There’s a great scene from HBO’s The Wire in which Roland "Prezbo" Pryzbylewski is sitting in his living room watching a football game on television. His wife asks him who’s winning, to which he replies:
"No one wins. One side just loses more slowly."
If there’s a more apt description of the shameful battle being waged between the NHL and its Players Association, I haven’t seen it.
What Mr. Prezbo is really referring to is the Baltimore education system’s inability to engage with troubled youth, and a police department’s failed attempts at putting away known drug traffickers. Both are extremely complex, multi-layered systems with more grey areas than a Vancouver skyline.
What draws us to sports is the black and white nature of competition: You’re either a hero or a mortal, a winner or a loser, celebrated as clutch or reviled as a choker. Now, this lockout has taken "The Game We All Love" and removed it from the comfortable realm of "black and white" and into the uneasy grey of Very Serious Business — the exact thing we’re trying to avoid when we tune in. It’s easy to ignore the paradox of a kid’s game being the heart of a billion dollar business when the TV is on and our favourite team is playing, but when you can actually see the puppeteers pulling the strings, the romance is ruined a bit.
The ideals we hold hockey up to couldn’t be further removed from the world of big business, yet we know the entertainment of the professional game doesn’t exist otherwise. If nothing else, the lockout has been a constant reminder that our most idyllic form of escapism can have a rather dark underbelly. Focus groups, board meetings, mediators, litigation, caucusing, disclaimers of interest, threats of decertification, and now, after months of thinly-veiled PR garbage, the possibility of lawyers, judges and courtrooms. Ah, how far we have fallen from last June when it was all sunshine and saucer passes.
It’s pathetic, frankly, when the most pertinent hockey-related reading is a 43-page federal lawsuit. The reporters tasked with covering this mess could soon see their daily beat shift from the cozy confines of the local rink to the unfamiliar steps of a courthouse, all because neither the league nor the PA can handle the optics of being the one that blinks first. The sport may have lost its innocence as a game for kids long ago, but there’s been no shortage of childish behaviour from both sides in this dispute.
Can the NHL as a league come back from this? If a deal can somehow be reached to allow for an early-January start then the answer is probably yes, but it’s a legitimate question at this point.
"Seven years ago this all seemed easier to take as a fan. There was a sense, perhaps in hindsight but present nonetheless, that this was something the League needed to right itself and make the product great again – a cleansing rebuild that established some parity and introduced a newer, faster game…
Not this time, though, and that is perhaps the most frustrating part. Instead of a cleansing, it’s merely destruction for destruction’s sake."
In other words, the last lockout had an endgame of implementing a salary cap, and it was quickly obvious that it would take losing the whole season to get there. Fans certainly didn’t want to miss a year of hockey, but we could at least understand that it meant something.
So what’s the endgame this time? Fixing the issue of overlong front-loaded contracts and gaining a mere 7% of the revenue pie should not be grounds for losing an entire season. It’s an oversimplification on my part, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t ridiculous.
After all this, are we going to be able to take the NHL seriously when it returns? When Gary Bettman hands the Stanley Cup to a player he was just in a court battle with, won’t it be sort of hard to keep a straight face? When NHL stars do commercials and other league promotions, won’t it all just come off as a complete farce? I know I will be back as a fan, but my enthusiasm for the Canucks will be tempered slightly by my skepticism towards the league as a whole.
No matter how this dispute ends, the transition from "Very Serious Business" to "The Game We All Love" isn’t likely to be a smooth one for fans, and turning on the TV to watch your favourite team won’t be the instant escape that it once was. It’s going to take some adjustment before fans can get used to once again watching something in which both sides aren’t losing.
Back in Roland Pryzbylewski’s living room, one of the teams on the television has scored a touchdown. His wife smiles at him.
"See? Somebody’s winning," she says.