Sunday, May 15, 2005

What might have been

Recalling may of my formative years growing up in Clive, Alberta, the memories that stick in my skull like slush to unwaxed stick tape are those surrounding the sport I loved the most: hockey. It's been a while since I last laced up my skates. They are custom-made Daoust brand skates my Dad bought for me ten years ago at Pro Skate in Edmonton for over 400 dollars. That was a lot of money back then; in fact it still is. Those skates meant a lot to me, because they symbolized the sacrifices of my father and his love of the game. If he loved it enough to fork out for some properly-fitting skates, the I figured I had a lot to live up to. Or maybe he just loved his sons and wanted the best for them.

But it's that sort of sacrifice that the NHL needs to tap into if the fans are going to come back to the game which, like me, they loved.

I remember 1995 as the black year. That year, may father was laid off from his job at Nova just as the economy in Alberta was going straight to pot. Eight dollars for a barrel of oil and less than fifty cents a liter at the gas pumps was nice, but not that good if one makes a living in the Patch. It was a rough year for the family because there was so little work. After re-mortgaging the farm and re-financing his debts every way possible, Dad began to sell off his prized possessions.

My Dad sold off the aluminum boat I often took fishing for Pike, at a lake just to the north people called "Chain Lakes". My Dad even sold the his prized possession: a vintage Coca-Cola machine that sold Coke in glass bottle for 5 cents, just like Dad may have remembered the price of Coke as a young man growing up in North Vancouver. I think he got 900 dollars for that old thing. I recently found one just like it, restored and polished and for sale in a shop in Caesar's Palace Casino in Las Vegas for $9,000 U.S. My Dad sold that old thing so he could afford to pay for his sons to play hockey. My Dad, when times were tough, framed basements for twelve dollars an hour (not easy for a guy over fourty) while Mom scrubbed the toilets of wealthier persons for half that. Yet we still played hockey.

If they could do it, I wonder why the boys in the NHL can't.

I am certain that such sacrifice is not unique, for there are thousands of families just like mine all across the country who have made similar decisions in order to play what has now officially become a rich man's sport. Dad did it not for luxury or the vanity of having three sons play elite hockey; he did it because to him, hockey was a necessity. He did it because hockey was such a part of rural Alberta life that to go without it would be simply out of the question. It was his love of hockey that initially drew me to the sport; I learned the basics on an outdoor rink in Fort McMurray before going into Atoms. Hockey-rich Central Alberta was where those seeds blossomed.

It's that sort of sacrifice that is lost on the owners, the managers and the players who now comprise the National Hockey League. That men of such able resources were allowed to scuttle the season that would have been is an abomination not only to the game, but a mockery of the thousands of Canadians who strive to make it to the show.

Sure, the boys can say that they tried and they tried to reach some sort of a deal, but they did not try hard enough. Money-blindness has made them lose the sense of perseverance and sacrifice they may have had when they were younger. For every league-minimum earning player in the Show, there are at least a dozen people like my brother who would give their left gonad just for a shot at what they have.

So, raise a glass of Molson and think of the spring that might have been. Think of which Canadian team may have made it past the first round to challenge some huge-payroll big-market Yankee team. Think of all the fun you would have had pre-drinking in your back yard after work before going to watch hockey at the pub. Think about the overtime tensions and the stupid-ass penalties called. Raise a glass not for the boys in the show, but for those who know real sacrifice and whose love of the game is what really makes this sport great.