It’s cold in here.
Stupid thing to think, right? It is, after all, a massive room whose dominant feature is a massive slab of ice. Of course it’s cold, it should be cold, it’s supposed to be cold. If it was warm, that’d be surprising and worthy of comment. But cold is the perfectly proper thing for this context. Yet whenever I come to McConnell, no matter how I might search for insightful thoughts, all I can think for the first ten minutes or so is, fuck, it’s cold in here.
McConnell Arena is the home ice of the McGill Redmen hockey team. Now, you might think that because McGill is a fairly giant university in
It is the playoffs, not that you’d be able to tell from anything in the atmosphere. Tonight, as most nights, the crowd is sparse. A few students, a smattering of families, some dour old guys, a couple coteries of giggling girls, overdressed young men who can only be one team or the other’s scratches for the night. The blocks of seats nearest center ice are reasonably crowded, but the ends are desolate. The fans munch popcorn and chat quietly. Other than one guy in a McGill toque and a petite woman in a hoodie, no one is wearing the colors of either team. The audience will not be loud. Goals are applauded, there’s the occasional hoot, but unless someone gets really drunk or some of the players’ friends are in attendance, there’s rarely much energy from the stands. Whatever intensity this game might generate will come from the ice and largely stay there.
University hockey in
The style of hockey is, therefore, paradoxical. The skill level can be quite high, since even failed junior players were obviously still among the elite of their age for a while, and moreover after a few years in the Q or similar they have the experience of having played in an extremely competitive environment. These are no intramural dilettantes; they’re talented, knowledgeable, and serious about the game. However, for most of these players (barring the occasional exception who opts for a lifetime in the AHL or such), this is the end of the road- the last ‘real’ hockey they will ever play. CIS hockey is a twilight league for twentysomethings, where the detritus of the Canadian hockey player production system learn to accept the premature demise of their erstwhile dreams. As such, it lacks much of the ferocity and desperation that characterizes major junior hockey. These guys aren’t playing for anything anymore, other than personal pleasure and long-ingrained habit. So while there is certainly still plenty of thwacking and banging and even the occasional fight- these still being mostly good Canadian boys who play good Canadian hockey- there is absolutely no element of performance in their play. There is no dropping of gloves to rile the crowd or please the coach or impress the scouts, and precious little in the way of showy stickhandling or gratuitous spinning and whirling. This is, perhaps, the way good hockey players would play if no one was watching. And very few people are. This is the grandest scale of completely meaningless hockey in
It is exactly the meaninglessness of CIS hockey that draws me to it. In these games, I am liberated from any concern with outcomes. Sure, I cheer for the home team most nights, and after going to a dozen or so games over the course of the season, I even have a few favorite players- #11, a quick and devious little forward, and #21, a massive defenseman, and #8 and #20, for reasons I can’t quite remember. But that’s exactly the point, I don’t worry about remembering these games as hockey games. I don’t care about the standings or anyone’s individual point totals, I’m not particularly interested in the nuances of their strategy or unique skill sets. I don’t analyze these games, at all, not as they’re happening nor after the fact, and as such they have very little traction in my memory as individual events.
Yet I go to McConnell again and again, pretty much every game I can when I’m in town and there’s no competing Habs game the same night. I was coming here on warm, rainy nights in September, when brand new college girls in slight spangly dresses struggled with umbrellas as they picked their way down the mountain from the residences, past the rink, to the St. Laurent clubs. I was coming here in November, when the climate control system struggled and shrouded the ice in fog, and the goal judges had to use squeegees to continually clear the condensation from the glass and preserve their view. I was coming here in January, when a fortuitous combination of bad weather and a brief break in the academic schedule packed the arena with riotously drunken students with more enthusiasm for trash-talk than hockey. I’ve seen a wide assortment of teams from universities I’d never previously heard of, small schools with rosters of shell-shocked-looking 19-year-old history majors in faded jerseys that don’t even bear names. My favorite was the team whose only symbol was an ominous black bird, suggestive of the sort of poem they might have over the door in their dressing room, wherever they come from: Once upon a midnight dreary/While I pondered weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious…
Tonight the opposition is
Virtually all of my hockey watching looks down on the play from a 45 to 80 degree angle- the universal angle of the television cameras, the necessary angle of the cheap seats at the Bell Centre, the ideal just-over-the-top-of-the-glass angle for watching a junior game. These are the trajectories of analysis, the sight lines that allow for the clearest, widest possible view. Viewed from such positions, the game is slowed and rationalized, for the eye can take in its full geometry. Passing lanes, shooting lanes, the neat pentagram of a power play or the flexible trapezoid of a penalty kill, the avian weave of a forward line attacking through the neutral zone, the crab-like sidestep arc of the goalie following the puck; hockey from a high angle is a game of shapes and lines.
I go to McConnell, however, for one reason and one reason only: to watch hockey at ice level. I learned to do so partly out of necessity, for even standing the whole game leaning over the concrete ledges behind the seats, the viewing angle is still a shallower and lower than the ideal. But nowadays, I'd rather watch this kind of hockey as close as possible anyway. Hockey at ice level is exciting, entrancing, and mysterious in a way that is lost from the more elevated positions. And I am addicted to it, the attraction base and visceral. My normal hockey watching habits have become as psychologically elevated as they are physically elevated. When I watch a game on television, especially, I’m watching with my frontal lobe and all those higher brain functions that separate Homo sapiens from their cerebrally-deprived mammalian relations- I am reasoning, calculating, predicting, remembering, associating, speculating, anticipating, in addition to all the screaming and cursing and cheering. Ice level games, though, I watch with my amygdala. From this position, hockey is nothing but pure sensation and emotion.
I sit with my feet up on the boards, the toes of my boots resting against the glass, the only position that might keep my ass from going numb on the cold bench. When the play hurtles into our end, S and I lean forward eagerly, only to jump back with a gasp when a body or puck collides with the boards right at face level, the thump and rattle jolting us out of desultory conversation. I shiver, but like a shaken passenger coming off a rollercoaster, I’m there because I wanted it. Hockey here is urgent and shocking, and I am both thrilled and faintly horrified that I can sit in such serenity with my face only inches from such accelerated chaos. This is not even close to the most intense hockey being played in this world, or even in this province, but nevertheless on some nights it’s like being a spectator at a curiously well-equipped bar brawl.
The puck hypnotizes. As a television viewer, one views the puck as more of a symbol than an object, a representation of pure Newtonian physics in black rubber. It is the sum of the forces acted upon it, and it will go where it is directed. We criticize players for apparently insufficient mastery over it- How could he miss? He had a wide open net! But seen close up, the puck has a will of its own. Not a particularly intelligent one, mind you, but the twittering, inexplicable volition of an insect. It flutters through the air, hops over sticks, buzzes eagerly around the boards, tumbles wildly off the goalie. Divots in the ice and joins in the glass cause it to leap erratically from the expected path, and the players go chasing after it like so many frustrated cats after a crippled but plucky cicada.
It’s easy to be a hockey critic from a distance, where the angles emerge so neatly, but watching at ice level has taught me a newfound respect for the perceptiveness of good players. The game is a constant tangle of bodies and nothing is ever still. I am in awe of the ability to even pick out a clear lane amidst the swirl, and more of the skill to aim the puck through it in the brief instant it makes itself available, and even more of the composure to do so with a 200-pound defenseman bearing down- an awe that I try to force myself to recall when I want to eviscerate one of my Habs for missing a seemingly obvious chance.
I see here, more clearly, the moods that govern the play. In a televised game, the moods of the announcers predominate; in most live games, the mood of the crowd. We think we understand what the teams themselves are feeling, but most of the time what we’re really seeing is the carefully produced emotional theater that broadcasters and arena staff create for our entertainment. It is not entirely divorced from the mood of the players on the ice, but neither is it an accurate representation thereof. But at the McConnell games, there is no spectacle to interfere, so the observer is almost by default more tuned in to the attitudes of the players. Through the glass, a few feet away as they set up for a faceoff or skate absently around after a stoppage, you can read the plotline of the game in faces- the smiling two-word banter of linemates after a good shift, the terse focus of a centre leaning in for a critical draw, the mischievous grin of a visitor baiting his counterpart on the home team, and the clenched jaw of the offended party before laying a gratuitous cross-check across the asshole’s chest. The all-eyes, all-business alertness of a team determined to recapture a lead, or the bored, glazed resignation of one that just wants to give up and go home.
Outside of the NHL, where ice level seats are expensive status symbols because of their proximity to the superstars, the front row at a hockey game generally belongs to children and puckbunnies- the only hockey fans who are unashamed to watch for sensual pleasure rather than comprehension. For a fan, ice level is where you sit if you want to experience hockey instead of watch it.
It’s not for everyone. As a sensory experience, hockey is a hard sell. Once upon a time, back in
The home team wins 2-0, meaning they’ll advance to the conference final, but it’s doubtful that I’ll be able to see any more of their games. Beyond the final, it seems that the rest of their season will be played away, in
Stepping through the big swinging doors into the foyer, I feel for an instant my customary sense of relief at the warm, dry embrace of a central heating system. But I know that, days from now, I’m not going to miss being toasty warm by the concession stand. I’m going to miss being cold, with my ass numb and my ears ringing, my nose six inches off the glass.