If you were here ten years ago, during the summer, you might have seen the New York Rangers chauffeuring the Stanley Cup around town. They took it on David Letterman and did Stupid Cup Tricks with it; they took it to the bars, always making sure to drink from the bowl; and Mark Messier, the Rangers’ veteran leader, brought the cup onstage, with gyrating admiresses, at the upscale strip club Scores. At the end of summer, the trophy was sent up to Canada for repairs.
Times have changed. The Rangers haven’t made the playoffs since 1997, despite management’s increasingly desperate recourse to high-priced and usually over-the-hill superstars like Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros, cementing the team’s historic position as the place where great hockey careers go to die. Early in 2004, the Rangers acquired their latest last best hope, Jaromir Jagr, one of the most prolific scorers of the nineties, who immediately established a reputation for prolific tipping at the new Scores West Side. Yet this past summer it was delegates to the Republican convention, not broad-shouldered, bowlegged NHLers, who were most likely to make the short trip to Scores from Madison Square Garden.
The players were busy preparing for a nasty labor dispute, which has now become a lockout and scattered them to the ends of the Earth—to Prague and St. Petersburg, to Karpat, Finland, and Bolzano, Italy. Like other workers in the age of globalized capital, they followed the money and sublet their apartments. As for Jagr, who wears No. 68 in honor of that year’s brief Czech rebellion against the Soviets, he has been tempted by billionaire Roman Abramovich to play for the Omsk Avangard, in the Siberian town where Dostoyevsky spent four years in exile, an experience that formed the basis for his novel The House of the Dead. Now it is Madison Square Garden, with its mediocre Knicks and vanished Rangers, that is truly the house of the dead.
And yet for hockey fans, it’s all a very complicated tragedy. Because historically, the great games were always played at the international level, in the Canada Cups and Winter Olympics. The NHL was more of a placeholder, a reminder of the existence of hockey, rather than the essence of hockey itself. The playoffs were excellent and hard-fought, but they were so hard-fought that they had started spilling over into June. And the NHL had rigged things in such a way that you could not have the playoffs until you first had a regular season. This meant more hockey—222 games all told, if you followed the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils—but because practically everyone was admitted to the playoffs and then proceeded to metamorphose into completely different teams, this regular season increasingly came to seem fraudulent. Unless of course you were a Rangers fan, in which case the regular season was the only fraud you got.
In addition to accounting fraud, that is. Forbes now reports that teams have systematically exaggerated losses by failing to include revenue clearly linked to their hockey operations. It turns out, in fact, that most American hockey teams are basically fronts for cable conglomerates and real-estate empires; paying for hockey is like paying for a museum, in this case of an ancient Canadian art, after which you reap various public benefits. So in its way, it’s a little touching that the players thought the owners would call them back when they walked out the door. Cablevision, for example, which owns the Rangers and the Knicks and the Garden, and which, according to Forbes, uses the Rangers as a loss leader for its very profitable sports-programming branch, has not been pulling a long face. While a Russian oligarch is keeping the Rangers’ star forward in leather jackets, the team is happily spending Jagr’s would-be millions on those television ads against the West Side stadium. The thing is, hockey fans would probably forgive them—if only they’d broadcast an occasional game of the Omsk Avangard.