Hockey and the machine
The moment I started loving hockey I was ten and sitting, well, standing, actually no, hopping from foot to foot, with my curl-framed face inches from the quivering puck-marked plexiglass. I could have had a staring match with the goalie if he wasn’t adjusting to take on the rushing Flyers’ offence. My slightly rowdy, beer-clad Dad was beside himself with anticipation, but I was just perplexed.
Despite the fact that I’d been “watching” hockey all my life, I didn’t actually understand the game. What I knew about hockey could be summed up in two colors and one word: Flyers. Beyond that, the game felt mercilessly fast. The only consistency was the appearance and disapparation of the players just seconds after joining the melee. At any given moment, I had no idea who my dad and the rest of the crowd were yelling at, or why.
What I do know is that Sandy McCarthy, an intrepid enforcer for the Flyers, couldn’t have been better suited to a team that has been shown by actual psychologists to be even more aggressive when playing in black uniforms. True to form, Sandy was no finesse player and to the extent that he “had hands,” they were for messing opposing players up.
But for all his brutish reputation, at the time, I perceived McCarthy as something of a klutz. How else could I explain why, with teammates looking to score, Sandy the Enforcer lumbered into the slot and landed, with his sizable butt, right on the goalie’s chest. There is no chest gear or armor in the world that can protect you from the humiliation of having Sandy McCarthy alight on your chest. None.
Maybe Sandy was unsure of how he’d turned a goalie into a human futon? I was close enough to see his eyes through his sweat and for a split-second he seemed almost grateful for the opportunity to catch a break. But then I realized this hilarious predicament was no malfunction, no blockage in the works. Sandy knew what he was doing and I saw his eyes glint with a kind of sadistic joy as he milked the chance to degrade his reviled victim for every nano-second it was worth before the ref caught on and belatedly blew the whistle.
And that was it. There, in what was ever-so-classily known then as the F—U Center, the game came unglued and I began to see the complex feedback loops that power the control center of that finely tuned instrument known as a hockey team.
But honestly, having played and watched plenty of hockey, those made-for-TV, moments of raw humanity are not always obvious to the casual observer who doesn’t have the benefit of front row seats or a diehard Flyers fan for a Dad. Hockey is like one of those Magic Eye stereograms — a maddening, repeating pattern, and then a simultaneously brazen, yet subtle image appears, rhythmically shifting lines of players methodically changing the speed and resistance of the puck like well-oiled bicycle gears.
The game is technically and psychologically complex enough to make me wonder if this enigmatic quality, and not just the absence of an ESPN contract, is responsible for the broad indifference toward hockey in the United States.
There is an overt coolness to hockey that has nothing to do with the ice. The mechanics of the game create players with what I like to call hyper-team-first mentalities and indefatigable psyches that are trained not to show fear, pain, or struggle in the face of extraordinary amounts of all of those. With such a hardened, impersonal veneer, the highly connective emotional information that makes followers out of observers seems absent to all but the most astute fans who can see all those “emotions and desires and hopes” bubbling just below the surface.
What this insular approach does for team cohesion and competitiveness may be invaluable, but such an attitude may be creating some challenges for the sport as it vies for attention from a fanbase that likes its sports the way it likes its daytime soap operas — melodramatic.
Witness the touted gladiator-style match-ups between pitchers in baseball or quarterbacks in football. With hockey, however, NBC or Versus can hype a match-up between two hot-shots, like Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, but the two could feasibly spend no more than a minute or so on the ice together throughout the course of an entire game. This set-up keeps the game grounded, but it’s a let down for anyone hoping for a celebrity death match, which is far more likely to occur between an enforcer like Sandy McCarthy and, say, an unsuspecting goalie, than between leading goal-scorers.
As Kent Russell wrote in a gorgeous set of notes on hockey at n+1: “Chess it’s not; more like desynchronous paper-rock-scissors.”
Unfortunately, most Americans don’t much like “desynchronous” — even when it’s sufficiently violent and “macho.”
As the American passion for football demonstrates, hockey definitely has aggression and violence going for it. Oddly, I’ve heard plenty of people complain that hockey is unnecessarily violent, as though the violence in football is superior because it’s necessary? To be fair, the most violent acts in hockey — slashing, tripping, cross-checking, boarding — are less scripted and more calculating. Often the most rapacious plays represent accretive pay-back being doled out for a potentially unquantifiable number of offenses perpetrated by one team against another. It’s plain to see why a quarterback gets brutally sacked or why a batter rushes the mound, but it takes vigilance and insight to understand why a tussle behind the goal line or a slash in the neutral zone can lead to an all-out “sticks, gloves” brawl.
As Russell wrote later in his hockey notes:
If he’s willing to brave it, to swim against a welter of men with bludgeons in their hands and knives on their feet, he’ll put himself in a position to score. If not, he’ll keep out of the high-traffic areas like a weak swimmer in a public pool, and every time he receives a pass he’ll look down and see a cooked grenade at the end of his stick. This is why there’re so many upsets in hockey. This is why the prettiest and the most talented don’t always win: one team can outwill the other.
So maybe that’s what I fell in love with as a misleadingly innocent little kid. In most other popular sports, players wear their hearts on their sleeves. Hockey players play hard to get. The psychological warfare, once you get it and anticipate it, is captivating.
Absurdly, watching Sandy McCarthy sit mockingly atop his struggling opponent, that lumbering lout was nothing short of beguiling.
Yael Borofsky is a writer, editor, and Philadelphia sports fan living in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @yaelborofsky.