So, Melbourne just hosted its long-awaited two-night extravaganza of USA v Canada playing hockey for something called the Douglas Webber Cup, at Hisense Arena.
Big Cat got along to both games – Friday night’s 11-9 win to Canada, and tonight’s 10-9 (OT) victory to America.
Mackquist and I joined him and a bunch of our hockey friends for the Saturday night game and I think it’s fair to say we were as underwhelmed by a shoot-out victory, after a 9-9 full-time score, no less, as it’s possible for hockey fans to be.
Don’t get me wrong. This blog is not about to kick the shit out of the USA v Canada concept, or the organisers. We got pretty much what I’d expected for the $88 per ticket or whatever it was. The temporary rink was dubious but held together. It was a game featuring a handful of NHL players (including Canadian captain Kyle Quincey, a genuine Red Wing) and there was some pretty skating, and beautiful passes, and lots of goals with little puffs of artificial fire behind the goals after each score.
But as a stage to show Melbourne just how awesome my sport is, I think it fell short, although for a reason that it couldn’t really help: the game was an exhibition, played like an exhibition. And usually, in any sport, that means it’s going to suck for people who actually know and love the real thing.
I’d spent the afternoon at the MCG, watching my beloved Tigers put in a solid four quarters to see off the dangerous Adelaide Crows by more than six goals. Chloe heroically came along, and it cost me $31 for her ticket, less than half a ticket for USA v Canada. We watched more than 100 minutes of hard, tough, relentless football. Fully committed teams throwing themselves at the ball, and into one another, in pursuit of four premiership points that really mattered for each side. In the last term, with the game pretty much safe, several Tigers were clearly hobbling, carrying ankles or calf injuries, but they refused to come off, chasing and harassing and tackling and pushing, pushing, pushing until the siren mercifully blew and Richmond was in the Eight.
We sang the song long and loud.
A quick change of Tiger scarf for signed Lidstrom Red Wings jersey later, I was on my pushbike, riding to the London Tavern where a truly surreal scene greeted me. Awash with happy Richmond fans, in their traditional post-match haunt, the Tavern also found itself home to a large number of hockey jerseys. Winnipeg Jets, Red Wings, Calgary Flames, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Melbourne Jets, Rookies, and so many more. A rainbow splash of hockey colour among the more traditional Saturday evening yellow and black.
We walked in an ever-growing tide of different jerseys past Richmond station, across Punt Road and on to Hisense Arena, with every NHL team and many teams not at that level represented in the largest hockey crowd I’ve seen in Australia.
So things looked promising, right up until the players took the ice.
I’ve long held a theory that you know how good a sporting event is going to be by how desperate the organisers are, and whether anybody talks over the actual event. Tonight’s event failed both my tests. The on-site commentators were annoying and shrill and increasingly, obviously concerned by the lack of crowd atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of some boxing and mixed martial arts event I covered as a journo, with ramped-up hoopla trying to artificially raise the roof because nobody watching a mediocre event from the bleachers was about to. Interviewing some TV actor mid-game, only mercifully ended by the crowd – gasp – cheering a goal, was a major mis-step and told me that the people behind tonight’s event didn’t trust their own product. If the hockey was excellent, just let the paying customers enjoy it … right?
There is nothing better than the intense silence of a major sporting event being contested: the opening minutes of an AFL grand final when everybody is watching, desperately, for a sign of strength or weakness between the combatants. The opening salvos of a Test match in cricket. The moment in a tennis match when you know a few crucial points are going to decide a Grand Slam title and history. It can be strangely quiet but it’s because it is so gripping, so focused.
The USA-Canada game instead had huge explosive fireworks as a kind of defribulator to try and get hearts pumping. If in doubt, more flames behind the goals, and talking over the action, including increasingly desperate pleas to ‘Let’s hear some noise!’
The reason there wasn’t any noise was because the game was mildly interesting, and nothing more. Yes there were a lot of goals. Wowee. Yes, there were some fights – tellingly between the same two fighters as at the Friday night game. Melbourne fans know their sport. Even more so, Melbourne hockey fans – or Canadian Melburnians coming along out of a sense of homesickness – know their hockey.
Nineteen goals each game tells you something about the standard, at least of the defence. Plus, the refs appeared to be under orders not to call off-side or icing, which helped the attacking players no end. Sitting where we were, up in the nosebleeds, I was really struck by how claustrophobically small a NHL-sized rink is. With a genuine NHL-standard defence guarding the goal, plus an elite goalie, the miracle is that anybody can score at all.
In fact, you know what? Earlier this week, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins went at it in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals. This was a match that mattered, big time. This was when hockey players cared.
After the teams were 3-3 at the final buzzer, they went for the best part of three overtime periods without managing to score a goal. Almost an entire game, on top of the game already played; exhausted, out on their feet, and out of fresh attacking ideas. Yet never conceding, not giving anything up. The winner, when it came, was a cruel deflection of several legs, to beat the keeper.
It would be fair to say that at Hisense Arena, we saw nothing like that.
Which is fine. It’s an exhibition. Guys like Quincey would be under stern orders from head office not to risk their multi-million contracts with a genuine injury playing such a novelty event in Melbourne, Australia. I get that.
Watching a golf-cart or something dragging a wet net impersonating a Zamboni, I would have been nervous about my players too, if I was a NHL or AHL manager. As it was, former Melbourne Ice coach ‘Jaffa’ Wilson was among the American coaches, urging on players who were probably more interested in how the overpriced merchandise was selling than whether the Canadians had gotten one back. Plus, you know, one player handed a female friend of mine a puck with his name, jersey number and mobile number on it. Which impressed her a lot until she realised he had a box of the pucks and was using them for some kind of shotgun pellet pick-up-chicks approach. While applauding such brazen chutzpah, it would suggest to me that the Australian trip is a lot closer to an end-of-season trip for such players than a driven quest for Douglas Webber glory.
In the end, feeling extremely unmoved by the whole spectacle, I came to a realization that actually pleased me. I realized that what makes great sport is not just the rules of a game, or the location, or the shape of the ball or puck or bat or stick or mallet or whatever. Whether tennis or boxing or footy or cricket or rugby or European handball or hockey, there is one truth: what makes great sport is passion. It’s the participants’ commitment and courage and complete dedication to the task at hand. That is what can elevate sport to something magical and worthy. This is what I love.
Moreso, when that is missing, it cannot be faked. In a game like tonight’s – ostensibly, on paper, a rematch of the last Olympic gold medal match (LOL) – when it is an exhibition, and nothing more, it cannot rise to great heights. Defenders will hold off, sometimes very deliberately and at some effort, on finishing their checks. Players who in a NHL game would find depths of effort to skate when exhausted, to reach a puck that they really shouldn’t be able to fight for, won’t.
And so the level drops, and becomes pedestrian.
It’s okay. It is what it is.
But nothing more.
No amount of shrieking commentators demanding we yell and scream and stand up or get wildly fakely excited about a shoot-out (that they didn’t actually know how to run, and then couldn’t count to realize that America had won) … none of this will make an exhibition game find heights.
And so our money was spent on exactly that, and we wandered into the night, having enjoyed seeing some actual NHL stars, even if they were just doodling around. And enjoying seeing so many hockey fans and Canadians and Americans and Australian hockey fans in the one place, even if we were tepidly excited for the evening. And so we decided against spending $30 for a souvenir puck. And so we headed off, wishing Melbourne Ice was in town so we could drift to the Icehouse tomorrow and watch some real hockey. Watch players who cared.
Luckily I’m on the ice at 10 pm tomorrow, in Night Owl action. And that’s a good thing.
It’s just like porn versus sex: why watch people faking it, when you can do it for real? Amen.