CHAPTER 1: THE STORY
BEHIND THE BOOK
Saving the Game explores the most burning issues of professional hockey. It is not a condemnation of the sport; in fact, I believe (and this book will argue) that hockey is the greatest sport in the world. Yet not long ago the game was in a place where many observers would have said that such a claim was so untenable as to be absurd. Since that time, some important positive steps have been taken, and appreciated by passionate followers of the sport. But ultimately, even those who nurtured the improvements know that challenges remain, and more work’s to be done to raise the game, in all aspects, to where everyone devoted to it wants it to be. “It’s a process,” NHL VP and chief of hockey operations Colin Campbell said. “It’s still a work in progress,” said the lead player on the reform committee, Detroit’s Brendan Shanahan. This isn’t a book about how to rebound from the lockout, or adding a little excitement to the game for 2005–06 – by the time the book comes out, my assumption is that those issues will have successfully been resolved. This is a book about the most important issues in the sport at a deeper level, and over a longer term. It’s a book about raising the game to heights that those who believe in it, believe it can climb.
How this book came to be written is a simple story to tell but, in certain parts, impossible for any words to adequately describe.
From the time I was old enough to skate, my life had been spent in the game of hockey. As with many people involved with the sport, some of the issues now or recently pre-eminent are not new to me but had existed in a vague form in the back of my mind for a while. A little more than two years ago, in September 2003, they had been forced to the forefront by what was the most difficult phone call I had ever had to make. Having spent my life in the game, having dreamed and worked for twenty years to try to make it in the National Hockey League, having “paid my dues” and persisted through three frustrating years as a pro waiting for a real opportunity, I finally had one – from the team I had always idolized and dreamt of playing for as a kid. It was a chance to start with their top farm team, and try to earn a promotion up. Instead, on that day in September, I had to tell the Montreal Canadiens I couldn’t accept their offer. I was 26 years old, I had missed the last three-quarters of the previous season with a concussion, and I knew that this opportunity was in all probability my last, best chance. They asked me if I was sure. With my body trembling, my mind filled with disappointment and frustration, and my voice breaking, I said that I was. I didn’t have a choice – my concussion had dragged into the dreaded post-concussion syndrome, where after each period of feeling better came renewed periods of feeling worse again, and no predictable end in sight. The doctors wouldn’t clear me to play, and the reality that was so hard to accept was that I couldn’t anyway.
Over the next few weeks, a lot of things ran through my head as I watched from the sidelines as training camps began, and then the season, and for the first time in twenty-three years – since I was 3 years old – I was not playing hockey. I thought about why I couldn’t play when I wanted to so badly, about my injury and how it occurred, about other players in similar situations, about timing and opportunity, and a hundred other things . . . thoughts about my career, about the sport, about the industry. At the end of those few weeks, sometime in October, I decided to write down some of the thoughts churning in my mind. Less than an hour later, I had a list of issues in hockey that was nine pages long. Most of these had existed in public debate for a while already; yet seeing a list of them all together on paper, I was shocked by the scope and magnitude of the problems. They encompassed virtually every aspect of hockey, penetrated the deepest levels, and included multiple items of major significance. That exercise was a revelatory experience; it signalled that the game was in serious trouble, far beyond the day-to-day problems of every sport or every aspect of society. I intended, when I felt well enough, to try to organize these thoughts into a useful form.
As time went on, watching my first ever hockey season as a spectator rather than as a player gave me a new perspective on the game and some of these issues. Whether sitting with fans in the stands at live games, or listening to commentators on TV, or reading what the journalists were saying in the newspapers about “the issues in hockey,” I could see hockey as people outside the industry saw it. At the same time, my experience of hockey from “the inside” as a long and recent participant was still fresh in my mind, enabling me to compare the two perspectives, and combine outside observation with inside understanding into a broad and balanced point of view. Over those months, the thoughts coalesced into the outline of a book. I talked to friends who had recently retired and others who were playing at the time about writing this book when I was able, and publishing it under the title “On Thin Ice.”
But on March 8, 2004, the ice was shattered. That night, I sat down in front of the TV to watch a hockey game. My brother Steve, a rookie forward with the high-flying Colorado Avalanche, was facing off against the Vancouver Canucks at GM Place in Vancouver. However, this wasn’t a hockey game I could enjoy; instead, I had to watch in apprehension. Certain Canucks had been promising revenge against Steve for three weeks since he had inadvertently injured one of their players with a check in a prior game that was ruled, reviewed, and confirmed clean. I had heard, along with the rest of the public – repeated over and over on radio stations, television, and newspapers across Canada and the United States – the outrageous threats: “There’s definitely a bounty on his head,” the Canucks’ Brad May had said; “No way that punk will be in their lineup in March [when they would come to Vancouver],” threatened the 245-pound Todd Bertuzzi.
That night was to be the last meeting of the season between the two teams, and I was nervous as I sat watching the TV. Meanwhile, several other members of Steve’s family who reside in British Columbia were watching at the arena in Vancouver, including Steve’s cousin Mikey, a youngster carrying a Canucks pennant. Late in the first period, Steve scored a goal that set an NHL record for the fastest four goals by one team in NHL history. However, with the score between the teams quickly becoming lopsided, I was too tense to celebrate. “Situations will present themselves,” Bertuzzi had told the media earlier; retaliation would “absolutely” be had. A little more than eight minutes into the third period, I saw Bertuzzi skate over and up behind Steve. The play went all the way down the ice and back, and there was Steve again, with Bertuzzi still strangely right behind him, following him. What was he going to do? The telecast panned away, following the puck, while I worried what might be about to happen. “Steve, watch out!” I exclaimed futilely from 2,700 miles away. The camera came back; Steve was lying face down on the ice, motionless, in a pool of blood. The commentators fell silent; trainers and medical personnel surrounded him; there was no movement or response. Was he paralyzed? Was he dead? The horrific scene continued for what seemed like an eternity, interrupted by a commercial for the National Hockey League, during which I ran to phone relatives at the game.
Then – caught by a camera that had followed them – the television replay showed what had happened to Steve. I saw in terrifying slow motion the disturbing images that have now been permanently etched into the minds of millions of hockey fans. I was in complete and utter disbelief. The images collided with and shattered my ideas of what was possible in hockey and in life. The ground gave way beneath me. Of the family at the arena, my uncle Jim, a doctor, went down to ice level; others were stuck in the stands, devastated. Mikey, bawling, tore his Canucks pennant to shreds. Paramedics ran out onto the ice; Steve, still immobile, was lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled off the ice. Then he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Back at home, I anxiously awaited word by the phone. Then it came: Steve was alive, but his neck was broken. He also had a serious concussion and other injuries. Further tests were needed to determine whether the neck injury would threaten his life or mobility. In anxious agony, I waited and prayed. It was an agony that only gradually and partly subsided. The ensuing days, full of fear and despair, were just the beginning of an ordeal still ongoing in many forms.
In the meantime, the public reaction toward the incident was immediate and overwhelming. Several Vancouver fans phoned the police from GM Place to demand Bertuzzi be arrested. The following day, the film of the incident was played over and over, literally around the world, to stunned outrage. Headlines screamed of a dark day in hockey history. Intense criticism stormed around the Canucks, the league, and the sport itself. There had been plenty of talk around troubling issues in hockey for some time, but now it was no longer a question whether hockey had major problems, but what all they included, what to do about them, and in some circles, whether anyone should further bother about a sport in which something so contemptible could occur. The unfathomable assault – coming with widespread public disaffection with the quality of play already there in the background, and a potential lockout looming overhead – plunged the game into the cold water of crisis. A widespread conviction of the need for major reform in hockey erupted, unprecedented in intensity and reach in the history of the game or, to my knowledge, of any major sport.
But throughout all this passionate discussion, a fully accurate and deep understanding of both the etiology of problems and the larger issues – of the living breathing nature of them as they exist in the game, and how they feed into each other in corrupting it – seemed to remain agonizingly elusive. Acclaimed responses, consensus solutions to the problems were certainly still nowhere to be found.
For quite some time, our family was preoccupied with Steve’s health, and with the aftereffects of what happened. When I finally got around several weeks later to thinking about the sport on whose ice the incident occurred and rejoining the now subsequently enormous attention, consideration, and controversy around its issues, it was clear that even deeper questions and more intense scrutiny were warranted than I had applied so far. This process that began with shattered ice ended with a crystallization in my mind. Ideas I had prior were focused, given intense personal importance, and a sense of urgency beyond the necessity they already had. Others were forever altered. My perspective had changed.
Just months later, what was for many the third and final strike came against a game gone wrong: the cancellation of the 2004–05 season over a financial dispute between the league and the Players’ Association. Shut-out fans were angry with those involved, and disillusioned with the game itself. Polls said many were turning away, once and for all. But in my case, it had a different effect: it reinforced me in joining those others who hoped that the absence was more sabbatical than mere suspension, and that ultimately from all the pain, something larger, more valuable, and lasting could be gained.
As the league resumed for 2005–06, a beginning to this was indeed on offer through some changes made to try to win back fans – and savoured by them it was – abetted by a healthy marketing blitz, and alongside pure relief at the game’s return. Yet only the extremely naive, or someone not being honest, would say there isn’t still a lot of work to do.
To many long-time but late-suffering passionate supporters like myself, professional hockey is like a legendary animal of wondrous and wide-ranging appeal that in recent years was hunted, endangered, and driven into a kind of captivity. But yet we remembered what this game was like in nature, we saw what its essence tells us it can be, if nurtured and freed. To us, that quest is not only something important but something sacred. As much as the game was engulfed in crisis, and beset by problems, as popular as predictions of the game’s demise had been, I believed in the game implicitly, and still do. I am sustained by a vision of the game: unleashed from all of its chains, soaring above the world of sports, and the world of entertainment. It is not a vision born of flight of fancy or hallucinogenic drugs, it is born of first-hand experience and memory of great moments in the sport, of an intimate knowledge of its inherent potential, and ideas about how to set it free. I firmly believe that there are courses of action that will do more than bring the game back from the brink, but bring it new glory, unprecedented prosperity, while protecting the integrity of the game. Now more than ever, supporters of the game thirst for them.
In response to that common objective, what emerged is the present work, which hopes to help contribute in a meaningful and positive way to that undertaking – enjoining the common quest for answers and understanding behind them. This book is a roadmap of my vision.
Therefore, if it isn’t already, let me now make clear that this book is not about the Bertuzzi incident, or our family’s nightmare experiencing it: I have not been entrusted by the family to act as a spokesperson on that matter, and this book does not purpose to do so. Nor is this book a story of my own injury, career, or life in the game, which in themselves are certainly of little interest or consequence. Nevertheless, in writing about the game, these experiences are significant to and cannot and should not be deleted from my frame of view, nor from realities of what has happened, and happened in the game. This is a book personally informed, but generally directed. Also, let me say that this is not an exhaustive account of every issue in every form, level, age, place, and aspect of hockey in the world. As one current player and future Hall-of-Famer told me during my search for answers, “that would be an encyclopedia.” Instead, this book is principally about the professional game in North America, its kingpin the NHL, and its most major and most pressing issues, plus whatever other matters the pursuit of those bring in tow.
In contemplating these, my objective isn’t to criticize the game or to vilify anyone – more than enough of that has been done elsewhere, and ultimately it usually accomplishes nothing except to ostracize reform from reality, polarize incongruent points of view, and paralyze constructive action. It is always easier to destroy than to build, to assail than to understand, but nobody gains from it, much less the game. On the other hand, I am not trying to defend or exonerate the game either. Where there are real problems – and here there unquestionably are – attitudes of denial and defensiveness serve nothing other than to hasten and deepen deterioration, continually invite more criticism, and guarantee the worst possible result. There is a third option: and that is to openly and honestly appraise, seek to thoroughly understand, praise progress where it has occurred, and strive to correct deficiencies where they remain. We can be sick and tired of criticism without ignoring issues and abandoning the search for answers. Following this third way leads us on a journey inside the game, into its issues, exposing their causes, explaining their inner workings, getting to the heart of things, and seeing what answers we find – answers for raising our game. In the process, we face certain issues gripping all professional sports, and sports’ role in society, and hope that our model for hockey matters to the reckoning and raising of those games (and perhaps some other institutions) too.
From the point of view of this book, these are my only goals. If I had any axe to grind, it has been buried: I no longer have any vested stake in the game to espouse. And I have no “sour grapes” toward the game about my career either – injuries unfortunately happen, and they happened to happen to me. Likewise, if one supposes I am writing in the interests of my brothers, they will quickly see that’s not what this is about. And not something they asked or may have necessarily wanted me to do. I am striving and attempting to write solely in the interests of the game – what’s right, what’s good for the sport, for everyone involved, without intended partiality or prejudice. If such a point of view sounds strange, maybe it’s because, sadly, it isn’t taken enough. Many of the suggestions in this book I expect people will like, or come to like. Somewhere, there may be a suggestion they don’t. As they say, “you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” I hope that even then, people will still respect the hard work, hard experiences, and dedication behind this, and the spirit it was written in of trying to serve the game. Indeed, during the lockout, there was frequent mention of “the good of the game.” Coming off it, with old challenges still needing work beyond positive steps taken, and new challenges added on top, the game truly needs that attitude – on the part of as many as possible – to meet its goals in the mid- to long-term. It needs us to evaluate things not from where we stand in relation to the game, but stepping inside the shoes of the game itself.
And I also hope that even though of course each person comes to the game armed with their own strong conceptions and opinions, that in reading this book they will find room to temporarily put them on hold, read with an open mind, consider the arguments, and then decide anew. This book – read in these ways – will challenge people to question some long-held assumptions, just as uninvited experiences in the game forced me to do the same.
I hope this journey sounds engaging. I can promise this is no dull academic treatise, not another tiresome philosophical musing about issues but without answers, but rather a to-the-point quest for solutions, built for application. The end is not curiosity, but conviction. Along the way, I hope there are some interesting glimpses into the world of professional hockey and sports, and some ideas from them that are relevant outside – the two unique and surviving treasures of a former player. I have tried to write this book for the long-time fan or player, for the casual observer, and for everyone in between – for anyone who cares or wonders about hockey. And I hope you enjoy it.
But ultimately, in the eyes of the author, the success of this book will not be judged by whether some admire it, or how many copies it sells, or the accuracy of its findings, but how it is reacted to; in other words – on the ice. Ideas are but seeds in the mind; to bear fruit they require limbs. I hope that the people with the power to decide the future of the game do what needs to be done. And that their objective is the most possible, not the least necessary; after all, the game has more to potentially gain than to lose from where it stands on the scale of its ability. I hope that players use the courage they display on the ice to stand up off the ice for what is right, in spite of various potential pressures at times. I hope that as many people as possible respond by thinking of what they can do, rather than purely wondering what someone else will do. And better yet, that they not just ask but act. Hockey is a great sport, a special sport, that could and should be the greatest game of all. This book is written in service of that game and all who love it, in the hope that it is of some benefit to the common goal, a most worthwhile goal, of raising our game.