If later today or on the morrow the news from the National Hockey League and its locked out players is not good, I have four words for frustrated Canadian hockey fans: Asia Ice Hockey League.
You got the sickness? The Asia Ice Hockey League's got the remedy!
After all, what most of us are missing in this awful season of no hockey isn't really the hockey so much as the need for something to talk about with people we don't know very well.
You know, the trivia, the meaningless statistics, the gossip about the fights, the suspensions, the unpleasant personalities, the ugly suits worn by some of the unpleasant personalities. Plus, there's the important need for ordinary folks like us to identify with a bunch of millionaires and their billionaire employers -- and to chatter happily about their halfhearted efforts on the ice as if they were something "we" all did together.
Face it, people, our neighbours to the south, most Europeans and even some Russians can talk to each other about the weather without feeling the need to punch each other out. But the weather in Canada? In the winter? What more is there to say than that it's shitty? Beyond that, as a topic of conversation the weather here doesn't have much going for it, except maybe on those occasions when it's even shittier.
Which is where the Asia Ice Hockey League comes in.
I have been following the Asia Ice Hockey League, at least as much as any sane person ever really follows hockey, for several years. It is the perfect antidote to the NHL, especially if like me you stopped caring about professional hockey on this continent around the time the new team in Minnesota was called the North Stars. (The Minnesota Wild? What kind of a hockey team name is "The Wild"?)
With seven teams, the Asia Ice Hockey League may not be the perfect size, but it is close enough, assuming that you, like me, think the perfect size was six.
Surely you agree that, from a fan's perspective anyway, the National Hockey League was better in every way when there were only six teams, and just two of them were in Canada?
This simplified things considerably if you were a Canadian who loved hockey. If you lived anywhere in Canada you could pull for the Canadiens, or if you happened to live in Toronto, for the Maple Leafs. (In the 1950s, the Leafs united Canada … in hatred.)
OK, I'll admit that having only six teams wasn't good news if you happened to be a pro hockey player, or for that matter a jumped-up drugstore billionaire with aspirations for an eventual obit that identified you as a sportsman. (I thought that meant you owned racehorses -- ed. Same diff, apparently -- Dave.)
I’m just saying, six teams is about the right number of teams for a hockey league, and the Asia Ice Hockey League has seven franchises, which is good, even if they're not located in places where it can be counted on to snow in the winter and don't have lame names like Bruins, Rangers and Red Wings.
Better, though, in the AIHL, instead of two countries to satisfy your urge for foolish (inter)national rivalries, there are three -- Japan, South Korea and China. Plus, of course, if you're a Canadian, there are always a few Canadian players knocking around to round out their poorly paid rosters.
Playoffs are in March, which is when hockey playoffs ought to be.
There's drama: Will the hapless China Dragon, out of Shanghai, a team so bad it can't even afford a plural S on its name, ever win a game? (Think of the Dragon this way: they're sort of the Asian answer to the Toronto Maple Leaf.) In fairness, I think they won a game back in 2009. Plus, unlike most professional sports leagues, the AIHL is always changing the schedule, so just figuring out when the next game is can be thrilling!
Nowadays, of course, there are a few hockey players with names you might recognize. In fact, if the NHL lockout continues to drag on after tomorrow, the Dragon may even manage to pick up a Leaf or two who can help them make history and win two in a season!
And there are those great team names: Many of us are still mourning the demise in 2009 of the Prince Rabbits from the DyDo Drinco Ice Arena in Seibu, Japan. (From this team came the first Japanese player ever drafted by the NHL, Hiroyuki Miura by the Habs in 1992, and the first ever to actually play in an NHL game, the unfortunately named Yutaka Fukufuji with the Los Angeles Kings in 2007 against the St. Louis Blues.) See what I mean about great trivia?
Just pick your team and start memorizing the meaningless trivia for your next conversation with the hockey nuts in your office -- here’s how they stack up right now, points wise:
1) Oji Eagles (Tomakomai, Japan)
2) Tohoku Free Blades (Hachinohe, Japan)
3) Anyang Halla (Anyang, South Korea)
4) Nikko Ice Bucks (Nikko, Japan)
5) Nippon Paper Cranes (Kushiro, Japan)
6) High1 (Chuncheon, South Korea)
7) China Dragon (Shanghai, China) (As usual, zero points.)
So who needs Don Cherry? Take a deep breath and tune in the AIHL. There's got to be a broadcast on one of those 2,000 high-definition channels you're paying for!
The AIHL is great and it'll go on being great until they decide to expand. The day the AIHL decides to admit a team from North Korea you'll know the good times are coming to an end.
The Pyongyang Proletarians? Forget it. Go China Dragon!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.