners like Harold Ballard and Bruce Norris. At the upper echelons of both pro and international hockey there was a disregard for players as people. They were dummies – pliable, dispensable, replaceable; valuable just as depreciating chattels.

There was minimal awareness among players of their potential power if they stood together, along with a general disinterest in the legal and financial frameworks for their brief careers.

This is a good strike because the past, present and future players of the game at a skilled level need it – not for money but for the intangibles of pride, status and choice.

The strike is a last stage on a long course. With it the players nail down their self-respect as a group and their right to share fully in their game from advent to pensioner status.

The long course began well before 1967 when the players’ association was fashioned by Alan Eagleson. Its beginning was in the intrinsic nature of the sport – intense and demanding courage, skill and commitment.

The strike is the coming-of-age for all those who play the game. They take responsibility for what they do and who they are. They test the limits of their reach and the value of inter- dependence.

From thousands of rinks to a few score great stadiums hockey is an integrated, international business of great scale. At last those most basic to it shoulder its future. It was time.
The Toronto Sun
Copyright © 1992, SunMedia Corp

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