January 19th, the NHL season will finally get underway. I really don’t care.
This should concern me (and anyone who really knows me). I marveled at the sport ever since the days of my youth. And even though I’ve never had an athletic bone in my body, in gym class I excelled at floor hockey.
I wasn’t a casual viewer. No, I was someone who…
- still has the program from the first hockey game I attended live (January 9, 1971, Detroit Red Wings vs Buffalo Sabres at the Olympia in Detroit). Larry Brown is on the cover, and the Wings won 3-2;
- collected hockey cards from 1970 up through the late 1990’s;
- shared two season tickets to the Red Wings for three seasons (1989-90, 1990-91, and 1991-92);
- was the booster club president for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings of the OHL (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons (1992-93 and 1993-94);
- photographed the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League (IHL) and wrote a column in a local hockey publication for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons (Great Lakes Hockey Alliance);
- traveled to places like Kalamazoo, MI; London & Niagara Falls & Owen Sound, Ontario; Montreal & Quebec City, Quebec; Long Beach, CA; Buffalo, NY; and Cincinnati, OH to watch live hockey;
- was the commissioner of a fantasy hockey league that spanned over a decade; and
- continues to wear vintage Detroit Vipers jackets appropriate for the season.
Why is this forty-year relationship coming to an end? Perhaps the sport and I have just grown too far apart.
The first signs occurred after the IHL folded. In 1994, the Detroit Vipers emerged at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which provided quality, entertaining and affordable hockey. The IHL was a minor hockey league dating back to 1945. With the NHL locking out its players during the 1994-95 season, the IHL expanded into areas to compete with NHL franchises. Along with Detroit, the league added teams in Minnesota and Chicago.
I followed the Cincinnati Cyclones the year previous, as my sister and her family lived across the Ohio River in Kentucky. But it didn’t take long for my blood to flow the aqua and eggplant of the Vipers. I attended the team’s very first game (a 7-3 victory over the Cleveland Lumberjacks on September 30, 1994) and their very last game (a 3-2 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears on April 14, 2001) at the Palace. I still have my photo passes for the June 15, 1997 game where they won the Turner Cup against the Long Beach Ice Dogs, and the October 3, 1997 game where Gordie Howe took to the ice for one shift as a Viper. The memories are endless, and all of them fond. The Vipers folded, and my passion for the sport waned.
NHL ownership greed pushed me away. Three lockouts which shortened this season and the 1994-95 campaign, and completely cancelled the 2004-05 season. How does a tradition establish and maintain itself with this kind of off-ice instability? Such gaps provide the opening for other interests to emerge.
The game itself went in another direction. For each step forward that the league made, such as the elimination of the two-line pass, the game retreated a couple of steps because of the oppressive push to eliminate fighting from the game. I’m not the biggest fan of fighting, but the role of the enforcer insured that players were held accountable for their brutal acts on the ice. With that element removed, players have been able to injure each other with intent, and the league assuming punishments of suspensions and fines would provide adequate retribution.
The first game I attended back in 1971, no one wore a helmet. In fact, the Buffalo goaltender, Joe Daley, didn’t wear a mask. In those days, you didn’t have the concussions and injuries to superstars that you have in today’s game. The addition of helmets and goalie masks are acceptable safety precautions. However, it has lessened respect for each other on the ice, and the elimination of instant justice, coupled with the faster pace of the game has allowed for a more dangerous sport, especially for the marquee players.
Dissatisfied, frustrated, and watching the game grow away from me, a past lover returned in my life, which sparked what has become a renewed passion and rekindled love: soccer.
In 1978, I was introduced to professional soccer through the Detroit Express of the North American Soccer League (NASL). It was their first year in the league and Trevor Francis made the experience magical. Arriving after the first eleven games of the season (finishing his English season with Nottingham Forest), Francis destroyed opposing team’s defenses scoring 22 goals and 10 assists in 19 matches. The first game I saw live was July 30, 1978 where the Express defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (and legendary keeper Gordon Banks) 4-2. Francis scored two goals and assisted on another. I also attended the first round playoff match – a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Fury, with Francis netting the only goal.
I got to a few more games at the Silverdome in 1979 and 1980, and watched as much of the NASL that was televised. But then I was off to college and the Express and NASL went the way of other defunct professional sports leagues.
On June 28, 2000, while vacationing and visiting friends in Washington DC, I attended a DC United match. The LA Galaxy beat DC United 2-1 that evening, but the love of the sport that had been in hibernation for 20 years was reborn. A couple years later I got to my first Columbus Crew game, and since then, there’s been no turning back.
The hockey cards I’m slowly selling off on eBay, and in place I have almost a complete collection of every MLS card set available. I find myself able to watch, at most, a period of hockey, but I can lose two hours in the blink of an eye if Arsenal is on the telly. I do miss going to Detroit Viper games, however neither the Plymouth Whalers or Detroit Red Wings motivate me to purchase a ticket. But I’ll eagerly make the four-hour drive to Columbus for a Crew match. Given the choice, I’d take a ticket to a Detroit City FC match and sit amongst the Northern Guard, Le Rouge Supporters and Motor City Supporters than an ice level seat amongst the suits at the Joe Louis Arena.
I could conclude that the death of hockey’s influence on my life is a part of a maturing process. Other interests such as civic duties, promoting change and protesting the elements in society that promote a destructive status quo, immersing in my profession, and just trying to make the world a little bit better place then it was when I got here was prioritized higher than being entertained by sport.
Yet soccer has moved in and occupied hockey’s place in my life. Perhaps that, too, is evident of a maturing process. Hockey, despite what Gary Bettman tries to promote, is a regional sport, conducive to areas where winter’s breath creates the field of dream in backyards and ponds and streets of everyday life. Soccer is global and its fans and players are a global community. The sun never sets on the beautiful game, for I can follow Arsenal in the English Premiere League from August to May, and attend Columbus Crew matches from March through October. And with matches played on a weekly, rather than three or more times a week basis, a two-hour soccer match once a week leaves time open for other, more noble and mature pursuits.
After forty years, both hockey and I have grown in different directions. It was fun and formative. But it is time to move on.