In Search of Hockey

In which the author goes to a sports bar, in hopes of figuring some things out about hockey.
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What part of "Hit The Pass" don't you understand?

Screengrab via Listal.

Like The Wire, driving and the state of Colorado, hockey is something toward which I’ve always feigned principled indifference as a cover for genuine apathy. I have vital opinions related to things that relate to hockey—Chicago hipsters ostentatiously asking if the thing on my face was a playoff beard a couple of years ago during a brief moment of relevance for the Blackhawks, e.g., seemed to me a way of saying I am concerned with what concerns the proles and thus interestingly offensive. But as to the sport as played on ice by large fast men, I could no more give you a reason to dislike than to like it.

So it surprised me when, after a Classical reader wrote to the editorial staff recently to denounce our lack of hockey coverage—and comparing our neglect of the Stanley Cup finals to ignoring the World Series or the NBA Finals—I had reactions. One was to wonder how and why one would think of a marginal sport whose jewel event draws about half the viewing audience Pawn Stars as an equal to baseball. The other was the faint stirring of a real interest. I love marginal sports! Random Chicago Fire games, second-tier MMA cards and amateur cyclocross races all do more for me than the Super Bowl. There’s something to marginal.

This is how I ended up on assignment at an Ann Arbor sports bar, watching Game Three of the Stanley Cup finals. Bell’s Oberon was on tap for $2.50, a signed Steve Yzerman jersey was mounted on the wall, and, blessedly, none of the dozen or so hockey fans at the bar seemed interested in pulling me aside to demonstrate hermetic knowledge. I was ready to enjoy things.

According to my Bell’s-stained notes, after Wayne Gretzky dropped the ceremonial first puck, I was immediately impressed by the Los Angeles Kings desperately careening around, chasing after loose pucks in/on their own half of the field/ice. There is a lot of tension in a hockey game, with everyone generally acting as if a small child is running around with a bottle of lye and has to be stopped immediately. I was also impressed to find that the horrible saw about how hockey is a live, as opposed to television, sport is entirely true.

My main previous hockey experience came at the University of Michigan in the Yost Arena, a large wooden beer cooler, where I attended a game with my friend Julian, a sports-indifferent Argentine who had even less idea what was going on than I did. It was beautiful. In person, the finely shredded ice kicking up from the edges of the players’ skates as they take the length of the ice in impossibly long strides, the muffled thumps as they crash the boards and the way you can watch the long plays build and sustain as holes spread and close in the defensive formations makes it all seem like a pretty dance—not one to which I was in any rush to devote my sporting heart, necessarily, but one worth appreciating. On television, in contrast, the whole thing looks like bird shot rolling around on a serving tray.

That said, if you stare at bird shot rolling around on a serving tray long enough you’ll start to see patterns, and a few minutes into a second Oberon, I started picking up the flow of the game, with long flights broken by scrums of intense jostling on the boards seemingly dominated by the Kings, and the soccer-like use of the long pass as a strategy. The regular order of it seemed impossibly disciplined and refined, except for how the New Jersey Devils seemed intent on taking shot after shot from 15 yards out, trying to thread the puck through eight men. I decided that they were stupid and deserved to lose. (Bell’s-soaked note: “The Devils are just obstinate.”)

At the end of the first period, the score was tied at nil. When some statistics were shown on-screen they went with what I thought I’d been seeing—the Devils had outshot the Kings 10-3, and been outhit 22-8. The intermission was grand. On a television next to the one showing the hockey game were first rumblings of hype for the San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder game was starting up. On that television, viewers saw tested Riefenstahl techniques being used to make guys like Boris Diaw seem like warrior-artists fixed on improvising in the face of the death of the will. On the other, a pale, clammy Gretzky was being interviewed in what may have been a utility closet, offering both teams the advice that you have to shoot the puck if you want to score. It was like a entry-level compare and contrast session for would-be television producers on how to present a sport as sport and how to present a sport with an awareness that, aside from a very small number of people, no one cares about sport as sport. (Imagine the preening, dimwitted guru running the Powerpoint: “The secret about basketball is that it’s not about the basketball.”)

As the second period started up, and the talk among the crowd began to drift more and more toward how much everyone hates LeBron James and how this is or isn't the Spurs’ year and how many damned shots Carmelo Anthony takes, this seemed to matter. As you know, anyone in a movie whose purpose is to be shot and die will generally be wearing a face-obscuring helmet, because if you can’t see someone’s face you don’t think of them as human, don’t identify with them, and don’t care what happens to them. The faces of hockey players aren’t as obscured as those of Imperial stormtroopers, but with the way the games are shot they may as well be. Anyone watching a basketball game will recognize Boris Diaw as a person like them, with an interior life, moderate weight problem, aspirations, and goals to be met as he clumsily paws at the ball. Watching a hockey game, you’re more or less just watching two colors go at it, which will concern you so far as you care about one of them. This may explain in part why Bridgeport and Pilsen will go suddenly hockey-mad when the Blackhawks are doing well, while fans in the biggest sports bar in a town of 114,000 in the heart of American hockey country have trouble getting more up for a Stanley Cup game between two non-local teams than they do for a basketball game involving a team from Oklahoma City.

Having had this sub-minor insight into why I’m a hockey agnostic, I stopped comparing the NHL’s production techniques to those of the NBA and just watched the game, which from three Oberons in was quite fun. The Kings, having worn down the Devils, got consistently closer in toward the net and took quick clean shots as Alyssa Milano, LL Cool J and David Beckham looked on approvingly, doubtless congratulating themselves for living in such a glamorous town.

I liked how the players threw up their sticks in anticipatory celebration even when the puck was nowhere near going into the net. I liked how the Devils’ relentlessly ticky-tack game did them no good whatever, while the Kings’ more methodical, high-percentage approach did. (Even without personal identification with the players, sports can make for good morality plays.) I liked that it was the team from New Jersey, rather than the one from Los Angeles, that was trying to trick shot the puck behind the net and back toward an advantageous position. I liked the way the Kings scored their second goal off a beautiful close-in pass from off the right flank, and how a slightly drunk guy next to me said to his friends, with the Kings up 2-0 in both the game and the series, “L.A. might sweep ‘em. Dude, they had, like, 35-1 odds.”

I liked all of it just so much, though, and with the Spurs and the Thunder on, that wasn't enough. I was surprised when I saw that the Kings, by about halfway through the third period, were up 4-0, with the production team keying in on Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur. (He looked as if he had a large iron girder on each shoulder and one on the back of his neck, making him at least as easy to identify with as Kawhi Leonard.) I wasn’t surprised when the hockey fans couldn’t tell me how the goals were scored; by then, they were all fixed on Boris Diaw, too.

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