Keepers of the Cup

BACK WHEN I lived in Toronto and the Maple Leafs still occasionally made the playoffs, I loved taking long walks on game nights and seeing if I could keep track of the score just by the sounds of the city. It wasn't exactly a challenge. When the Leafs scored, entire neighborhoods roared and swelled, as though the earth were rising beneath them. And when the other team scored, there was a different noise, a collective groaning that sounded, now, in my memories, like a sinking ship. That's how much hockey matters up here. It's in the air, and the most basic rhythms of our weeks and winters are dictated by it.

For the second time since 2005, that rhythm, at least the part for which the NHL is responsible, was silenced. A settlement between the owners and players was reached before the entire season was lost, but these very rich men still took our hearts to the brink. Now the players have been retrieved from their plushy exiles in Geneva and Prague and Vienna, and the owners have their hobby farms to mind again. HOCKEY IS BACK, my Saturday nights are screaming, Canada lit once more by the screens of a million TVs glowing white through frosted windows.

And yet I can't help wishing it were still quiet and still dark. The NHL is not hockey. It is a hockey league. Hockey, the game that I love, was always here. My neighbors still poured their backyard rinks, their breath turning solid under the stars, and pint-size boys and girls still filed into the local arena, dragging their giant equipment bags across the snowy parking lot. Hockey isn't back, because it never left us. Only the NHL did. My hope was that if this season had been lost too, then the NHL -- this broken, bloated version of the NHL -- would be gone with it. I thought this was our last, best chance for a correction.

During the last lockout, a group of recreational hockey players in Toronto filed a bizarre-seeming legal claim: that the Stanley Cup was not the NHL's alone to award. It argued that Lord Stanley of Preston had given the Cup to us -- to all of us, to be held in our trust, forever -- to promote the game of hockey. The court agreed. Those recreational players actually won. The NHL was forced to concede that it did not own the trophy and that the Cup's trustees could choose to "award the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL team in any year in which the NHL fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner." Imagine that.

Last year, just before the start of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup came to my house in Port Hope, Ontario. I wrote a column about it. We called it "Best Day Ever," because that's what it was. Mike Bolt, one of the keepers of the Cup, and I carried it to the schools and through the streets. Hundreds of people saw the Cup that day, their eyes lighting up before more than a few of them filled with tears. I wrote especially about one trembling girl, nearly lost in the crowd in the elementary school's hallway. I'm choking up even now, remembering her. The NHL isn't hockey, all those insufferable men in New York yelling at each other about how to carve up the billions we give them. The look on that girl's face when she finally pressed her hand against the Stanley Cup -- that's hockey.

During this lockout's 113 miserable days, I dreamed that we could take back the Cup. (I wasn't the only one; Canadians were so fed up there was even talk of parliamentary intervention.) We could have had a tournament, some massive tournament, with every team that wanted to play making its way to the rink until some ragtag team of beautiful beer leaguers skated with the Cup hoisted over their heads. Lying awake at night, when I imagined it down to the very last detail, their faces looked like that girl's, this grand trust of ours restored along with our game.

Instead, those millionaires employed by billionaires will play their splintered, damaged season for our perfect, blameless trophy, and up here, at least, we'll all be back to watch them. Even without anything like a cap on ticket prices, even when they take away some of our teams and threaten to take away others, we've always come back. Already, our neighborhoods are roaring and swelling, as though the earth were rising beneath them. It's strange, even a little surreal, because it seems like only yesterday I heard a collective groaning. I could have sworn it was the sound of a sinking ship.

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