Did it or didn’t it cross the line? 

Leaf fans will be debating that for days, weeks, even years to come.  If you ask me, it was a goal, but there are plenty of people (including the referees) who will tell you it wasn’t.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  It’s over.  Let the curtain drop.  It’s time to go home.  There is no encore to come.  Cancel the parade. 

And so ends another heartbreaking season for Leaf fans.  As the players empty their lockers and hang up their skates for the summer, and as the coach and management staff break open the Want Ads (because you gotta figure they are out), it’s a good moment for a little bit of reflection on the state of hockey. 

 I can’t and won’t speak for anyone else, but I will speak for myself. 

I have noticed something this past season that I’m struggling with.  Betting sites have turned the game into a means by which money is made and lost in every game. And I’m not being naïve. I know professional sports have been about money for decades now.  If you remember the days when the boards used to be plain white, you know how much the game has surrendered itself to corporate interests over the past 40 years.  But when I hear Ron Maclean talking about the over/under on whether Marner will score, it feels like we are in new territory. 

The game has become about the gamble.

 Sites like Bet360 and FanDuel are ready to take any and all bets on everything from whether the Leafs will win a faceoff, to who gets the first penalty.  Fans can sit with phones in their hands, making bets in real time as the games are going on.  And I know it’s not just hockey, every professional sport (and many amateur sports) have become betting factories where money is won and lost by the millions. 

I’m by no means a prude, but I do wonder where all of this is going. 

Most of us became hockey fans (or baseball fans, or soccer fans, or basketball fans) because we love the game.  Many of us played it as kids, and so the game is grafted into us, forming part of the beautiful bookshelf of childhood memories that many of us carry with us. I still remember getting up at 6am for an outdoor hockey practice in -20 degree weather, followed by a hot chocolate and cherry cruller at a Country Style Donuts.  I also remember the smell of chestnuts cooking outside Maple Leaf Gardens as my dad and I made our way to watch the 1970’s Leafs (loved Borje Salming).  They are and always will be wonderful memories for me that cemented my love for the game.  I knew I was never going to make the big leagues.  Heck, I knew I was lucky to make the first line on my House League team, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to play it and watch it and be part of it. 

Have we lost some of that?  It used to be that only big business and the players could make big bucks in professional sports, but now every fan has the opportunity to turn the game into a profit making endeavour.  Is it a step forward, or is it a step backward?  As we wager on each game, are we wagering away some of the beauty that drew us to it in the first place?

Jay Sterling in his book, “In Dreams” says this, “I love the smell of the ice…and the cold.  The sound the puck makes at it slides across the ice, or hits the net for a goal.  I love the sound of the sticks crashing against one another.  The sound my skates make when I come to a hard stop.  The roar of the crowd.  The way I feel when I’m playing.  I feel like I can do things on this ice that I can’t do anywhere else.” 

That author reminds us that hockey is a very special game.  When played well, it enlivens all of our senses.  We love it not because it will make us wealthy, we love it because it will make us richer.  There is something about it that makes us want to sit up taller and cheer and believe in our team even when our team breaks our hearts.

 I do worry about the state of game, but I’m not ready to throw in the towel.  I’ll be back again next season.  I love it too much.