Before you read this love letter to hockey, let’s make something clear: the National Hockey League absolutely did the right thing Thursday “pausing” its season in the face of one of the greatest threats of our lifetime.
The coronavirus looks like a tsunami barrelling towards us. You can’t really tell with waves how large they are until they are pushed up by the seabed near shore and break. But COVID-19 looks like a monster. And seeing it coming and growing bigger by the day, it would be incomprehensibly dangerous and stupid to simply stand on the beach and hope the water doesn’t come over your head and sweep you away.
Hockey is a game. The coronavirus has already killed more than 5,000 people around the world.
The NHL is doing the sensible thing, the safest thing it can do. But even as the brain registers this, the heart aches for the game. Our game.
For most Canadians, hockey has provided many of the mile-markers in our lives. If you’re old enough, of course you remember Paul Henderson, possibly in black-and-white, from 1972, then Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in 1987, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Sidney Crosby in Vancouver in 2010. And that’s just Team Canada.
Everyone in NHL cities has a few hockey bookmarks.
For fans of the Vancouver Canucks, they include the three failed runs to the Stanley Cup final, Pavel Bure’s arrival in 1991, Trevor Linden’s departure and return as a player. Many Calgary Flames fans remember the two Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens, especially the win in 1989, and Edmonton Oilers fans have the dynasty, Steve Smith’s own goal, the Gretzky trade, the run out of nowhere to another final in 2006, and the arrival of Connor McDavid in 2015. And in Winnipeg there was the Jets’ departure for Phoenix in 1996, their glorious return from Atlanta in 2011, Teemu Selanne and Patrik Laine as rookies.
In many NHL cities it is like this, but in Canada it is always this way. We stop to watch, and we remember.
The game has never been better, even if the last eight years could have scarcely been worse on the ice for Canada’s seven teams, which haven’t made a Stanley Cup final since the Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in 2011.
In eight tournaments since then, Canadian teams have won a total of 10 playoff rounds, and only four years ago qualified no one for the post-season.
But then there is this season. Thursday’s announcement interrupted a playoff race for the ages out West, where the Canucks, Flames, Oilers and Jets are all in the mix.
And none of their stories have been dull or predictable. Rebuilt around Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, the Canucks are a thrill-ride to watch, and challenging for a playoff spot ahead of schedule. The Oilers have merely two of the best players in the game in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and have come farther than anyone thought in the first season under coach Dave Tippett and general manager Ken Holland. The Flames have persevered through a coaching scandal and change and, in February, the absence of Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano. And then there are the Jets, who found themselves without an NHL defence when the season began but somehow have been pushed back into playoff position by goalie Connor Hellebuyck and a band of elite forwards.
Due to proximity on the map and in the standings, Western Canada’s teams – and not just the two separated by a stretch of Alberta prairie — are again fierce rivals, unified only by the zeal of their fans and the enjoyment over the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ongoing scuffle.
The NHL has been riveting this season, again the best reality show going.
Hopefully, the show will resume in a couple or a few weeks. The NHL’s optimism was evident in its choice of words on Thursday. We all hope this is a pause, but there is no way to know for sure because we have never seen times like these.
This peculiar game – men in stockings, playing on ice and moving faster on their skates than any humans not powered by a motor or gravity – has so often lifted and thrilled us, and pulled our vast country together as it pulled fans to arenas and viewers to televisions.
Hockey does more than just entertain us. Major professional sports have always been a kind of fantasy world, a diversion or escapism, where we’re all welcome and provided a rooftop from which to bellow without shame in either great joy or frustration. At its best, they give us hope. Hockey in Canada is the exciting promise about the best of what is possible.
With that terrifying tsunami looming, we could sure use some of that hope now.
Hurry back. As soon as it is safe.