Professional hockey is formed at the nexus of numerous forces, visible and hidden, physical, economic, and ideological. It emerges, somehow, from a massive accumulation of things: ice, sticks, skates, stadiums, cities, television, logos, scoreboards, fans, coaches, owners, managers, trades, money, rules, boxes, referees, mascots, beer, weight machines, speed, hunger, anger, punches, hugs, blood, statistics, hierarchies, mouth guards, spitting, Gatorade, commercials, analysts, scars, hospitals, checks, shots, the word ‘fuck’ and variations thereof in at least 6 languages, goals, assists, saves, puckbunnies, parents, unions, geography, rivalry, friendship, hotels, airplanes, the Russian mafia, and, oh yeah, some 700 guys with a very peculiar skill set.
All of this stuff is important the formation of ‘hockey’, and while one could easily say that some of these things are more important than others, it would be passing difficult to select the single most significant thing in defining the nature of the sport. However, defining a hockey game is a much simpler task, for in the performance of a particular game, time matters more than anything else. The boundaries of the game are defined by time, and the clock operates exactly the same way in every game and every circumstance. Everything else can change, every other rule is occasionally bent or broken, but the time structure of the game is perfectly homogeneous. Every period is 20 minutes, every regulation game is 1 hour, every intermission is 17 minutes, every overtime is 5. The clock defines the game.
Play on one level is one team against the other, but on another level it is both teams against the clock. The clock makes every game unique, because it limits the expressable possibilities of any given game. Each team has a range of things it can do, bordered at the furthest extent by the capabilities of its various players, but this range is vast. It is limited somewhat by the relationship between the two teams playing:
Because of the clock, every game is a story. All these stories begin at one moment and end at another moment an hour later. The beginning is always the same, “Once upon a time, there were two teams, and a rink, and then…” but everything else is absolutely unique. Like snowflakes. Like fingerprints. Like stories the way they used to be, before they were written down.
The clock starts and the story begins, and just as one can map a story by its structure- the beginning, the development, the conflict, the climax, the denouement, the end- one can also map the structure of hockey games. The first period is nearly always the slowest, the dullest, in some ways the hardest because it is full of too many possibilities. The characters are introduced, to each other and to the audience, and begin to become who they will be in this hour, this game, this night. We know them already, of course, but in a peculiarly avant-garde twist, we do not know what roles they will play on this particular occasion. In the beginning, everyone selects an initial position and tests its parameters, and as such the first actions are always tentative, like foreplay. A lot of first periods look the same, whoever the teams are. They swirl back and forth like mayflies, loop wide lazy circles around each other at center ice, occasionally sliding as a group towards one goal or the other, and only rarely converging into tight bright buzzing bundles of activity. But like foreplay, all this hesitation must eventually build into something more. Significant events begin to happen- shots, saves, checks, penalties, and the evening’s roles begin to set.
The second period defines the story, and just like the middle part of any trilogy, it’s often the most interesting portion. In the second period, a game acquires its shape and its adjectives. If every story is centered around a conflict, every hockey game too is anchored by its own peculiar problematic, and this is what develops in the middle frame. It is in the second period that a game becomes a fast game or a slow game, a tense competition or a one-sided blowout, a violent game or a dull game or a strange game. The players develop their characters- thugs and heroes, prima donnas and workhorses, the cerebral and the naïve, the scoring and the scored-upon- and the teams refine their collective game. The commentators select the key terms that will be used to tell the story of the evening’s play: grit, heart, rivalry, sleep, hunger, weakness, fear.
The third period, though, is the ending, and thus is always the most important part. The third period is necessarily defined in relationship to the second, the outcome of the game becomes the way in which the third period answers the questions of the 2nd- Can they hold a lead? Can they come from behind? Can they step up their offense? Can someone take control of this thing? A game that goes to overtime, and even beyond that, to a shootout, somehow implies a failure of the third period to serve it’s proper function and end the story. The changes in the time structure of the hockey game over its history reflect a desire to see different stories told- the tie was, at least by some, felt to be an unsatisfactory resolution, a non-answer, a narrative disaster. In the game as we have it now, someone must win, and someone must lose, even if it is necessary to change the nature of the competition to achieve this result. The shootout, then, is a problematic part of the hockey-game story: it is certainly dramatic, and it gives a definite closure, but it is also disorienting, because it is a non-sequitor. The shootout is an entirely different challenge from everything that came before it, one which has nothing to do with the plot we were previously watching. The game could equally well be settled with mah jong or hopscotch or Texas Hold ’em, anything that can be won, because that is all a shootout is: a strategy to declare the victor. It is not necessarily the ending the story deserves, but rather an ending for its own sake. But one way or another, the game ends, 60 or 65 or 75 minutes from where it began, and it ends simply because there is no more time.
The next day I run into a friend on the street and he asks me, “So did you catch the game last night? What happened?”
And I tell a story.