SUN Hockey Pool

Day the magic died

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 7:55 AM ET

I don't remember exactly when it happened for me, but somewhere between adolescence and marriage I experienced a rude awakening about the game I loved.

Call it a loss of innocence, if you will. Or maybe it's just part of growing up.

I took my hockey very seriously back in the day, believing with all my heart in the magic and the ghosts of my favourite team, and the old Boston train station in which they played.

From Bobby Orr to Terry O'Reilly to Cam Neely, it was all about the Bruins and their dogged pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

And when Winnipeg joined the NHL, I was in sheer heaven once or twice a year, when Boston came to town.

That changed one day -- or maybe it was gradually -- when I began to realize my team wasn't necessarily devoted to winning the Cup.

Oh, the players were trying, no question about that. But at a higher level, up in the boardroom, I discovered the Bruins were simply another business, being run to make money -- even at the expense of winning.

When that happens, you become jaded, and experience a disconnection from the game.

You might continue to follow it, because there's still something about watching highly skilled athletes in competition, but it's not quite the same.

Your heart's not in it.

What the NHL and its players have done this season, clearing not only the benches, but entire arenas, in a brawl over money, is going to make instant cynics out of a generation of hockey fans.

They've taken the magic away, and dragged the kid in all of us kicking and screaming into the boardroom.

And we won't soon forget what we've seen up there.

Suits instead of uniforms, spread sheets instead of a scoring race, talk of "linkage" and "salary drags" and "system deflators" -- and not a single mention of goals, assists or all-stars.

There isn't a fan out there who'll ever look at the game the same way again.

So who's to blame?

Everybody.

I spoke to five Manitoba-born NHL players yesterday, and I can't say any of them came across as greedy.

Mostly lower-level players, they wouldn't know a multi-million-dollar salary if it butt-ended them in the face.

"Before I was anything, I was a fan," Neepawa's Shane Hnidy, a defenceman with Nashville, said. "This is our life. Since I've been five years old I've been playing hockey. And now that's been taken away from me. So I don't feel good."

And you can't help but feel bad for him, since he'd just begun to establish himself as an everyday defenceman.

You feel for Winnipeg's Mike Leclerc, too, coming off a horrible knee injury that limited him to 10 games with Anaheim last year. He needed another year of inactivity like a hole in his stick.

Fellow Winnipegger James Patrick has probably seen his last chance at a Stanley Cup disappear. At 41, the classy Buffalo defenceman has likely played his last game.

But all these players have been swept up in this ugly dispute by a union leadership that won't take its blinders off.

And don't try defending the owners, either. Not until the really rich ones start sharing their revenue for the good of the league as a whole.

No, these two deserve each other. Because they're both out of touch with the real world.

Well, they're about to get back in touch.

They've taught us a lesson about business. Now they're going to learn one about fans.


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