This is going to be a short hockey column, because in early 2014 I downgraded our cable package to basic. This has saved us money. How much money? A fair amount of money, actually. Fifty dollars a month, over two and a half years, with a brief upgrade to normal cable so I could watch the hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics, then back again—almost fifteen hundred dollars, I’d say. But it’s not like we have that money. It’s not like we can look at it. We spent the money on other things. It’s gone.
I figured at the time that if I really wanted to watch a game I could do it at a bar. Buying beers would cut into our cable savings, but on the other hand it would get me out of the house. And two years ago, when the Rangers went all the way to the Finals before getting crushed by Los Angeles, there was plenty of hockey on at the bars; last year, when they went to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to speedier Tampa Bay, there was also lots of hockey. But this year, with the boring Rangers deservedly losing in the first round to a fast and determined Pittsburgh team, there is no hockey at the bars. Bars would rather show just about anything than hockey. They would rather show two Spanish teams playing soccer. They would rather show those cool violent nature documentaries. They would rather show baseball!
But, people say, in addition to your fifteen hundred dollars, you must have gotten a lot more reading done, and writing, and apartment cleaning, because you weren’t sitting around in the evenings watching TV, right? Wrong. I didn’t say I was a saint. We have (access to) online subscriptions to HBO and Showtime and FX Networks. We stream a ton of television. And when there’s a hockey game I really really want to watch, I do: but on my wife’s iPad mini. I can’t beam it to our TV, because the image doesn’t keep up. It’s constantly freezing. There’s too much data in a hockey game. So I’m stuck watching on an 8-inch screen. It’s not ideal.
So did I do the wrong thing? Should I have kept my cable? I don’t know. What’s done is done. But while I was missing out, hockey was improving.
Is it just me or are the Stanley Cup finalists, the Sharks and the Penguins, uncommonly porous on defense? It doesn’t seem to matter. The Blues and Capitals looked like more traditional Stanley Cup teams, with big tough defensemen and “power forwards” and lots of grit. Where are they now? They are sitting home watching the finals on television. I hope they have cable.
The only thing that’s been able to stop high-flying offenses this playoff season has been the NHL’s new instant replay. The league had watched other sports ruin themselves with long Talmudic dissections of frame-by-frame tape, and it wanted in! This postseason has seen the debut of special cameras on the blue lines, where the offensive zone begins; coaches are allowed to challenge plays that they think were off-side even if the referees on the ice didn’t see it that way. And lo and behold, the coaches keep being right. Everything is off-side! It turns out that in trying to hurry into the zone, off-puck players have been lifting their back skates, the one that was keeping them on-side, a tiny bit off the ice, putting them into the zone a micro-second ahead of the puck. It makes you wonder what else was off-side. Was Bobby Orr off-side when he scored his famous flying overtime goal to win the 1970 Stanley Cup Finals? Was Paul Henderson off-side against the Soviets? What about Mike Eruzione? Was the Miracle on Ice, and Eruzione’s subsequent lifetime career as a motivational speaker, founded on an off-side? Given the broad sweep of American history, it would certainly make sense if it were so.
Still, the instant replay delays can only louse up the game so much. The speed of these teams right now is something to behold. I want to say that the emphasis on speed and scoring is a novelty in the NHL, built on the template of the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent dominance and the post-lockout rules changes. But Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier’s Edmonton Oilers won five Stanley Cups in seven years in the late 1980s with speed and scoring. It’s probably more true to say that these things go in cycles, and even within those cycles there can be counter-cycles. The past seven Cups have been won by two fast, finesse teams (Pittsburgh and the Blackhawks) and two big, mean teams (the Bruins and Los Angeles). In the current matchup, Pittsburgh is all speed and skill; the Sharks have size but play small, as epitomized by Joe Thornton, a centerman with the build of a power forward but the skills and psyche of a delicate playmaker. Thornton was once the captain of the Bruins but got run out of town for being soft; he got his cheekbone broken by Eric Lindros, and the fans could not forgive him. He remained soft in San Jose and was stripped of his captaincy. But the NHL has finally caught up with Thornton’s skill game. Is it more fun to see a 220-pound man on skates punch another 220-pound man in the skull, or that same man (Joe Thornton) slip the puck daintily through the legs of a helpless defenseman and then make a perfect cross-ice pass? For reasons both ethical and aesthetic, the answer is the latter. (For his part Lindros, a great player with the same size and skill level as Thornton but more of a mean streak, had his career cut short by concussions.) Thornton is not fast, but he is a brilliant playmaker, one of only three NHL players to record back-to-back 90-assist seasons. (The others are Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.) He is second in points among all active NHL players (Jaromir Jagr, of course, is first). It took 19 NHL seasons, but Thornton is at last in the Stanley Cup Finals. I only wish he would shave his ridiculous beard.
One of the good things about not having cable is that I no longer have to watch SportsCenter round the clock. Or is that not the way ESPN rolls anymore? Have they replaced perpetual SportsCenter with such quality programming as Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn? They have? That’s great—hey, as long as they’re not showing any actual sports.
And yet to be free of ESPN the television network is not necessarily to be free of its website. I wish I could say that I check ESPN.com as frequently as I check the Times. In fact I check it much more frequently. There is no site that I check more frequently. I cannot explain why.
What is it about the mixture of gossip (“LeBron has dinner with Dwyane Wade”), scores (Boston 6, Baltimore 2), puff pieces (“Splash Brothers Finding New Ways to Surprise Us”), useless 538 data dumps (“Warriors now have 60% chance of winning the next three games”), and actual news (Ken Starr, of the Starr Report, was the president of Baylor? And is now being forced to resign because for years he ignored reports of sexual assaults committed by the football team? Wow) that I find so compelling? I’m not sure. Part of it is that, for a while, ESPN.com hosted a high-quality sports magazine, Grantland, and since shuttering Grantland has retained its two best sportswriters, Zach Lowe and Bill Barnwell. But there must be something else as well.
I have to admit the stories I click on most often are the ones in which real-life events break into the fantasy world of sports: when there’s a scandal or a suicide or (too often) the shooting of an athlete. ESPN finds itself in an ambiguous relation to these events. Because on the one hand, ESPN “covers” sports, in a journalistic spirit, in somewhat the same way that the Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated used to cover sports (and still do, probably). On the other hand, ESPN is in the business of broadcasting sports, and therefore in the business of branding, hyping, and otherwise hyperventilating over every new sporting event. This is partly a desideratum of its business strategy, and partly—and just as important—deeply ingrained in its institutional DNA. ESPN has always articulated the fan’s perspective. The network’s insight was that people were tired of the pious moralizing of traditional sports reporting. The guys who covered beats for the daily papers, attended practice every day like it was court, went to every press conference like they were in the White House correspondents’ pool . . . those guys were boring! They had lost the perspective of fandom. They went to games the way Siskel and Ebert went to the movies: because it was their job. That’s not how fans saw the game, and this is where ESPN came in.
Before there was Bill Simmons, there was Chris Berman, the man who invented the sarcastic, hilarious, encyclopedic voice of SportsCenter. Berman had a knack for inventing funny nicknames for players as he ran through the highlight reels. He enjoyed doing parody voices of more traditional announcers. When doing football highlights, he would chant “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way” in the voice of Howard Cosell. When the multi-talented Deion Sanders, who had announced that he wanted his nickname to be “Prime Time,” returned an interception or a kick for major yardage, Berman would chant “Prime Time, Prime Time, Prime Time” for the duration of the clip. He was not making fun of sports, exactly: the sheer quantity of his knowledge of sports was a testament to his fealty to them. But he also knew that sports were just an entertainment, a form of popular culture. By making up nicknames for players and doing little chants as you watched the games you could enhance your enjoyment of them. Sports were not sacrosanct. Players were not “role models.” They were actors, entertainers, and geniuses of the human body. They should be enjoyed.
Bill Simmons, who started out as a popular internet sportswriter from Boston before vaulting to superfame as a columnist at ESPN and then eventually founding a small empire with Grantland, was able to bring the Berman sensibility into the age of the internet. He could do in writing what Berman did on the air. He took Berman’s implicit fan’s perspective and literalized it. He constantly compared situations from sports to those in movies or TV shows. Sometimes he forgot to write about sports and just wrote about movies he liked. To him these were the same things—entertainments. But in the end he came back to sports: for him it was the most entertaining entertainment of all.
He didn’t consider himself a journalist or a sportswriter; he was simply a fan. Therefore he could dispense with the fake objectivity of the beat reporters who pretended they didn’t root for the home team. Simmons was from Boston and he bled Boston Celtics green and white and Patriots red white and blue and sometimes Red Sox red and blue. (He couldn’t have cared less about the Bruins.) He could be very annoying. But he could also be very funny, and his descriptions of games were masterly, and his insights into the psychodynamics of the teams he wrote about could be profound.
As a fan rather than a journalist, as a superfan rather than some Sports Illustrated literateur and moralist, Simmons was deeply at home at ESPN, until suddenly he wasn’t. The trouble began when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initially gave Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere slap on the wrist after he was caught on video viciously punching his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. This was the kind of story—the athlete breaking through the fourth wall of decorum and respectability and “I’m just trying to take it one game at a time” and actively committing a crime—that ESPN, given its conflicting priorities, was always deeply uncertain of how to cover. But Simmons the superfan did not have these conflicts. The superfan reserved the right occasionally to get deeply pissed if an athlete or athletic administrator misbehaved. A superfan, unlike a journalist, could take things personally. Simmons found Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice case outrageous and repeatedly called him a liar. He was suspended for this by ESPN. A year later Grantland was shuttered, and Simmons had signed a contract with HBO. Now the only things left on ESPN.com are the two remaining Grantland writers, the incongruous 538 (the presence of this interesting election coverage site on ESPN should be a story for another day), and Stephen A.’s ridiculous arguments with what’s his name. And yet I go there pretty much every half an hour, still.
Back to Hockey
What does all this have to do with hockey? Not anything really. ESPN writes less about hockey than it does about the UFC. To get to the NHL homepage from the menu bar, I have to press an ellipsis. Perhaps it might be said that in its non-coverage of hockey ESPN shows its true face!—it does not write about hockey because it does not have a TV contract with hockey. But then again other places don’t write about hockey either. For a while this spring I started going to a Canadian site, TSN.ca, just to get some hockey coverage, but then the Toronto Raptors went deep into the playoffs and TSN started writing about basketball just as much as everyone else. Not that I blame them. I don’t care about basketball as a sport, but the fact is that the NBA is just more exciting than the NHL. The personalities are more interesting and the rivalries are better. There, I admitted it.
Still, hockey: A terrible thing happened during the summer before this season began. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane was accused of rape by a young woman he went home with from a bar in his native Buffalo. The case eventually fell apart under weird circumstances, but the story the young woman told had the ring of truth to it. She went home with Kane, then he showed her around his apartment, then he raped her.
Kane wasn’t just an NHL player. He was one of the best players in the league, and already, at the age of 27, one of the best American-born players of all time. No one had ever taken him for an avatar of virtue. He came into the league as a prodigiously talented 18-year-old and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. But, blond-haired and blue-eyed and thin, he was a man-child; when he grew out his thin blond playoff beard every spring he looked like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf. At the same time he was a magician, along with Evgeni Malkin one of the best stick-handlers in the league. ”He’s always stopping short on the wing and daring someone to smush him against the glass,” Kent Russell wrote about him in these pages, “or he’s dangling the puck far in front of his feet and inviting a defender to paw at it—he loves to put his slightness in seemingly vulnerable positions and then make opponents look foolish when he flits past them.” Yet this very ability to escape punishment made his game seem, at times, frivolous; he could stickhandle all day along the perimeter of the zone, wowing fans, and leading to nothing. It required the presence of his no-frills teammate Jonathan Toews, “Captain Serious,” to help turn Kaner’s magic into points on the board.
That Kane would confirm everyone’s absolute worst fears about his stupidity, irresponsibility, sense of entitlement—it cast a pall not simply over Kane but over the entire Blackhawks, until then my favorite team, and really over the entire season. Kane’s response was to have the best season of his career, running away with the scoring title. But bad karma caught up to the Blackhawks eventually; they bowed out to their determined rivals, the St. Louis Blues, in the second round.
The only thing more interesting than the Stanley Cup playoffs is the continuing saga of the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against Gawker.com. When the Hulk first filed the suit—for invasion of privacy after Gawker posted a tape of him having sex with his friend’s wife—and a grand jury indicted Gawker, I just thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened. A former professional wrestler, in the deep twilight of his fake tan and celebrity, would be putting out of business a site that started out as a gossip mill for New York publishing and media, eventually gained national standing as a purveyor of “viral” content of all kinds, and had more recently sought (and achieved) respectability as a place for political and social commentary.
Then it emerged that Hulk’s lawsuit had secretly been funded by the eccentric libertarian billionaire (and now Trump supporter) Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who had been infuriated by one of Gawker’s sub-sites outing him as gay back in 2007. The Times reported that the suit had been structured in such a way that Gawker’s insurance company was excluded, and all attempts at a settlement rejected. In other word, Thiel had set up the suit (and funded searches for other potential suits) explicitly to put Gawker out of business.
This was still interesting, but no longer funny. I still don’t like Gawker. It was a site founded on the premise that privacy was an outdated concept; that in the age of the internet, everyone could and should be outed for the lout (or, in Thiel’s case, homosexual) that they really are. The idea that I’ve seen in a lot of the coverage of the Thiel/Gawker standoff that Gawker is opposed to the dominance of tech strikes me as odd. Gawker is part and parcel of tech; the argument between Thiel and Gawker is an intra-tech argument. At the same time, as the founder of a critical publication that could easily be sunk by a lawsuit much, much humbler than the one filed by Hulk Hogan, I like lawsuits even less than I like Gawker. Once the lawyers get involved, everyone goes bankrupt.
One thing that would trouble me about the demise of Gawker would be if it took Deadspin with it. Deadspin is the next step in the evolution of fans’ attitudes toward sports. It would be too much to say that outing the bad private behavior of athletes has been its raison d’être, but it was certainly what made Deadspin famous. It asked for people’s cell phone videos of athletes getting drunk, and then it posted those videos. Because most of the time the athletes were drunk in public places, and had most of their clothes on, there wasn’t really any question about getting sued.
Deadspin didn’t do this because it hated sports and wanted to destroy them. To the contrary, Deadspin loves sports. It’s just that for Deadspin, sports is a spectacle. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski downing shots with his shirt off is funny; a bench-clearing brawl in a Canadian juniors hockey game is disturbing (and funny); a magnificent shot or catch or throw is incredible. They are all part of the spectacle of sports. A sophisticated fan can enjoy all of them. Deadspin strips the piety from sports journalism without in any way excusing the bad behavior of the athletes. Athletes can be assholes; sometimes they can be violent assholes. These same assholes are capable of sublime physical achievements. It’s up to us to decide when they have gone too far, as assholes, for us to appreciate any longer their physical achievements. Watching Patrick Kane this year, playing the best hockey of his life, I always felt uneasy. I wished someone else had won the scoring title. I wished someone else was playing this well.
Despite the newfound dominance of offense, if I were starting a team these days I would probably start on defense. Elite two-way defensemen like Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Duncan Keith (and, in these finals, Kris Letang and Brent Burns) are players who can log thirty minutes a game and control play in the defensive zone and get the puck started up-ice again with accuracy; they may be more valuable than any forward. But Crosby remains the best forward in the league. He does things that no one else can do but does them so quickly and so efficiently that you sometimes don’t even notice. There is no missing Alex Ovechkin barreling down the wing a hundred miles an hour and then firing a bullet shot from the top of the slot; there is no missing Malkin stick-handling through three guys and making everyone look stupid. Crosby is a transcendent skater but he doesn’t think about that stuff. He often has one hand on his stick even when going to his backhand side, which looks awkward. Crosby doesn’t care. He wants to get the most done in the least possible time.
These days there is something joyless in Crosby’s game. When he came into the league in 2005, he was to be a generational talent—”the Next One,” he was called, as a successor to Gretzky, the Great One—and in truth he has mostly delivered. He won the league MVP in his second season, the youngest player to do so since Gretzky, a Stanley Cup in his fourth, and a gold for Canada at the Olympics in 2010. Since then he has missed long stretches of hockey with concussion issues, but in the past three seasons has returned more or less to full strength. Nonetheless the sheer weight of expectations has been inescapable. Anything less than the scoring title and a Stanley Cup are a disappointment, and a series of early playoff exits—and an occasionally sulky on-ice demeanor, including a now-famous incident where he deliberately swatted away a glove that had been lost on the ice by a Flyers player—have tarnished his reputation. He may be the greatest player in the world but it turns out that’s not always such a fun job. Perhaps if he wins the Cup this year that will change.
There was a play in the first game against San Jose when Crosby came into the zone, slowed the play down momentarily so that his forward partner, Patric Hornqvist, could get some separation, and then laid a perfect pass over two sticks and onto Hornqvist’s in front of the net. Hornqvist, a reliable but unimaginative Swede, managed to deflect the puck on net, where it was kicked out to the side by San Jose goaltender Martin Jones. Crosby had continued skating forward after making the pass and the puck came right to him near the boards, down low. In a situation like that Evgeny Malkin would almost certainly have extended the play, taken the puck behind the net, maybe tried a wrap-around. And maybe it would have worked. But Crosby immediately went for the most efficient option: without pausing he snapped the puck on net. The angle was impossible and Jones managed to get in front of the shot, but it was the sort of thing Crosby is always doing. If you look away for a second, or if your internet connection blinks out momentarily, you’ll miss it. And they might not show it again.
It’s a somewhat unromantic way to play. It can be beautiful but it puts no premium on beauty. It seeks results. And to most people’s surprise (my own included), the Penguins are now up two games to one, largely because the whole team has taken Crosby’s cue and is playing quickly, efficiently, and with no thought about how it looks. Still, no doubt it will look better on a larger screen. I look forward to the next four games, which NBC is finally going to show on the main network. I may not have cable, but I do have NBC.