Friday, March 23, 2007

What does hockey mean?

This is why people who search for toothless hockey players (and their king, Mike Ricci) find This is from the 2000 playoffs.

With the hockey playoffs in full swing, I thought I'd take some time to look at the significance of hockey. Given the speed with which I usually write, this piece will be up on Jiggs sometime around preseason next year. But hey, we can always hope. We'll start off like this, with a word to get you thinking at home about this sport of really big guys skating around a really big rink chasing after a really small puck.


When we examine what a sport means, we look first at where it came from. Ice hockey comes from back when ancient Canadians would fight fierce battles on frozen lakes, skating around each other with furious speed and hacking at the flesh with wooden axes. The first hockey game is thought to have started when a small rock was accidentally struck by one of the warriors trying to remove the foot of one of his enemies. This first slap shot theory is currently taken to be gospel truth.

Canada is a clean, polite nation. Understandably, they have a lot of pent up violence that they have to get rid of. This violence entered the culture in the form of hockey, which through mutual evolution with their socialized health care system produced this brutal sport. As a result they have fine state run hospitals to treat the victims of a sport that declares such penalties as "spearing," "hooking," and "slashing" as minor penalties. Incidentally, I have never understood why this sport that allows skating at full speed into an opponent, slamming him up against the boards, has a category of match penalty called "attempt to injure." As far as I can tell, just getting out on to the ice is an attempt to injure.

And of course these minor penalties mean spending two minutes in the box. But why the box? Most sports just give possession of the ball to the other team, maybe give one team better field position, but in hockey the assailant is placed in a little plastic box and his team must skate short handed. The penalty box is reminiscent of the place where the defendant stands in the British courtroom. Although this may seem like an odd connection, remember that Canada was a Crown possession until 1867, and even after that they became independent in a real half-assed way. Separating the guilty party in this way allows the common man in the stands to jeer at him like our forefathers did at criminals locked up in the stockade. However, at the same time, the penalty box lifts the player above the game, elevating him to public spectacle. It lets him drink a bit of water and be admired by the fans for his devious behavior. It harkens back to the outlaws of the American Old West, at the same time condemned and worshipped by morally ambivalent and eternally stupid people. The player is a celebrity, and the high walled plastic box is like his own personal Popemobile.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I was entirely opposed to the 1993 move to realign the divisions. That was the one thing hockey had over every sport on earth. The two leagues were named after Clarence Campbell and the Prince of Wales. The divisions? Adams, Norris, Patrick, Smythe. You people with your American and National leagues, West, East, Central divisions? Hockey had so much character. Speaking of funny names, there are about fifteen trophies awarded annually in hockey, for the most valuable player and normal stuff, but eventually it just gets random. The Lady Byng Memorial Trophy is given to the player that most embodies excellent play and gentlemanly conduct. Gentlemanly conduct. Did I mention this is a sport that considers hitting someone in the face with a sharp wooden stick a minor penalty? A sport that only will consider a major penalty in that situation if the victim is bleeding profusely has a trophy for gentlemen.

As with all great things, Americans felt the need to take it and distort it to fit our own particular dementia. Hockey is no different, as it has ruthlessly expanded from the Original Six to 28 teams (for now), it has also begun a steady march south. Only 6 of 28 teams currently reside in Canada, many of those remaining threatening to move to America. Now towns like Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, San Jose and Phoenix have teams they don't at all deserve or even understand. How on earth can we have hockey in the desert? Yes, with air conditioning, but on a more cultural level, the Americanization of hockey has changed the sport in many subtle ways. Just as Disney Americanized fascism, hockey has been similarly warped in these warm weather towns.

It is no accident that as hockey expanded south from the Original Six cities of Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston and New York, safety equipment became more prevalent. In 1959 Jacques Plante became the first goalie to use a mask, just because a shot had broken his face in the previous game. As the sport started needing two leagues and four divisions, players started wearing helmets. In 1979 players forced to wear helmets by league rule. Now the league is starting to talk about face shields for players. Absolute madness. But as always, we have to look at this on the level of causation. The cause of this shift is from the Americanization of a Canadian sport. In America, we praise beauty and style over anything resembling substance. Hence, through minor and major changes to the sport, Americans without even realizing it are creating a monster heretofore unseen in the sport: The beautiful hockey player. How else can you explain the great Wayne Gretzky, graceful, frail and beautiful, playing in Los Angeles?

The best examples of the invasion of beauty into hockey today are Peter Forsberg and the brothers Bure. Granted, Forsberg is growing this shaggy beard that's giving him a Michigan militia look right now, but prior to that the guy looked like a lost Baldwin brother for Christ sake. Then there's Pavel Bure, the Russian Rocket, whose boyish good looks and impish pug nose captured the heart of the lovely Anna Kournikova, at least for a few weeks. A few years later his younger brother Valeri entered the league, confirming fears that the NHL is indeed breeding for prettiness. I only ask, what happened to players like Mike Ricci? Ugly, ugly people with multiple broken noses, none of which seem to have ever been set properly if at all, missing the majority of the front teeth, greasy stringy nasty hair - now that's hockey. What happened? America happened, baby. Now we seem to be importing players from Europe to satisfy the quest to turn hockey into a photogenic sport. We're dressing them up in helmets and face shields to prevent the hits, high sticks and pucks to the face from gradually turning them into ogres, or in other words, turning them into hockey players.

I mean, what's happening to the sport? FOX started putting a blue halo around the puck because American TV audiences couldn't find it. They actually programmed it to show a red comet tail when a player made a slap shot. Plans to give Nielsen families game pads to remotely control star players fell through at the last minute. No FOX execs were forced to commit ritual suicide or anything.

But what can we do? Write your congressperson. Tell him or her to support the Howe-Orr bill to invade Canada. If we invade Canada we can then set aside the nation as a hockey refuge. Move teams back to Winnipeg and Quebec. Allow hockey players to skate free on frozen lakes in their natural habitat. At the rate we're going, Americans will destroy a great sport and Canadians will have nothing to watch except Canadian football. Don't let that happen: Invade Canada.


twolf1920 said...

I agree. As a Minnesotan who is STILL PISSED over the defection of the Norths Stars to Dallas, I AGREE!

But I love The Wild!

slappy said...

I only recently learned that the Sharks were carved out of the North Stars when they moved down to Dallas. Ironically, the Sharks most hated rival are the Dallas Stars.

jamwall said...

the sharks were formed by the north stars' old owners "the gund brothers." which i always thought sounded like "the gun brothers."

it conjured up images of two cowpokes with ten gallon hats everytime i heard that name.