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The NHL won't let me love hockey anymore

Once upon a long time ago, I loved skating and hockey.

I took my first tentative stride on a frozen pond at age six or seven and, scant seconds later, I went splat! and suffered my first bloodied, swollen lip. It was the size of a Michelin tire.

I quickly became a serial stumbler on skates. Compared to me, Bambi was Sonja Henie.

It was as if my mission in life was to serve as a crash-test dummy and confirm the unforgiving firmness of ice.

My wobbly ways led to elbows and knees bruised like rotting bananas, and I soon concluded that falling with such regularity was something I didn't enjoy. I wanted no part of it. Piano lessons seemed the better bet. They were, after all, conducted in the warmth and coziness of our living room, and not once had my upper lip hit the keyboard and bloated up like my Uncle Jim's tummy after an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Alas, some wise acre thought it would be a swell idea to sign me up to play hockey. That's right, it wasn't enough that I fell on my own; now the other kids would be allowed to knock me down. Deliberately. Without retribution.

Except I was such a dreadful skater that they stuck me in goal, only to discover that I couldn't stop a puck either, so I spent the rest of my first hockey winter watching from a board-side snow bank.

My second year of Little NHL was no less a disaster. I was recognized league wide as the worst player, and scored my only goal of the season in the final game. It took no amount of skill, other than standing on my wonky ankles at the lip of the crease and shoveling the puck two feet into an empty net.

I harbored zero fondness for hockey. It was a curse.

Then an odd thing occurred in my third winter of hockey. As if by magic, my legs and feet worked in concert. I could skate. Fast. I went from one goal to 50-plus and became the Little NHL scoring champion. Our league all-star team won the Pee Wee title against neighboring communities.

Best of all, many of the kids who once teased and taunted me for being so small, frail and, to use their term, a sissy now wanted to buddy-up.

I loved hockey.

Hockey became my joy, the rink my safe place. My escape from demons. I would go to the outdoor freeze after dinner each night to skate and play shinny in the worst weather, and all concerns vanished. Nothing mattered, not the inevitable scolding I'd receive for my so-so report card, not the back of my dad's hand, not being grounded for an imagined violation, not gender confusion. It was just skating and hockey and a fantasy-like state of existence for a few hours.

It stayed that way throughout my youth, then fate took a very favorable turn and I was hired to write sports for a newspaper, fresh out of high school.

It was a dream job that I lived for 30 years. I covered everything from Pee Wee to the National Hockey League for five different dailies, and sat on press row in story-studded citadels like Madison Square Garden, the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens. I enjoyed natters with giants of the game—Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Vladislav Tretiak—and walked among the fabulous—Jean Beliveau—and the felonious—Humpty Harold Ballard and Alan Eagleson.

I was there when Gretzky made his professional debut in Indianapolis, I was there when the Winnipeg Jets won the final Avco World Trophy, and I was there when the Edmonton Oilers took ownership of the Stanley Cup for the first time.

I loved hockey. Then.

Now?

Gary Bettman won't allow me to love hockey anymore.

The NHL commissioner, you see, continues to trumpet the "Hockey Is For Everyone" mantra, but we know his pants are on fire. It's his "Don't Say Gay" league's Trademark Big Lie, which some of us have been emphasizing since 2018, and many among the rabble and media are just now wising up to that reality.

They started to clue in when Bettman and team bankrolls put the kibosh on players wearing specialty theme jerseys in support of various causes/groups in pregame warmup, a directive that even the most naive should have seen as an anti-gay attack. If doubt remained, the NHL's Rainbow Resistance Movement arrived at its predictable end-game this week with an idiotic ban on Pride tape.

That is, NHL players no longer will be permitted to wrap their hockey sticks with Pride rainbow tape anywhere on earth, except perhaps in a game of road hockey with the neighborhood kids. But, even at that, they'll likely have to do it under the cloak of darkness, for fear mysterious men in black might approach and confiscate their sticks and sponge puck.

And that's the tipping point for me, because it's just stupid.

Bettman/owners have totally caved to seven Bible-thumpers and/or Putin Puppets who refused to wear Pride colors last season.

Look, I spent enough time in men's hockey to know toxins have always existed—misogyny, racism, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, bullying—and they seem more prevalent today, undoubtedly due to the shifting of people's sensibilities. (Ask the disgraced Mike Babcock or Kevin Constantine about that.) But you can't light a room by placing a basket over the candle, and you don't eradicate homophobia by being homophobic.

So this is truly a sad moment in time. The NHL, so full of toxins, has become the toxin.

I'd remind Bettman that his NHL and the NHL Players Association issued a Declaration of Principles in September 2017, the last of which read: "We believe all hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation, and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone."

I sorry, boys, but I don’t want to hear about hockey being 'for everyone' when the NHL remains the least diverse of all major men’s sports leagues in North America, and it refuses to permit its on-ice employees to support a marginalized group for 15 minutes once a year.

There's nothing to love in that.