Crossing more than the blue line

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I am going to go out on a limb here: The sport of hockey is the
worst professional sport being played today, except for maybe
cricket, but for completely different reasons. It is an odd
combination of boxing and ballet, only with a barbaric twist.
Simply put, it is a lot of mind-numbingly boring sequences broken
up by an occasional skirmish. The fights are overdone, the line
changes are constant and the players get so fatigued from their
30-month seasons that each game requires not one but TWO
intermissions, something that can only be classified as, well,
Canadian. But all of that was tolerable, even to the least of all
hockey fans, that is until two weeks ago. “Line change.”

In the past two weeks, the sport of hockey has had to deal with
two of the most embarrassing events in its recent history. The
first, and more better-known, event was the equivalent to an on-ice
mugging when a Vancouver Canuck that very few passive fans knew,
even though he was in the top 10 in most scoring categories, named
Todd Bertuzzi blindsided Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche with
a right cross and then proceeded to pile drive Moore, face first,
into the ice under the full weight of Bertuzzi’s 245-pound frame.
The takedown broke one of the vertebrae in Moore’s neck as well as
leaving him with a concussion. It also earned Bertuzzi a suspension
for the rest of the season and the playoffs and the forfeiture of
more than half a million dollars in pay. Serves him right, you
might say. You’d be right. But that’s not the half of it. “Line
change.”

The second, lesser-known but equally disturbing hockey fiasco of
the past two weeks was a recent signing by the Indianapolis Ice of
the Central Hockey League. They signed a former ice-skater turned
criminal turned boxer with a history of violent outbursts,
including hiring a hitman to knock out an opponent on the eve of a
competition. But that’s nothing new for a sports team. No, the
worst part is that this “boxer” is actually former U.S. figure
skating champion Tonya Harding. And, oh yeah, Harding’s a woman.
“Line change.”

These two incidents are what epitomize hockey as an outcast
sport, doomed to forever be on the fringe of the mainstream and
never appealing to much more than a handful of odd Northeasterners
and those crazy Canadians. And it further showcases the unspoken
understanding that permeates North American hockey: you can do
anything as long as it puts people in the seats. I have never been
one to swank about the European way of doing things, with the
exception of retreating, but the style of hockey employed by our
friends across the pond seems to appeal to all types of people, of
all age ranges.

It is understandable that the marketing wizards in any hockey
league, NHL, CHL, pee-wee or otherwise, want to sell tickets. But
there is a right way and a wrong way of doing it. Encouraging more
fighting and less skill is not the way. For this reason that I
can’t place the full blame for Moore’s injury on Bertuzzi alone.
Sure, a lot of the blame belongs on his shoulders; but there was an
underlying plot line to that fiasco. In fact, Moore knocked
Vancouver’s captain, Markus Naslund, out for three games with a
viscous hit earlier in the year and Bertuzzi taking out Moore with
reckless abandon as a form of retaliation is something that has
long been an accepted practice by the league. If Moore would have
only had a concussion and not broken his neck then hockey would
still be sitting below NASCAR and women’s basketball in the sports
psyche of the American public. But he did. And so we talk about it.
Same with Harding. I don’t blame her for collecting a few thousand
dollars for a little public humiliation. She’s Tonya Harding, she
knows about being embarrassed. If the poor saps who run the CHL and
the Indianapolis Ice want to pull off a gimmick to get fans, then
so be it.

But the NHL, and the CHL for that matter, had better not
complain when they become the object of public ridicule. This isn’t
the first time I have ridiculed the sport of hockey, and with the
antics like those exhibited by Bertuzzi and Harding sure to
continue, it sure as heck won’t be the last.