The Deaths of
Copyright Iain Fyffe, 2002
Published November 6, 2002
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I first read Klein and Reif’s The Death of Hockey over two years ago. I was immediately impressed by the convincing (if somewhat overstated) arguments made about the state of the NHL. Klein and Reif (KR) make a strong case that hockey needs to change now or die a slow death. I have since reread the book several times.
I recently came upon another book entitled The Death of Hockey, by Kidd and McFarlane (KM), published some 26 years before KR. Reading this book changed my perceptions of KR somewhat. I’m now not quite so convinced that KR are as right as I thought they were.
This essay discusses these two books, noting the similarities in their arguments, as well as their differences, taking into account when they were written. I will also provide some additional commentary on their arguments, particularly the more valid ones.
The books follow similar patterns. They both open with introductory chapters about how hockey should be, noting that it isn’t that way anymore. This is a dangerous way to open, as they’re setting themselves up to be perceived as crotchety old “back in my day…” fans, who believe that everything was better in the past, simply because it was in the past. But we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
Following are several chapters (KM six, KR seven) on the problems plaguing the NHL, and why they’re problems. Finally, they both close with chapters about what to do to fix the problems that exist.
KM’s major concern, which permeates most chapters of their book, is the commercialization of hockey. That is, moving hockey away from smaller centres into big cities. This “destroyed” the amateur game, and forced hockey to become a “TV sport”, because most people could now only watch on television. KR make no comment on this, probably since it is now an accepted part of hockey. That is one thing that we must remember when discussing the current state of hockey: things that seem bad now may become accepted parts of hockey in the future. It was once thought that the forward pass would ruin the game.
Is the commercialization of hockey a bad thing? Yes and no, I would say. It does lead to putting economics ahead of sport, something which both KM and KR touch on. But it also draws all the best hockey talent into one place (the NHL), theoretically leading to the best hockey possible. The reduced importance of the amateur game is bad only as a matter of taste. If you don’t really care about the calibre of the game, there will always be local hockey to watch, be it at the school level or whatever.
The financial aspect of the NHL draws ire from both books. KM devote one chapter to hockey as business (salary wars, selling hockey to the US), and another to hockey as a marketing tool (endorsements, the “recent” phenomenon of greedy players). KR chip in with a chapter entitled “The Malling of the NHL”, which concerns shiny, sterile arenas and stupid new teams logos and nicknames, and another called “Empire of the Suits”, in which they argue the men running the league really don’t care about the game itself.
These are all valid comments. New teams these days do tend to have stupid names, boring, monotonous logos and disturbing colour schemes. Salary disputes are genuinely off-putting for many fans, most of whom make less in a year than some players make in a single game. But is this truly killing hockey, as the books suggest?
The fact is, the owners have been in it for the money since the beginning of professional hockey. For example, why have owners always allowed fighting to remain part of the game? Because of the belief that fighting draws fans, and therefore money (more on fighting later). NHL owners have a history of acting with two eyes set firmly on their wallets, and it’s no different now. It seems unlikely that after all this time it is suddenly going to kill the sport.
Both KM and KR decry expansion for watering down the NHL. Today, of course, KM’s claim that the Great Expansion of 1967 seriously watered down the talent level of the NHL looks rather silly. KR specifically note that there was enough talent available to support doubling the league at that time. But the expansions of the 1990’s are a different story.
I find I must agree with KR on this point. In just over a decade the NHL has gone from 21 teams to 30. Since 1967, the NHL has added 24 teams in 35 years. That’s too much, and you can tell by watching the game on the ice.
Where most of these teams are located is also a concern of both works. KR rail against putting teams in the southern US, while KM seem offended by putting teams in the US at all. Clearly, the northeastern States love hockey, and NHL teams are well suited there. But there is a legitimate complaint about the NHL’s expansion strategy of recent years. Why are they ignoring places where people are already hockey fans in favour of slapping teams down in the Sun Belt and hoping people there become hockey fans? Minnesota moved to Dallas, Winnipeg to Phoenix, Quebec to Colorado (where NHL hockey had already failed once before), Hartford to somewhere in the Carolinas. People have been playing high-level organized hockey in Winnipeg since the 1890’s. Phoenix, Arizona? It really is upsetting to people who are already hockey fans.
But again there’s the question of whether this is truly killing hockey. These new locations generally have lots of cash, helping to keep the NHL alive. But the point is to keep hockey alive, not specifically NHL hockey. What these moves are doing is demonstrating that the NHL doesn’t care about established fans. Can snubbing fans of your sport be good for the sport? I doubt it sincerely.
Both books argue that fighting is detrimental to hockey. KM blame the propagation of fighting on expansion. Bear in mind, this was before the 1970’s Reign of Terror. KR devote an entire chapter to the subject (“Bad Blood”), and note that it is more the culture of the game that continues fighting, rather than anything intrinsic in the game itself.
KR really shine on this topic. They take the accepted wisdom of the game to task. The usual excuse for fighting in hockey is that it is a safety valve; if there were no fighting, other more violent acts would emerge, such as stick swinging. This is identified as the catharsis hypothesis in Gruneau and Whitson (GW), and is exposed as so much bullshit by both KR and GW. I point out that there is not a single shred of objective evidence that fighting reduces other violent rule breaking. But it’s common sense, they say. Well, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, “common sense” is simply the sum of the prejudices you acquire by age eighteen. Common sense is often simply wrong.
“But the fans want fighting!” others protest. To this I say, prove it. You, as a fan, may enjoy the fighting. This does not means fans in general do. I am a fan, and I dislike fighting. Do I not count? To quote Wayne Gretzky,
“We always talk about the people who come to the games to see the fighting…I wonder if they’ve ever done an analysis on how many people don’t come just because of the fighting.”
Source: GW, p. 186
To answer Mr. Gretzky’s question, no, they have never done any such analysis, and likely never will.
But we must again ask the question: is fighting killing hockey? And to this I must answer no. Fighting has existed in hockey for more than a century, and there’s no particular reason to believe that it is now suddenly destroying the game. As much as the ritualized battles between two knuckle-dragging goons who can barely skate disgust me, there’s no evidence that they will actually kill the game. Improving the game and simply ensuring the game’s survival are two distinct issues.
One final issue of KM’s that I will note is the media. KM take the media to task for being mere cheerleaders of the NHL, without questioning it. The media was, and still is, used by hockey to promote itself. But the media is not independent, like it should be. The NHL effectively censors writers that write things it does not like (such as mentions of fighting). As a result, media coverage of the game is limited to pointless “I’ll give it 110%” interviews, monotonous and superficial analysis, and repetition of the party line on any serious issue.
The books diverge greatly in terms of the solutions they offer. KM sees the problem as US involvement, apparently, because their very practical solution is to start a new Canadian hockey league. They envisioned two teams each in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, as well as clubs in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Sudbury, Windsor, London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, Sherbrooke, St. John and Sydney. They saw a 44-game schedule. Most importantly, the teams would be community-owned, so the purpose would be hockey, not profit. Players would give up higher NHL salaries in order to play fewer games, closer to their hometowns. Even in 1972, I think two words would sum up this proposal: yeah right.
KR are far more practical in their suggestions. They call for a moratorium on expansion, a comprehensive revenue-sharing plan, the game to be called by the book at all times (which the NHL seems to have adopted for the start of the 2002/03 season), a slight reduction in the length of the schedule, the regular season to be made more meaningful, games and arenas to be more fan-friendly, a commitment to international hockey, and finally a ban on fighting. These are all good ideas and may be implemented some day. But they cannot be said to be necessary to save hockey, because hockey is not dying.
What these books really trumpet are ways to make the game better, which is noble. But they claim to be trying to keep the game alive. Neither KM nor KR offer truly convincing evidence that the game is dying, rather than merely becoming stagnant. I have no worries that we will be watching NHL hockey for years, and decades, to come.
Gruneau, Richard and David Whitson. Hockey Night in Canada. Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993.
Kidd, Bruce and John McFarlane. The Death of Hockey. Toronto: New Press, 1972.
Klein, Jeff and Karl-Eric Reif. The Death of Hockey. Toronto: Macmillan Canada, 1998.
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