Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Of Ice and Men

So I’m a hockey fan.
Don’t laugh or shrug or roll your eyes—this is serious stuff. Let me explain.

What I am not, in this case at least, is a stats geek. I do enjoy the charms of statistics when they highlight an outlier, or underline the utter improbableness of a given event. Numbers tell their best stories when they have a few plot twists poking out of their average bag. But who scored how many goals in what number of minutes on ice? Not my cup of tea. And I rarely drink tea.
What I am not, also, is an admirer of a particular team, or someone who goes nuts about specific players. Which is not to say that I don’t have a favorite team: after all, I was born and raised in Montreal, where rooting for any team other than the Canadiens—if you happen to root for anyone at all—is grounds for banishment. I learned to walk both in the shadow of the Rocket and in the blinding glare of Guy Lafleur, lost in the endless space between numbers 9 and 10, listening to uncles argue ad nauseam about one of the myriad aspects of their obsession, and always thinking that when I grew to be their age—a terrifying prospect—logic dictated there would be an exceptional Habs player wearing the number 11. (I was right.) Now, while I would not dare deny there are some players whose work I especially enjoy to watch, I don’t feel attached to them the way most self-proclaimed hockey fans might.
No. What I love about hockey, what I savor with my eyes and ears and even my nose when I happen to stand where pucks are being passed and shot and stopped, is the game itself: a masterpiece of design and refinement. 
Let’s not delve into the rules themselves, as that endeavor alone would yield an entire book—as it already has, many times over. (All right, I will permit myself a curt mention of the blue line, which generates a multitude of delightful situations. The way such a simple concept manages to sire a whole universe of outcomes boggles the mind.) Rather, let us peek at the bare bones of what makes ice hockey the game it is today. For an outsider, armed with nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the various articles that regulate the game, hockey completely mystifies.

It is played on a frozen liquid: a country pond, a frosted street between two houses during winter, or even, as is the case in most professional contexts, an artificially refrigerated surface. Two groups, each six men strong, take to the playing area with steel blades attached to their shoes. Such contraptions allow them not only to better navigate the frozen terrain, but to reach speeds unimaginable in any other man-powered sport. For hockey is a game of speed—as any player above the age of 30 will painfully attest. 

Each player is required to handle the central component of the game—a frozen disc of vulcanized rubber (how I love that thermal antithesis)—with a long and slender stick, erstwhile made out of wood, but now a lighter carbon fiber instrument. (And with a much higher propension for ill-timed, game-defining explosions.) Mind you, nothing prevents players from touching the puck with any part of their anatomy, and such an occurrence will rarely result in a punitive setback. But the stick, that strange appendage which, by all laws of nature, should be tripping up players left and right, especially considering that a dozen of those long branches are being waved around at any one time, between the legs of fast-moving men balanced on a sheet of ice!—that stick counterintuitively enables juggling feats that would remain otherwise impossible. Like a veritable magician’s wand. So much so that a player sans stick finds himself stripped of his powers and might as well head back to his team’s bench. Which he often does.

Hockey action is also completely enclosed, insofar as gravity does its job. Pucks will rise above the boards on occasion, but on the whole, stoppage occurs at a low frequency. I remember witnessing plays that went on for more than 10 uninterrupted minutes, whizzing from one side of the battlefield to the other. As a kid, I always marvelled at the fact that, unlike other sports where the goal was to carry a much-coveted object into the opposing team’s scoring area, hockey didn’t grind to a halt just because someone missed a pass or shot wide of the net. The game’s limits weren’t abstracted through lines painted on the grass: they existed in the physical world.
They were frikkin’ walls.
On one hand, that enclosure evoked a certain sense of security, like an old friend holding you tight; there was something comfy about a Sunday night game of hockey. On the other hand, the same barrier created a concentration of speed, energy and, yes, sometimes violence, in that it would push the gladiators back into the arena, rather than letting them escape their fate, even for just a moment. 

Hockey doesn’t wait—for anything, or anyone.
The game moves so fast that even referees become a liability, oftentimes unable to glide out of the way of a speeding puck, or player, or both. Many a game has seen its ultimate conclusion altered by the mere presence of an official in the right/wrong place, at the right/wrong time… and that’s just the way the puck falls. No take backs, no apologies. Just play the game.
The sounds alone are enough to make you snap to attention. Steel blades biting into the ice during a boost of acceleration; the dry slap of the frozen puck as it lands on a teammate’s stick, almost like a twig broken clean in half; the cringe-inducing, hollow wham as a player becomes another’s airbag in a contested corner; and, of course, the volcanic eruption, the drown-the-howls-of-the-mother-giving-birth-in-the-next-room sonic blast that accompanies that little black disc finding its way behind the goaltender. Especially the one wearing the wrong color.

At the end of the day—for it is the time when such things fade out—the clock is reset and the scoreboard blanked out, ready for the next skirmish. Spectators file out and let the building go back to sleep, as if nothing at all had taken place there. Even the intricate lines etched into the ice by zigzagging blades—an electrogram retelling the complete history of the match—are erased by the smooth action of the Zamboni, leaving in its wake a glistening, anonymous surface. A blank page, awaiting the morrow’s ephemeral tale.

For all its meaninglessness, the game of hockey remains, to me, an enthralling, fast-paced spectacle that never fails to mesmerize. It’s an experience that builds upon its own repetition, with the completely avowed intention of resetting itself when the season—and the season—ends. Because ice melts when winter goes into hiding, right?
The Bard might have written that life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” But I’m sure he was thinking about hockey. And loving it.

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