In the old days, NHL players finished their season at the end of a weekend in mid-April and went to their summer jobs the following Monday. For the country players, that meant returning to the family farm to work the land, and for city folk it meant working at a car dealership, an insurance company, or whatever other business they had arranged during the season. They got to training camp in early October, and only then did they start to get in shape. By Christmas, they were game fit and skating full stride.
Today’s players are expected to be at camp early (to show leadership and enthusiasm) and in flawless condition. A player even marginally out of shape will be sent home or demoted. Given that training camp typically opens around Labour Day (the first Monday in September) and the season ends in early June for many players, there is precious little time to recover before they have to hit the gym to begin the training process again.
But hockey is no longer about just the hockey games, even though these constitute about ten pre-season games, 82 more in the regular season, and, possibly, about 25 more in the playoffs (not counting a couple of weeks of camp before playing).
The NHL Awards are rushed into effect only days after the final Stanley Cup playoff game, and a week later the Entry Draft is held in a swirl of excitement among rotating cities. During the playoffs, the NHL also holds its “combine” as a final test and exam for all incoming juniors, and every July there is a rookie camp for the newest drafted players.
Imagine being a top flight junior like John Tavares who plays Canadian junior hockey. He has the pre-season, regular season, league playoffs, Memorial Cup playoffs, and then he must remain in top shape for the combine and rookie camp. He has August off, but if he’s going to show up to the New York Islanders’ training camp in early September as the team’s Saviour, he must remain in flawless physical condition. He has NO break to speak of.
And consider the job of the general manager. Older, a little thicker around the waist, he doesn’t have to be in peak physical condition, but he does have to be thinking 12 months of the year. For him, his “third season” (after the regular season and playoffs) starts the minute his team is eliminated from the playoffs. He must prepare for arbitration hearings, negotiate with restricted free agents before July 1, and then negotiate with unrestricted free agents as soon as noon hits on that fateful July 1 afternoon. He then must continue to make phone calls, negotiate with lesser or still available UFAs all summer. His idea of vacation is dinner at home.
Fans have the luxury of following all the action from the comfort of their living room, their computer, and their newspaper. But even fans might like a bit of a break. In addition to all of the above, they have to sort through all the off-season moves – the draft, free agents leaving and arriving, occasional minor deals or signings – and have other things to consider. The new schedule comes out in July and various cable packages start their advertising right away. Players retire (think Kenny Jönsson, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Sakic, Teppo Numminen) and others leave for Europe or come from Europe. Even just following the game is a 365-day-a-year commitment. If you go away for a couple of weeks in the summer, chances are you don’t know all the players on your favourite team any more.
And then consider the seasons where there is a World Cup to play in August and September or an Olympics to squeeze into the middle of a season as the one coming up. More hockey, more teams, more players to follow in an international context. Speaking of which, we haven’t even touched on the World U20 Championship, which occupies the every minute of fans from Christmas to the first week of January (and training camp for that starts around December 1). Of course, there is the World Women’s Championship as well, and the (men’s) World Championship which runs concurrent with the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the U18. Oh, and don’t forget the invitational U18 in the summer.
And that’s just the big stuff! There’s the AHL, where top players develop, the major junior leagues in Canada and college teams in the U.S. – where stars of the future learn the game – as well as all the hockey in Europe. Frölunda, for instance, opened its dryland training camp two weeks ago! As well, you have to follow the KHL now, at least a bit, and there are the various leagues in Europe as well as European club competitions, the Victoria Cup, and other shorter tournaments (Spengler Cup, Euro Hockey Tour, Deutschland Cup, etc).
And what about the business of the game? It’s not just about shooting and passing anymore. Think of our current summer. Every day has significant news about the fate of the Phoenix Coyotes. It seems not a week goes by without a contract disagreement between the NHL and KHL. Geez, Alexander Burrows can’t even play summer hockey without being involved in an on-ice incident which might bring criminal charges. The Hockey News shouldn’t think about scaling back its production – it should become a daily newspaper!
Hockey is an all-consuming sport. It has expanded in the last 30 years almost to the point of exploding. If you love hockey, every day is a hockey day for you. But if you’re in the business of hockey, there are surely some days you want to scream out loud – give me a break!