The owner of the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, Ed Snider, a prominent supporter of John McCain’s presidential campaign, arranged for Sarah Palin to drop the ceremonial first puck at the Flyers’ home opener tonight, providing yet another reason for me to despise the Flyers.
I started watching the Rangers in 1973, discovering them while flipping through cable stations one rainy Saturday afternoon. 1973 has been on my mind this week: it happens to be the year to which Detective Sam Tyler is transported in the new series Life on Mars, which premiered last Thursday and which has been the subject of a couple of posts over at ahistoryofnewyork.com. But 1973 was also the year that the Philadelphia Flyers reinvented themselves as the “Broad Street Bullies” and went from a laughable expansion team to Stanley Cup champions in only seven years. The way they did it — through intimidation, brawling, and racking up penalty minutes — seemed to me a disgrace. What drew me to ice hockey was the grace and flow of the game when played by teams like the Montreal Canadians, whose nickname was “the Flying Frenchmen” or players like the Rangers’ “GAG” (“Goal-a-Game”) line of Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, and Vic Hadfield, who were going strong when I started watching the team. During that period the best hockey in the world might have been played in the Soviet Union: the great Soviet teams won nine gold medals at the Olympics from 1956-1988 (with the “Unified Team” of former Soviet nations winning another in 1992).
Professional hockey has always been fourth in popularity among the major U.S. team sports, after football, baseball, and basketball. Back then it’s because it was perceived as the Canadian national game, and the ranks of the National Hockey League were almost exclusively filled with Canadians. The 1973-74 Rangers were exclusively Canadian (one player, Walt Tkaczuk, was born in Germany but grew up South Porcupine, Ontario). Cultural diversity in the NHL meant having French Canadians and English Canadians on the same team. The fact that sports highlight shows tended to emphasize the on-ice fighting rather than the goals added to the air of provinciality that surrounded the sport.
And then hockey in North America began to change with an influx of U.S. players and players from Europe and Russia. As part of the first influx of European players into the NHL, two Swedish players, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, joined the Rangers in 1978 after starring for a couple of years in the now-defunct World Hockey Association. Later, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, the team was mostly Canadian but had two Americans, four Russians, and a Finn. This year’s edition of the Rangers features 8 Canadians, 7 Americans (including two from Alaska, named Gomez and Dubinsky), 3 Swedes, 2 Czechs, 1 Russian, 1 Ukrainian, and 1 Finn. The Europeans and Russians have changed the game, made it more about skill and less about fighting and grinding physical play. Hockey writers regularly point to the Olympic tournament (which has features the larger ice surface used in international play, which favors skilled players because of the increased skating room) as the time when the best hockey in the world is played. Hockey is still not racially diverse, but it is the most cosmopolitan of the major team sports in North America. And the NHL is reaching out to European fans. This year the Rangers opened their NHL season in Prague, winning two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning that count in the regular-season standings.
Palin, however, makes hockey into a bush-league sport, where “bush-league” denotes a perspective that “is anti-urban and anti-modern, provincial and nationalistic,” as I put it a couple of years ago in a post here called “Bush-League America.” George W. Bush adopts a bush-league perspective as a badge of honor, and he invokes baseball as if it were a modern-day link to some authentic, pre-urban American past, where fathers and sons played catch, and life was simpler. His convention biography four years ago was called “The Pitch,” referring to the ceremonial first pitch that he threw at Yankee Stadium in the aftermath of 9/11.
Amazingly, Sarah Palin is more bush-league than Bush, and her self-description of herself as a “hockey mom” invokes hockey as if it, like Bush’s version of baseball, were “anti-urban and anti-modern, provincial and nationalistic.”
Not all Alaskans share that view, however. High-scoring center Scott Gomez, who hails from Alaska, plays hockey with European style and skill, and prides himself on being a Manhattanite, having bought a condo in Chelsea. While team members in the past often lived in the relative quiet of Westchester, quite a number of this year’s Rangers apparently live in Manhattan.
Unlike Gomez and fellow Alaskan Ranger Brandon Dubinsky, Palin’s son, Track, seems to have played a brand of hockey that was reminiscent of the old Broad Street Bullies. In a New York Times article about the Palins and hockey, a family friend was quoted as saying, “Track has a temper so sometimes you’d only see him half the game. Get there late and he’d already be out.” Future Palin son-in-law Levi Johnston seems to take a similar approach to the game, but apparently he’s less talented than Track was. According to the Times, “Mr. Johnston was considered a very good player, though not as good
as Mr. Palin. He was tough, playing the last game of Wasilla High
School’s season in February, while a junior, with a cracked tibia. . . . In the end, hockey did not work for Levi Johnston. His grades slipped, he left school and he quit playing altogether.”
So tonight Palin dropped that ceremonial first puck at the Wachovia Center. Many of the fans there booed her. Later she said, “As a proud hockey mom and an avid NHL fan, I was thrilled to be here. I enjoyed joining the Philadelphia Flyers to drop the puck
at tonight’s game. I wish them the best of luck this season.”
The good luck charm didn’t work. Five minutes into the game, the Rangers had jumped out to a 2-0 lead, which ballooned to 4-0 by the end of the first period. Perhaps due to fatigue (having played their home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks last night), the Rangers couldn’t keep up the pace or the pressure of the first period, and the Flyers made a game of it, trailing by only a goal late in the third period. The Rangers, however, hung on for the victory.
Rangers commentator Al Trautwig started a heated discussion on MSG’s post-game show (which featured former Ranger Ron Duguay, looking disturbingly like he could be part of the cast of Life on Mars; former New Jersey Devil Ken Daneyko; and former Islander Butch Goring) by echoing Larry Brooks of the New York Post: “What happened tonight before the Ranger-Philadelphia game was an absolute disgrace . . .”
Knowing where this was going, Duguay asked, “What happened, Al?” Trautwig continued, as a clip rolled, “They brought out vice-presidential candidate . . . ” but was interrupted by Duguay saying, “Oh, look how hot she looks!” with Daneyko chiming in, “I’m a Sarah Palin fan!”
“Stop it, stop it! ” Trautwig continued, “Just hear me out. What are two things that kill a good party? This is disrespectful to the Flyer fans and to the National Hockey League. Religion and politics. Let’s say every fan who walks into this building has stated their love for the Philadelphia Flyers. Let’s say it’s 50-50, and the election is close. Now, they’re presented with a vice-presidential candidate — an almost endorsement by the Flyers — and some are uncomfortable with that. Why should they be put in that position? Why not just put rabbis and priests at the door and say come over to our side?”
Daneyko replied, overlooking the fact that Flyers’ owner Ed Snider is an avowed McCain booster: “The Philadelphia Flyers have that right, and I think people in this country are more intelligent than that to worry about whether Sarah Palin is dropping the puck or not. She’s a celebrity nowadays. I know it’s got nothing to do with the race, but it’s up to the, you know . . .”
“But why would you want to do that,” Trautwig asked, “to put a negative mojo into let’s say half the arena, a third of the arena. Why would you want to do that on opening night?
“But Al,” said Duguay, “All this is about entertainement. Hockey’s entertainment. She’s entertainment . . . ” All too true, it seems, if descriptions of her recent appearances — complete with smoke and lights, if not smoke and mirrors — are any indication.
“To Democrat fans,” Trautwig insisted, “she’s not entertainment. ” Goring, looking uncomfortable up to this point, finally says, “Al, I’m with you. Hockey’s hockey. You don’t bring politics. You don’t bring religion . . .”
“She’s a hockey mom,” Daneyko interrupted. “It may sound simple, but I like that.”
But, Duguay persisted, “How many times did we hear “hockey” this year in the last two months? Hockey, hockey, hockey. With Sarah Palin. That’s a good thing.”
I’m not so sure, Ron. Under commissioner Gary Bettman, hockey has worked hard to present itself as major-league rather than bush-league, to dissociate itself from the casual fan’s belief that the game was all about the on-ice fighting.
Sarah Palin makes hockey seem bush-league. And that’s bad for the game. She’s already made John McCain seem bush-league, and if the current polls are any indication, that’s going to be bad for him as well.
UPDATE: Apparently someone out there agrees with me: http://www.flickr.com/photos/15937237@N00/2930275180/