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Jason Notte

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Why Hockey Should Give Palin a Pass

Posted: 10/14/08 11:43 AM ET

When I was little more than three years old, my father pulled me into the living room, scooped my infant sister from her crib and yelled like a madman as the U.S. men's hockey team went onto its Winter Olympics win over the Soviet Union in 1980. In that moment, with my dad bouncing around like a marsupial, my sister along for the ride and my young mouth trying to form the word "Eruzione," the Nottes became a hockey family.

The unity in that room and during countless evenings spent in cold arenas since stood in stark contrast to the divisions with Philadelphia's Wachovia Center on Saturday night, when vice-presidential hopeful and avowed hockey mom Sarah Palin turned an already volatile meeting between the Flyers and the New York Rangers into a referendum on the presidential election with the drop of a puck. The Obama/Biden signs and cascade of boos that was prevented from becoming a shower of Budweiser only by the presence of Palin's daughters, Willow and Piper, were more suited to a Florida recount than a Turnpike hockey rivalry.

If the Miracle on Ice served as an example of how politics and hockey could bring a whole country together on the medal stand, Palin's puck drop countered that the two should be kept as far away from each other as opposing goons during a blowout. For a sport confined primarily to North America, Europe and Russia, short on racial and ethnic diversity and long on expensive equipment that can prove exclusive to lower-income enthusiasts, hockey has taken on more than its share of the diplomatic burden.

During the Cold War, the Lake Placid Olympics were just the start of a long and ill-advised attempt to prevent a nuclear standoff through power plays and penalty shots. While the NHL-vs.-Russia two-game matchup "Rendezvous'87" and the Canada Cup series featured inspired play and helped inspire defections, the 1987 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, was hockey's version of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Who would've guessed that, in a game in which a Canadian player pretended to gun down the Soviet bench after scoring a goal and the Soviets returned the favor by flailing their sticks at anyone who looked like a member of Rush, there would be a 20 minute brawl that would continue even after the arena lights were turned off? If you ever want a lesson in 1980s global affairs, go to a bar in Kingston, Ont., sometime and chat up a regular about the "Punch-Up in Piestany." It will make Cold War polemics such as Rocky IV, The Day After and Red Dawn seem even-handed.

In the Soviet Union's absence, North America's hockey constituencies began to target each other. At the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, Montreal Canadiens fans spurned membership in the coalition of the willing by booing the U.S. national anthem into the background before a game against the New York Islanders. Fans in Boston responded with an ovation of the Canadian anthem a few games later, but the San Jose Sharks faithful held onto their grudge for three years before booing "O Canada" during a 2006 playoff series with the Edmonton Oilers. Sadly, after five years of booing from both sides, border policies have tightened and America's hold on Iraq hasn't slackened.

But why pester our neighbors to the north when there are plenty of fights to be picked right here at home? Portland, Ore.-based blog More Hockey, Less War was transformed from a little local politics and hockey site to a voice in the upcoming presidential election after their bumper sticker was name-dropped during commentary by National Public Radio hockey mom Polly Ingraham. Apparently disgusted by comparisons to drooling canines in cosmetics, some Alaskan hockey moms have chosen to distance themselves from Palin by calling attention to Troopergate and Palin's other problems at Alaskan Hockey Moms for Obama. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign itself has begun recruiting hockey moms and fans to canvass the hockey-mad swing state of New Hampshire later this week.

Such posturing will only hurt hockey. Often viewed as the pale, toothless, mouth-breathing younger cousin of America's major sports, hockey and its fans have struggled mightily to shed the lunkhead image assigned by face-painted "Seinfeld" puckhead David Puddy or Liz Lemon's dimwitted Islanders-loving boyfriend Dennis Duffy on "30 Rock." The last thing the sport needs is to be batted around by parties facing off for political advantage.

Despite the checking, fighting and occasional criminal charges for viciously hitting someone from behind with a stick, there's still an argument to be made for hockey as a positive force for change. New York's Ice Hockey in Harlem, Chicago's Inner-City Education (ICE) and Pittsburgh's Hockey In The Hood are just some of the programs that use subsidized hockey as a catalyst for inner-city school programs. Farther afield, and despite being a 6'9 Slovakian defenseman who looks somewhat awkward amid a crowd of Mozambique villagers, Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara has joined Wayne Gretzky and the group Right to Play in helping to bring games and a small measure of peace to children in war-torn countries.

It's hard not to think of the Stanley Cup as an ambassador for goodwill, either. Everywhere it goes, people want to take pictures of it, hold it, place children in it, etc. They seem overjoyed to be around the cup even when they have no idea what it is or what to do with it - as was the case with hockey-deprived Brit and Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliot, who placed it on a pedestal upside down during an NHL season-opening show in Detroit earlier this month. Even when it takes trips to the White House or over to Afghanistan to visit NATO troops, it does so as a politically neutral observer.

Holding more weight than all of that, however, was Sept. 11. When the hijackers considered the World Trade Center as a target, they saw it as a symbol of American economic power that had to go down. To this day, I remember it as the home of the PATH station from which me and my friend Dan, a die-hard New Jersey Devils fan, emerged to watch the Rangers' Stanley Cup victory parade in 1994. We stood a block east of the towers amid a sea of its workers, fellow hockey fans and a whole lot of people who knew icing only as the colorful topping on a cupcake. Maybe they'd heard that the Rangers had broken some 54-year-old curse or they just wanted to see tickertape in the Canyon of Heroes, but hockey had brought them there and they seemed happier for it.

When the towers fell seven years later, several of the people who were in the parade crowd that day were lost with them. Sports were relegated to an postponed afterthought, and received only middling attention when they first returned. Ten days after the attacks, at a Rangers-Flyers game in Philadelphia not unlike the one Palin attended, President Bush's address to Congress was played just before the start of the third period. When the crowd was told that it would be turned off when the game resumed, more than 19,000 fans chanted "Leave it on." At the end of the address, the Rangers and the Flyers shook hands and ended the game in a 2-2 tie "out of respect for where the United States was headed in the near future."

Six years later, the United States is still trying to determine what that future may be. Amid ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a sagging economy, the gravity of the looming November vote is not lost on the majority of Americans. Out of respect for where this nation is heading in the near future, the presidential candidates should follow the lead of the hockey players of 2001, realize that it isn't always about them and stop treading on our thin ice. It may seem like a lot to ask during the last few weeks of the campaign, but any American hockey family can tell you there's a reason to believe in miracles.

 

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