You know Colin Cowherd. He’s the talk radio lugnut and terrible human being who serves as a sort of biofuel for the sports blogosphere’s viral sound bite engine. Cowherd trades in the predilections of our weird times: dog-whistle bigotry, incendiary contrarianism and, when subtlety escapes him, old-fashioned shin-kicking (be warned: clip features a ‘Man Card’ reference). He’s admittedly “not a hockey person,” which is unsurprising considering his checks are signed by ESPN, The Worldwide Leader in Sports That We Hold the Rights To Broadcast And Also Synergized Content Crossovers (Next on First Take, Calvin Johnson and Skip Bayless have a Snickers eating content. Hungry? Why Wait?)
Yesterday, on his syndicated radio show, Cowherd took up the cause of New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella, whose press conferences are starting to resemble the Senate Subcommittee hearings of Tron Carter. Though Tortorella has every right to plead the Fifth after losing a critical game to the New Jersey Devils, his treatment of reporters jumped the fence from coolly pathological to post-Lehman Brothers Patrick Bateman with Wednesday’s petulant 37-word presser. If the Rangers drop the next game in New Jersey, I fear he’ll walk into the media room in a cold sweat and start seething about Pale Nimbus business cards with Romalian type.
After fighting for Tortorella’s right to pity party, Cowherd veered off into a bizarre rant about the reporters who caught the coach’s ire, labeling them as “young, cheap writers,” the bottom of the barrel at their respective outlets. Because they’re covering hockey, of course, a sport that Cowherd analogizes to a “speed bump proposal” meeting in a backwater town. “The guy covering the Florida Panthers,” Cowherd said, “He was at a floral show earlier in the week!”
He laughed at his own joke, which is a good metaphor for ESPN’s business model. Cowherd is a professional sadist — an internet troll whose avatar has sprung to life and leaped through the fourth wall. But he’s also a savvy company man. ESPN Senior Vice President Vince Doria recently said that “hockey doesn’t translate to television” and that it fails to “transfer to the national discussion.” Nevermind that ESPN has a vice grip on the national discussion, or that this is the same network that hoodwinked Americans into watching a wrinkled bag of oats in a cowboy hat stare listlessly at his hole cards for two hours, or that the 2010 Olympic gold-medal game between Canada and the U.S. was the most watched hockey game since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. In the ESPN narrative, hockey is a floral show covered by interns.
But would hockey fans really, truly want it any other way? Would they want Skip Bayless weighing in headshots? Would they want these nattering nabobs of negativism at their doorstep?
You never forget your first real, sincere, blubbering cry. When I was seven years old, the Penguins were off in some distant land in Western Canada — maybe Winnipeg, maybe Calgary or Edmonton. When I imagined those places, they were frozen tundras with a few farms and a big cathedral of hockey. Everything about a place like Winnipeg seemed mythical, even the name itself.
I had been listening to Mike Lange’s pregame routine as I finished my homework. He rattled off the names of the Jets like he was exhaling a cigarette — Keith Tkachuk, Alex Zhamnov, Igor Ulanov, Teppo Numminen. Every five minutes, Lange would disappear and I’d walk over to the basement television, punch the wooden paneling, and he’d come swimming out of the static, talking about sub-zero temperatures and Tim Hortons coffee. Who could blame Lange if he’d poured a bit of whiskey in it? In Winnipeg, you could see your breath in the broadcast booth. Or so I imagined.
Lemieux had a new pair of black and white KOHO gloves in the pregame skate. Bob Essensa was in the cage for the Jets, and he was wearing an existential goalie mask that resembled a red, white and blue Rorschach test. I had drawn it on my Math folder, alongside sketches of other iconic goalie masks: Curtis Joseph’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Cujo, Brian Hayward’s Jaws shark, Corey Hirsch’s Bates Motel, Kelly Hrudey’s Hollywood sign, and of course, Ken Wregget’s tribute to Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns (a mask so clever it has a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.)
My obsession with hockey had driven the nuns at my Catholic school to the point of delirium. “I’m praying you discover a less violent hobby,” one nun finally snapped. “Like studying.” During recess, I would shoot a rolled up ball of tape at a brick wall. A broom served as my hockey stick. I imagined that in Winnipeg, this wasn’t strange. There, someone would be willing to play goalie.
On the flickering television, the anthem singer belted out “O’ Canada,” and the crowd did, too. But by the time the puck dropped at 10:35 p.m., I was staring at the black ceiling of my room; stared so long that blackness became charcoal, then purple, and I wasn’t in the dark anymore. I had begged my father to let me watch the first period with him, but he sent me to bed. So I projected the game onto my bedroom walls. Lemieux would surely be slaloming through the crisp Winnipeg ice — the best in hockey Lange said. The Jets would be physical though. Western Canada was a gauntlet. Tie Domi would surely try to take a run at Mario early, and the crowd would lose it. They’d be shaking the Plexiglas and the big barn would roar. Winnipeg had a particular sound. The pings off the posts were a little sharper. The boards seemed hollow. They echoed.
No one understood.
I started to cry.
ESPN wants you to believe that there is no place for loneliness in sports, that it is a communal journey worthy of a national dialogue, best experienced as a Kubrikian entertainment smorgasbord of 50 side-by-side plasma televisions alongside fellow relevant, educated, up-to-the-minute sportsnuts in some suburban buffalo wing emporium.
This is their business, to make you feel decidedly unalone. To make sure you’re not coloring outside the lines; that your view of the light beer-sponsored sportscape is the right shade of brand-approved CMYK.
Many hockey fans are worried that this year’s hot new playoff fad of constructing human battlements in the crease will turn off the delicate, fickle masses to the great game of
blocky hockey. Then a blowhard like Cowherd comes along and affirms their deepest fears: They are laughing at us. We’re shooting against a brick wall. And we are alone. The world o’ sports keeps churning all around us — Kobe had his feelings hurt, the Cowboys are revved up for the new season, some guy threw a baseball at some other guy — and we’re left staring at the ceiling.
Winnipeg. No one understands.
I have had the rare pleasure of covering sports for nearly three years, and if I have learned anything in my brief time behind the curtain, it is that hockey is best left lonely. The other major sports have been cauterized, the locker rooms turned into Ruby Tuesdays franchises, the smiling PR goofuses shepherding around tired Bassett Hounds of reporters. A baseball player once conducted an entire one-on-one interview with me while playing Call of Duty on the plasma screen that appeared Goldeneye-style out of a compartment in his locker. He never once looked me in the eye. Luckily, you can still find a few hellhole visitors’ locker rooms around the NHL. You can still find a real-live human being under the equipment, too.
In this strange age of carnival barking sports provocateurs, of your mother calling you for fantasy football advice, of everyone being unalone together, chasing the Good Times with Miller Lite in The Year of the Buffalo Wild Wing, I find it strangely comforting to know that there are still dark corners of the world.
The fellas at the office may never understand the beauty of the ice in Edmonton having a vaguely bluish hue — at least not in the way they marvel at the green ivy at Wrigley or can smell the dogs at Camden Yards. But we can see it. This dark corner of the of the internet exists for people like us.
Welcome to the Floral Show.
**Images courtesy of Tom Turk**