"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 May 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.

End of Regulation



It's in the nature of things

that most sports offer

themselves as metaphors for

life's more serious conceits.

The exception that proves the

rule is hockey. Sadly, the best

that can be said of this

decadent diversion is this tired

old joke: I went to a fight and

a hockey game broke out.


Just so, up until recently,

hockey had been enjoying a

tremendous resurgence in

popularity. Through the '90s,

the NHL cultivated numerous new

franchises in bizarre Sunbelt

locations, orchestrated lucrative

television deals, and

garnered rave reviews from the

same American taste-makers who

brought back cigars and girlie

mags. In spite of the resurgence

of he-man culture, though, it

looks like hockey's winning

streak is over. Fox TV, reading

between the blue lines and

seeing a lot of red, announced

that it's happily giving up

broadcast rights to NHL games

next year, due to a whopping 30

percent drop in viewership - and

the feeling that When Animals

Attack was somewhat more to the



It's hard to believe so many

people watched the game just to

see Wayne Gretzky, who

coincidentally announced his

retirement, effective

immediately. The fact that no

one seemed to care was proof

enough that the game lost its

lustre before it lost its

greatest player. Although

the Great One was a

much bigger standout in his

sport than Michael Jordan or

John Elway ever were in theirs,

his departure registered just

above "spider fart" on the scale

of media hyperbole.



This being an off year for that

angry-white-male movement we

sometimes hear about (usually

around election time), hockey's

retreat across the 49th parallel

is causing little outcry. Though

nobody ever came out and said

it, the caucasiatude endemic to

the game could never have been

far from the minds of hockey

promoters, who were hoping to

tap into that white-trash

revival that has also recently

stopped sweeping the nation. But

for armchair sports fans who are

comfortable with the idea that

black athletes dominate every

other major professional sport

besides Ping-Pong, it had to be

a disappointment when icemen in

the penalty box would doff those

helmets to reveal neither

Barkley bullets nor Rodman

perruques but just a bunch of

Canadians with hockey hair.


Thank the gods of fashion that

didn't happen before hockey had

arrived as a pop-culture meme.

Even before the sport's brief

stint in the prime-time

limelight, inner city kids were

buying those dope jerseys,

despite the fact that "hockey"

sounds like nothing more than

the long-discarded epithet

"honky" pronounced with the

nasal tones of long-discarded

rapper Tone Loc. It took Chris

Rock to summarize what we've all

been thinking for so long: It's

not exactly a riddle why blacks

don't play hockey: No doors, 12

angry white men with sticks ...

it's kind of a no-brainer.



If whitey can't blame African

America for the decline of

hockey, then there's always the

good old standby: women. Thanks

to meddlesome coaches and

athletic directors everywhere,

the argument goes, Title IX has

ensured that every last sport

will be sissified to the point

where girls are allowed to play

it. That's got to be

disconcerting for beer-drinking

MacKenzies who still consider

the modeling of swimsuits in

Sports Illustrated to be the

height of women's athletic

achievement. (Although that fine

tradition continues, we can't

help feeling a little dirty when

we gaze so brazenly upon the

obscene price of swimwear these



But considering the way

professional basketball's

machismo has withstood the

sisterly onslaught of Chamique

Holdsclaw, Yolanda Griffith, and

the rest of the WNBA's

hard-driving divas, it seems a

little off the mark to blame

women for the failure of hockey.

The most likely culprits are the

sport's own purists, who

successfully resisted such

viewer-friendly innovations as

Fox's glowing puck. Sure,

dyed-in-the-bull football and

baseball fans have raised the

occasional objections to

in-the-grasp rules or lights at

Wrigley Field, but they got

about as much attention as TV

Turn-off Week. Only in hockey

could the sporting equivalent of

the Academie Francaise actually

prevent efforts to make the

sport more acceptable to

nonfans. This made it especially

disconcerting for

Johnny-come-lately hockey

watchers, who tuned in to

Gretzky games figuring that with

the Great One's huge rep, he

must have been a hell of a

puncher. Of course real

hockey fans respect the game's

unwritten fight rule, which

states that only "enforcers"

- not team leaders - could be

subjected to icebound fisticuffs.

Which may prove that you

can only go broke pleasing real

hockey fans.



On the other hand, hockey's got

a lot of competition when it

comes to pugilist repasts. In

our desensitized culture, where

everyone likes to watch, the

stakes have gotten pretty high

for real-time bone-crushing and

bloodshed, and a little

jersey-grabbing tussle here and

there simply won't do. With

continuous coverage of new

extreme sports such as "high

school blood bath," guys with

weapons no more sophisticated

than blunt sticks and knuckle

sandwiches are pretty boring



Recently, it's become

fashionable to blame videogames

for this inflation in our

appetite for violence, but this

explanation is what experts

technically call

"ass backwards." Oddly, most

televised sports today look like

awesome Nintendo titles,

inverting the traditional

relationship and making the

sports simulations of the games.

With heavy metal soundtracks,

interstitial animation, and a

constant barrage of big-screen

boosterism, pro hockey has

recently turned into a hybrid of

punk rock paganism and WWF

bravado, blurring the lines

among game, sport, and event

just the way a GameBoy does.

Perhaps the cruelest cut, then,

for died-in-the-breezers hockey

enthusiasts is that EA Sports'

NHL 99 - widely thought to be

one of the finest sports sims of

any kind - registered somewhere

below Solitaire on the sales

charts for videogames last year.


In spite of all the specious

speculation lately about the

regressive relationship between

media and reality, the bean

counters at Fox know it's really

very simple. We get exactly what

we want, and violence happens

because we want to see it

happen. No, the scariest thing

about hockey's slow return to

hyperborean obscurity is the

possibility that it was too

refined for our tastes. Now

that's a slap shot to the five

hole, morally speaking.

courtesy of E. L. Skinner



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