Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Blake was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia a week ago. During the third intermission of tonight's game between Toronto and the Buffalo Sabres on Versus, Christine Simpson sat down with Blake to talk about how his life has changed since making that announcement. To her surprise (and that of many of the viewers, doubtless), Blake said that he "felt lucky."
This is a man, just past his 34th birthday, who isn't sure he's going to live long enough to see his three children grow up, or walk his two daughters down the aisle. Six years ago, his wife had her own bout with cancer. And he thinks he's lucky because, in his words, he's been blessed to "have three kids and a beautiful wife, to play in the National Hockey League, to do things that people dream of doing." The sun, he says, is out 24 hours a day in his world.
Compare that reaction to the one that The Hockey News's editor-in-chief Jason Kay justifiably excoriated this past Saturday:
I’m not going to claim 10,000 or 12,000 or 18,000 people were wrong for booing the memory of the late Bill Wirtz at United Center during a pre-game ceremony on Oct. 6.
The disgruntled felt how they felt.
But this space is about how I feel – and it ranges from perplexed to troubled.
Let’s be clear, I’m not a Bill Wirtz booster. I understand why thousands of Chicago hockey fans have been disappointed/driven away by the way he mismanaged the franchise. No Cups in more than four decades; no home TV; feuds with several of the stars. It wasn’t a recipe for success.
At the same time, a human life is sacred. Unless we’re talking pure evil – and it my world, I’m thinking Saddam Hussein/rapist/pedophile/murderer evil – the appropriate behavior for me is to respect the departed and their families. That’s not a hypocritical stance, just decent.
I'm with Kay--say what you like about "Dollar" Bill Wirtz (and believe me, I've said plenty, and little of it good, about him), but there is a time and a place for expressing criticism--and at a memorial service is not that place or that time. Had I been at the United Center for the ceremony in question, although it would have rankled a bit, I'd have stood respectfully in silence while the team honored the passing of its longtime owner and president. Then, most likely, I'd have applauded lustily at the thought that his hand would no longer be at the reins, choking off the life of my hometown team that's been struggling to rediscover its fabled championship form for decades.
That is the enigma that is hockey for me. There are parts of the game that I just adore (the speed and grace of Brian Gionta streaking up the ice at full speed, as I saw him do at the United Center a couple of years ago against the Blackhawks, and the "Never say die!" attitude he displayed as he attempted to complete his shot on goal despite the fact that he was sliding across the ice on his belly at the time). And there are other parts of the game that I simply can't stand and would happily change for good and all if I could (the glorification of mindless violence, the senseless fights, the stupid cheap shots, and, frankly, the boorishness of a lot of the Chicago fans).
Perhaps I notice that last quality more because I attend more games in Chicago than elsewhere, but I can't recall hearing nearly the level of rudeness from fans in the other NHL arenas where I've been privileged to watch a game. Oh, sure, they'll taunt the opposing goalie after he makes a boneheaded move and lets in a soft goal. And they'll roar abuse at officials whom they believe loused up a given call. But in Chicago, that hectoring comes with a nasty overtone that I haven't encountered elsewhere. And perhaps it's indigenous to Chicago, which has always been a bit on the brash side. But I do wish the fans here would show a little more respect.
They're going to need to, if they want to find people willing to occupy the other half of the seats at the United Center that are empty on most nights when the Hawks are playing, largely thanks to Bill Wirtz's galactically stupid mismanagement of an Original Six team. And, dammit, those seats should be full. The Original Six are magical. Hockey used to be huge in the Windy City, in the days of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, and Tony Esposito. It should be nigh impossible to get tickets to a home game without buying them months in advance. But the Blackhawks haven't had a season like that in at least ten years, and may not for ten more, unless they make some drastic changes and reconnect to the community in which they play.
That's one of the other things I like about hockey--the tendency for the players, the teams, and the league to be involved. There will almost always be some kind of a charity gig during at least one of the intermissions of any NHL game, and chances are good that the team will be auctioning off some memorabilia for a worthy cause in at least one spot in the arena on any given night. Almost 11 years ago, the NHL and its players' association combined to found Hockey Fights Cancer--which to date has raised more than $9 million for cancer research and education in North America. NHL players are regularly to be found in local hospitals, homeless shelters, nursing homes, youth groups, and what have you, doing what they can to give back to their local community. But they usually do so without fanfare, and without a lot of press coverage--because it's not about promoting the team, or even about promoting hockey. It's about being good citizens, and recognizing that they have advantages not granted to most other people, and consequently that they have at least a little more responsibility to give something back to the people who pay their salaries.
That's an attitude I wish a lot more people demonstrated. Especially people in the highest salary brackets.