Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Five Minute Major For Boredom

Yet another player nods off during a playoff game
Well, the NHL playoffs have reached the halfway mark and, once again, the game has been reduced to the sporting equivalent of trench warfare: bloody, slow-moving, and painful to watch. What's worse is that the game's stars, the ones who haven't been eliminated by series losses or headshots, have disappeared from view. Skill players such as Ovechkin and Gaborik have either been checked into irrelevance or have purposely dumbed their games down to satisfy the backcheck first, score later philosopy of, well, all the remaining playoff coaches. Add in goalies who seem to get bigger and more agile every year, and referees who leave their whistles in the dressing room, and you have some diabolically dull hockey.

Not that the hockey media has had much to say about the poor entertainment value of the playoffs. The talking heads on Hockey Night In Canada, Sportsnet and TSN toss out terms like grittiness, playing responsibly, the 200 foot game, fininshing your check, sacrificing yourself, which are all, it would seem, synonyms for not attempting to put the puck in the net. The vast majority of commentators seem delighted with this kind of hockey. Partly this is down to the fact that so many on-air hockey pundits are ex-goalies and ex-fourth-liners, all people whose hockey life consisted of preventing goals. The other reason is that the networks have far too much invested in playoff hockey to dare mention that what they're broadcasting is akin to rugby on ice.

In addition to the cheerleading for no-offence hockey, there's been a not so subtle delight expressed in the the failure of elite players to perform. The reason for the disappearance of skilled play is that everything about playoff hockey (the ferocious hitting and checking, the clutching and grabbing) is designed to diminish the talents of players like Crosby and the Sedins, and the ex-grinders who comment on the games are often thrilled that their kind of player is grabbing the limelight instead of the guys making the big money. It's a situation that's entirely unique to hockey. A crude analogy would be the NBA ordering its top players to switch to lead sneakers during the playoffs. There's also been a whiff of bigotry coming from the ranks of the hockey media when it comes to Russian players. The ineffectiveness and reduced ice time of Alexander Ovechkin, and the one-game suspensions handed out to Radulov and Kostitsyn in Nashville, have been met with mutterings about Russians not being emotionally committed to playing hard in the playoffs. These comments once again point out the apartheid that exists in hockey broadcasting. European players have been a big part of the NHL for nearly forty years, but, as far as I can tell, there has yet to be a European commentator hired by any sports media outlet in all that time. Any mumble-mouthed ex-goon who wants to spout cliches about hockey gets his shot on TV or radio as long as he's from Moose Jaw or Minnesota, but God forbid that a European should appear on the airwaves. Maybe if one of the networks was employing a Russian ex-player he could talk to Ovechkin or Radulov in their native tongue and get some kind of inside information.

Being the degenerate hockey fan that I am, I will continue to watch the playoffs, but, be warned hockey gods, lately I've found myself switching briefly to Blue Jays baseball. The fact that I'm willing to risk slipping into a coma by watching baseball is an indication that playoff hockey is pushing me to the limits of sanity.

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