Hockey: An Obsession

I have quite a few obsessions. In recent years (probably since I started working as a lawyer), I’ve become borderline obsessive-compulsive about many things in my life. My journals, for instance: I cannot explain why I am so picky when it comes to (a) my handwriting and (b) my writing implement vis-à-vis my handwriting. No one will ever see my journals! No one (with the possible exception of my daughter) will be reading my quirky longhand with calligraphic flair (depending on how juicy my pen was) except as a curio, and that’s certainly putting the cart before the horse! (“Someday, when I’m famous . . . “)

But that’s just one of my minor and more personal obsessions. In honor of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs getting underway last week, I’d like to say a few words about the very public obsession I have with professional ice hockey generally and New York Rangers hockey specifically. It’s been this way for years but has gotten especially intense in the past decade, when the team has actually been consistently good (not coincidentally dove-tailing with King Henrik Lundqvist’s tenure). Throughout my 40-plus years of fandom, there have been many fallow years as well, and certainly there will be again in my lifetime. Such is the cyclical nature of professional sports teams, by design. Every city needs to have its turn at vicarious glory.

But the fact that I love hockey as much as I do is a bit incongruous. There are a lot of deep flaws in the game of hockey, things that trouble me as a liberal-minded woman.

(As an aside: I confess, despite years of denying it, that I am a feminist. My argument was always that I am a humanist: All people, regardless of gender, should be treated with equal respect, at least until they prove themselves to be unworthy. Females shouldn’t be favored so as to compensate for patriarchal relegation of women to the second-tier of humanity for millennia, much like affirmative action for minorities. [As an aside to this aside: I happen to be reading Volume 1 of Marilyn French’s From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World (2002), which I picked up at the public library because the cover looked cool. It’s actually a fascinating read.]  But now I’m in firm agreement with comedian Aziz Ansari, who recently said on Late Night with David Letterman that “I feel like if you do believe that men and women have equal rights, if someone asks if you’re a feminist, you have to say yes, because that is how words work.”

At Trinity College I was fully immersed in sports, both as the co-editor of the Trinity Tripod sports section (with my good friend, Worcester (Mass.) Pulse Magazine’s Best Radio DJ of the Year, Nick Noble) and as the manager of the men’s football, hockey and lacrosse teams. There was no women’s hockey team at Trinity at the time (there certainly is now, and the men’s team won its first NCAA Championship this year – Go Bants!) but it wouldn’t have mattered because I deemed women’s sports to be an inferior product despite having played field hockey and volleyball in high school. I realize now that Title IX funding for girls to play scholastic sports is vitally important, but at the time I didn’t see the need: Women’s sports just weren’t worthy of special consideration, especially when men’s sports were the big-money (relatively speaking) draw. Times have changed and I have certainly evolved in my thinking, including my feelings about women’s sports. I’ve been reading every article I can get my hands on about the nascent National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), and if I can figure out how, who knows? It might actually be the opportunity I’ve been waiting for all my life to get in on the ground floor of hockey as a profession so I can finally live my hockey dream.)

Hockey celebrates so many things about men that are considered stereotypically – and negatively – male. (Really, all that’s missing are the firearms.) Homophobia and misogyny are rampant in the filthy on-ice chirping as players exchange emasculating insults likening the opponent to women and gay men. While there have been recent admirable efforts to make the lads more aware of what they’re actually saying when they throw those terms around, decades of “boys will be boys” and only being conscious of “watching your language” in “mixed company” will be difficult to overcome, especially because that type of talk is an effective bullying tool. Then there’s the near-constant physical violence, with big sticks as weapons and literal hand-to-hand combat, especially in front of the goaltender and along the boards. Then, when two (or more) of those combatants have had their fill of pushing and shoving and getting hit with big sticks, they just flat out start punching each other in the head. By all accounts, the culture of fighting is being phased out of the game. Perhaps it is a tad barbaric, and a lot of people (myself included) think the fisticuffs – especially of the “staged” variety among players whose sole role on the team is to intimidate and punch people, ostensibly in the name of “protection” of their more skilled teammates and self-policing against the punks – ultimately detract from the pure beauty of the game, but as the broad appeal of boxing and MMA and even professional wrestling demonstrate, there’s definitely a market for watching men (and women) pummel one another.

It’s insane! Why should I like hockey so much? Not to mention that it’s uniformly disgusting: The retch-inducing stink of a hockey locker room, the rancid cheese of game-worn jerseys and cesspool pads and gloves and helmets, all the snot and loogies and blood are seriously gross.

And yet – and yet – I love hockey. I can’t get enough of it. It is poetry on ice. The speed and grace, the sheer athleticism of the players – the way they glide forward and backward and stickhandle and shoot with pinpoint accuracy, all at literally breakneck speeds – is unparalleled in professional sports.

Hockey has drama and unpredictability – every night there’s a new story. Who will be the hero? Will it be the grizzled veteran or the young buck turning the corner on his learning curve? Can a team make up a huge deficit? Will it be a back-and-forth affair? And the speed of it makes it so much more immediate. Uniquely among professional sports, there’s non-stop action in 20-minute chunks with only an occasional whistle and commercial break. Contrast that to football, with 30-second rest periods interspersed between 5-second plays, or basketball, with its time outs and out-of-bounds, sometimes making the last minute of a close game seem to go on for half hour, and the less said about slow-ass baseball, the better, where an entire day-long game can potentially have no action whatsoever!  Soccer’s too spread out, and while some people are constantly running, others just stand around until the ball comes near them.

And when a goal is scored in hockey, there’s no peacocking end-zone dances, just hugs and unadulterated joy, shared with your teammates! As a fan, there’s no way to stay quiet in your seat when your team scores a goal. It’s physically impossible. Watching games, I often feeling my heart racing, and I even find myself holding my breath during tense moments. Hockey affects me viscerally.

The toughness of hockey players is undeniable, and it appeals to the opposite sex while also being the source of envy and admiration to their fellow males. But frequent injuries also leave horrifying scars – seen and unseen, when you take into consideration the recent focus on head injuries, even reaching the litigation stage to try to force the league to do something about protecting the noggins of men who’d rather not think about such things. If a hockey player has no visible battle wounds, he’s not really a hockey player. It used to be missing teeth, but while dental procedures and protection have improved over the years, you can’t avoid the scars, even with the best plastic surgeons. When you wear razors on your feet and wave spears around, big ugly Frankenstein-type stitches are inevitable.

Off the ice, though, the players come off like real people, just the “boys next door” they clearly are.  Members of the championship team typically bring the Stanley Cup to their home town when they have it for their “Day with the Cup”.  There’s actually a kid who lives two doors down from me who played hockey at UNH and is currently in the Philadelphia Flyers farm system.  While I understand that he’s got some skills, I think he’s too small for hockey at the NHL level so this may be the end of the road for his pro career and he’ll be forced to get a “real job”, which raises another thing about hockey that bothers me, although, again, there are those in positions of influence who are trying to address it. I watched a video the other day called “It’s Not Just About Hockey”, an effort inspired by the suicide of a junior hockey player in Canada to address the situation where kids get so wrapped up in their pro hockey dreams that it destroys them when, as it must, the dream inevitably ends. Hockey players get extremely emotional on the ice, but most of them display a remarkable stoicism off it – almost to a fault, because it means they don’t talk about things like depression and what happens when the only thing that has given their young lives meaning is taken away from them. This has had tragic consequences in recent years.

To the point of parody, hockey players give almost rote responses to reporters’ questions after games, so as to never be rude or criticize the coach or your teammates or even your opponent, although it is kind of fun when they break that mold and say or do something unexpected. (Hockey players are unabashed jokesters, although, as you might imagine, their senses of humor are usually tinged with meanness to test how thick your skin is.)  Hockey players seem not to develop the big heads of other professional athletes (although there are few creatures on this earth as cocky as a college hockey player). Words like “lunch bucket” and “blue collar” get tossed around when describing hockey players, even though they make six- and seven-figure salaries for as long as they can stay bodily intact enough to remain in the league (which is only in rare instances more than ten years). And of course there’s the ubiquitous charity work that they all do, in most instances without fanfare.

For all its dichotomy, my hockey obsession has been the one constant in my life, from the time I was seven, watching Ranger games with my father (of course). And like any long-term committed relationship, I have loved the game of hockey despite its flaws, because it satisfies something deep inside me that can’t be explained.  It’s just the way it is.

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