Friday, September 16, 2005

NHL Outlaws Old Guys

Mark Messier is unquestionably one of the greatest winners in National Hockey League history.  Five of his Edmonton Oiler teams skated away with the Stanley Cup.  He also earned a place in New York sports lore by leading the Rangers to a memorable title in 1994.  But this week Messier succumbed to an opponent he just couldn’t defeat: the NHL’s campaign to get rid of old guys.


Messier is 44 years old and just one of several 40–something stars who have retired in recent weeks.  Other notable players who have called it quits include 42–year-olds Ron Francis and Al MacInnis, as well as Scott Stevens, 41.  All future Hall of Famers, they seemingly ended their careers voluntarily.  In reality, they were forced out by the NHL’s zero tolerance policy toward players over 40.


The campaign was instituted by league officials to address marketing concerns after last season’s strike.  Having faded in popularity within the American sports landscape, the NHL decided to re-position itself to our youth-obsessed culture.  The league endlessly trumpeted Sidney Crosby, the #1 draft pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins, simply because he’s 17.  The fixation on youth has gone so far that the front line for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks includes two characters from “The OC.”


However, this policy may backfire for the NHL, having already caused one major embarassment.  The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team provided some of the most magical moments in American sports history.  Yet not one member of that group is currently playing in the National Hockey League.  Clearly they face an enemy more powerful than the Soviets.  Do you believe in ageism – yes!


Some players remain defiant of the order.  Stalwarts such as Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, and Brett Hull are at least 40 and still active.  Hull obstinately looks forward to playing under new coach Wayne Gretzky for the Phoenix Coyotes.  But don’t expect the league office to yield.  Reached for comment about these holdouts, commissioner Gary Bettman remarked, “We have a team in Phoenix?”


It should be noted that Mario Lemieux turns 40 on October 5.  To overcome NHL officials and take his place on the ice, he’ll truly have to be Super Mario.