Have NHL players forgotten why they play the game?

I'm old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination and the Toronto Maple Leafs when they were a hockey powerhouse.

It's true, kids.

Once upon a time, the Maple Leafs could actually chew gum and skate at the same time. Under the cracking whip of tyrannical coach Punch Imlach, they won the Stanley Cup four times in a six-year stretch, including three in a row.

You can look it up.

If the Montreal Canadiens weren't claiming the Cup, the Leafs were doing that very thing. Combined, they won the National Hockey League title 13 times in 14 years. That was in the late 1950s and all of the '60s, when life was simpler and safer.

That, at least, is what many folks of my generation would have you believe. That we all wore flowers in our hair, smoked pot and had a decade-long love-in.

Well, there's nothing simple about someone taking a rifle and blowing off half the President of the United States' head. There's nothing simple about being a whisker away from the nuclear annihilation of the planet.

There was, however, a simplicity to hockey.

Basically, it came down to this:

  • The owners owned and made all the money.

  • The players played and had no say in when or where they played.

  • Either les Canadiens or the Leafs won the Stanley Cup.

  • No fuss, no muss, no lockouts.

    We could all gather around our TV sets with the rabbit ears and listen to Foster Hewitt's odd voice describe what our hockey heroes were doing as our wide eyes stared at the small, black-and-white screen.

    It was the same routine every Saturday night from October until sometime in April. The Leafs would be on TV (occasionally it was the Habs). Same time, same station. Same Murray Westgate promoting Esso products and putting a tiger in our tanks.

    That's because the owners told the players that they would be playing on Saturday night and there was no discussion. No argument.

    The players served their masters. Period. And if they didn't like their lot in life, they could conveniently be traded to the Boston Bruins, where they would finish last every season and never see a penny of playoff bonus money.

    Or they could be dispatched to Rochester or Hershey or some other minor league hockey Siberia.

    Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey tried to change all that in 1957-58, when the two uppity all-stars formed the first players association, a short-lived enterprise.

    "I felt we as players should have a voice," Lindsay was to say many years after the fact. "What that voice would get us down the road, who would know? It would take time to answer that."

    Well, Ted, we have our answer. It's got us another lockout. The second one in eight years. The third one since 1994. And let's not forget a players strike in '92.

    I don't blame the players, of course. They should have a say in when they play and where they play. They should share in the league's $3.3 billion take of ticket sales, merchandising, concession sales and broadcast revenue.

    They, after all, are the show. They are the reason people pay large chunks of their hard-earned money to sit in those fancy, schmancy new arenas and buy overpriced hot dogs and beer.

    I mean, I don't go to a movie just because Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard directed it. But I'll go if Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep are acting in it.

    So, yeah, more power to the players.

    But, to squabble over who gets the larger piece of a $3.3 billion pie seems rather outrageous, also petty, when you consider what the aforementioned Lindsay and Harvey were fighting for in 1957-58.

    Would you believe me if I told you one of the issues was moving expenses for a traded player? Well it was. Among other things, they also wanted a $7,000 minimum wage, which would be a raise of $500, and a $35 wage during training camp plus a $10-a-day meal allowance.

    Now they aren't satisfied with an average salary of $2.4 million.

    Good grief.

    In '57, the players wanted $10 in meal money. Today, some players make enough money to feed all the starving children in most third-world countries for 10 years.

    But that doesn't cut it. They absolutely cannot lose seven per cent of their $2.4 million.

    I suppose we can blame all of this on Bobby Hull, because the shinny landscape changed forever more when he told the Chicago Blackhawks to go to hell in 1972 and signed with the Winnipeg Jets and the World Hockey Association for $2.5 million.

    The NHL's reserve clause was struck down. The players suddenly had freedom. And a voice. A very loud voice. Salaries ballooned.

    Bravo Bobby Hull. Good for the players.

    But they must understand that they and the owners are operating with different agendas. And it is not a subtle difference. The owners are in the game to make money. It's a business. The players are in it because they love it. It's a game.

    At the very core of their being, hockey isn't about fame to a player. It isn't about fortune. It's about the game. Their love of the game.

    They loved playing hockey in near-empty rinks at 6 o'clock in the morning when they were 10 years old, and they love playing in front of 15,004 leather-lunged fans at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie in Winnipeg.

    I think perhaps the players have forgotten that. It's time they got back to it.

    If this FanPost is written by someone other than one of the blog's editors, the opinions expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or SB Nation.

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