Sunday, March 25, 2007

On Speed (A Meditation in 17 Shifts and 13:26 TOI)

The speed of hockey has forever ruined me for all other sports. I realized this the first time I consciously decided not to watch a game, even though I was home and had some free time, because it was Devils-Flyers and I thought it would be too slow. When you have reached the point where a hockey game, any hockey game, even one involving New Jersey, is too slow to be entertaining, you have officially contracted the sports-fan equivalent of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but there’s no cure and no going back. I will never be able to enjoy something like football, because compared to hockey, all other sports are so slow they might as well be played on geologic timescales. Watching a football game is like watching wind erode a rock face- maybe I’m interested in seeing the eventual outcome, but dear God don’t make me sit around and watch the process, I’ll be dead before anything significant happens. It’s not even like watching paint peel or paint dry, it’s like just watching the bucket of paint, sitting there. Once you’ve been a hockey fan, nothing else is ever really fast enough again.

***

Speed is the most instantly distinctive feature of hockey, especially to people who aren’t familiar with it. To the untrained eye, it is simply too fast to see. It isn’t just the speed of the puck or the speed of the skaters, it the speed of the game itself, the rate at which events occur. Learning to watch hockey is learning a discipline of perception and an entirely new way of seeing, a variety of attention built especially for the game. One learns to see quickly and closely, to take in the thousand details of any given second, process the possibilities, and then forget it all just as quickly to catch the next moment’s entirely new structure. While watching a game hockey fans have fluid, intense focus but no memory whatsoever- without explicit effort, they remember nothing but the most perfectly successful or terribly disastrous plays. But they do not have to remember, the slow-motion replays and highlight reels will recall for them the key moments- memory stored not in the mind but on the computer or the television set, accessible with a few clicks of mouse or remote. Memory has no use at the speed of a hockey game, for within the game events lose relevance as soon as they happen- anything of significance will be encoded in a number of some sort that can be looked up later at will. The game is all about a present that is constantly leaping away into the future as soon as it arrives, and the synapse-snap attempt to see all those shifting futures, not the play that was or is but the possible plays that might be 2 or 3 seconds from now.

***

Hockey is instant gratification. It takes energy to follow a game fully, but no patience. There is no waiting to see what happens next, since the second you stop to speculate about what might happen next, it’s already happening. The game hides nothing, delays nothing, reserves nothing from the audience, the speed makes it raw and shamelessly obvious. Velocity is the nemesis of subtlety and restraint, and speed gives to all varieties of hockey- however elite or skilled the style- a sort of crude, hungry sensibility, an unabashedly adolescent desire for everything to be RIGHT NOW. There’s something childish in the way hockey players throw themselves at the game, the speed at which they rush through the seconds refuses any sense of mature, planned, structured play. Certainly there is strategy, but it’s a kind of strategy that’s built to be instantaneous, practiced ad nauseum until it either becomes instinctual or fails altogether. Within the game, there is no careful building of tactics, no creeping accumulation of positional advantage, no chess-like nuance. As much as there are, in theory, systems that define the way different teams play, look at the face of any coach in any given match and you’ll see the eye-rolling frustration of an exasperated parent with chronically undisciplined children.

***

Hockey is faster than human beings were meant to go, you see it in the players, who, in spite of all their training, are left sweating and gasping after a minute on the ice. No amount of conditioning is ever enough. No matter how much body fat they drop, no matter how much stamina they build, they can never really keep up with the pace of their own game. In order to play as fast as they have to, they can only manage short stints, interspersed with downtime just sufficient to catch their breath and rehydrate before going out again. We lose sight, over time, of what it really means for a hockey player to be fast on the scale of his profession, for they are all fast, eye-bendingly fast. On the absolute scale of human movement, no hockey player on the ice is ever doing anything slowly. Here I speak not only of skating, although that is the primary incarnation of speed in hockey, but of every ability associated with the game, for in hockey speed is a virtue in all things- the quick release of a sniper, the fast stick-handling of a true skill player, the ability to lay a check quickly or bounce back from being checked quickly, the goalie’s speed in covering a loose puck, or the speed of a defenseman’s point shot. No skill, no matter how sophisticated, is useful unless it can be performed in less than half a second while moving at 30 mph, and for those players who are genuinely fast, that situation is not the exception but the routine.

***

Speed is not only physical. When we say that a player ‘reads the play well’ or ‘has good hockey sense’ what we are mostly talking about is a sort of mental agility, a speed of thought which might actually be even more essential to success in the game than physical speed. It’s a rare person who can consistently perceive the game accurately at the speed it is performed. But some players can not only see it clearly at full velocity, but think through it quickly as well- they not only keep track readily of the puck and all the allies and opponents on the surface, but they process the angles and the trajectories of the game, the possibilities, the things that might happen from any given moment or position, and unlike the fans, they can do it in the middle of the play, under the pressure of the game and without the benefit of a bird’s-eye view or an explanatory commentary track. ‘Hockey sense’ is actually a bit of a spooky phenomenon, like ESP, and indeed the players who have it give the eerie impression that they see the future. They are where they need to be, simply and unfailingly, even before the rest of the team realizes that someone needs to be there. They pass to the place where there teammate is going to be in a few moments, not to where he is. And a fast enough mind can, sometimes, compensate for a slow body, because a quick enough read of the play can see the game geometrically and position accordingly, rather than trying to chase it down. Forwards, maybe, can afford to have bodies faster than their minds, but a good defenseman and especially a good goalie is defined more by the ability to think faster than the opposition, rather than move faster.

***

The speed of the game necessitates the speed of the shift changes, which in some way are the most structured part of the game, the organization of the lines. The coach’s function during the game itself is mostly to deploy the right people at the right time, to try to match the various strengths of his players in particular configurations against the weaknesses of the other team’s sets. But this strategy is, again, defined and conquered by the speed of the game- you get only a minute to try a configuration and determine its value before you have to shift on another trio. Compared to coaching in other sports it is a frustratingly imprecise task, one that gives the coach very little control over what actually happens, but the challenge of it is not the strategic knowledge itself- any hockey fan of more than a few months knows the basic principles of how lines are organized and deployed, although the possible variations are legion and susceptible to extensive creativity. The challenge, really, is all in the pace of it, in the fact that, like everything in hockey, there is so little time for planning and thought and analysis. A good coaching staff no doubt plans extensively for all sorts of different eventualities before the game, but during the competition they too must run on instinct and sometimes just dumb luck- guessing, improvising, thanking the gods that even the worst fuck-up will last no more than a minute, then cursing them because one fucked-up minute can mean 3 goals-against.

***

Like the individual games, the pace of the hockey season is unnaturally fast, and leads to its own peculiar kind of amnesia. The games flash buy 3 or 4 to a week, typically, and sometimes more, the team bouncing around the region in jets- Montreal, Buffalo, New York, Montreal, Miami, Tampa, Toronto, Montreal, New York... After a few weeks everyone, fans and players alike, begins to have trouble remembering exactly what happened when and where. The games blur and blend, the part of the season in focus never seems to extend more than a couple of games in either direction- the week just completed and the week to come, everything else either the dead, musty past or the unimaginable future. The platitude ‘one game at a time’ is partly its own sort of survival technique. Who can ever really think on the scale of an 82 game season, in the midst of this hectic pace?

***

In a game, we use the slow-motion replay to compensate for our amnesia, for the season overall, we use statistics. We cannot possibly remember all those games, so we remember key numbers about the teams (overall record, home record, away record, last 10 games, goals for, goals against, PP/PK) and players (points, goals, assists, penalty minutes, hits, shots blocked, average TOI). It is from these numbers, more than anything else, that we draw our sense of the season’s arc. Whatever the current stats say is this week’s ultimate truth. The teams and players who have the best stats thus far- however far that is- are ‘good’, and we will find a way to justify their goodness. As the season wears on and the stats change, we make up new reasons to rationalize the new record holders, the new kings of the standings, entirely forgetting that only a month ago it was a different set of people who captivated us. Stardom is ephemeral in hockey- almost everyone who survives long enough in the game, no matter how marginal his role, will get to be a hero for at least one night, and most get a week or a month or even a season of heroism, wherein they are the League’s great promising rookie or newly resurrected veteran, where they lead in some statistical category or another, where they get a quirky run of scoring at the right moment, get a goal or start a fight that really captures the audience’s eyes. But most of them fade as quickly as they rise, victims of the chronic inconsistency and transience of all things in hockey, victims of the speed of the season and our collective inability to remember what League looked like last month. The pace of the season is so fast that it renders the action of the actual games nearly meaningless, with the exception of a few iconic moments. Of Sidney Crosby’s hundred-plus points this season, for how many do we remember the actual play that led to the number? Although many of them were shown time and again on various Top 10 and Top 5 lists, they fade rapidly from our minds, displaced by fresher wonders that will only be replaced again in their turn, and all that remains fixed in our head is the stat, the number, the count that confirms that those fleeting moments (now forgotten) did, in fact, mean something. The beautiful goals of statistically insignificant players, however, are ancient history before the month is out and are generally lost forever once the season ends. Perhaps the man himself forgets what exactly they were like, in the great accumulation of games, although it might indeed have been the only perfect thing he’s ever done.

***

Speed is the primary advantage that the professional game has over the other forms. You may find almost everything that exists in the NHL in other leagues, at other levels. In terms of some hockey-values- physical aggression, emotional intensity, team spirit- many would argue that the minor and junior leagues are superior to the professional game. Even skill, which is in theory the thing that separates the big show from all the school-plays that lead to it and away from it, is not entirely exclusive, in that it is often the province of particular players rather than the game as a whole. There are plenty of NHL teams which show no particularly impressive displays of skill on many nights, and plenty of kids running around junior who can do exciting and amazing things. But the professional game is unquestionably, immediately, obviously and consistently faster than all the subsidiary incarnations, not just sometimes but nearly always. It is the one thing that every rookie says in their first interview when called up, “It’s faster here, that’s for sure.”

***

In hockey, speed is the agent of redemption, the giver of nearly infinite 2nd chances. No single mistake, no matter how terrible, can have catastrophic lingering consequences, and every shift is a whole new game, 45 seconds of pure opportunity. As long as a player can get out onto the ice, there is the potential to do something great, for it only takes a moment, less than a full heartbeat, to change everything- to take a shot, make a save, throw a check, to do the single thing that might echo through the remaining 60 minutes, make the highlight reel and thus define the game forever. But if they fail (as they all do most of the time) there is always the next shift, and if not then, there is the next game, seldom more than 48 hours away. There is always another chance, a completely clean slate, for the past fades away quickly and the future is rushing in, thrusting everyone forward.

***

Play-by-play commentary in a hockey game is a Kafka-esque exercise in futility, which is perhaps why so many commentators let their minds wander to the anecdotes of previous seasons. Their words are always chasing the pace of the game, and never catching it, for the speed of speaking is fundamentally slower than the speed of hockey playing. By the time they tell you that a shot is taken, the puck has already rebounded and been cleared. Most goals aren’t announced until the players are already mid-hug. Hockey cannot be discussed or analyzed at the time, words must tag along, like a desperate, fawning entourage, tailing along behind the game asking for autographs. This, perhaps, is the reason that we nearly always find the speech of hockey players unsatisfactory and cliché-ridden, because they know too well what they do to think that any of it can be adequately described. Words are anathema to hockey, because words are clumsy where the game is elegant, orderly where it is chaotic, and always painfully slow where it is thrillingly fast.

***

Speed is what makes hockey addictive, for there is nothing else like it in the whole wide world of mass entertainment. It’s not just that it goes fast, but that it is both fast and unpredictable. Hockey is not speed skating or NASCAR, where it’s ordered, basic speed, speed directed with uniform force in a single pre-set direction. Hockey's is a chaotic speed that is almost, in its disorder, reflective of life, but life in hyper-reality, being X2. If I watch too much hockey in a week, a game or more a day, I find that real life starts to feel insufficiently real. I catch myself thinking that life would be infinitely better if it were lived more like hockey, directly and immediately and above all quickly. Why must I wait in lines and exchange tedious pleasantries? Why must I take all this extra time to do things politely and subtly and properly, why can’t I just do as I like the instant it occurs to me to do so? Why can’t I just go around body-checking the people I don’t like, hugging those I do, and running absolutely everywhere just because I can? Why do I have to sit and wait for moments to brush past me in a neat, regimented march, instead of chasing them down and making them mine? Why is daily life so slow, when clearly, living itself doesn’t have to be?

***

Hockey fans do not agree on many things, but the necessity of speed is one of them. Normally we are a contentious bunch with widely differing values and expectations for the game, and tend to be chronically displeased with everything about the NHL. When we aren’t busy calling for certain current rules to be revoked so the game can return to its roots, we’re thinking up new rules that will improve it along various vectors, constantly torn between the desire to revel in nostalgia for the hockey-that-was and the desire to build the even better hockey-that-might-be. But all hockey fans seem to crave speed, and nothing the NHL has done has been so universally acclaimed as the post-lockout changes designed to accelerate the pace of play. Speed is the precondition for our engagement, our entertainment, and the vicarious energy we derive from watching.

***

Speed is the core aesthetic of hockey. It is a peculiarity of humans to be attracted to things that are fast, to find speed compelling in every instance- horses, cheetahs, hummingbirds, comets, waterfalls, jets, bullet trains, racecars. That which is fast is beautiful, that which is beautiful is fast. In hockey, the aesthetic adjectives, like all expressions of wonder, are reserved for fast things. Beautiful, gorgeous, amazing, dazzling, spectacular- these are the words for lighting breakaways, 100 mph slapshots, a perfect pass made mid-rush, an instantaneous redirection, a clean split-second glove save. When a game really accelerates to full speed, we lean forward, mouths open and eyes bugged out, we hold our breath and funnel our entire consciousness into our visual cortex. Hockey is attractive as few other things are, and reminds us that attraction is an element of aesthetics. Beauty is not about the formal qualities of a thing, but rather it's ability to capture our attention and our emotions- and a really fast hockey game, well, you can't look away.

***

Speed is also the thing that makes hockey dangerous. An action that might barely bruise at 5 mph bleeds and breaks at 30. The speed amplifies the force of everything that happens, while simultaneously making it impossible for players to consistently evade impacts. It is the speed that makes hockey accidents often the causes of serious injuries- the unanticipated, high-velocity, and oft-repeated meetings between a face and a puck, a stick, a goalpost, the boards or the ice surface itself are largely responsible for the distinctive visage of a veteran player, the web of scars that instantly identifies him with hockey. But the speed is also what makes dirty play in hockey distinctively and deeply frightening, and also so pervasive. Hockey players are taught to do everything quickly and make instantaneous, instinctual, reactive judgments. This is necessary, at the speed of play, where hesitation, uncertainty, or just taking a moment to think can be disastrous. But it also means that hockey players express anger at nearly the same second they feel it, and every game is marked by periodic surges of personal aggression that are expressed physically well before they are processed intellectually. I believe players when they say they regret their actions, because I do believe that at the pace of the game most of them do what they do without ever forming what we might consider the deliberate intent to harm, for they are supposed to have reactions that outrace their thoughts. In some sense, than, hockey is a game entirely structured for manslaughter- acts of desperate violence committed in the heat of passion, an instant reaction to an instant trigger. The speed of the game makes it almost impossible for the rules to control violence before it happens, only to respond and punish afterwards.

***

Speed is not essential for hockey. It is possible to play hockey slowly. It is, in fact, possible to play various species of hockey without ice or skates, on grass or asphault. Nothing in the rules specifies that anyone has to move at any particular rate, there is no prize one for being fastest, and indeed, speed is not even necessarily of the greatest strategic value; faster teams lose to slower ones quite often. The true fundamentals of hockey are those things that literally define a game: the teams, the boundaries, the rules, the equipment. If you are not doing something wherein two groups of people try to hit a puck into the opposing net with sticks, than you are not playing hockey. Speed is optional, an aspiration, but not a necessity.

***

Speed is what makes hockey irreducibly and irredeemably hockey. It is the source of everything that makes the game distinctive among games. Speed makes hockey a unity, holds all the pieces of the game together as one creature, the tendons of the animal that make it function. It defines the rhythm, the strategy, the experience of play, and more than that, it is what makes the rhythm a part of the strategy and both in turn a part of the experience, it is what makes the features of hockey inseparable from each other. Without speed hockey is neither graceful nor brutal, and if it is neither of these, then what remains of it that means anything? As much as speed is not a technical requirement of hockey, it is the essence of everything that is desirable about the game. No one watches or plays hockey because of its basic requirements, but for a thousand intangible, emotional qualities that accrete around those requirements: competition, excitement, grace, physicality, passion and so forth. Speed is not merely one of these things, as it might be in other games, but in hockey it is an element of all of them, the extra layer that makes everything in hockey somehow more than everywhere else- the competition is more competitive, the excitement is more exciting, the grace more graceful, the physicality more physical, and the passion more nakedly passionate because they all happen fast, with no time to be anything other than what they are.

7 comments:

Julian said...

Sometimes, I refuse to believe that you've only been watching hockey for 6 months now.

I've read something somewhere about how the speed of hockey is the reason there hasn't been much intellectual writing on the game. In baseball, you've got twenty to thirty seconds between batters, and two to three minutes between innings. There's plenty of time to think about the game without paying attention to it, to focus on one aspect and let it roll around your mind for a while, you can easily get by with keeping a fraction of your brain watching the game and the rest of it elsewhere.
Hockey doesn't allow for that, if you really want to know what's going on, there's no room for anything else on your mind.

E said...

i've lost your credulity??? well, i guess that makes sense- this is the internet, most people lie about who they are, and there's no proof that i'm not a forty-something swedish hockey expert posing as a twenty-something american hockey-novice. but really, i'm not. i don't even have any swedish ancestry.

isn't it a little weird to presume that most sports-writing is planned out mid-game? i mean, you're right about the time-to-think part, but it seems to me that the kind of thinking that goes into 'intellectual writing' is usually reflection on something after the fact, not at the time.

alice said...

It's not at all odd that most sports writing is planned out mid-game. The vast majority of sports writing appears in daily newspapers. The deadline, even for the late edition of the paper, might be 10 minutes (or less) after the end of a game. I live about 90 minutes out of NY, and it's not unusual for the NY Times delivered to my house not to have a write-up of a baseball or hockey game that ended at 10:15 PM. Of course, this was much more of a problem pre-internet. Now, before I go to bed at night, I can read, on-line, the story that was filed too late to make my morning newspaper.

In any case, tight deadlines really constrain the form of a game story.

ninja said...

fuckin brilliant

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything useful to say here, just... wow. That was one of the most eloquent, well-written, and accurate things I've ever read. Thanks for putting my love for hockey into better words than I ever could. Awesome.

Anonymous said...

You sir summed up everything that i have been thinking ever since falling in love with hockey about 9 months ago. I couldn't figure out what it was exactly that was completely alluring about the sport but there it is in plain text.

Thank you.

pph free trial said...

Well I really like to watch games but I don't make it as a priority about things.