Get out of your own way: hockey broadcasting in our time

 

If you have ever been to a playoff game at the Bell Center, you have partaken in the closest thing our post-industrial, cynical world offers in lieu of a religious experience.  In my days as a Montrealer, I usually managed at least one presence in the post-season emotional pressure-cooker of Habs worship, and remember feeling as though the top of my head, along with the roof, was going to get blown off.  In one particularily intense outing I took my teenager, for his birthday, to the 2006 Montreal-Carolina game following our Saku’s career-altering eye-injury (courtesy of an unpenalized Justin Williams).  Standing next to the child who had been born during the last, amazing, successful Cup run (1993, for ye non-believers), I was in the midst of a screaming, cheering eruption, watching images of those very same 1993 triumphs dance across the ice, and struggling for air.  Emotions didn’t merely run high at that game: what throbbed around me was the kind of mass hysteria that some people call “crowd poisoning.”  Yet what a heady, addictive and largely benign poison such experiences turn out to be, when they center on hockey!

To assert that no medium can ever convey a particle of the intoxicating blend of variables that live hockey delivers is to state the obvious.  However, when the folks who bring hockey into our living rooms seem thrilled by their own failure to even come close to elevating our experience of the sport, it’s time to examine their shortcomings.

The more I watch various configurations and experiments with hockey broadcasting,  the more I realize that the most efficient passion-killer, when it comes to my favourite sport, is self-referentiality. 

When I was growing up–under the tutelage of Rene Lecavalier, the most cerebral and rigorous hockey play-by-play man in history–hockey broadcasts were low-tech encounters with a few authoritative voices that existed solely to describe what we could not share in the flesh.  These voices were incredibly familiar, yet completely detached from anything other than the present moment of hockey action.  These people weren’t our friends, they didn’t joke around or talk about themselves; they were as close as you could get to hockey transmogrified into words.  They were flawed, perhaps, but largely innocent of the urge towards self-celebration.

Today’s broadcasts have completely changed, offering amazing HD shots, countless angles and replays, graphics, stats, musical mashups and close-to-the ice sounds.  In many ways, the hockey broadcast has become about bringing us “at ice level,” “between the benches” and even behind the goalie’s butt.  Why then do I feel so detached from what is happening? Because, unfailingly, there is a voice yammering into that wonderful visual space, an ego bringing attention to itself between periods, as well as countless other moments during which any given broadcast toots its own horn with distracting self-satisfaction.  Whether it be when Glenn Healey reminisces shrilly about his own career, when Pierre Mc Guire treats us to his ponderous uses of purple prose and personal player nicknames (Scott Gomez, to Pierre only, is “Scotty,” just as Tom Pyatt is “Tommy”), or when Ron MacLean and Don Cherry discuss the importance of their own views, what we get is a loop, a snake eating its own tail.

Not unlike rappers who end up pontificating entirely about their superiority to other rappers and their personal achievements, to the exclusion of any other topic, these hockey personalities exist primarily to bring attention to themselves (and the parallel between Don Cherry and bad hip-hop has legs, it seems to me–but that’s for another day).  What they don’t seem to realize is that we don’t care about the broadcast’s own hypnotic fascination with itself.

What we want is hockey.  That Don Cherry or Mike Milbury may have been right in predicting something or other, or that Ron MacLean or Glenn Healy may have a bone to pick with anyone in the league matters not at all to me.  When did hockey personalities decide that broadcast time, and my living room, were available to them in order to expound on the relevance of their own views, inside jokes, esoteric knowledge and political opinions?

Whatever a given broadcasting team may want to put out there about itself serves only to clog up the channels of hockey enjoyment with presences that should strive instead for self-effacement.

Since broadcasters increasingly don’t want to get out of the way, I have taken lately to watching the HNIC Punjabi broadcast.  Since I only hear the players’ names within a stream of unfamiliar syllables delivered by pleasant voices, I can focus on the hockey.

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There will be blood: hockey, violence and hockey violence

 

As a woman who loves hockey more than she loves her own mother, I am often asked–by men and women alike–how a skinny little minny like me can adore such a big ol’ violent sport.  The unspoken subtext here contains several threads that need to be unraveled.  One thread has to do with ideas of femininity and what women seek out for entertainment: why aren’t I watching the much more muted, psychic violence of “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Real Housewives of someplace or other”? Why don’t I care about sex and its city and 2000$ shoes worn by horsey-faced divas with walk-in closets, instead of sweaty behemoths who pound at each other like extras on the set of “Quest for Fire”?

It needs to be said that, even for the hockey fan with the hardest core, this NHL season has brought to the fore some of the ugliest questions that persist at the heart of hockey’s warrior ethic.  A steady succession of damaging head hits to the game’s peons, as well as its marquee stars, has underscored the unresolved paradox that defeats intelligent and consistent critique at every turn. What baffling inconsistencies do we encounter, as soon as we listen to the noises being made about head hits?

  • If your team’s player receives a hit to the head, it’s a clear instance of head hunting, a cheap shot, a blindside hit, an example of the lack of respect that is destroying the game.
  • If your team’s player is the one delivering a hit to someone’s head, it’s an instance of solid playing, it’s part of the game, an example of situations where the player seizing on the ice should have been responsible for his own safety and keeping his head up, or should be trying out for pairs figure skating because this is hockey, you emasculated, flaccid know-nothings!

Sadly, when a player actually breaks this code, as the Bruins’ Andrew Ference did in qualifying his teammate Daniel Paille’s shot to the head of the Stars Ray Sawada as a “bad hit,” the hockey world spins yet more inconsitent webs of nonsense into its rhetoric of toughness.  Ference had these sane things to say:

“I mean it’s a bad hit, right? That’s what they’re trying to get rid of and you can’t be hypocritical about it when it happens to you, and say it’s fine when your teammate does it. It’s a hit they’re trying to get rid of.”

The following Saturday, on Hockey Night in Canada, yes, our national hockey broadcast, here’s what the pillars of hockey ethics had to say about Ference. “Keep it to yourself, Andrew Ference,’’ former Bruin (player and coach) Mike Milbury preached. “You can’t do it. You just can’t do it. It’s unacceptable.’’

Former gum-flinging, bench climbing Bruins coach Don Cherry offered this level-headed and temperate view: “I don’t care if your teammate is an ax murderer. What you’ve got to say to the guy, you tell him in the dressing room. You never go to the press like Ference did and say that was a bad hit….They don’t need a guy like Ference.’’

Thus we have a situation in which various people decry hits to the head, we see players leveled and knocked unconscious, their careers possibly ended before our eyes, their drooling, seizing, rag-dolled selves taken to the hospital, and everyone wringing their hands while the game seems to get even more violent with each passing week.

Head hits are like obesity: everyone thinks they’re wrong, disgusting, deadly, but contradictory approaches and stereotypes keep all the interested parties powerless.

Just as absurd is this year’s revival of so-called “old style” fighting during intense games. Large scrums, recurring explosions of fisticuffs and even, God help us, goalie fights have been on the menu lately.  One goalie fight broke a starter’s face (Brent Johnson vs Rick Di Pietro), while another seemed like a friendly tussle meant to appease for the sake of appearances (Carey Price vs Tim Thomas).  Earlier this season, superstars like Crosby (and the usually meek Mike Cammalleri) got in on the boxing, and now it seems that rivalries aren’t adequately played out unless hundreds of penalty minutes are racked up by random people swinging at each other.

The cliché about this kind of violence, of course, is that it is meant to help sell our sport to Americans, but one  has to wonder about this explanation.  Traditionally, our Southern friends get their bare-knuckled violence away from the field or the court, and sports fanatics aren’t accustomed to having boxing matches mixed into their baseball, basketball or football events.  If fighting “sells” hockey, it’s not selling it to sports lovers, but to people who enjoy fisticuffs on Jerry Springer. 

More importantly, by repeating this explanation for hockey’s violence, we hockey fans are doing harm to our sport, because we are refusing to acknowledge our own complicit part in these rituals of pointless fighting.  The truth is that team GMs emphasize the aura of violent manliness required for fan approval.  Who can forget Brian Burke’s airing of his own recipe for the virile special sauce that would sell the Leafs?

“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play….I make no apologies for that. Our teams play a North American game. We’re throwbacks. It’s black-and-blue hockey. It’s going to be more physical hockey here than people are used to.”

Of course, that is a mythical image that this year’s Leafs are far from fulfilling, but it certainly reads like a snapshot of what hockey fans have been seeing lately: “throwbacks, black and blue hockey;”  we could add “brain damage” hockey to the mix.

Yet the question remains: what does all this fighting bring to the game?  How does it enhance the actual level of competition between elite athletes?

Until Canadian and American hockey fans, journalists and commentators are willing to truly address this question and answer it with honestly, until we’re ready to set aside every cliché we have been hearing and repeating, and until we’re ready to actually ponder the violent heart of our sport, there will be blood, and brain damage, and broken faces, and we’ll continue to wonder why.

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P.K. Subban: race, the “invisible man,” and the elephant in the studio

 

Living and working in the GTA as I do, one of the most common inquiries I get from non-Habs fans around these parts has to do with our already famous rookie D-man, P.K. Subban, native of Rexdale and a regular topic of discussion on various sports broadcasts.  To the high-school students I teach, most of whom know little about hockey and care even less for a sport that employs no round ball in any configuration whatsoever (hockey is just a “white man’s sport,” they assert), P.K. Subban is a recognizable name and a familiar face.  They may never have seen him play, and have no idea what a penalty-kill unit is, but they immediately praise his name when talk turns to hockey.  I really began to ponder the symbolic appeal of Subban when a colleague from Cameroun, whose entire life of sports allegiance has only ever encompassed soccer, and who had never once discussed hockey with me, one day asked me pointedly before a staff meeting: “What is going on with P.K. Subban? Why is the coach always punishing him?”

Hockey is indeed, statistically, a “white man’s sport.”  While the racial diversity of the NHL has been slowly changing away from European blondness and towards urban North American cross-racial realities, it increasingly seems as though the whiteness of hockey resides above all in its unspoken “codes” of behaviour.

As we all know, P.K. Subban has already been chided quite noisily and self-righteously by fellow players (veteran keepers of the “codes”), by the self-proclaimed patron saint of “beautiful Canadian boys” himself, the hysterio-weepy Don Cherry, and by various other sports hasbeentators and experts.  What ‘s wrong with our PK?  Well, word in the HNIC and TSN studios is that he’s just too loud, too brash, too cocky, too flashy (imagine being judged “too flashy” by Don Cherry!).

Sound familiar?

When I hear such comments, always from the hardline, stoic white backbone of our sport, I am uncomfortably reminded of a quote I read long ago by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates (he who was so grotesquely arrested a few years ago for allegedly breaking into his own home by a white cop who found he was being “too loud” and disruptive).  In his childhood, recounts Gates, he and his friends were often told by Black elders not to “act black” as they played and carried on in typical childish ways: don’t be so loud, they said, don’t shout and laugh and make spectacles of yourselves.  Be invisible.

P.K. Subban, it seems to me, is being told exactly the same thing: don’t be so loud, don’t celebrate so extravagantly (his first OT winning goal, no less), don’t be all up in our faces so much….he is being told, it seems to me, the classic racist message of our sad, sad culture: know your place….(usually followed, in the best Southern tradition, by the N -word).

Other NHLers of multiracial or Black lineage have, until now, abided by this “code.”  Jarome Iginla, soft-spoken, self-effacing with the media, and universally described by fans and commentators as “classy,” is what Bill Cosby would gladly recognize as a “race man,” or as they used to say in the pre-civil rights days, a “credit to his race.”

Yet when Subban comes along, fast-talking and witty in the dressing-room, intense and creative on the ice, proud to have helped, as a last-minute untested call-up, carry his team all the way to the conference finals, hockey culture suddenly shows an ugly subtext of vaguely menacing judgement.  Mike Richards, for example, insulted by what he perceived to be the “lack of respect” shown by P.K., made this 1950s Alabama-worthy threat: “Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.”

Nice.  But as long as we don’t name the elephant standing right in the middle of all the ugly talk that has surrounded P.K. Subban’s amazing arrival in the big league, we can all pretend that it’s about arrogant rookie behaviour and not about race.  There have been chippy, fast-talking and risk-taking rookies before.  In fact, Dion Phaneuf, back when he was a fired-up difference-maker, was one of the most disrespectful players ever to debut in the league, taking running hits at every veteran he encountered.  Yet I don’t remember white-bread Dion ever being threatened, condemned or solemnly tisk-tisked by hockey know-it-alls.  Cherry had one of his huge man-crushes on Phaneuf, and wouldn’t stop praising that good Canadian boy’s guts.

Yet the hockey Gods are wise, and they seem to agree with me that the racist elephant that is following our P.K. needs to be exposed.  In their great and playful awesomeness, they made sure that the truth would be blurted out, in an absolutely priceless moment of text-book perfect Freudian  parapraxis (or Freudian slip), when Darren Pang, comparing Subban to another rookie, announced that P.K. needed to start doing things “the white way.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that not a single one of the panelists who heard this so-called tongue-twisted “honest mistake” reacted.  During the second intermission, James Duthie and Darren Pang apologized for it, but in fact it seems to me that Pang had finally nailed it and named the unnameable subtext that has been there all along.

It’s clear that Pang isn’t himself a racist person, and that he felt terrible about suddenly leaking out the repressed contents of hockey’s unconscious collective mind.   Accidently, he had voiced the very malaise that has been ruling the unspoken judgemental take of so many of hockey’s veterans and arbiters of “proper” hockeyness: P.K. should stop acting so “black” and should start doing things “the white way.”  Of course, when a rookie Phaneuf got all up in a veteran’s grill or sent him head first into his bench, that was gutsy “Canadian” hockey.  Subban is being chided not for his behaviour, but because of a profoundly racist understanding of his behaviour.

And I have a feeling Ray Emery would agree with me.

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brief hiatus…give me a couple of days.

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a wee period of silence for now.  I’ll be back after the All-Star break.

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Saku, we hardly knew you

 

Saku with one of my kids, many years ago.  A wonderful memory…

 

Tonight, the man who for a long time was the face of the Habs and the emotional center of fan respect and appreciation for the team, will be once again be skating on the ice of our home rink.  Saku has already given an extensive press conference and openly, with occasional smiles and also an obvious lump in his throat, answered the most obvious questions.  How does it feel to be back?  What memories and feelings does he keep after all those years as our captain?  Read an excellent account of his answers here.

What strikes me in the return of Saku is how we suddenly get glimpses of the man who for all those years eluded us: a man who acknowledges some of his ordinary failings, and who also confirms (at last) how much hockey meant for him in Montreal.  Because, let’s face it: Saku in Montreal always seemed to be about something other than hockey.  He is a small, often injured player, who in his final seasons with the CH often failed to be the clutch guy.  In fact, his propensity for late hooking penalties that would cost a comeback had earned him the nickname “Captain Hook” with some fans.  Fan worship of Saku had a lot more to do with his “Captain Courageous” persona, and here, we were in purely irrational territory.

We Habs fans are nothing if not ridiculously emotional, and Saku was for us the intersection of several great scenarios.  His was the story of a hard-working nice guy struck by that most random evil: cancer.  It was also, for a long time, the script for what a true captain brings to his team  –nothing tangible (in the form of points or victories), but something more esoteric, more elusive, and greater: the capacity to be a team, to coalesce and meld into one thing driven towards one common purpose.  Somehow, Saku did that.

In his final seasons with the Habs, there were many rumours about how in fact his leadership was hollow, a spectacle for the press, while in the dressing room his was a divisive influence.  Much was made about the fact that Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu didn’t seem to be able to play with heart unless one of them was out with an injury.  Whatever the truth may have been about Koivu’s ability to lead, I have always given such negative echos little credence, mostly because they emanated from the same sports writers (one in particular) who would constantly decry Koivu’s lack of French.

To the fans, Saku’s presence on the ice was an essential passionate component of the team’s emotional barometer, regardless of his stats. There was much irony there as Saku, in post-game interviews, always seemed restrained, uncomfortable, largely emotionless.  Indeed, off the ice he wasn’t much to write about, and even when speaking of his battle with cancer, he tended to minimize, de-dramatize, and make everything sound quite flat. But once the puck drops, as we all know, a great alchemy takes place: an unassuming, bland little guy could be the soul of a franchise steeped in a fantastically intense emotional history. Quebec hockey fans know the saying: “Ça se joue sur la glace.”  On the ice, Saku was the receptacle for our visions of courage, selfless devotion, toughness and nobility.  Off the ice? To the consternation of politicians and cynics, whatever he was or wasn’t off the ice didn’t really matter.

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The brain in your bucket

 Update: Crosby is reported to be angry at the league for not having suspended Steckel.  Yet he still asserts that the team managed his injury properly.  Feel free to suffer no such foolishness gladly. Angry Crosby Likely to Miss All-Star Game

Since hockey’s most successful player (this season, so far) has suffered a concussion, suddenly a great deal of attention is being paid to this type of injury.  Yet we all know that some players, particularly fourth-liners, enforcers, “physical” grinders and hitters, suffer massive hits that cause hidden–but very real–damage.  Even more frightening is an expert’s recent claim that young people in minor hockey suffer just as many concussions as NHLers.

Sidney Crosby’s much discussed brush with the brain-scrambling monster has unleashed a great deal of debate on the medical aspects of its lingering, treacherous consequences, but has also revealed how nonchalant and clueless the management of such injuries can be.  Just imagine: the league’s premier marquee player suffers a dangerous blindside hit to the head in the league’s foremost high-profile, hyped-up, HBO-documentary-worthy game, the “Winter Classic.” Crosby is visibly hurt, shaken and stirred for all of 6.6 million viewers to see.

Yet, to many people, the fact that he is wearing a helmet throughout, and that he has not lost consciousness following the hit (he skates off the ice, doubled over) seems reassuring: it’s probably not a concussion.  Right?

Not so fast.  When I interviewed Montreal neurologist Helene Masson on the subject of concussions, she was unsparingly clear about several things that most hockey fans, hockey parents, and incredibly, team managers and decision-makers seem to brush aside.

First off, the fact that all our young hockey players are compelled to wear helmets at all times at our neighbourhood rinks can be falsely reassuring.  Dr Masson explains it thus:  Imagine that the brain is a hard-boiled egg in a jam jar.  It moves around and bumps against the sides of the jar.  Each time the brain gets shaken and pushed against its encasing skull, trauma can occur.  In fact, any violent movement, twist or sudden motion of the brain inside its protective dome can result in injury.  If you encase the jam jar in a hard plastic shell, and shake it violently to and fro, you’ll still feel the egg collide with the sides of the jar.

As for the fact that an athlete remains conscious following the hit, again, experts warn that while certain grading systems state loss of consciousness as a necessary indicator in assessing brain trauma, many systems, including the American Academy of Neurology guidelines, do not.

What is most frightening about Crosby’s admittedly “mild” brain injury is that the team has been remarkably dishonest and foolish in managing their best asset’s precious health.  Indeed, Crosby was sent forth to play out the rest of the “Winter Classic,” and also played the following game against Tampa Bay, at which point, according to the official line, Crosby supposedly suffered a concussion (possibly when hit by Victor Hedman). 

 In fact, it has been pointed out that the hit delivered initally at the “Winter CLassic” had confused Crosby to such an extent that he seemed unaware, in the final monents of that game, of his goalie’s exit from the net in favour of an extra attacker.  Seconds ticked by before an 6th man jumped on the ice: an unthinkable blunder from this perfectionist captain.  In other words, not only should Crosby never have suited up again, he probably should have been sent off for examination immediately after the Steckel hit that so clearly scrambled his brain.

We have to wonder and truly fear how cavalier people are with the most fragile and least operable part of our bodies, when it comes to our favourite sport.  Brain trauma cannot be diagnosed immediately the way a broken orbital bone or a torn ligament can.  The symptoms are vague, and Crosby himself –apprently covering up quite nicely for the employer who is risking the health of his brain–merely says that he “didn’t feel right” and “felt a little off.”  It’s a shame that he does not–or cannot–point to the fact that a brain injury should strike the fear of a thousand seizures into the hearts of those who suffer them, even “mildly.” 

Sid, your brain cannot be replaced.  Your symptoms, however diffuse and confusing, are real.  You are now more vulnerable to the next head trauma, and the next one and so forth.  You will not be able to make endless withdrawals at the brain-health bank.  The true nature of the cumulative damage you suffer, especially when you come back to the ice much too soon, will only be felt years from now.

Crosby isn’t, by any stretch, the first player whose brain injury has been mismanaged, and who has been needlessly put at risk.  Usually, the guys whose brains are sacrificed aren’t franchise players, but just toiling minions who aren’t considered Mensa material anyway.  And some players have seemed to bounce back from repeated brain trauma with a cartoonish ease: JR and his comical yet scary, brain-addled behaviour comes to mind.

But there’s really nothing funny, nothing “mild” about an injury that affects the brain.  We *know* that when you are hit hard enough to forget where you are and what you should be doing, when you feel “not right” as a result of your brain being shaken inside its bucket, something permanent will have changed for you.  Helene Masson and other experts admit that the extent of a brain injury always remains, to some extent, mysterious, even to those who look deep inside your cortex.

If only Sid had used this moment as an opportunity to educate hockey fans, players, parents and team personnel about brain trauma, this “winter Classic” could have been a turning point.  He is unable to, and has chosen to minimize his injury, and to repeat his team’s irresponsible, inaccurate and dishonest stance. That is more than a brain cramp, it’s an outrage.

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Cast Away…(Ron Wilson at sea)

If you remember the Tom Hanks film in which a FedEx executive finds himself having to scratch out a pitiful, primitive existence on a tiny deserted island, and bonding with a Wilson brand volleyball, you can perhaps understand why that flat-faced, expressionless sphere comes to mind as I ponder the present quandaries of Ron Wilson.

Not the most spirited fellow, is he? Yet our hero develops a complex relationship with his friend Wilson, and mourns his loss at sea with a pathos that seems quite real.

 Ah, Ron Wilson. The face only a 200 year old Galapagos turtle or a lonely castaway doomed to decades of yammering to himself could love.

The man is not a charmer, and his persistent hate-on for all things media-related has not endeared him to the hockey castaways of Leafs Nation.  The Globe recently reported that Wilson’s “rants are losing their bite,” observing that the “cranky fellow” now goes off and blames the media for the most contradictory, illogical reasons.  When reporters ask prodding, dificult questions, Wilson has been known to snap like his reptilian look-alike, and bark some snarky, rude challenges and rhetorical questions (“How do YOU think we’re feeling? What KIND of question is that supposed to be?”).  Recently, however, he has blamed the media for being ready to “build a statue” of unwarranted praise in honour of young rookie goaltender James Reimer, after only one good game.  In other words, dear journalist, you lose or you lose.

Even his good friend and boss Burke, who had been rumoured last year to be on the verge of firing the dismally ineffective coach (and, many believed, was getting ready to do so as soon as the Olympic games were over), has recently damned his beleaguered buddy with faint praise.

“I think Ron brushes some people the wrong way with his mannerisms when in fact he’s a great guy and a great teacher and a great coach,” said Burke in a December interview with the Star’s Vinay Menon. “But I think his mannerisms with the media – which, by the way, have been developed over a very frustrating period of time – have led some people to turn on Ron unfairly.”

I’m not sure when throwing hissy-fits and flipping your wig at a legitimate, though admittedly boring boilerplate question about the team, the score, the star player’s performance, and so forth, came to be considered simple “mannerisms.”  Snarling and spitting like a snake, while refusing to utter the simple answers that provide the bread-and-butter for unassuming sports scribes and talking heads–and, incidently and indirectly, that also put the bread on Ron Wilson’s table–can only be termed a “mannerism” by someone who was raised by screaming Macaques on a deserted island, with only a volleyball to teach him manners without the “ism.”

As I recall, Ron Wilson was thrilled to come to Toronto, a self-proclaimed Mecca of hockey (by the locals only, mind you), and to escape a warm Southern American climate where hockey is less popular and receives less coverage than drag-boat racing (whatever that is).  I was recently in California, in fact, not far from Wilson’s old haunts, and was completely unable to hunt down a single hockey game to watch over a 10-day period.

Wilson could not have been unaware that his days of quiet anonymity and immunity were ending.  He knew what mercurial fans and overheated configurations of frustrated expectation, growing shame and pent-up impatience awaited him.  Yet always he hisses, and whines, and snaps and barks, a veritable jungle book of rude and uncanny sounds aimed at guys would simply like to get their work done for the day and go home.  Let us not forget that behind these media folks, demonized and ridiculed by Wilson with his famous “mannerisms,” stand the fans, those who read the headlines, buy the papers, the merchandise, the Leafs Hockey cable games, the tickets (after a couple of years on some Kafkaesque waiting list)…in other words, the people who make MLSE as decadently rich as it is.

It seems to me that Ron Wilson owes his living to these fans, and that he not only owes them a better effort from the team he is ultimately responsible for preparing, but also an appropriately polite, heartfelt, decent and humble account of what is going wrong.

Think media pressure is high in Toronto, Ron? I suggest you spend a couple of weeks in Montreal and talk to “mon Ron” over at the sports radio station there (Ron Fournier, of course) about what it’s like for players to have gaggles of nosy sports reporters to talk to, TIMES TWO: the French press AND the English press.  Think it’s rough for a young goalie in Toronto, Wilson? Have a chat with Carey Price, who was booed profusely by his home crowd during his first pre-season game this year!

Your days are not happy here, Wilson, and the day may come soon for you to be cast away upon the waves of change.  For now, the enduring impression you leave is one steeped in rudeness, contempt, entitlement and lack of class.  I say we toss you overboard.

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At the 2010 buzzer: renovations, face transplants and imported mimes

In the USA, where I have been on vacation for the past week, there is a makeover show titled, grotesquely enough, “Bridoplasty.”  The obvious point of the exercise proposed by this fiesta of self-hatred, is to allow a bride-to-be to turn all her agression, not towards her bridesmaids and future in-laws (as it was in the old days), but inwards towards her own flabby arms, backfat and dimpled, downy chins.  The result?  A pimped out, spackled, orange thing with poufy hair and hopeless dreams that will not be contained.  But I digress. 

The time has come for teams to likewise transform themselves in an attempt to win a spot to the Spring dance, and to somehow divest themselves of unwanted flab, pine-riding backfat and unsavory accesories.  Having said that, I was not thrilled to hear that Max Lapierre would be moving to a brand new suburban Mc Mansion–this time, in California–and re-decorating all-over again, without the added thrill of having the project filmed for TV.  Our Max, a proud Quebecer who sometimes scored clutch goals of pure beauty, was lately known for his belief in the psycho facial expression as an intimidating practise.  One to jabber incessantly without the usual dropping of gloves, he resorted instead to an impressive array of theatrically stunning grimaces and bug-eyed grins.  And anyone who would rather see him slugging it out had to admit that last season’s comeback win in Round 1 proved the far-ranging effectiveness of the Lapierre Psycho Face against some of the league’s most gifted scoring lines. 

Max is gone, but we now welcome Jim Wisniewski, (by no stretch a pretty boy) a D-Man with lots of playing time but a troubling differential back on Long Island.  In the absence of Markov and in light of the ongoing saga of PK Subban, a capable and fairly tough defenseman is what the Habs do need.  His arrival certainly could not have been more fortuitous, as he scored 2 goals against the Panthers on New Year’s Eve, including the OT winner.  Not bad for a guy who made a name for himself earlier this season for having made an obscene hand gesture in Sean Avery’s general direction and subsequently having his exploit replayed incessantly in censor-blurred form on Sportsnet.  A two-game suspension followed the classy interpretive miming attempt, perhaps as a result of having been witnessed live in real time and 3D by Gary Bettman, in attendance that night.

Now Jim Whisniewski turns the page and has donned the classiest jersey of all, the holy flannel, so he’ll have to settle for either fisticuffs of psycho faces in order to get under his opponents’ skin.

Meanwhile, the rest of the league also gets set to explore new faces, less flabby physiques and leaner, meaner muscle.  In the East, the Leafs appear on the verge of a reno worthy of “La Maison de Maxim Lapierre”: some things have just proven to be bad acquisitions or useless ornaments,  Tuscan chandeliers that just do not fit in with the the Toronto glass-tower setting (Mike Komisarek, lousy without his Habs counterparts, Jiggy, he of the porcelain groin, Kaberle, a PP guy who has an acute allergy to shooting, etc…).  Buffalo and New Jersey have to do something, anything, to clean up their rosters, and out West, Calgary is sure to make some moves.

The Habs may yet be involved in some of these fixes, retro-fits and renos…

And for today, let us enjoy the so called “Winter Classic,” come rain or come rain…..

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from afar

and under the spell of local beliefs and practises, dear Habs I suggest

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From the ridiculous to the sublime

I am currently away from home and in a land where hockey is less popular than cockfighting, but I will attempt to stay current with what is going on in the epicenter of hockeyness.  I was unable to watch the Habs-Islanders game–probably a good thing–but I was wholly able to feel the shame of my team having lost to one the very worst in the league.  I heard rumours of bad penalties, lackadaisical Carey, languid offense, gaping nets that opened their maws for nought to Andrei and Plekky….

Suddenly, the Habs are in 8th place in the East, and they are facing Washington, whose slump is a lot like a Hollywood starlet’s weight gain: yeah, right.

Could Ovie be so wrapped up in that annoying “Winter Classic” Sid vs Ovie hype, that he won’t be remembering the bitterness of last spring? It’s possible.  In an effort to tout the sport to certain US markets, the league has narrowed all hockey relevance down to the Penguins and the Caps and their marquee guys, and to one game that may not amount to much.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are paying attention to Tampa, a team that is not done rising and battling, Boston, whose goalie is still in Vezina form, Atlanta, who has surprised everyone…and that’s just in the East.

For tonight, the Habs need to finally own their slump, forget about snowstorms and twice-baked potatoes, and summon some killer instinct.

Can our Habs turn the page on the ridiculous and encounter the sublime, jettison the swine and go for the pearls?

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