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Screen Shots: Debate must continue in order to improve the game

Brendan Shanahan's summit following the lockout help shape the game today. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Brendan Shanahan's summit following the lockout help shape the game today. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

At a time when the phrase “hockey mom” has been co-opted to soften the façade of a political party not renowned for its nurturing nature, I felt the need to talk a little politics with you.

No, I’m not going to delve into my political views. Most regular readers are already aware of my bleeding-heart socialist leanings; and I’m not in the mood to have my email inbox overflow with vitriol and rage before NHL training camps begin.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the politics of hockey itself – and specifically, the oft-repeated criticisms of people who enjoy debating the pros and cons of all aspects of the game.

Said criticisms usually come in the form of the following argument: “The game is great as it is. We’ve already made enough changes to it, so why can’t people just enjoy it and leave it be?”

On some levels, I understand and agree with that sentiment. But I also believe there’s an inherent, significant danger to the notion of being satisfied with the status quo.

Indeed, there are more than a couple people who will tell you the lack of serious debate about the NHL’s product throughout the 1990s led directly to the Dead Puck/Clutch-and-Grab Era that tested even the most devout hockey fans’ ability to keep their eyelids in the ‘up’ position during games.

But it wasn’t simply an absence of analysis that hurt the NHL so badly. It’s the aforementioned attitude that eschews all critical comment as being somehow offensive that truly hamstrings the sport.

To wit: Hall of Fame-bound NHLers such as Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux were labeled as whiners and me-first mopers during their playing careers merely for telling the hockey world what it has since come to accept: the game needed fixing – and not in a minor way.

For having the stones to speak up, both stars were shouted down. For daring to suggest it might be worthwhile to explore alternative ways to play the game, both were derided as traitors who deserved to have their tongues cut out.

Even now, even after Lemieux and Hull were proven prescient in their appraisals of what ailed the sport, neither guy gets his due for it. And when you consider what it took for major changes to the NHL to actually come to pass – a season-long lockout, followed by an initiative that came not from the league, but from a player (Brendan Shanahan) – you have to wonder what the game would look like today if that conservative, shut-up-and-play mentality was permitted to prosper.

Actually, you don’t have to wonder at all. Without Shanahan’s courage, the NHL still would continue to give its greatest rewards to participants who preferred to lodge their sticks firmly in their opponents’ mid-sections and water-ski behind them up and down the ice; the league would remain a workplace in which endless cycling of the puck and the curtailing of skill mattered more than goals and those who could score them; and professional hockey would continue to fall further off the radar of the average sports fan.

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That’s why honest debate and constructive critical analysis matters so much to the long-term good of the sport. That’s why we need a new generation of Hulls and Lemieuxs to tell us what is and isn’t working, on the ice and off of it. That’s why the hockey media can’t allow itself to fall into familiar patterns of sycophancy and unqualified acceptance of everything the game’s establishment deems unassailable.

That isn’t to say we can’t have a modicum of dignity, decency and respect for those we don’t see eye-to-eye with. In fact, one of the nicest calls I received in a long time was from Hockey Night In Canada host Ron MacLean, who left me an extended voicemail last spring after I wrote a column that referenced him.

MacLean called primarily to set me straight on the facts as he saw them, but he went out of his way to note that, although we both have drastically different opinions on how the game ought to be played, there was a place for both of us in the hockey spectrum.

It was an extremely classy move on his behalf. And I try to apply the same philosophy to any and all who disagree with my opinions. Not only do I not mind in the least if you don’t see things precisely as I do, I prefer it that way.

The chance to quarrel and dissent over matters that mattered to me was one of the biggest reasons I got into the sportswriting business.

The day that can’t happen any longer is the day I’ll take my leave from it.

Adam Proteau is The Hockey News' online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays in the summer, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.

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