Thursday, June 07, 2007


Now comes the Year of the Duck.

It will be a year of onomatopoeia. A year of smashing, thwacking, and thwomping. A year for aggression and physicality and grit. It will be the year of the forecheck and the hockey fight, the year of skyrocketing penalty minutes where discipline mainly consists of having a PK good enough to cover for a lack of discipline. It will be a year for crashing the net and digging along the boards. Ironically, it will be a year for nationalism, a year to make Don Cherry proud, a year of good Canadian boys and good Canadian hockey. It will be a good year for oversized defensemen and 3rd liners from Saskatchewan and Alberta, for enforcers and grinders. It will be a bad year for small, overly talented forwards and the guys who have to keep the Plexiglas in good working order.

For a long time now we've heard tales of the New NHL, where the game is about speed and skill, and while the Ducks lack for neither, that is not the spirit of their game. In a League where most teams are managed according to the Gospel of Getting By, morphing their style to whatever seems to be the dominant paradigm, the Ducks were a team designed around a defiant vision of what hockey should be- a plan, a theory, a hockey ideology about the soul of the game, a prescriptive map of the sport, the Gospel of Brian Burke. Likely they would have played as they did and been the team that they were regardless of wins and losses, and had they lost, the conventional wisdom would have been ready to explain: they are not a team for the New NHL. But they didn’t lose, they won, and in this broad League of doppelganger-teams, the conversions and reversions are already beginning, as the Old Believers relish their triumph and the apostates repent the error of their ways: we were wrong to question, wrong to think that anything had changed, wrong to be seduced by the whirling wickedness of a prettier, easier game.

The battle lines have been drawn in hockey, the sides set, the old vs. the new, hard work vs. elegant skill, strength vs. speed, dichotomies which are paradoxically stronger because they are entirely false, but which were even before the Final began adopted and rewritten as: the Ducks vs. Gary Bettman.

Ducks 1, Bettman 0.

Welcome to the New Old NHL.

[A brief bit of blog-keeping news: I've been out of town and away from reliable internet for a while, but now I'm back and, strangely, it's only now that hockey is over that I actually have a whole bunch of free time to spend on hockey. So, finally, at long last, I'm going to be able to write all the stuff I've been meaning to write, as well as do some summer blog-cleaning: fixing up the links and the tags and, hopefully, a little bit of a redesign. Many thanks to those who are still stopping by here, I hope you'll continue to drop in from time to time over the off-season- I promise it'll be more interesting than it was through the playoffs.]


Doogie said...

WB, E.

Certainly, the NHL could do worse than to consistently reward teams with oodles of toughness and skill. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's what you're supposed to do. I really wish I wasn't bloodsworn to root against the Ducks because of the Pronger trade, because I'm fairly certain that if I didn't have that attachment, I would absolutely love this team, because they play my kind of hockey: noticably rough, a little dirty, even, but with enough speed and finesse to make you just sit there and shake your head every now and then. You tend not to think anymore that teams can have guys like Brad May and Chris Pronger getting suspended for knocking guys cold (the latter despite being one of the team's and league's unquestioned stars), as well as guys like Teemu Selanne and Ryan Getzlaf (was it really only three years ago I was watching this kid with the Calgary Hitmen?) score highlight-reel goals, yet that was the norm 20 years ago.

The trick is to do this without devolving into goonery for goonery's sake. Some of the BS they pulled in the 70s and 80s was over-the-top and thoroughly unnecessary. On the other hand, watch Hextall run Chelios in the corner with a minute to go in the conference finals, out of frustration for seeing one of his guys taken out cheaply, and for losing a second chance at the Stanley Cup, and you see the raw passion (and mild psychosis) that added that extra energy to games, especially rivalry games and late playoff games. The fact that Roy spent the next five minutes goading Hextall from 150 feet away as the latter was being desparately restrained was kind of funny, too. (Aside: that game was two years after they instituted the ten-game ban for leaving the bench during a fight, or that would've emptied both benches in a heartbeat -- the two teams had a pre-game set-to a couple of years earlier, too.) The line between violence borne of passion and adrenaline, which has always been a foundation of hockey, and violence for its own sake, as entertainment, is very fine, and the NHL has not always straddled the line well, but I hope that teams like the Ducks can restore a bit more of that nastiness that helped make the battles of years past so damned compelling without devolving into the kind of horseshit that drove Ziegler and Bettman to clamp down on the game's edginess.

Doogie said...

Whoops, forgot my Hextall link.

E said...

i'm not exactly criticizing the ducks' hockey-ideology- to quote a famous sports cliche, it is what it is, and until next season (when the skulls of people i like are on the line again) i can afford to look at the whole thing in a more distanced manner. but the thing is, i do see it very much as an ideology, and i'm not entirely persuaded that- if pursued to it's furthest logical point- it would really make for very good hockey (by my standards). but my problem has always been that i came into all this in what was pretty obviously a transition period, where the definition of what is and isn't proper hockey is way up in the air.

you're right about the line between real violence and theatrical violence being a fine one, and time was i would have come down on the pro-reality anti-theater side of it with you, but over time i've gained a bit of an appreciation for how intrinsic the theater aspect of it is, and a suspicion that maybe it's that unreal part of hockey violence that keeps the whole thing under some semblance of control. if it was really really real it'd stop being entertaining real quick.

lots, lots more to come on all this...

Doogie said...

I guess it sort of depends on what you look at as the theatre aspect of it, and what parts of that are "unacceptable." For me, personally, I think these ludicrous ladder matches that go down every time you get two heavyweights together are pure nonsense. They're rarely good fights these days, because these guys are (a) not really mad at each other (they may even be best buddies away from the rink), and (b) very good at protecting themselves as well as dealing damage, which means we frequently see more grappling and wrestling than punching. Unfortunately, that's most of what you get these days, because I think most of the "real" fights are started by one person, who consequently gets slapped with 17 PIMs for feeling hard done by. It very much discourages guys from playing with their hearts on their sleeves, which is when I think you see players put on the best show in all aspects of the game.

Let's look at the Ron Hextall thing I linked. Was it "real," in the sense that it's borne of real frustration/anger/psychosis? Of course it was. The Flyers were about to lose the series, Hextall was about to be pulled, and he was still mad that Chris Chelios knocked Brian Propp out of the series with an elbow to the head that left Propp leaking out the back. Furthermore, as anyone who saw Hextall at his peak in the late '80s knows, that fucker was crazy to begin with. All that being said, though, incidents like that, and a lot of the brawling of the Good Ol' Days in general, while rooted in competitive adrenalin, was also part of the entertainment, part of the theatre. People often looked forward to the title fights: partially because they were usually more entertaining back then, since often the teams didn't like each other anyway, and the enforcers in particular hated each other, which is fairly rare these days; partially because it might have been the only thing worth watching in an otherwise putrid game between, say, the Leafs and the North Stars. And you knew people were holding their breath when something dirty went down, quietly wondering if this was going to be the one that caused everyone to go insane and put on a ten-minute show for the ages that would serve as a cathartic release for everyone involved, both in the stands and on the ice. So while the violence was most definitely real, and guys definitely got hurt because of it, I don't think it made things necessarily less entertaining; I'd even say the opposite was true. Sure, shouting at the referee for that bullshit tripping call is a good start, but nothing gets the angry blood going like a good fight can. I mean, goals and pretty plays also get you going, but I think they access an entirely different part of the brain, and serve an entirely different purpose in terms of release/escape/what have you, and ultimately, having a bit of both is really key. For me, anyway, lot of the visceral thrill that makes fights "work," so to speak, is lost when you know it's bogus.

Now, things might be different for you, coming into hockey just recently, and I can certainly understand your perspective if so, but a lot of the old-style hockey culture that I was raised in is rooted in a game that's as ugly as it is beautiful. The players knew going in that it was dangerous work, but they did it because they liked it, and I think that was part of what made it acceptable in the first place, that everyone was a willing participant. I suspect another big part of it is that we appreciate the "real" violence because it's not the whole point of the game, and that when it does happen, it's usually spontaneous. Spontaneity feels more real than malice, and maybe more to the point, spontaneity is the only way we can really justify it all, because enjoying the malice would make us monsters. The latter explains why I don't like some of the antics of the 70s and 80s: not only because it fell outside the boundaries of acceptable conduct in hockey, and consequently wasn't fun in that sense, but because it felt like it was done with no other intent other than to make the biggest mess possible, and that's not spontaneous at all.

I must admit I hadn't thought too hard about the psychology of hockey violence until I started reading your blog, E, so my thoughts are still a bit jumbled, confused, contradictory, and couched in conditional phrasing. But I hope this helps you understand the "old school" perspective, or if nothing else, clarifies my own position.


Of course, as the hockey world mulls over this latest success story, everyone from the two of us to the 29 other GMs would be well-served to remember that the Ducks didn't goon their way to the top. Sure, they hit and fought more than anyone else, and did some pretty questionable shit along the way, but at the end of the day, if grit was all they had, they'd be nowhere. They had one of the best goalies in the NHL, two of the top three defencemen in the league, an ageless wonder and several bright young kids on offence, and possibly the most underrated checking line in the game prior to these playoffs. As you noted in the post, the dichotomy between size and speed or skill need not exist, and I do hope that doesn't get lost in translation along the way. Talent that incorporates heaping helpings of both like that on Anaheim's winning roster doesn't grow on trees, meaning that the clone teams have got a lot of work ahead of them, and by the time they get there, they may just find a new "winning formula" they'll have to start copying all over again. The real winning formula, of course, is the same one that's been in place for most of the NHL's existence: build from within, with a coaching staff who can design a game plan that works for you and the players, drafted or signed, that can best execute it, and above all, the time to let the two elements mesh, not only with each other but within themselves. Easier said than done, but I think Bob Gainey and the Habs are closer to understanding this concept than most, and if Carbo can grow into the kind of coach I suspect he can be, we may very well be celebrating that 100th anniversary according to the oldest Montreal tradition.

E said...

doogie-jaan, your thoughts are hardly jumbled, but i'm going to exercise my blogger-prerogative at the moment and temporarily leave aside a lot of what you've said. not because it's not interesting, rather because it's so interesting that you've sort of anticipated a couple of my upcoming posts, which will hopefully make (more) clear where i (sort of, temporarily, contingently) stand on some of these issues. so, if it's okay with you, stay tuned and we'll get back to all of this in far, far too much detail.

but it's worth speculating that there might be an issue of intractable cultural difference here that will make it such that we'll never entirely see eye to eye. i'm not canadian. don't get me wrong, i love canada. in fact, i'm seriously considering applying for permanent residency and making this whole me-and-canada experiment, well, permanent. and i try to have a deferential respect for the unique relationship that canadians have with hockey, but really, i think it's something you have to be raised with to really understand. there are hockey-values that seem intuitive and natural to you which will probably always seem strange and eccentric to me- i'll understand them intellectually with time, but i'm not going to feel them the way you do. and a big part of that is the almost religious devotion to a 'canadian' style of play, which (while i try to appreciate it) is still to me only one option among many in terms of approaches to the game. the fact is that i still mostly know hockey through the nhl, and the nhl as i came to it is a very hybrid entity. if i were to make a big list of all my favorite players around the league, there'd be czechs, slovaks, russians, americans, a totally unhealthy preponderence of finns, and even the odd (okay, very odd) swede. and yes, quite a few canadians as well, but maybe not so many who'd get the don cherry seal-of-approval. now, as far as i can tell, the correlation between nationality and play-style is more fictive than real, but what this means is that when i look at professional hockey as it currently stands, i don't necessarily see the canadian way of playing as the most common, the most appealing, or the most virtuous way. and, truth be told, it's probably easier for me to empathize with players who came up through systems where hockey-violence is more tightly regulated than it customarily is in canada, just because those systems are a lot more like those of the sports that are popular in the states. none of this is meant to say that the canadian customs are bad, but simply that i think they look very different when one has no particular social/cultural/historical investment in them.

anyway, i'm still thinking this through, and probably will be for quite a while. hope you stick around, i'm sure we can have some very discussions...

Doogie said...

Far be it for me to spoil your upcoming posts, E; looking forward to continuing the discussion down the road. And it is certainly possible that being raised in it makes all (or much of) the difference in the world, which is, I think, part of the appeal of your blog: you've come to it as a clean slate, without the biases a lot of hockey fans bring to the table, so your observations come from a perspective I'd often never considered, and they have opened my eyes a little to how someone who doesn't take these conventions for granted sees them. (The other part of the appeal is that it's so damned well-written.)

The style of play in the NHL, particularly, has been a continuing hybridization of the traditional North American and European styles since the Gretzky era. Fun fact: before the Oilers, it was actually the Winnipeg Jets -- loveable losers of the NHL -- who pioneered that style, and used it to great effect in the WHA of the 1970s, with the line of Bobby Hull, Ulf Nilsson, and Anders Hedberg pretty much owning that league for their entire time together (around four years). Sather saw it first-hand as captain and later coach of the WHA Oilers, and once Gretzky fell into his lap, he had the cornerstone to build his game plan around. Result: after a couple of false starts, no one could touch the Oilers for the rest of the decade (except, occasionally, the Flames), until pretty much all the good players had left.