Thirteen years ago this fall, the National Hockey League made the bold decision to allow a film crew behind the scenes to chronicle an entire season.
It must have seemed a grand idea, what with the NHL pros about to participate in the Olympic Games for the first time. But then the Americans bombed out in Nagano and reacted by trashing their rooms, and the star-studded Canadians failed to win a medal. One of the sport's biggest personalities, Brett Hull, opined that "the game sucks."
The league's hierarchy was forced to play defence in full view of the cameras - including a memorable governors' meeting in which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman very nearly lost it: "You know what? This game doesn't suck!" he all but hollered. "This game isn't boring."
Hockey fans had always doubted Mr. Bettman had a beating heart where the sport was concerned. This might well have been his finest hour, but the TV audience never heard it because he used a minor swear word to emphasize his point. The NHL insisted the segment be cut. Wouldn't want the world to see the game, or the business of the game, as it really was.
That story came to mind when the NHL announced that it's agreed with U.S. cable network HBO to produce a new behind-the-scenes reality show. Premiering Dec. 15, the 24/7 series will focus on the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals (Alexander Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby) as they prepare for the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
Anyone who follows contemporary sport knows the genre, most recently in the form of a series called Hard Knocks, which of late highlighted the pre-season preparation of the New York Jets of the National Football League.
In that series, profanity was the athletes' and coaches' lingua franca, providing something far different than the cliché-filled pabulum of pre- and post-game quotes. The Jets' head coach Rex Ryan, especially, used the F-word so frequently and creatively that it was suggestive of slam poetry. The football crowd ate it up.
Now hockey comes to the dance, better late than never. And if, once upon a time, your grandma was shocked when that nice Bobby Clarke (minus his front teeth) was inadvertently captured dropping an f-bomb on Hockey Night in Canada, these days, hearing real hockey players use real hockey-player language is at least part of the point.
There's something more at work here than modest shock value and a desensitized audience. By opening the dressing-room doors, the NHL establishment appears to have finally acknowledged a simple, self-evident truth: People who like their game like it for what it is and like it better than anything else, making them among the most committed and loyal fans in all of sport. In an age of boundless choice, in which all entertainment options from all parts of the globe are available to nearly anyone at any time, that form of pure devotion is more valuable than it has ever been.
An argument can even be made that larger cultural currents are moving the NHL's way, as fans cocoon, clinging to the authentic and traditional, to a game that has roots, that is unique, that hasn't been homogenized, hasn't had all of its edges sanded down, that hasn't been made generic. And perhaps in these tough times, the moment is right for a sport that celebrates the honest worker; that features blue-collar millionaires; that largely eschews flamboyant self-promotion; that is gritty and ferocious and often beautiful.
Even in the wake of the economic downturn, nearly every ticket for every game played by every Canadian NHL franchise was sold last year, and in big U.S. markets such as Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, New York and Detroit, the league is extremely strong. The National Basketball Association, because it plays a similar schedule in many of the same buildings, is the most direct point of comparison - and for years it was held up as the epitome of slick sports marketing. Put its 10 best franchises up against the NHL's, and it's in hockey where you'll find the fewer empty seats.
So instead of trying to soft-sell the product, trying to sanitize it and dress it up with cartoon robots, flame-tailed pucks and Roman gladiators preparing for combat - instead of working way too hard to sell the game outside of its traditional northern heartland to audiences culturally tone deaf to its allure - the NHL may now be prepared to let hockey be hockey, for the benefit of hockey-loving people.
By extension, that might soon work to the advantage of the hockey-loving people in Winnipeg and Quebec City, no longer playing second fiddle to the indifferent masses in Arizona, Atlanta, Florida and Nashville.
It's about time.
No other sport has subjected itself to so many rounds of Maoist self-criticism, inspired so many summit meetings, so many crisis councils and so much hand-wringing, all in order to answer the self-defeating question: What's wrong with the game?
While there's nothing unusual about tinkering with the rules (every sport does it - the NFL pretty much annually, through a competition committee that inspires precious little controversy), only hockey has made a fetish of its alleged failings.
While there certainly remain issues worthy of debate - the danger inherent in head shots, for instance - there is also much to be said for feeling secure in what you are and what you have. That's the message that comes with deciding to let the cameras roll - this time, one hopes, without any after-the-fact loss of heart.
Not that that hockey is likely to out-crude the NFL version. The NHL's take on Hard Knocks figures to be a whole lot less flashy and at least marginally less profane. Dan Bylsma, the mild-mannered coach of the Penguins, is certainly no Rex Ryan, nor is the Caps' Bruce Boudreau. Mr. Crosby is a great player, but he has uttered hardly an interesting word in his professional life. In general in hockey, outside-the-box personalities tend to get pulled into line by their peers, with the odd, Sean Avery exception.
So for the merely curious, this series may even seem a little bit dull. But shinny devotees will eat it up.
Now if they can just arrange for Mr. Bettman to let his hair down once more and sound like he gives a damn - maybe utter a "damn," or even one of the seven words that you didn't used to be able to say on television.
Although, knowing the commish as they do, a real hockey fan might have trouble suspending disbelief.
Stephen Brunt is a sports columnist for The Globe and Mail.Report Typo/Error
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