If only this were the end of election-year politics in hockey

While opening night in Philadelphia was the epicenter of the "hockey vs. politics" debate over the weekend, it wasn't the only hockey game to feature an appearance by a politician up for election. The Carolina Hurricanes welcomed North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole to their opening night on Friday, where she rang the new "Hurricanes Warning Siren" during the team's entrance.

Perhaps Dole and the Hurricanes get a pass because she's a sitting senator. Or perhaps they don't, because she's entrenched in one of the most contentious reelection bids in the nation. Perhaps the bottom line is that in light of recent events in our economy, no politician should be photographed standing near a giant pig. And that obviously goes for Democrats and Republicans.

Outside of occasional issues about arena construction or municipal considerations, puckheads delight in keeping politics out of their hockey, even if sometimes the intersection is unavoidable. At the arena, I don't care who you voted for; I care about whether you're holding up the beer line, rooting for the right team or if you've invited a girl who won't stop talking about everything but hockey during the game.

Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider inviting a vice presidential candidate from the other side of the country was completely avoidable, but ultimately his choice. It was his choice to stage a political photo op that upstaged his own franchise's opening night, as postgame headlines blared "Palin drops puck, Rangers beat Flyers." It was his choice to divide a united fan base with a publicity stunt. He owns his decision, as much as he owns the backlash that overshadowed hockey for a weekend in October.

Our Gov. Sarah Palin story from over the weekend earned nearly 2,000 comments, and e-mails filled our inbox from the outraged to the amused. The NHL now has two lost weekends of coverage: One wasted in Europe, and one overshadowed by Palin's appearance before a New York Rangers/Philadelphia Flyers game.

Did the fans boo? Did they cheer? That was the hottest topic of conversation about hockey last weekend. The 700 Level provided several angles, from official footage to fan-cams, and several different levels of appreciation or vocal objection. Depending on your political inclinations, you'll hear what you want to hear.

Chuck Bausman of the Philadelphia Daily News certainly did:

This Flyers crowd, perhaps annoyed that politics would be interjected into their sport without their permission, was not kind. The booing and jeers lasted throughout the brief ceremony. Then, Sarah Smile was gone.

Then, the 19,623 fans could enjoy their favorite battleground opponent - the Rangers. This red state/blue state thing is important, but it shouldn't interfere with hockey. The only thing red this crowd cared about was seeing the blood of the Rangers on the ice.

Then, the veteran of self-immolation when interviewed by Katie Couric sat down for an interview with Steve Coates on "Coatesy's Corner," a safe venue with no annoying policy questions, or any questions about what she does when Vladimir Putin sends Russian planes over her Alaskan airspace. From Coates it was all Hockey Mom stuff and she responded with her bubbly and charming personality. Palin is terrific as Hockey Mom. She should continue that role, long into future.

The aforementioned "Coatesy's Corner" segment.

Of course, there's a completely different perspective on the Flyers' fans reaction, from Shushannah Walshe of Fox News:

The GOP Vice-Presidential nominee said at an earlier fundraiser that she would stop some of the booing from the rowdy Philadelphia fans by putting her seven year old daughter, Piper in a Flyers jersey. She said, "How dare they boo Piper!"

Her secret weapon may have worked. The crowd in this staunchly Democratic city -visited today by Barack Obama-gave Palin mixed reviews. There were audible boos over the very loud music and some in the crowd had their thumbs down, but there were also many people clapping and cheering the GOP Vice-Presidential nominee.

No matter which take you believe, no matter which video you feel tells the real story (and, in perhaps the most idiotic correspondence of the weekend, we were accused of adjusting the audio levels of a YouTube clip we didn't even create), the question remains:

Was this good for the NHL?

The answer, by any rationale measure, should be a resounding "no." The Game was reduced to a prop in a political campaign; a kissed baby or a personalized jersey at a stump stop. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly is delusional for saying the following after the Palin appearance:

"Governor Palin is a supporter of the sport, which she has proclaimed publicly. As a public figure who has a very public connection with hockey, her recent associations with the Flyers and other NHL franchises is not surprising and, in our view, not inappropriate."

This isn't the Detroit Red Wings going to see President Bush at the White House; this is a national candidate using opening night in a swing-state arena as a campaign commercial, and an NHL owner being complicit in that promotion. Would Daly and Bettman be hands-off if Snider began filling time between periods with McCain/Palin campaign commercials on the Jumbotron? Would they defend Barack Obama Night in Tampa Bay? 

Again, let's not get confused here: This isn't about the GOP or Sarah Palin. This is about the blatant, unforgiving mixing of election year politics and professional sports; which, at last glance, were supposed to be an escape from that sort of thing. Like movies; which is why anything with explosions in a desert is D.O.A. and a talking dog is No. 1.

Hell, even the players are sick of politics. From Boston Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward, via Stanley Cup of Chowder:

"And here's my Stewart Smalley thought of the day: I am looking forward to the day after the Presidential Election, so I can have my normal commercials back.

"I am sick of listening to who went to what party and who they knew there and who they didn't know. I am looking forward to the cartoon commercials with the bear with the roll of TP on the tree, telling the little bear not to use too much.

"I just miss my old school commercials."

And we miss the good old hockey game, too. Where there's more focus on the real opening faceoff instead of the ceremonial one. Where the only changes we can believe in are when the fourth line comes off and the first line comes on. And where you want to punch the guy next to you not because of his politics, but for more important reasons ... like wearing the wrong jersey to your arena, or refusing to sing along to "The Hockey Song."

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