Wednesday, January 10, 2007


My ability to understand hockey is still, in some ways, constrained by culture. Canadians and Americans do not, generally speaking, think of themselves as distinguished by wide cultural differences, yet they do exist, and if there is any area of life where the differences between Canadian culture and American culture are significant, hockey is it.

I get many of the American players- for all their skill and all their discipline, they are something familiar to me. The fact that so many of them went to college to play their early careers, that they were at some point forced to have some small measure of the sort of life I have had, that they went through a system which more or less resembles that of most American athletes, makes me feel as though I might be able to understand something about them as people. I have never been seriously athletic, and certainly never a member of American jock sub-culture, but in the giant Venn diagram of American society, that world has somewhat overlapped with mine. I have seen it, at least, I have spoken to it and heard it speak, I could trace its contours with my fingers.

The Canadian players, however, are often mysterious creatures to me. In Canada there is an entire process for the transformation of promising children into hockey players which I only dimly comprehend. It is an elaborate process, involving a lot of acronyms and many layers and levels of play, but a few things about it seem clear. Firstly, it is a process that is begun extremely young, and secondly, it is nearly as all-consuming as play at the professional level. It seems that a select group of Canadians have been born and bred for life in a 200 x 85-foot, frozen country where a state of permanent civil war is contained by glass borders. Their truest existence is lived on skates, circumscribed by the boards, and subject to its own peculiar laws. The full spectrum of their desires is blue-white, occasionally flecked with red.

I saw an interview, although it must have been some time ago, with Staal-che, Crosby, and Fleury wherein their interlocutor asked whether they regretted not pursuing their education further. Neither Fleury nor Crosby answered, Crosby looked entirely bored by the question, as though it was the most ridiculous thing that he’d ever been asked (perhaps because he’d already made a commercial designed to answer it?). Staal-che made a dutiful, generic response about how by playing in the NHL they were all living their dream. I don’t doubt it. But the response was so colorless, so flat, that it made me wonder how much such players even conceive of the possibility of meaningful life beyond hockey. Of course it’s great life, what with all the money and fame and sex and the sheer joy of the game, and I’m sure that they love it passionately.

Yet the world is so big and so old and so wild, there is so much to be seen and done and learned in it, so much that a human being might become, I can’t help but feel think it’s a little sad to be barely 20, or not even, and live your whole self in that tiny, frigid land. As much as I thrill at watching his play, part of me would be almost more thrilled if Crosby one day just said, “Fuck this, I’m 19 and I’ve got 371 bajillion dollars, I’m gonna take a year off and go live in a yurt, drink vodka, and learn to extemporaneously compose poetry in Mongolian, and when I come back, if I come back, you’re still gonna give me bajillions of dollars, because my game is still gonna be the hottest thing going.” Yeah, it would be irresponsible, and arrogant, and immature, and millions of fans would let out one unified howl of rage and despair, and I know he’s too serious about the sport to ever even ponder doing such a thing, but that’s exactly my point. 19, as the song says, is not the age of reason. 19 is all about irresponsible and arrogant and immature, that’s what gives us the cojones (or female equivalent) to really push the boundaries of our lives and the roles to which we were born. I feel a little sorry for people, even famous millionaires who are quite content with themselves, who don’t get to do that.

So much discipline, sustained over so many formative years and with total sincerity, however willingly accepted, must erode some parts of one’s personality, perhaps even of one’s personhood. It is not just, as the interviewer suggested, a question of forsaking education, it's forsaking experience, and most of the things that most of us know as simple human life. Is any sport, any game, hell, any single thing anywhere in the world really worth such a costly devotion? I ask not rhetorically, but sincerely, because I do not know, because this is foreign to me, because I do not understand the deeper why of it. Why is it time well-spent, ya Sidney? And what exactly has it made you, when you leave the rink?


tapeleg said...

You should see some of the people I work with. Ballerinas are like this to a T. They spend all of their time working on a craft, they have no life experience outside of the ballet classroom. Ever wonder why they all look alike (hair, clothes, skin)? They dedicate their youth to being this thing that certainly won't last, and for a lot less money than a hockey player. When it all ends (injury, age, politics, lack of talent), what else is there.

There are a lot of facets of hockey life we just don't get. Parts of their lives brush up against ours, but there is a whole lifestyle shift that is hard to understand. When I was on tour with a musical (as crew, believe me, I can't sing), coming home to a regular life was startling. My whole life was thrown into disarray, when it was getting back to normal. I think of that every time I hear about some NHL enforcer getting in trouble, or the media ripping on a player for his actions in the real world. I could imagine that leaving the hockey life is quite a shock. It's amazing how little compassion people show towards these people.

Jordi said...

It's interesting sometimes, I mean I can find myself talking to a person who seems so determined in living out what is possibly a pre-determined path by their parents. A doctor can sometimes live almost all their life in the hospital - my brother's friend ended up treating me (though apparently he still manages to party). The hockey player's mentality I assume can be the same - it's by no means a cheap sport and if a family sees that promise, they're not going to be hardasses and go "Oh you don't wanna do that do you?"

People do forget that players are human - I'm sure some friends of a couple can easily reassure you that they're still young at heart but tightlipped in front of the media. They can still get swayed by many things - and they have their "hobbies" which they dedicate their offseason to occupy their mind. I know that there were articles during the lockout where wives were a little edgy because they didn't know how to deal with a husband who was home all day.

Though, tapeleg - I'm sure you make alovely tenor.

E said...

tapeleg- you're a techie? interesting in the context of this particular post, since it's one of the life-directions i ultimately chose against. but i hadn't thought of the dancer analogy- it's a good one. i wonder if this sort of restrictive hyper-dedication is particularly characteristic of physical skills? i mean, is jordi's example of a doctor the same phenomenon or a different one?

jordi- it's interesting, because i try rather hard to remember that they're human, but it's difficult to find any way to identify the life that i, and most people i've known, have had with the life that they have had (although the culture thing remains significant here). i suppose i can't shake the feeling that, because the sport is so particularly time consuming over so much of their lives, that their hobbies and relationships are simulacra of ours- they look like the same sort of thing, but underneath are actually quite different. but i don't really know...