By Steve Rushin
December 19, 2012
Diehard NHL fans want hockey back, but even the starkest loyalists are losing patience -- and interest.
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Show of hands, please -- red-knuckled hands, hands sheathed too long in Bauer or Cooper or CCM hockey gloves, gloves that smell so wretched they can trigger my gag reflex even now, as a mere memory: How many of you miss the National Hockey League?

No one? Not one of you? OK then, how many of you remember the National Hockey League, or Cooper hockey gloves and helmets, which haven't existed for ages but were once reasonably popular and are still widely available on eBay by searching that most redundant of phrases, "vintage hockey"?

All hockey is now "vintage" hockey, of course, the game having disappeared in America first from national television, then from highlight shows, then from our shrinking sports sections, and finally from arenas altogether, like the cartoon magician who packed all his wonderful props and finally himself into a single steamer trunk and shuffled off the stage.

I have vague memories of having seen such a cartoon, and vague memories of having seen the National Hockey League for that matter, though it once had 30 teams playing in Canada and the United States, and several players who were routinely mentioned in sports pages and even sometimes in the culture at large. There was a popular player named Wayne Gretzky who also served as a judge on Dance Fever. And Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins spat in a hamburger in the film Dumb and Dumber.

There are almost certainly other examples of NHL players who crossed over. They just don't spring to mind at the moment, because the memories are so distant, so hazy, obscured by the 21st century version of the NHL, a league that expanded from the Rust Belt (Detroit, Chicago) to the Sun Belt (Nashville, Raleigh) to the Sansabelt (Phoenix, Miami) and now occupies a place in the universe somewhere beyond Orion's Belt, invisible to the naked eye and gazed on only by lonely obsessives with telescopes (or a season ticket to the Columbus Blue Jackets).

The league largely exists (where it exists at all) in the past tense, to judge by the teeming racks of Hartford Whalers gear for sale at the gift shops in the Hartford airport, where the correct local time is 1982. When a high-wattage star was needed for a national occasion last week, it was former Ranger goalie Mike Richter, 46, answering phones during the Hurricane Sandy charity concert at Madison Square Garden.

None of this would be worth commenting on if the league's demise weren't so relatively swift, and so nearly comprehensive. Canada's Globe and Mail this week ran a story about Level5, a brand-analysis company that surveyed 1,066 Canadians and found only one third of the country still passionate about the NHL, while one third is neutral and one third is entirely without interest. Level5's CEO, David Kincaid, said the NHL's brand has been damaged "at levels we have not seen. It's quite alarming, really. If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain't going to happen."

When the NHL has lost most Canadians, what hope has it in the rest of the world? The league's fade to black was of course a monumentally stupid act of self-destruction but also -- all flippancy aside -- a sad one to the handful of us who never got completely over it.

Without Googling a calendar from that year, I know that September 22, 1973 was a Saturday, because I came downstairs that morning, on my 7th birthday, to find my dad still drinking coffee at the breakfast table. In front of him was a brown paper sack containing my present: A green Minnesota North Stars jersey. I cannot recall a single birthday present before or since, but the memory of hockey, to a native Minnesotan, never entirely disappears. It smells to me like wool and iron-on numbers and a brown paper sack from the Red Owl grocery.

None of which will mean much to you if the only NHL you've known is the one that skipped two of its last eight seasons fighting over revenue streams. Those streams are rapidly becoming like that riverbed on Mars, the one the Curiosity rover photographed in September: Dry, distant and ancient, defying us to believe that anything ever flowed there.

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