By David Sherman
If you’re not a hockey fan, become one. I’ll spare you the adjectives to describe the era we’re living in, but worrisome and weird will do. And now that the game decorates our TVs night and day, climb on board. Take a breath from news and dark thoughts, streaming mediocre shows and movies that are a reason to eat popcorn and slurp beer or Coke, and tune in to the drama that unfolds almost hourly in empty arenas in Edmonton and Toronto. In the bubble, as they say.
As the global tragedy of our lives rolls on, at our house we have gone from watching a few superb Irish films on Amazon and Netflix, many not-so-superb films and the throat gripping and sickening on CNN.
Of late, desperate for a break from tragedy, bad comedy, sexist stupidity, psychological thrillers – who needs to watch a thriller, political or otherwise when you’re living one – action films where lots of stuff blows up, and somehow ended up snaking our way through several seasons of The Dick Van Dyke show.
Van Dyke was one of the funniest men on TV, as was his supporting cast, but the sexism that was part of life in the 60s, suddenly grates. Did we really find this acceptable, Mary Tyler Moore, as Laura, Van Dyke’s wife in the tight slacks – “Ohhh Rob!” promising in tears that she would never, ever, ever, look for a job, much to Rob’s relief, a sentiment that shocks today but must’ve been a riot to the millions of women who worked back then.
But, on the 200-foot sheet of ice, where guys encased in plastic artfully try to break each others’ ribs and sever spinal cords, we have found reprieve. It is just a game, but like all sports, it is theatre, drama, melodrama, tragedy, violence, a little comedy mixed with elements of ballet, the high wire, the boxing and wrestling rings, juiced on the amphetamine of high speed skating.
Hockey is a sport like no other. It is Canadian, and hence masochistic, a Canadian tradition. Why else would our ancestors or recent immigrants have chosen these “quelque arpents de neiges?”
Start with the playing surface. Most sports play on spongy grass or a man-made substitute. Basketballs are bounced on hardwood. Hockey is played on ice, hard as steel. It’s played by men and women balancing precariously on blades of sharp steel – the better to sever a carotid artery or slice your opponent’s head right off. Cleanly. Or, trim smoked meat.
Most sports, players use their hands. Golfers and tennis players use clubs and rackets but they are used to hit the ball, not their opponents. In fact, both are the epitome of social distancing. Hockey players use sticks made of space-age metals. Yes, ostensibly to move the puck, but also to spear, slash, cross-check, break over another player’s head or remove a spleen with anaesthetic.
Now, other than lacrosse, sports are played within boundaries marked with chalk or paint. Or, as in basketball, high rollers, who pay my annual income for court-side seats to watch the sweat pour up close and to sometimes catch a player as he careens into the crowd.
Not hockey. Hockey players are surrounded by walls or boards, like cage fighters. The boards are used to keep the puck in play and to crush the other team’s bones against. There is no escape.
Instead of a bouncing ball, hockey is played with a frozen vulcanized rubber puck, which flies at 100 mph and more and will also shatter bones.
Take all that and realize it’s played at stunning speeds. Players give it their all for 40 to 60 seconds and head to the bench. The game is ruthlessly fast. When hockey players collide at high speed, they have to go to the dressing room to sort out whose organs belong to whom.
Hockey, this calamity on ice, is our heritage, designed to while away the long winters. Not necessarily to kill the time waiting until theatres open or you decide to risk your life for some osso bucco at the restaurant you once frequented. But it does the job.
When the Canadiens won the first round of the “Qualifiers,” a friend wrote to say he’d have to waste at least another 12 hours of his life to watch the home team play Philadelphia. But, it’s not a waste. Perhaps, watching the world crumble around us day after day is the waste and hockey is real.
There are bruises, feats to marvel at, but there is no alternative facts or lying in hockey. The score is the score. The drama is not scripted. Will the rookie make it? Will the veteran keep up? Will the hero continue his heroics? Will the goat end up celebrated or curried?
Hockey is real while it’s completely unreal. Men and women in plastic armour killing each other to put the puck in the net or to fracture bones is a break from the all-too-real crises of our times, a dispatch from times that used to be. And, bonus, it flies under the radar of the government to the south, perhaps a more important break than any other.
I will not suggest that hockey is who we are or that it’s part of our consciousness. That’s for greater students and players like Roy MacGregor and Ken Dryden to extol.
Hockey today is a much-needed vacation when travelling is troublesome. It’s a worry-free zone.
Am I worried that the Canadiens will be doused in four? Sure. Does it matter? Not really. And isn’t that nice?