Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Hockey Love Letter

The following is my hockey opus. If you don't want to read more about me being downright obsessed with that particular sport, you might want to skip this one.

That said, I'm pretty proud of the words spilled below so take a look if you are so inclined. (I'm really bad at asking for things, which is why I'm not begging you to read it and pass it on to all your friends to show them my brilliance and get me a job somehow because it will enter the stream and someone will catch a glimpse of my promise and things will go from there. Because that's how things happen in my brain. But you should. Ya know, if you want.)

I’ve been trying, and failing, to explain why it is that I love hockey so much. But I'm taking a final stab at it. I promise (hesitantly) that this it. I'll shut up about why I love it after this. (Probably.)

I can’t simply say, “In a life of suck, one of the few things that makes me not want to slit my wrists is watching hockey.” I can’t say that because then psychologists get called and people worry and that’s bad. But it’s also true to a certain degree.

However, it’s also so much more than that. I just…how do you even begin to the find the words to explain something that’s mere sport? How do you explain that two years ago it was like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle clicked when you finally drank in this game? Your brain went, “Aaahhhh, now I get it! Everything makes so much more sense! Colors are brighter! The stars more twinkly!” How do you explain that the more you watch, the more you fall in love with the chaos, and yet careful choreography, that is 10 rather large men trying to kill each other over getting a piece of frozen rubber into a net? I likely can’t. But it’s not going to stop me from trying. Again.

I think some people were born with a certain lightness, a happiness and bounce that makes their stride through this world fairly easy. I also believe deeply that some of us weren’t. We’re a little bit darker and prone to having a harder time with the burdens of living. I don’t mean this in a suicidal or morose way, I just mean we’re more aware of how dark this world can be and the trials we face as humans. Not even our individual and specific trials, but of the general difficulties of all of us. It’s a sort of empathy?

I had thought that perhaps that light versus dark was something that was cultivated. We all started out as happy, carefree babies. Then, later, a choice is made, sometime in our teenage years perhaps, to be optimistic and believe in the general good of humanity or be slightly more cynical and have an acute awareness of the awful things human beings do to each other. Now I'm firmly of the mind that it’s more innate. I, obviously, fall far more on the cynical end of the spectrum. Not that I’m some special snowflake. I get along well with my fellow misanthropes. (The irony of getting along with fellow misanthropes is not lost on me.) 

However, I don’t see this darkness as a necessarily bad thing. Partly because I possess this brand of cynicism, sure. But also because those of us who don’t find truth and beauty everywhere are far more attuned to the rare glimpses that we do get. When your standard operating procedure is to be generally skeptical of everything, you know when something truly special is happening. And because it’s such a rare occurrence for us, it can transfix us. And it can change us. I get a glimpse of transcendent beauty when I watch hockey.

I love hockey because it’s beautiful. Because every scratch of a blade into the ice is an artful representation of physical prowess I will never possess. Because for 60 minutes of play, guys slam into the boards with reckless abandon. Because falling in hockey is not something to be avoided, like we so carefully do in our daily life, but something done purposefully to block a shot, throwing yourself and then sliding along the ice to get in front of a cylinder of frozen rubber, to keep it out of the net. I love hockey because a goalie, defying all logic and good sense, positions himself between that flying puck, that has been hit with such force that it is now traveling at up to a hundred miles per hour, and the twine. Hell, most of the sport involves behavior that defies logic and good sense. The thunderous clashes into the boards, the sticks being wielded not really caring where they strike. The sheer violence of the game. No truly sane person takes up a sport played on a sheet of ice while wearing razor sharp skates (that can inflict their own damage (that's a serious injury, not for the squeamish)), holding a stick and chasing a piece of rubber. I sort of relish their insanity. They love this game, devote everything to it, no matter what it costs them. (And there are cautionary, heartbreaking tales of what it can do to you, to be sure.)

I love hockey because somewhere amidst what feels like utter chaos, you start to get a sense of what is going on. You begin to see lanes develop. Sometimes this is good. Your guy breaks away on an odd man rush and before it even happens you know that he’s gonna hit the back of the net whenever he pulls up and shoots. Other times, it’s not so favorable. You see Anisimov bend around the back of the net, hamstring Mike Green and you just know, it’s going in. There is nothing you can do to stop it. You try to will the puck not to go in, but it doesn’t work. You possess no power from your couch 3,000 miles away from the action. Not that that stops you from trying.

As you immerse yourself in the game, you begin to understand, without being told, what cycling the puck is and tic-tac-toe passing. What at the beginning of loving hockey seems like shoddy passing and poor shooting and sticks flailing everywhere with abandon, a lack of control, you begin to understand has structure and logic while still looking frenetic. You start to make calls before the whistle blows, knowing when a play is offsides, as players dance in the neutral zone near the blueline. You know what a slash looks like or goalie interference or boarding and you yell at the refs for the 800 times you see it happen to your team and not get called but they're happy to call it to the benefit of the opposition. (No fan of any sport anywhere is ever satisfied with the refereeing.)

Even as certain aspects of the game begin to make sense, hockey still delights in its utterly fluky nature. More than once I've seen even the players looking up at the Jumbotron trying to figure out just how, exactly, the goal occurred. It seems miraculous. One second it’s on the tape of the stick, the next it’s behind the goalie. Sometimes it's in the corner and then in. Sometimes it bends in seemingly impossible ways. Once (though likely more than once) it bounced off the glass behind the goal and in. Only after three or four replays of a goal does credit to who scored even get established. Sometimes the puck is buried under a mess of bodies in front of the net and manages to be poked through. Sometimes your team is crashing the net, putting relentless pressure on the opposing goalie, but no matter what, that damn puck won't find its way across the line. That can happen because the goalie manages to know innately where the puck is to cover it up. (Like Jonathan Quick impossibly does here.)  

And the goalies! Is there a weirder, more mythical beast in sports than the goalie? Maybe the closer in major league baseball. But only maybe, because a closer you can see, standing in the very middle of all the action, only his hat brim shielding him. The goalie is in full on battle regalia. He has a mask that obscures most of his face. He wears monstrous pads. And because, as mentioned, his job is to purposely stand in front of speeding, frozen, cylindrical rubber, he’s a little off. Adorably off. Just listen to anything Bryzgolova says ever. Catch up on my beloved Holtby’s warm-up routine. Even the unflappable and gorgeous King Henrik has his own quirks and prefers you don’t talk to him before he takes the ice, as he blasts late ‘90s Blink-182 in his headphones. (A man after my own high school heart.) But I adore these idiosyncratic guardians of the net. The Holtby-Peverly gif. will go down as one of my all time favorites. Holtby stands there, arms across his chest, mask on, stick off to the side as Peverly takes a whack at him (that he doesn't actually connect on) the only thought that permeates my still female brain is, “Knight in shining armor.” He has his sword and armor at the ready. But instead of standing watch outside a castle, he stands on skates in front of pipe and net. 

The rest of the players are no slouches either. Hockey players play hurt. While I’ve spent a lifetime following baseball and heard of pitchers sent to the DL for blisters on their pitching hand or had football players sit out for turf toe, I, in my youthful arrogance, would roll my eyes and wonder why they couldn't play through. Those injuries don't sideline a player in hockey. Yes, player safety. No, some of them should not return, especially when they are running on pure playoff adrenaline and probably the worst possible judges of their own health. But in hockey, when you drop the gloves, get punched, and need a few stitches, you get sewed up by the team doctor and you bet your sweet ass you better have yourself back out on the ice as soon as possible. Puck to the face and stick to the chin lead to the same: get back out there. It is the toughest of tough probably matched only by rugby. There are no excuses in hockey. "It doesn't really hurt that bad after awhile anyway," says Mike Knuble in that link. All your excuses are invalid. 

Hockey injuries are cloaked in mystery. “Upper body, day to day” is about as much information as a team is obligated to give. Only after a playoff series wraps do the injuries get fully explained. The Bruins faceoff specialist was missing in the dot for the last couple games in the their series with the Capitals. Faceoffs are vital because, as Mikkael Boedeker on the Coyotes said so eloquently on NHL Live a week or so ago, “You win faceoff, you get puck.” Yes, yes you do. (He’s a Dane. That his interview wasn’t exceptional makes sense, with English not being his given language.) Puck possession, naturally, logically, leads to goal scoring which leads to wins. You need someone good in the circle to get initial possession. But for the last few games of the series, Bergeron was missing from faceoffs. It was intimated he was injured or he’d be in there. Only after the series do you learn that he TORE HIS OBLIQUE. Not that that stopped him from playing. It merely stopped him from hunching over to take faceoffs. Oh, and he had a broken nose, but that’s an immaterial footnote to this particular story. 

No player will ever use his injury to explain away or mitigate the loss on the ice. It’s really quite remarkable. Normal people, like, well, me, are felled by the slightest of sinus headaches. These guys rip their own teeth out on the bench and return to play. That's not hyperbole. (Again: not for the squeamish.)

The sport is brutal and rough and because I am the way I am, I am drawn to that. But it is also graceful and slick and surprising in its beauty. As much as I love hard hits, I also love watching guys on open ice at full speed, or the backhand forehand backhand stick handling as they skate up to the goal on a breakaway. Even though it's the skills competition, shootout goals can be gorgeous. (Added bonus of making Tim Thomas look absurd.) 

I am passionate about hockey in a way that has eclipsed even my love of college football. I love college football because I love my team. I live and die by my team, in a wholly irrational way. (An aside: people invented "rules" about calling a team "my" or "we". I am painfully aware I'm not out there playing. But with my undying support in any sport, I take ownership. Double goes for having a degree from the university. If that offends you, well, you're sure as hell reading the wrong sports fan, no?) I have very little patience for watching other college games though. They don't matter to me. I enjoy them well enough when I do watch, but it's sort of a passing interest. I'm not utterly absorbed. I'm half watching, usually checking out who my alma mater has to play in coming weeks or keeping apprised of the best teams in the country but I can also easily walk away from the games. On the other hand, I will watch any hockey game at any given time and actually have to force myself to step away for my own sanity. After the Caps lost in devastating, gut punching fashion last night, I knew I couldn't watch the Flyers/Devils game tonight as it would be too much.

Football also pauses. There is a natural order to the defense and offense. There are 4 downs. Exciting things may happen on a play, a long pass, a big stop, but there are also downs where almost nothing happens. There is ample time on the play clock for giant linemen to amble over to their positions. Eleven guys line up along a line, eleven guys line up opposing them. There are, especially if the game is on CBS, countless TV timeouts. There are breaks in the action. Some football games can feel interminably long. 

Not so with hockey. It feels like sheer pandemonium for each twenty minute period of play. I am never more exhausted than after watching a hockey game I am invested in. It's like 20 minutes of watching a car crash at a time, with brief interludes to regroup and then do it again. I slump into a heap on the couch, utterly drained, afterwards. I can't even sit on the couch for most of a Caps game. I pace. I bounce on the balls of my feet. I have taken to sitting on the coffee table or standing up right in front of the TV. I've said it before, I'll say it again: this matters. The irony of course is that sports so often bring people together, a shared and common rooting interest. My type of mania has made it so that I'm not really fit for public consumption and restrict myself to swearing and pacing in my own house. (In fairness, this does happen when I watch LSU football as well.)

Hockey gods are also crueler than all the other sports gods. You pray to your football god but you know that he really doesn't have so much to do with whether a pass is dropped or not, the humans are responsible. He seems cruelest when a field goal is needed for the win. In hockey, the gods seem always to be cruel. You hear a *ping* and you know that the puck has hit the cross bar. And not gone in. Loki lives in the goal pipe. Goalies, those weird weird creatures, praise their posts and crossbars. They thank them. They know. If you don't appease the hockey gods, the pipes will be unforgiving. The Caps hit four in a recent game. Four times the bar went ping. Four chances to change the game that didn't drop. Mere millimeters of difference because of the bend on a blade, the knuckle on the puck. Hockey gods also control clocks that run with extra time, penalties that never seem to go your way, and the stick breaking into smithereens at the most inopportune time. 

While I love dearly my Washington Capitals, scream and curse and fling things and jump up and down with wins and losses, I will also watch every second of every other game no matter who is playing, if I am able. I have spent hours learning as much as I possibly can, and am sometimes overwhelmed at how much more there is to learn, than I have on any other pursuit in recent memory, save for studying for the bar exam. I want to be inside hockey. I want to magically exist in this world. Somehow manage to absorb the knowledge of everything that happens on the 200'x85' sheet of ice.

NHL marketing has done a brilliant job of getting me to love this sport. My love started with the 24/7 series on HBO (which if you have access to through your HBOGo, I recommend you watch), a mere 2 years ago. (It never ceases to amaze me how quickly I went from knowing nothing to wanting to absorb it all.) Then they had their History campaign:

This year they eclipsed that with their "Because It's the Cup" ads, a masterful take on why hockey playoffs are great. Beyond great. The ads explain to the new fan why they might be drawn to it and they spoke to me. Yes, I was suckered in by an ad. Don Draper did his damn job. But it's true! I want to write to NHL marketing and tell them, "Yes! New fans get this! There seems to be limitless opportunities for this sport to grow and expand and people to hop on this bandwagon (which is not a bad thing). Make them love this!" I feel a bit like I proselytize on the subject of hockey. I don't really care though. You should love this. This is amazing. Even if it starts as an excuse to go out on a Wednesday night:

I wanted to get all these hockey thoughts down before tomorrow night when the game is likely to crush my spirit and I will spend hours cursing things before figuring out who to root for in the conference finals. The Caps have Game 6 against the Rangers. The Rangers are very good. They lead the series 3-2. The Caps, as I guessed previously, have started to coalesce in the post season. But this Rangers series has been rough. They lost the triple overtime game. Then last night they saw the Rangers, on Joel Ward's double minor for high sticking because someone bled, steal certain victory from defeat. Those are the kind of losses that can kill a team's spirit. I listen to the amazing Brooks talk about how it's just business and you have to bounce back. I don't know how much I believe him that it's that easy. I don't know how you skate back on to the ice and leave Game 3 and Game 5 behind. (Aside: because I watch every video interview Brooks gives, I'm sort of convinced he's dying and hiding it during these playoffs. He looks, and sounds, horrible. To me, at least. And has been unimpressive on faceoffs. This is what happens when you are an obsessive fan, you question the health of your favorite player with no real evidence to support that claim. As I often say: fandom is insanity. Or as close to it as I ever hope to get.) 

Tomorrow night is going to be hard. And even if we win tomorrow, we have to win Saturday. It can be done. It's not impossible.'s a grind. And as much as I love the Caps, I will never be an optimistic, fully believing in my team type of fan. I don't have it in me to trust that much. Then again, not much was expected of this team and they managed to make it past Boston...

If the Caps do lose, if their season ends before they get to raise Lord Stanley's Cup high over their heads, I will be incredibly sad. But not sad in the same way I was when LSU lost the BCS title game and I felt like they'd let me down. Oddly, with hockey in general and the Caps in particular, it feels different. I will be sad for them. I will be inconsolable that Brooks won't have won. And Green. And Ovi and Sasha and Nicky and Wides and Noobs and Holts and Brouwer and Hendy...on and on.

I ask that the hockey gods let them prevail. I ask that for 60 more minutes, and then 60 minutes after that, and then for any combination of 8 more 60 minute games, the Caps play perfectly and the pipe is kind and the hits don't hurt and the puck finds the net through Henrik Lundqvist and then Martin Brodeur and then either Jonathan Quick or Mike Smith. If the game takes longer than 60, even much much longer than 60, I hope that the hockey gods remain on their side.

But. Even if the Caps lose, even if the season of my team ends, it's not ever going to stop me from loving this sport and hoping others come to love it too.

After spilling some three thousand words trying to explain what about hockey matters and why it should, I finally realized it's really quite simple: hockey makes me happy. What a weird sensation.

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