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The NHL's Cultural Problem is Our Cultural Problem

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I hate being a hockey fan sometimes. It's this dreadful, unavoidable and inexorable hate. It's the hate of knowing that this trivial thing I sink a lot of emotion into as an escapist outlet is not always going to let me escape from the real world. The real world is huge and it is powerful and the walls of the NHL are not strong enough to hold it back.

Yeah I know. There's real suffering in the world, and I wouldn't blame you for stepping out of this post right now to go focus on those things yourself if you wanted. I'm going to take a moment and lament this, because it matters to me. This isn't a matter of inconvenience when faced with horrifying realities I'd rather not face. This is a matter of a cultural issue with no easy answers.

I don't like Patrick Kane. I've never liked Patrick Kane. I've actually always enjoyed disliking him. That's what I do as a fan. When Kane slips up, I get to feel joy. When Kane plays well, I get to feel anger. I get to tie real emotions to meaningless things and let my emotions play about. It gives them a nice safe room to hang out in and train away from real-life situations where joy, anger, fear, anxiety, exhilaration, and rage are actually useful.

I'm talking about real-life situations like when I have to learn about and cope with the horrors of the world; the thought that I have two daughters and one son and that they're growing up in a world where truly awful things happen without reason or without warning. I need my emotions to help train them how to deal with these things.

In the hockey world, I hate Patrick Kane and I have fun doing it. It's the same as I hate Corey Perry or how I hate Zach Parise. It's not a real hatred. It's an enjoyable virtual hatred. There's always a bit of a laugh behind it. Haha, could you imagine somebody who takes it this seriously? (and I'm sure there are plenty of those people who do. I'm glad I mostly get to avoid them). When I'm in the real world, I take the kid gloves off those feelings and the real ones have their claws.

Yeah, hockey can make me sad or anxious, but that anxiety doesn't have the same deathclaw grip that real world anxiety has.

The problem is that it is easy to get confused about the lines between what the NHL is and where it stands in the real world. I don't want to moralize with Blackhawks fans over what's going on with Kane right now because that's cheating. That's a real-world horror spilling over and to drag that into the same realm as NHL fandom is to put a hole in the wall that separates my escapism from my agency.

But I can't simply ignore the fact that what Kane is accused of doing is something that happens in the real world and something that can absolutely bleed within the walls. Hockey has a culture, but it is a subculture in North America. Everything that makes up the culture of hockey is something that can be found in what we are as people.

So when I read that hockey has a problem in its culture that it needs to fix, I have to agree because it's something which makes it very difficult to to keep liking it in the fun-bubble emotional state.

The problem here is locating where exactly this problem lives and how to eliminate it. Where are our moral guardians to attack such a cultural problem? Whose responsibility is it to repair the walls between the real world and the escapist entertainment?

Sadly, I think too many people are looking in the wrong direction and they're asking for disappointment in it. Many would like to see the league itself take the moral lead and protect us from the times when the real world invades. The thing is that we haven't armed the NHL for such a task and it's not what we actually want from the league. The NHL is the gatekeeper of this particular escapist resort. They are little more than dream police, and our demands of them are essentially little more than "keep the dream alive."

When the actual real world comes knocking, the NHL's one and only concern is keeping itself operating. They are going to acquiesce to bigger legal and bigger cultural powers of their own. Even the powerhouse NFL does this (although the NFL does sometimes tend to use the real world as a character all its own in their quest to bring harmless entertainment and drama into new places).

The sad truth is that we all have this unnerving dread that Slava Voynov is going to return to the NHL this coming season unless the US State Department specifically prevents it. Voynov might serve a bit more of a suspension into this season, but the NHL's decision whether to let him back into the league isn't one of morality, but more of how to best massage the public relations. The escapist NHL can't appear to condone acts that even in the real world incite fully-clawed rage without having people leave. They have to appear as a gatekeeper without letting the real world know that's what they're doing.

The cultural issue at play here is that the NHL is not going to extend a player's debt to society and it's not their job to do so. By many people's reckoning, Todd Bertuzzi should never have been allowed to play hockey again for his actions in 2004. Now, the subculture of hockey does have the ability to reach out and declare that a player is simply too toxic (too infected with the real world, if you will), and there's a decent argument that Bertuzzi might have found himself given such a punishment were it not for the year-long lockout, but after all was said and done, the NHL had a person who got sucked into a real world courtroom where he pled guilty to real world criminal charges and, by the time all was said and done, was considered by the real world to have paid his debt to society (though his personal debt to Steve Moore is still yet to be decided).

The real world didn't say Todd Bertuzzi should never play hockey again. The real world so far isn't saying Slava Voynov isn't going to be able to play hockey after he serves his jail time. The real world implications of the NHL telling either of these people they're never coming back are huge as well. The NHL can probably get away with it legally, but how comfortable are we asking our sports leagues to punish people to an extent we're not willing to demand our own real world justice systems do?

The fantasy of it may be too much to bear.

Obviously the NHL isn't powerless here and it's naive to say that cultural change has to come down from the main culture rather than building up from a subculture. The league's refusal to come up with a real code of conduct is starting to look very bad at a time when we have a guy get his contract immediately terminated for pills while a more useful player is likely very close to being welcomed back after committing a more-heinous real world crime. It certainly does make it much less comfortable trying to escape into a place where problems are being transparently treated as issues of entertainment value rather than cultural morality.

All I know is that if it comes down to Patrick Kane being guilty of the rape alleged, I'm leaving the kid gloves off my feelings about that and asking the real world to take the lead in handling the situation meaningfully before I ask my entertainment league to solve the problem of knowing there's a deeply disturbing cultural issue being played out where I don't want it to.

Perhaps it might be time to stop trying to escape these issues and start facing them like adults.