Sunday, October 14, 2007

When I Lost My Mind

I am asked, often, to explain exactly how it was I fell in love with hockey. It’s a very natural question, because I lack any of the traditional rationales for hockey fanaticism. Most hockey fans, if you ask them to explain the origins of their interest in the game, will offer some cultural or familial anecdote. They will tell you about the town or country they grew up in, their fathers and grandfathers and brothers and cousins. Ask them the origins of their love, and they will tell you about games they played or watched, and times when hockey became more than hockey and showed them something about their society. It makes sense, especially here- in Canada, it would be more of an achievement to live a childhood with no hockey exposure than one immersed in it, and the successes and failures of local or national teams are a firm part of collective memory. Even non-hockey fans here can tell of a hundred times in their life when the sport was thrust in their faces as an exemplar of their country and their culture. And even in America, even outside the pockets of America clinging to the northern border where interest in the game runs almost as high, hockey tends to be passed down in particular families and towns. It is not something that people come to spontaneously. Except, apparently, me. I am a curiosity.

It’s a question I’ve generally avoided answering. Partly because I don’t enjoy feeling like a curiosity, and there’s sometimes something a bit accusing in the query, a subtext that asks not just how I got to be here but what right I have to claim this sport. But mostly I avoided it because the story behind it is a sentimental and eccentric kind of story, one I could think of no good way to tell that wouldn’t result in incredulous chuckles and rolled eyes. However, today is the one-year anniversary of my (re)birth as a hockey fan, and I thought, as an act of gratitude, that I should tell the story of it. Here goes:

So it was October 14th, 2006, and I was working on Persian syntax. Persian syntax is, in my opinion, possibly the most difficult thing ever invented by mankind. Sure, it seems simple at first: expression of time, expression of place, subject, object, verb: Yesterday on the street I you saw. But unfortunately, no native Persian speaker ever speaks a sentence that simple, and in writing a single thought can be expressed in a paragraph of circling dependent clauses where all sense of subject and object is lost entirely. At the time, if you asked me to read a Persian text to you, I’d be able to read it aloud and still tell you nothing more than a list of the nouns and actions involved, with no clear idea of how they related to each other.

It was a Saturday night, and I was resolved to beat Persian syntax into submission if it took all that weekend and the next and the next. Because at the time I didn’t have cable, and therefore only got three English-language television channels, Hockey Night in Canada was on in the background. After a year in Montreal, I was accustomed to the sound of a hockey broadcast as background noise, the simple hum of the running play-by-play an undemanding way to make the apartment feel a little livelier while not distracting too much from the task at hand. Every now and then I’d sigh, and look up at the incomprehensible whirl of bodies on the screen and space out for a second, before diving back in to my subjunctives and pronominal enclitics.

It was a Habs-Sens game at the Bell Centre, not that I would have been able to tell you that at the time. I did have a vague sense that the game was in Montreal, and that the guys in red were the home team, and I understood the basic features of the game in a ‘net + puck = good’ sort of way, having seen some of the tail end of the playoffs the previous spring. Anyway, at some point I heard a great sort of moaning sound rise up from the televised crowd, and I glanced up at the screen, and saw the reason: Some guy in white had gotten the puck and was speeding, apparently unchallenged, toward the goalie in red.

But then, see, there was this moment.

It was a very simple thing. Shortly after the guy in white crossed the blue line, some other dude in red came up behind him, apparently out of nowhere, going faster, and in one smooth motion pressured him slightly towards the boards, reached over with his stick, swept the puck away from the erstwhile carrier and started back the opposite direction.

In retrospect, it was certainly a slick move. If I saw it again today, I would cheer and feel a wave of relief. Yet, for all its style, it was still a very small play, nothing for the highlight reel, and I doubt if I caught it now I’d remember it much beyond the next day. It made no particular difference in the outcome of the game whatsoever- tells me that the Habs lost anyway. From the point of view of a knowledgeable fan, it was just a little, ordinary thing done well, and maybe with a bit of extra flare. But to me, at the time, it was a revelation. Because, for all its inconsequentiality, it was a perfect moment.


There are no perfect moments.

Life is a mess, the days a sprawl of tangled experiences, threads of continuity and the instants of change that sever them. The objects and people and places we know layer over each other in shifting patterns, and most moments are not moments in themselves but strange, stretched-out things that hold the space between past and future. We cannot think, even, of what a moment really is in itself. Picture an important moment and we have to alter it into an extended, tiresome montage, a movie-moment- slowed down and color enhanced, camera angles and the right song on the soundtrack.

We do not live so much as we collect fragments of a life. We are always shards of ourselves, broken pieces of human that fit together awkwardly or not at all. At odds with everything, we come to think of ourselves as a tenuous shifting state of compromise between warring factions, desires and needs and thoughts and feelings and shapes and structures that refuse to get along. We separate ourselves into pieces: a mind constantly trying to discipline a body to meet its ideals of beauty and form, struggling through force of will to reshape a body stronger or slimmer, and a body that can enslave and even destroy the mind with the force of its uncompromising wordless needs- for food, sleep, sex, sensation. And even our minds we see divided against themselves- our reason that wars with our wanting and both with our feelings and our social conditioning- rationally, I know I should ____, but I really wish I could ___­, we say, constantly caught in some dilemma and feeling like a refugee driven from a contented homeland in our skulls by a civil war that never seems to end.

It is a joke to speak of ‘I’, for there is no ‘I’, there is no unity or oneness, tawhid is a property reserved for God, not humans. Increasingly, we define ourselves metaphorically via other things. On the internet I am no one and nothing, just letters on a screen that are nowhere and everywhere at once, and so Blogger asks me to create a profile, and it prompts me for the sort of information that it finds meaningful. Firstly, the sort of basic bio data that we expect to define us always- name, age, gender, nationality, and then via long lists of words that signify other things- movies, books, music. You shall know me by my consumption habits, by the things that I select to embody me for an electronic world. The things are me and I am them, they pinpoint me on the social map- go to the intersection of The Master and Margarita and Seven Samurai, and find the essence of E.

I grow tired of living in pieces, of the nameless, insensate jumble of ordinary life. It is exhausting, somehow, to constantly try and try to pull together one’s existence into a coherent whole. Being should not be such a struggle.

That play I saw on HNIC last year, though, was something entirely different from ordinary life. It was a moment that was really a moment, not a prolonged multimedia moment, not a stretched and distorted slow motion replay moment, but a moment that was true to the transient essence of moments. Blink and you’d miss it entirely, for it was only there for an instant, exactly long enough to happen and no longer. It vanished as quickly as it appeared. But while it was, it was glorious. It was thought, perception, skill, motion, intention. It was physical and mental, but the grace and the glory of it was that it was all this in one whole. Slow it down, analyze it after the fact, and you could pick apart all the constituent elements, but at the time it was just one thing that encompassed everything. It was a skating singularity, a checking meditation. It was perfect. It was being.

Why do I love hockey? I love hockey for the perfect moments, those rare seconds when that swirl of aimless bodies coalesces into something so precise and pristine that it’s almost impossible to believe it wasn’t divinely choreographed, those points when the chaos breaks into purpose and for just one moment there is a flawless unity of thought and action. It only exists for that tick of the clock that it takes to take a shot, block a shot, make a save, make a pass, throw a check, but in that second, the right second, it is whole. Bad hockey plays are like ordinary life- someone vainly striving to pull together pieces of intention and position and circumstance into some semblance of an event, and sometimes it works okay, but mostly it doesn’t come out quite the way it was meant. But good hockey plays are fractions of a second of transcendence. You could meditate for a thousand years and experience nothing so Zen as a great hockey play.

Hockey people know this instinctively, although they seldom describe it in such hyperbolic terms. Anyone whose ever played at any level, it seems, has had one of those moments, although they often find them difficult to describe, moments of clarity when out of the speed and the shouting and all the frantic collisions, there was one second where everything came together and they knew exactly what to do without actually knowing and did it without doing. And fans know it too, the way that watching a game can be a constant struggle to find patterns where there are none, to see the form beneath the frenzy, until that one second happens where something reveals itself, some perfect moment rises up out of the chaos and almost immediately dissolves into it again. There is nothing else like it.


Maybe back then, I couldn’t have told you all this. I couldn’t have enunciated why it was that that particular moment so fascinated me, but the fact remains: it did. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I only saw it once- there was not then nor probably ever has been any instant replay of it, and it wasn’t in a game significant enough to warrant any rebroadcast. But I didn’t need to see it again, because I kept seeing it replayed in my mind, brief flashes throughout my day. It was beautiful. It was entrancing. It was whole. It was suggestive of something I had never before seen, and I wanted to see more. I wanted to understand it. I wanted to explain it. I wanted to take something of this singularity and make it my own.

By the time the next Saturday rolled around, I had cable and RDS. I didn’t miss another Habs game for the rest of the season. By the Saturday after that, the margins of my Persian notebooks were full of jotted hockey-notes: player names and numbers, positions, stats, nationalities; outlines of the divisions and conferences; broadcast schedules; and a whole heap of assorted musings on teams, and strategies, and bodies in motion. By the Saturday after that, I’d started reading Kukla and Jerseys and Hockey Love. And by the time one month had passed, I’d got a Blogger account and started the Theory.

Such are the consequences of an elegant takeaway.


tapeleg said...

That is as nice a complement as you can get.

HockeyTownTodd said...

Great post, it took me back about 58 yrs.

Doogie said...

So now that you're active again, I've gone back through the backlog and, as one of those WHL-oriented readers you were referring to in the thread, I'm sorry I missed the discussion in "On Watching."

Anyway, like a lot of your readers, I'm sure, hockey just was for me. Yet the play that drew me in was one that I never even saw, not until months or even years later.

The setting: Overtime, Game 7. The epitome of clutch time, the thing everyone talks about when they talk about key situations. It's not the Stanley Cup Finals, of course, but the it might as well be for a team that had known nothing but futility for as long as I could remember (though granted, this was not terribly long at the time). The score, like the series, is tied 3-3.

Play in the defensive zone. A shot, a save, a rebound, OH MY GOD what a save. How did that stay out? A star player, a future Hall of Famer no doubt on the doorstep, and a flying glove save to stymie him. Unbelievable. Then, face off, lost by the good guys. A blast, and another great save, and the puck is cleared.

Then it happens. The return play is broken up, and the puck finds the swift young kid, and here he comes, in all alone, screaming towards the net, snapshot...


I was in the back of my aunt's van, driving from Calgary to Rocky Mountain House when the legendary Rod Phillips delivered the call. And from that minute on, I was sold for life. There are other moments since then that have helped keep the spark lit, and I think I can even safely say that the game kept me sane when my entire life got turned on its head a couple of years ago, but that one singular moment, that goal that's etched into my brain, is the point where I "lost my mind."

Junior said...


This is a very thoughtful, well-written and well reasoned piece; clearly, you do not work as a MSM sportswriter. I thoroughly enjoyed this post - I don't think I've ever seen Aristotelian mind/body dualism discussed in the context of puck matters.

Thanks; I will be adding you to my blogroll.