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The Good Old Hockey Game

Even during the NHL lockout, there is hockey to be found. For starters, head to Manchester.

What I miss most about hockey are the different ways things look, and the different ways things sound. There is nothing in sports like walking out into an arena in which everything is dark except for the gleaming sheet of ice below. Nothing sounds quite like the hiss of the blades, and the different sounds of the different tiny detonations — a puck onto a stick, a puck onto the glass, a puck onto the boards, a body into the boards — that make up the action. They are all sharp and varied, like the argumentative calls of exotic crows. What I miss most about hockey are the many ways it is so different from everything else. Everything is so damned vivid. This is, of course, only part of the reason that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman needs to be rendered naked, smeared with honey and jam, and dragged behind a Zamboni across an endless field of anthills.

Or something.

I am not even the greatest of hockey fans, but I know this one thing: Outside of NASCAR fans — who are outliers in so many ways, including, alas, which way many of them would have been rooting at Gettysburg — hockey fans have a more intimate relationship with their sport than do any other fans. Their devotion to the game as a game is more enduring than that of most football fans, and it is far less insufferable than that of most baseball fans, the latter of which, I believe, would be content if the games were contested on spreadsheets by columns of inhuman figures. (A large percentage of football fans also prefers to look on the games as columns of figures, most of which end, oddly enough, with “-10,” or “O/U 65.”) In certain parts of the country, like, say, the Boston area, in which I grew up and I live right now, hockey fans follow the collegiate and professional levels with equal fervor — as opposed to basketball fans with their endless, stupid arguments about whether or not the college game is superior to the NBA version — because, in both cases, you’re simply watching hockey, which is all that matters.

The greatest sports joke in any movie is a hockey joke. In Wayne’s World, the cop who hangs out at the fictitious Stan Mikita’s Donuts — a damned fine reference all on its own — is named Officer Koharski. When I first saw the movie, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing, because I happened to be in the arena in New Jersey when, angered by the officiating in a Stanley Cup playoff game, Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld unleashed the worst invective he could immediately summon at referee Don Koharski, who stumbled as he left the ice:

“You fell, you fat pig. Have another doughnut. Have another doughnut.”

Nobody else in the movie theater laughed.

And what do hockey fans get for all this devotion? A professional league perpetually run by the Marx Brothers. In the aftermath of the Schoenfeld-Koharski contretemps, the NHL office couldn’t find president John Ziegler. Angered by the pastry-themed abuse directed at one of their number, the officiating crew staged a wildcat job action at the next game, so the NHL wound up handing a playoff matchup to three amateur guys. Finally, when Ziegler at last emerged from wherever he’d been — and the rumors about his whereabouts were both absolutely unrepeatable and utterly great — to hold a press conference, he refused to state how many actual hockey games he’d seen in the previous year. I don’t believe any commissioner in the history of any sport has done that.

Now, though, we have professionalized the office of NHL commissioner. We have Gary Bettman, who should be tied to a dunking stool suspended over a pool of radioactive water. Bettman has professionalized the office to the point that, for the second time in eight years, we have no NHL, because he and his owners want to claw back in 2012 every last, lint-covered nickel that they failed to claw back in 2004, after which the Stanley Cup wound up in (gah!) Tampa for two straight seasons. But there is hockey to be found, thank the Lord. All I had to do was go north.

The Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League play in a spiffy new arena named after a spiffy wireless communications outfit dead in the heart of downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, a place that becomes briefly relevant to our national life every four years, when it is afflicted by a month-long exaltation by political pundits, whereupon it fades away into the mist, like Brigadoon for cable anchors. The Monarchs are the highest-level minor league franchise of the Los Angeles Kings, who are the reigning Stanley Cup champions and, if the greed of Gary Bettman (who should have each thumb attached to a separate tractor-trailer rig pulling in opposite directions) has its way, will be the reigning Stanley Cup champions in November 2014 as well. By necessity, this has caused some roster instability, and that roster instability has caused some fundamental instability in the lives of the people listed on the roster.

Take, for example, Dwight King, a burly 6-foot-3, 234-pound winger from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. (And, not for nothing, but, judging by some of the town names, Saskatchewan must be the place where Winnie the Pooh went to retire. King’s from Meadow Lake, and rough-tough Gordie Howe was from a place called Floral. Of course, former Bruin defenseman Gord Kluzak was from Climax, which knocks this theory Milne over teakettle.) King started last season in Manchester, but he was called up to Los Angeles in November, and he stayed with the team all the way through its improbable run to the Stanley Cup, scoring five goals, including a pair of game-winners, and three assists in the playoffs. In July, the Kings ensured he would remain a Los Angeles King when he signed a two-year, $1.5 million deal. He got his day with the Cup, on August 15, taking it home to Meadow Lake and squiring it around with his friends. Dwight King’s life was sailing. And then, exactly a month after King took the Cup home to Meadow Lake, along came Gary Bettman, who should be dressed in a meat suit and driven through a wolverine enclosure.

“It’s been a little different,” said King, one of three Monarchs players who were with the Kings when they won the Cup this spring. “I got my feet wet during the regular season, and then going on the run that we went on was something special, and then, in the summer, getting the contract and, hopefully, preparing myself to be there full-time, and then going through my first lockout. They didn’t say anything before, and then September 15 was the official date. Since then, obviously, it’s been working out with some of the guys. That went on for a couple of weeks, but you get a little bit restless sitting around.”

King was contractually bound in a way that many locked-out NHL players were not. For several reasons, Europe and/or Russia were not options for him. So, he wound up back on Elm Street, back in the spiffy little arena, right where he was almost a year ago when his life changed on him. “I found a way to play here,” he said. “Last year, when I got called up, they put me on the ‘cleared-A’ roster, is what they call it. Being on that list enabled me to sign a one-way American League deal that wouldn’t affect my other contract. So it worked out perfectly for me.

“Obviously, it’s quite an accomplishment. They were part of developing me, the coaching staff here, and the guys I played with, they’re proud of what I accomplished. That’s nice, obviously. Every hockey player respects that. It’s nice to have. That’s for now. It’s obviously a new season, and that’s all behind me.”

On a Saturday in late October — and, in fact, for an entire weekend, as the Monarchs beat the daylights out of both the Worcester Sharks and the Binghamton Senators — King was clearly the best player on the ice. You could see how a season at the top level of his sport, and how having played at the highest reaches of that top level, had changed him as a player. He was a step quicker than everyone else. He had a more finely calibrated sense of anticipation, and he plainly saw plays developing in front of him a split-second faster than anyone else. That Saturday, with the Monarchs already leading Worcester, 1-0, King flipped the puck off the goalie’s pads and then slipped the rebound across to Brandon Kozun, who scored the second goal in a 5-1 Manchester win. It was obvious that King saw the whole play unfold before it happened. He knew Kozun, or somebody, would be on the other side of the net, and he anticipated the goalie’s reaction.

“It adds a lot of credibility to what I do. It validates the idea of development, when players come back that are former teammates of the guys that they played half a season with, and then you can see them interact with our guys,” said Manchester coach Mark Morris. “He experienced the ultimate prize in hockey. When they can share that with their teammates in Manchester, it’s a wonderful thing to see because, to hear from people they trust, it makes us a better team.

“They had a lot of fun here together before the call-ups, and now they’re better hockey players than they were before, having played at a real high pace, and having played under the pressure of the highest level. We were going to welcome them back. That’s for darn sure.”

And did I mention that the referee on that Saturday night was Terry Koharski, Doughnut Don’s brother? Hockey is just so damned great.

It being the minor leagues and all, and the minor leagues being the place where no promotion is too cheesy, Manchester’s October 28 game with Binghamton was Canadian Heritage Night for the Monarchs. All the arena announcements that Sunday, including all the scoring and penalty calls, were in French and in English. This is something else I missed about hockey. It was the first sport I encountered that felt truly exotic. As a Montreal fan hopelessly stranded in Bruins country — hey, I didn’t know the Orr kid was coming — I used to listen to the French-language broadcasts from the Forum on a battered radio in my bedroom, following the action as best I could. Listening to the games made me feel as cosmopolitan as it was possible to feel as a suburban kid with only language-lab French on which to rely.

(This, I should note, consisted of every conversation beginning with, “Bonjour, où est la bibliothèque?” Since very rarely did les Habitants visit the library during the game, my language-lab French was altogether worthless, though I did learn through sheer repetition that “le but du Canadien” was my cue to cheer. And I still can, of course, check out a book in any village in Provence, so there’s that.)

The game deserves so much better than the fools who run it. The fans deserve so much better than the greed that drives the game. There weren’t a lot of people in the spiffy arena for the Canadian Heritage matinee, but the ones who were there cheered at the right time, most often for the work of Martin Jones, the Manchester goalie who shut out Binghamton, 4-0. They also cheered for the T-shirt cannons, and for the blimp that circled the arena, and for the woman in the trivia contest who lost because she didn’t know that Eugene Levy was Canadian. They came for the hockey and they stayed for the fun, and one soon became indistinguishable from the other.

The NHL’s teams are still in operation, even though it has been determined that it’s better for the league if it doesn’t put hockey players on the ice until indentured servitude comes back in fashion. Over the weekend, Larry Robinson came to town in his new capacity as an associate coach of the San Jose Sharks, whose AHL affiliate is the team in Worcester. I remember Robinson as the red-haired piece of iron on the blue line for the great Canadien teams of the 1970s, playing on six Cup winners in Montreal. Robinson also was one of the players who first rebelled against not only NHL management, but also against the corrupt practices of Alan Eagleson, the alleged head of the NHL Players’ Association and a walking criminal conflict of interests who would have embarrassed Huey Long. “I went to one meeting with the Eagle, and Eagle told me to shut up, and I never went back to another one,” Robinson said.

“It’s big business now. If you look at what they’re talking about in revenues, you’re not talking about millions, you’re talking about billions. There’s got to be some medium somewhere where both sides can be happy. For me, it’s very frustrating because I’m just starting with a new organization and I was happy and excited to start a new job, and all of a sudden there’s no job to go to, and it’s frustrating for me. It’s actually frustrating, but in a way it’s a little bit of a blessing because I can see the kids who are in this organization who I never got much of a chance to see for the past couple of years, because we [the New Jersey Devils, Robinson’s previous employers] only saw San Jose a couple of times a year.

“It’s been part of my life, so to say that I don’t enjoy it would be to say that I haven’t been involved in hockey, so of course I enjoy it. But I also enjoy the integrity of the game, and what I don’t want to see happen with all this that’s going on, there’s a lot of people who rely on our business for their jobs, and we’ve got a sport that’s worked so hard to gain popularity. You look at L.A., and they finally, after all these years, get a chance to win a Cup and enjoy the fruits of all their hard labor, and there’s nothing there for them.”

Larry Robinson deserves so much better from this game. So do all the people who showed up for Canadian Heritage Night in Manchester and, dammit, there’s never an anthill around when you need one.

Filed Under: Current Events, Hockey, NHL Lockout, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.