Bright lights, cathedral setting – it had all the feeling of an uplifting hymn in the midst of a tragic funeral.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, the ultimate shrine to the game Canadians worship, was open Monday evening to receive four very worthy new inductees: former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, Pavel “The Russian Rocket” Bure, brilliant playmaker Adam Oates and Canada’s 2002 Olympic gold-medal hero Joe Sakic.
If you stuck to the lyrics, it was about green valleys, warm, shining and embracing lights and a better place so many dream to go.
If you caught the sour notes, however, the almost indiscernible back beat, you would be more reminded of the band playing on as the Titanic went down back in the spring of 1912.
This, however, is the fall of 2012, an increasingly miserable and angry time for the very same fans of the National Hockey League who, four times straight, rose in ovations as four new legends were stamped and welcomed to the hall
To a lesser place in the Hall, Buffalo broadcaster Rick Jeanneret and I were also selected. If nothing else, that provided a front-row seat to witness the gap between the joy of the moment and the despair of the season.
The players all spoke – the brilliant Mr. Oates without notes, more sure of where he was going than a seasoned political stumper – but it was far more the images above the Hall-of-Fame-jacketed players that reminded people not only of what it had once been but of what it should be.
After a season of dark suits, sombre words and verbal spears, NHL fans were offered video clips of the four at their best: Mr. Bure’s electric speed, his wild creativity that, at one point, included a back pass to his own skates, the puck then kicked up past the sprawling goaltender to produce a yawning empty net; Mr. Oates’s wizardry as he gave Brett Hull of the St. Louis Blues and then Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins seasons that earlier sent each to the Hall of Fame; Mr. Sakic’s quiet leadership and explosive wrist shot, his humility and grace shining through as he, then captain of the Colorado Avalanche, hurriedly passes off the Stanley Cup to Raymond Bourque, who had waited so very long; and Mr. Sundin, so successfully leading Sweden to the 2006 gold medal in Turin, so valiantly and stubbornly leading his Leafs through roller-coaster seasons, the captain’s smile sometimes the one certainty to shine.
Not much to smile about these days, though.
What is difficult to convey during a celebration that fills the halls, the sports pages and the airwaves is how small the hockey world is. If you think of it as a very large city high school, you will have room for all the players, coaches, managers, media, hangers-on and even the sweat-shirted autograph seekers who gathered outside the Westin Harbour Castle to see if anyone recognizable was stepping off the shuttle buses.
That world has its own cliques and elites, its own bullies and gangs and even nerds, its own winners and losers and, these days, an entire population that seems to be trying to figure out just who the hell they are.
If anything rules in this time of owners’ lockout, it is confusion.
There is simply no comparison to be found between the Lockout of 2004-2005 and the Lockout of 2012-(perhaps)2013. Eight years ago, people tried to wrap their minds around the issues; this year, the mind simply repulses the issues. Eight years ago, just as in a schoolyard fight, people chose sides; this year, no one seems to care the slightest about who might be right, who might be wrong. Both sides have been deemed fools – even by those who, by definition of their employment, should be on one side or the other.
In the mutterings that went on below the standing ovations and the iconic video of the Hockey Hall of Fame inductees, there could be found an anger not known in previous work stoppages. It could be sensed in the innocuous welcome from Bill Hay, the Hall chairman biting off his own words at the end as if fearful of the venom that might unfortunately spew forth at an event that should be apolitical, innocent and joyful.
The only difference between Mr. Hay and the hundreds in attendance those few days in Toronto was that he was miked, they not. For once people moved beyond the bonhomie and backslaps of greeting, the cursing quickly began.
Someone needs to tell the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association that there is a danger here – and so here goes.
It matters not who locked out and who is locked out. It matters not who is right and who is wrong. No one gives a sweet damn about your quotation-marked catchphrases and your silly definitions. No one is even listening to any of that absurdity.
And listen to this, please. You probably aren’t worried about the so-called “casual fan” dropping off – in your opinion likely only for a while.
But you need to worry about your best fans, your fanatics, deciding they can no longer trust you with their emotions. This is the fourth work stoppage in but a generation, the second in eight years.
Just as much as when you will come back, fans are now wondering when the next one will be.
What they believe in now is, at least for the moment, nothing.
And that is dangerous, and thin, ice.