January 11, 2013

Canada and the return of pro hockey

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — “Who says there’s no hockey this year?”

That was the tagline for the TV ad from a large Canadian bank during the recent World Junior Hockey championship in Ufa, Russia. The spot depicted cute and determined youngsters getting suited up to head out onto the ice.

(And yes, now that we mention it, that was same tourney where eventual gold-medal winners Team U.S.A. spanked Canada 5-1 in the semi-final game. So congrats, already.)

The point of the ad campaign, of course, was that despite the absence of National Hockey League play due to the lockout, there was and is still lots of hockey being played in Canada (and the United States and the rest of the amateur and semi-pro hockey-playing world.)

That’s certainly the case in my little fortnightly hockey gang where the NHL situation has barely sparked a conversation in the change room, the message apparently being a pox on both their houses — the players and owners, that is.

The outdoor rink in my neighborhood, blessed with decent ice a week before Christmas, has been busier than ever with games of pickup stopping only when they shut the lights.

But now the lockout is over, and the millionaires will be returning to the ice, and the owners will be eager to recoup the losses wrought by the forfeit of some 1,000 revenue-generating games.

The question is how fans will respond to the third labor disruption in the NHL in 18 years. In some markets in the United States, it may be a challenge to get people to realize pro hockey was actually gone more than three months. In others, with a deep and passionate hockey history — Detroit, New York, Boston — team loyalty probably transcends the vagaries of periodic player-owner showdowns.

In Canada, there are rumblings of fan protests, from boycotting opening games to shunning NHL merchandise, but the sense is the rift will be temporary as the hockey flock return to the fold.

A Montreal theology professor, Olivier Bauer (a Swiss national and former hockey goaltender) made headlines a few years ago for his thesis, published in book form, that hockey has become the new religion for the lapsed Roman Catholics of Quebec.

Bauer, who has offered a course in Montreal Canadiens as a faith, notes in his blog that the lockout ended on Jan. 6, the Day of Epiphany, which if one twists biblical interpretation, means there’s been a salvation of sorts, in this case, the remainder of the NHL schedule.

The professor extends the metaphor to suggest that for the Montreal hockey faithful when the season does start it will be like Easter morning, when goalie Carey “Jesus” Price is risen. Further, the resurrection will represent not just a victory of life over death but that the hockey gods are more powerful than the greedy god Mammon.

For this hockey fan in Quebec City, the end of the lockout and the prospect of a 48-game season is a wistful reminder of the last such shortened season. Indeed, it was the last season for the Quebec Nordiques.

Despite the introduction of a salary cap in the new collective-bargaining agreement, the Nords were drowning in red ink from rising salaries, a killer currency exchange rate and an aging building with severe limits as a revenue-generator. Off to Denver they went and, reborn as the Avalanche, promptly won the Stanley Cup.

Fast forward 18 years to a new era, where a $400 million state-of-the-art arena is under construction, the Canadian loonie is about par with the American buck, and the city, according to most studies, has enough of an economic base to support an NHL team.

Whether the new NHL deal is good news for Quebec City’s hopes for a return of the Nordiques, time will tell. At the least, there is stability while the city awaits its NHL fate.

Meanwhile, turns out my gang’s next game is the same night as the debut of the NHL shorty season on Jan. 19. We’ll be programming our PVRs and sharpening our skates because . . . who says there’s no hockey?