Friday, February 18, 2005
A sport we can live without
By Skip Bayless
You will not finish this column.
In fact, it will hold your attention for only two more paragraphs.
As soon as your eyes cross the name of the sport I'm writing about, they will cross literally. Your central nervous system will send a message flying toward your brain like a puck across ice — he shoots, he snores! The red light over your cerebrum will flash and your hand will involuntarily move the cursor to the "back" arrow.
A moment later, you will be happily mainlining stories about spring training or the NBA All-Star Game or NFL free agents or Jose Canseco talking about what steroids could have done for Manute Bol. Anything but ...
Sorry, I tried to clutch and grab you as long as I could. I'm writing the rest of this column only for me. Call it self-therapy.
I: Why do you hate hockey so much?
ME: I don't hate — I just cannot bring myself to like it or watch it on TV or care whether the owners and players ever come in from the cold. For me, trying to follow the last few days of negotiations was even more confusing and frustrating than trying to watch a hockey game. I couldn't find the puck — the sanity, the logic, even a conclusion. My friend E.J. Hradek has been on "SportsCenter" every four minutes the last four days saying it's on, off, on, officially off, and now he's saying there's still a chance of a last-ditch settlement. Hockey, The Thing That Wouldn't Die.
I: Admit it: This is the most interested you've ever been in the NHL. Maybe you've developed a subconscious fascination with it.
ME: Oh, please. I can't even watch "Slap Shot." E.J's losing his voice; I'm losing my mind.
I: Come on, you're smarter than this. By now it should be as clear as rinkside Plexiglas that the owners' goal from the start was to break the players' union and start completely over with an economic system that will take this sport off such thin financial ice.
ME: So let me get this straight: Hockey owners have been paying baseball-sized salaries in what amounts to a minor-league sport that relatively few people in this country will watch on TV? I mean, hockey has fallen below Arena Football in the ratings. Poker buries it. American viewers are telling this sport what hockey hounds from here to Moose Jaw should have known all along: The very concept of hockey is irreparably flawed. Hockey is hokey!
I: You certainly didn't think it was hokey the night you covered the Miracle On Ice at the 1980 Olympics.
ME: It wouldn't have mattered if the United States and Soviets had been playing charades that night. The point was that a bunch of no-hope college kids from America shocked a pro juggernaut from our Cold War rival.
I: But you'd have a soft spot for hockey if you had played it as a kid.
ME: That's what they've said for three generations about soccer — that kids who play will grow up to be soccer season-ticket holders. Wrong. Hockey and soccer are great games for kids to play, and for parents to watch their kids play. But when the kids grow up, they usually prefer to watch NFL exhibition games on TV to hockey or soccer.
I: Even hockey playoffs?
ME: OK, if you give me a front-row seat for a playoff game against a rival, with a great view of the scoreboard so I can figure out how the goal was scored on the third or fourth replay, I'm there. Hockey works only in the postseason, in person, up close, because you get swept up in the speed and collisions and the skates spraying ice. A 1-0 game goes from deadly dull to excruciatingly exciting.
I: But you'd like the regular season more if hockey were in your blood — if, say, you had grown up in an Original Six city with your dad taking you to games.
ME: Hey, I went to quite a few minor-league hockey games as a kid — but only to watch the fights. Now the fights disgust me. They obviously fight during the regular season because it's the only way they can sell their lousy game. Then they rarely fight in the playoffs. That's sick.
I: Lousy game?
ME: Hockey is unwatchable because it's too hard to score. It's too hard to score because it's too darn hard to skate and control a puck with a stick while defenders are allowed to run into you. Imagine basketball without fouls. It would be pretty hard just to get the ball up the court. You might have some 8-7 games. You would have widespread yawns.
I: So you're saying hockey should make it a penalty to foul the player with the puck? Hell will freeze before that happens.
ME: Then hell will freeze before I start watching hockey. Yes! Make it a minor penalty if you bump the guy with the puck. Open up the game. Let the speed skaters skate. Let guys who can handle a stick like a wand make their magic. Do away with all the lines — blue, red, chartreuse, all of them. Widen the goal. Restrict goalies to wearing tight-fitting body armor instead of letting them wrap themselves in enough padding to be bigger than the Michelin Man. Give the stars a chance to star — to score goals the way Kobe or Iverson do.
I: You could be burned at the stake in Canada for proposing such heresy.
ME: Canada originally fell head-over-Molson in love with hockey because it didn't have any other sports alternatives. Somebody gave me a book once as a joke — "Hockey for Dummies." I said: "That's all hockey is for."
Ever tried to listen to hockey on the radio? It's sounds like one continuous mistake: "So-and-so passes to so-and-so, but the pass is stolen by so-and-so, who loses the puck to so-and-so, who can't control the puck, which is taken the other way by so-and-so, who is blasted by so-and-so, who now fires the puck up ice to so-and-so, which obviously will be icing."
Ever tried to comprehend hockey strategy? Over the years, I've sought X-and-O wisdom from several NHL coaches and GMs — and from hockey experts such as E.J. — and it still pretty much looks like organized chaos to me. It often takes a third or fourth replay for the announcers to figure out that the puck ricocheted off a defenseman's thigh pad, then glanced off an offensive player's skate, before whizzing top shelf over the goalie's right shoulder. Just like they drew it up on the chalkboard.
I: Please calm down.
ME: And while I'm at it, no more ties! I heard E.J. say that 20 percent of last season's games ended in ties. A tie is worse than kissing your sister. It's like kissing that smarmy little Gary Bettman, the NHL's mortician.
I: You're not getting enough sleep.
ME: You wouldn't either if you kept having bad dreams about E.J. This hockey showdown is doing for E.J. what the Gulf War did for Wolf Blitzer. Now I'm dreaming that E.J. Blitzer is on TV saying that the NFL has decided to play on ice, that the NBA will make players dribble with sticks, that baseball will now end in nine-inning ties.
I: You've lost it.
ME: E.J. just reported that the NHL has decided to play year-round.
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column will appear weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.