Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ice Level

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 Canada, and hockey is a fairly popular thing in Canada, such a facility would be large-ish and nice-ish. At least, that’s what you might think if you were me and accustomed to the American way of university athletics, wherein men’s varsity anything- especially anything popular- is a magnet for gigantic donations and flashy buildings. But you’d be wrong. McConnell Arena is, in fact, probably about as bare and basic a space as can accommodate artificial ice and spectators- a vaulted barn of concrete, I-beams, and tin foil. The wide white rounded rectangle takes up most of the space and makes everything else seem incidental, most particularly the five rows of wooden benches that surround it on three sides, slathered with perfunctory red paint, iron armrests that seem designed to punish any elbows that might dare to approach. By now I’ve been to a variety of arenas, and it’s given me an appreciation of how well-maintained McConnell is despite its small size, but nevertheless the highest compliment I can think of for it is ‘efficient’.

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 Canada is an odd phenomenon. Unlike university hockey in the States, it is not seen as a pipeline to a professional career, since Canadian boys who are tracked to become NHL players do not go to college. They play junior, get drafted, and move thence straight into the League’s system. Education, for the most part, is what they do when they fall out of that system. When they realize they lack either the talent or the drive to make it in the Big Time, they take advantage of the scholarship money they got for playing junior, and try to learn how to do something else with their lives. McGill’s roster is crowded with ex-QMJHL players.

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 North America

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 Queens, with whom I am told McGill has a long-standing and intense rivalry. I can only assume that this rivalry is mainly conducted on the level of intellectual posturing, because it doesn’t seem to have much impact on the hockey players. I am with a friend, and we sit in the first row, just inside the Queens zone, on the theory that the historical record strongly favors McGill, and since the home team is up 1-0 in the best-of-three playoff series, most of the action will be at this end of the ice.

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 Chicago, I lived near Wrigley Field. In spite of my lifelong distaste for baseball as a sport, I would still go to the occasional game, because a baseball game is a fundamentally pleasant experience. At the right stadium, you’re basically sitting in a park on a nice summer day. The air smells like grass, the food is pretty good, the crowd gregariously drunk, and the game itself moves at such a meditative (tedious?) pace that you could probably achieve enlightenment just contemplating the formulaic rotation of the players around and around and around in the same pattern, repeated for hours. A hockey game, on the other hand, is inherently uncomfortable. It’s loud, it’s confusing, it’s cold. The seats are hard, the music is terrible, and by the third period the whole place reeks of stale sweat and zamboni fumes. Go to enough games at McConnell and you thoroughly understand why NHL arenas are so ludicrously overproduced- it takes a whole lot of prettification to make this game as congenial of a live viewing experience as most other major sports. Hockey isn’t pleasant. It’s thrilling, it’s beautiful, it’s fascinating, and I’d argue emphatically that it’s the most psychologically and intellectually complex game this side of chess, but it ain’t pleasant. It takes a lot of love, a lot of naiveté, or a slightly perverse sense of pleasure to want to get this close to hockey if you’re not actively playing it- but then again, those are more or less the qualities that define hockey fanaticism in the first place.

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 St. Catharines, then Moncton. This will likely be my last ice level game of the season. So although it was a victory for the good guys, I feel little but regret. For months now, this has been the cheap, easy way that I renew my affection for hockey. It’s been my sanctuary from the anxieties of Habs fanaticism and the corporate frustrations of the NHL, a place where I can go to just be with the game. ‘Commune’ would be too formal of a word. McConnell is where hockey and I hang out.

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.


saskhab said...

Every year, I tell myself I'll go down to Rutherford Arena and catch the University of Saskatchewan Huskies play. Every year, I don't. It's my shame... I've never watched my alma mater play. I've been in the rink, but not for a game. It's supposedly the worst rink in the CIS, which is a remarkable accomplishment from what I can gather. It's littered with players that I've seen in the WHL, and even in the SJHL.

Tier II junior, the level below major junior, is the closest I can put to CIS level in terms of scale and proximity to the ice, although when I go to a WHL game I'm pretty close to the ice as well. But again, these are players generally playing to advance, be it to major junior (WHL) or to US college (NCAA). For watching players not trying to impress, you're limited to the adult/beer leagues. Even then, they're playing to impress their friends and girlfriends.

I'll ask you this e... have you tried lacing them up yourself yet? I guess that's the next step to realizing how much skill is involved in the game. The chaos of watching at ice level is even more amplified by trying to make sense of the game while playing it. Finding passing lanes, cutting off opposing players... even if you're playing non-contact it's ridiculously tough to make the right play, contact makes it tougher.

I eventually switched to being a goalie as a youth. It gives you more time to assess how players should react, and the idea behind playing goal is much less complex... but incredibly difficult, obviously.

Doogie said...

Here in Calgary, it's Father David Bauer Arena, across the street from the main University campus. I've only seen one Dinos game there, out of the four I've been to (two were Red and White games from the August U18 and WJHC selection camps; one was a Hitmen pre-season games). I went with a Finnish exchange student I'd befriended, and went in part to see a classmate of mine who had been helping me learn to play myself (he's a freshman, so he didn't get much ice time, particularly with all the penalties). We lost 4-3 to saskhab's Huskies in OT, and a couple of things struck me.

1) The officiating was terrible. I mean, blow-your-mind bad. Almost blow-your-mind-out bad, but we missed the first period, so we were spared.
2) FDB reminded me of nothing if not the old barn in Morrin, AB, where my dad used to play beer-league with a bunch of guys from work. Ice time at the vaunted Drumheller Arena, with its hanging scoreboard and proper concessions and arena-length glass, was far too expensive, so they settled for this barely-maintained place 30 minutes outside of town.

First, let me make it clear that this is, in fact, a compliment. As E has noted, there's nothing quite like experiencing hockey at the most visceral level, and next to actually being on the ice, sitting at ice level (and when I went to Dad's games, I sat not in the observation area above the rink, but on the timekeeper's bench, manning the scoreboard) is as close to experiencing hockey as you can get. I love the smell of ice, and every so often, even at the Saddledome, you get a faint whiff of real, honest-to-God arena ice, usually followed by another whiff of hockey player, which is less pleasant, though no less invigorating, in terms of the memories it brings back. It's on those rare occasions when the true scent of hockey pierces the veil of cheap $5 arena popcorn and the herbal tea of the old ladies a couple of rows above us, when I feel truly at home.

FDB is in better shape than Morrin Arena, obviously, but the hard plastic benches around the ice are still cold and uncomfortable, just as you'd expect. The PA system is terrible, the horn is painfully loud, and the hanging scoreboard is straight out of the 1970s, but they're all than Morrin had; Morrin had an old flat scoreboard that probably came with the place when it was built eons ago, with half the lights burnt out, only replacing it with a newer flat scoreboard, with an actual shot clock and penalty timer, in the late 90s, a year or so before we left. There's actual glass around the length of the rink, as opposed to Morrin, where there were only a couple of panes in each corner, cardboard around one whole side, since the rink butted up against the wall for some reason, and then just three panes surrounding my perch on the timekeeper's bench, between the penalty boxes. Often, if the play was already going, I run down the length of the rink to reach my safe spot, even though I could count on one hand the number of times the puck actually went as high as the walkway behind the seats in the eight or so years we went there. The Zamboni actually covered the full ice surface, too, at FDB, and you'd think that would be a given, but you'd be wrong, because the Zamboni driver, apparently less than enamoured with scraping the ice at 10:30 PM on a Friday night, did a half-assed job and sometimes missed whole lines, which is an unforgivable sin as far as I'm concerned, not only in terms of work ethic, but in terms of ice conditions and safety. But I digress.

After games, I used to go down to the dressing room and visit my dad, sometimes with a couple of friends who were also sons of Penitentiary employees (my dad worked at the heating plant; some of his teammates also worked there, though many were guards). Later on, one of my friends "refereed" the games (basically, enforced the line rules, since no one ever did anything worth penalizing) after getting his certification, so he'd join us in his zebra shirt. There was only one tunnel from the ice to the dressing rooms, and I have to imagine during rowdier days, that tunnel would've been the site of a great deal of unpleasantness, but by the 1990s, in a rec league full of middle-aged men just trying to have a little clean, family-friendly fun on a Friday night, no one was much in the mood for mixing it up on the way off the ice. Sometimes I'd even go out there, after the game, and kick a puck around in my clomping winter boots, and sometimes we'd just play in the corridor or an empty dressing room, but most times, I just sat around, pretended I didn't hear the swearing, and enjoyed the time alone with my dad. It reeked of sweat and beer and cigarette smoke, the bench was hard and uncomfortable, and the floor was scratched and scraped and cut to hell by decades of skate blades, but it was still one of the best places on Earth, because my dad was there, and he was a hockey player, and to a young boy, especially one without the courage or will to learn to skate and play the game himself, that was all that really mattered.

In nearly ten years since then, I've learned to skate (poorly) and learned to play hockey (better in shoes than in skates). I play good, hard, stay-at-home defence, as he did, partially because it is what he did, though mostly because I don't have much in the way of puck skills as yet, whereas it's much easier to get in someone's face, lift his stick, and keep him from whacking at your goalie. And it's so much fun, I wonder now why it took me so long to try it. I guess at the end of the day, my only regret is that my dad will never have the chance to swap roles with me, as he no doubt longed to do for many years. We lost him almost two years ago to stomach cancer (ironically, it's probably that which set events in motion to make all this happen), and whenever I get down, I try to think of a happy memory. Reading your piece today brought back a flood of old times at that decrepit old barn, exactly when I needed them. Thank you for this, E, and thanks for the great memories, Dad. Happy birthday.

E said...

saskhab- no, i've never played an actual hockey game. i've been on ice, on skates, with a stick and a puck before, but never more than just messing around. i'm still incredibly intimidated by the idea of playing with other people, since i'm not athletic by nature and it is such a formidable set of skills to master at my advanced age.

doogie- that was lovely, you put my post to shame. thank you.

DarkoV said...

Ms. E.,
Can I assume that you're a doctoral student then at McGill, my old stomping grounds? SOUnds like McConnell hasn;t chanegd since I went there back in the last century. Same darkness, same out of the way up-the-damned-hill trek. Are the spooky trees bending and breaking on the path to the rink still there? Always thought that area would have been a place one would find a dead body. But, we're talking about Canada, not the US of A, so the only dead body would have been one of those fat McGill student fed squirrels.

As is per your usual, a fab piece of writing.