Why we love the game (and Cam Neely)

Two weekends ago, I went back to my alma mater -- Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio -- to see old friends and to accept a Young Alumni Award. (Yes, I drove the 11 hours each way.) "Young Alumni Award" is a euphemism for "Thanks for writing those checks in the past and since we'd really like you to write some more, here is a $12 plaque to hang in your den." I gladly accepted and will gladly write more checks, however small. I have great affection for Heidelberg College and I'm always reenergized when I walk those grounds. That's where my eagle took off before landing at ESPN. It's where my first song as college deejay was Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen" and my last was U2's "Red Hill Mining Town." I call that a learning experience.

My Political Science professor, Dr. John Bing, and I have always had interesting conversations on sports, and when I mentioned that I find myself getting more consumed by the values of hockey by the day, he asked me, "What are the values of hockey?"

I believe we are on the precipice of great change in the great game. The economic landscape and the rules of the game both need to be drastically changed for the 21st century. The NHL has always been largely about young men playing their hearts out in front of young working class fans cheering their hearts out. The game has become too corporate, too expensive, too defensive and too predictable. It's time to shake it up, to open it up on the ice and in the stands. The time is now for drastic change, for a younger vision of the game. The required vision is being bogged down by old-thinking, stodgy, owners and GMs. It's not their game. It's OUR game.

That being said, the values of this great game remain, untouched and unblemished. And while the details need renovation, the pillars remain strong:

1. Heart
Hockey is a blood sport and the heart is the essential blood organ. A life can only be a life with something to be enthusiastic about. That is living from the heart. The act of skating -- with stick, puck, and net -- is pure enthusiasm. All heart. It's the great mystery of the game and it's greatest value, a divine-like feeling of freedom, movement, and action. When you think back of those moments on frozen outdoor ice, alone, can you ever imagine feeling more ALIVE? Watching Marc-Andre Fleury play goal in Pittsburgh is watching heart in action.

2. Courage
This is the value that is needed to turn heart into a commodity. Everyone who loves skating has heart, but everyone who skates isn't a hockey player. Courage carries the heart and the dreams around the rink. There are nine other skaters, boards and glass. Courage enables the player to play as if he or she is skating on Lake Michigan, to play with freedom in narrow, cluttered spaces, ignoring the obstacles and charging on. A life can only be a life if you have the courage to go for your dreams. Watching Jason Smith play defense in Edmonton is watching courage in action.

3. Mental toughness
No sport combines the aerobic and anaerobic strength of ice hockey. Its high level players are walking Bowflex commercial models. Ripped and muscular. The winners grind out shift after shift, day after day, with 100 percent effort. To relent is to die. Every stride, every shift, every day has purpose. Hockey is not meaningless for it is life and every bit of life should be purposeful. A life is only a life if you have the mental toughness to make every breath purposeful. Watching Chris Drury take a shift down 5-1 in the third period is mental toughness in action.

4. Artistic expression
To be a great artist you must be a great thinker. You must expand the mind and train the mind to see things, to understand how things work, to think life. Thinking life is observational learning, experimentation and recall -- watching how things work, trying new things and applying them into action. Thinking the game. We all can't be great, but we all can be dependable. We can think the game. Learn the flow, sense the opportunities and learn when to strike. A life is only a life if you serve others by thinking the game. Watching Peter Forsberg stickhandle behind the net is a player thinking the game.

Heart. Courage. Mental toughness. Artistic expression. These are the values of our game. The values we want our children to have, as hockey players and as people.

As we move forward in this time of NHL uncertainty, on the ice and off, always take the values of the game first, for this is why we love the game. Watching the best incorporate a share of all four.

This is the third season I have written a hockey column in this space. Once a year I give my case for No. 8, Cam Neely's induction into Hockey's Hall of Fame. When will I write my third annual "Neely for the Hall" column and give my reasons for his induction in 888 words or less?

I just did.

As the calendar turned to November, only one team had yet to lose … the BOLTS!!! These are not your Art Williams' Tampa Bay Lightning. Through smart drafts, trades, management and coaching, the Lightning have arrived as one of the top five teams in the Eastern Conference and right on the edge of the top 10 teams in the entire league. They have taken advantage of a schedule that has included mostly home games and plenty of practice time. Brad Lukowich is one of the defensemen on Tampa Bay who is enjoying his fall in Florida.

No. 1: Were you really traded on your wedding day?
Yes, I was! I was in the Ritz Carlton in Dallas and the phone was ringing off the hook all morning, so I told my best man to please hold my calls. I was getting nervous as it was. A half an hour later he came up to the room and said, "I think you want to take this call." It was my GM, Doug Armstrong of the Stars. I said, "Great, Army wants to wish me well." I grabbed the phone and Doug said, "I'm sorry to do this on this day, but you've been traded to Tampa Bay." I didn't tell my wife until 11 that night, in the limo back to the hotel. Talk about a fresh start.

Brad was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia on August 12, 1976.

No. 2: Why did the Lightning begin November undefeated?
The confidence we gained from last season and the guys who have been talked about as having potential have reached that potential. They have matured as players on and off the ice and really want to win. They've tasted success last year and you can tell this year how hard they are working to achieve even more.

Brad was the 90th pick of the 1994 NHL draft, taken by the Islanders in the fourth round.

No. 3: When I look at your coach John Tortorella, I see Henry Winkler. Do you guys call him the Fonz?
I asked somebody once, who does he look like? Where have I seen him before? Did he coach someone else? Finally, someone said something, I won't say who it was, IT WAS THE FONZ! I just started howling. Now, he has this certain look that he kind of gives you and it is … it's the Fonz.

"Happy Days" began as a pilot in 1971 called "New Family in Town," produced by Garry Marshall for ABC. The series ended on July 12, 1984, with Joanie and Chachi tying the knot in the final episode.

No. 4: When I interviewed Pat Verbeek in this space two years ago, he told us you were the Stars deejay. Do you hold that title in Tampa Bay?
Me and Dan Boyle do our thing. We basically drive people out of the dressing room now. They can't handle how heavy the stuff is. Boyle gets really nasty heavy with his stuff. My picks are more listenable. Boyle gets some weird bands from Sweden and stuff.

Souls, Tekla, Salt and Stina Nordenstam are examples of Swedish bands. Dan Boyle doesn't play ABBA.

No. 5: Do you have a theme song?
Last year we played Disturbed after our wins.

Mike Wengren is the drummer of Disturbed. He is big hockey fan, specifically a Blackhawks fan.

No. 6: Best concert story?
John Grahame came down this summer and we went to Ozzfest, hung out with Disturbed and went to Vinny Paul's house afterwards for a big bash until six in the morning. Then we went to IHOP. John was dancing at IHOP at six in the morning and ended up sleeping under my foosball table that night/morning.

Vinny Paul is the drummer for Pantera. They are big Dallas Stars fans.

No. 7: The Strokes or The White Stripes?

No. 8: You were traded by the Islanders for a draft pick that turned out to be Robert Schnabel. Have you ever gone on a cruise or exchanged Christmas cards with Robert Schnabel?
(Laughing) No, I've never said hi to the guy. Not much of a connection there.

Bobby Schnabel is a Nashville Predator currently on IR. Brad's post-NHL dream is to be in a rock band. If that comes true, he should name the band BOBBY SCHNABEL. It's just fun to say.

What's up with...? Tony Twist.

Should fighting be banned in the NHL? Is it really a deterrent to violent stick work and illegal hits? Wouldn't be easier if all the players wore full shields like college players do, so they would be safer and we wouldn't have to deal with those high sticking penalties, most of which are inadvertent? Are we sending a bad message to youth hockey players and holding back the true art of the game by permitting these largely, premeditated fights?

The problem with dealing with those questions is that NHL fights are so freakin' fun. Hockey is a blood sport, filling the veins with passion and purpose (see above). When two players square off, the hockey blood boils.

Tony Twist played 445 NHL games. In each one, he figured he would be fighting. A perfect guy to address the issue of fighting and to see what he's been up to lately.

An average day: "Getting up early, here in St. Louis, and driving the kids to school and going to work at Twister's Iron Bar Saloon. Trying to maintain a business. That leads to a sleep deprivation life. Continuing on with the hockey career as an analyst/sports commentator/reporter, maintaining a constant view watching the games and reading on the games. Three in the afternoon comes, pick up the kids, come home, have dinner, hang out, close the bar, open the bar, watch hockey, read hockey. My health is good; I'm in the gym most everyday. The devil finds work for idle hands and god knows I don't need idle hands."

View on the state of the game: "I got a few reservations on the direction the game is going right now -- the whacking, the slashing, the yakking. Ten years ago we didn't have that in the game. Take out the instigator and institute the 'Let us rule ourselves.' Let us be our own policemen. The league has tried to and I think the best policeman are the players themselves and we wouldn't have half the crap that we have."

On fighting: "I've never seen anyone go for popcorn during a fight. I really, truly believe that even during this aggressive era of the league trying to do away with fighting. It's part of the game. Men will be men. The league should realize it's entertainment. It's not WWF or WWE, it's the real deal! It's two grown men, 250 pounds plus, swinging bare knuckles at each other. It's the only thing in this day and age where you see two guys go at it bare knuckles and not get arrested."

I heard a rumor last night at the game that the players may strike after the regular season THIS year. Could that be true? Have you heard anything on this?
Kevin C. Dillon
Atlantic City, N.J.

In the current CBA there is language that specifies there CANNOT be a lockout or a strike. So, if the CBA expires next September the proper term to use would be a work stoppage. No one is striking and no one is locking anyone out. There will be no strike.

I am a student at Northeastern University in Boston and a huge hockey fan. However, I cannot attend any of the Bruins games because of the ridiculous ticket prices; the cheapest seats, the top five rows of the corners of the balcony, go for $25 a pop, and that's before you add in the "convenience fee" that will raise it to $35. This spring and fall I attended numerous Red Sox (notorious for charging more than any other baseball team) games for $20 bleacher seats, and these put you way closer to the action than the nose-bleeders do at the FleetCenter. In total I probably spent around $200 at Fenway this summer, and that is more then I will spend at the FleetCenter this year ($0). God save hockey, please.
Disgruntled poor college student,
Doug Dorval

Supply and demand determines ticket prices in some markets, not salaries. I live in Toronto. The cheapest seat in Toronto is $82.50. Since the Leafs moved to ACC in 1999, attendance has averaged 102 percentover five seasons. You can't say that $70 a ticket is too much. We are watching the best players in the world. And besides, you can't put a price on tradition or pleasure.
Mike Lindemann

Radek Martinek definitely looks the most like J.R., but with bigger ears. And a rounder head. And short hair. And a different nose. You know what, he looks nothing like him. Sorry for wasting your time.
Court Hoover
Long Island

I've got to ask, in your humble opinion, who had the best mullet ever in the NHL?
Scott Lodes
Omaha, Neb.

Whenever I think of Al Iafrate's comb-over mullet circa 1994 I get verklempt.

I never thought I would read a hockey piece with a reference to Howard Roark. If you were to cast the Fountainhead of the late '40s with contemporary actors, whom would you choose? What current hockey player would you have to play Mr. Roark?
Jeremy McLellan
Portland, Maine

Howard Roark was tall, strong and uncompromising. Actor: Ben Kingsley, minus 20 years and plus five inches (He's 5-foot-8). There are no tall, strong, young, uncompromising actors today. Hockey player: Todd Bertuzzi. He plays like he doesn't care if anyone likes him. I love that.

I saw Sergei Fedorov play on Tuesday in New York and Pete Yorn play last night. Yorn was better. What would be your ultimate music/hockey doubleheader?
Andy Sweetland

Drury centering Todd Bertuzzi and Ilya Kovalchuk in Los Angeles in the afternoon, Ben Folds and his piano in an outdoor bar in Manhattan Beach in the evening.

I love your column; it gives me something to do during class when I should be paying attention. You've said that the Red Wings will be hurting without Fedorov. If you were trading Cujo, whom would you try to get for him to help the Wings?
Jeff Kramer
Lansing, Mich.

Curtis Joseph will be 37 in April. He's not that good anymore. The Wings will get little in return for him, unless they take Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang's contracts for Cujo's contract. Then the Caps could move Olaf Kolzig to Colorado. The Caps would lose $12 million net a year in payroll, and the Wings would win the Stanley Cup.

How is Ken the Otter these days?
Carri Copas
Coloradoan in Davis, Calif.

Ken, my pet otter, is in the backyard shed, taking inventory of the backyard rink supplies. It's time to put the stakes in before the ground freezes. Year four of the backyard rink is here. It's Ken's time of year.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.