Subject: Bidini, Dave. Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places.
Representative Soundbite: “… Ahmed also played like someone who had just learned the game. He reminded me of my own days starting out, when the only thing I wanted was to have the puck. When you’re new to the game, your mind isn’t occupied with feeding the open man or plugging the checking lane or ringing the puck around the boards. Instead, you want control of the puck and, once in possession of it, you don’t want to give it up. Because of the infancy of the UAE’s game, their breakouts more or less consisted of the forwards attempting to skate through the other team. There was very little head-manning or dump and chase and, while ineffective, it was refreshing to watch; no matter how many times this produced a turnover or loss of possession, I was happy to find a hockey system that hadn’t yet been poisoned by the Left-Wing Lock. Besides, I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a big leaguer try to score a goal by skating through the other team, and it was this lack of regard for (or knowledge of) chalkboard etiquette that separated the Nats from many of the teams back home.”
There’s a proverb, or maybe it’s a parable, that I can’t quite remember about a man who journeys all the way around the world only to end up right back where he started. In an oblique way, this speaks to the core paradox of travel. A traveler goes far away in search of the new and exciting and exotic, trying to leave the drabness of the familiar behind, only to realize that all those new things only throw into sharper relief the inextricable bond he shares with the home place. In a foreign land, the only thing that is truly foreign is the traveler himself, and the contrasts between Here and There, Us and Them, Home and Away are carried within him. The further from his native place, the more representative of that place he becomes.
One could hardly find a more evocative, if extremely case-specific, representation of this universal experience than Tropic of Hockey. On one level, it’s about hockey in what the subtitle describes as ‘unlikely places’-
And find it he does. The four subsections of the book describe both Bidini’s personal experiences playing abroad and the differing historical trajectories of hockey in countries that remain, for the most part, beneath the NHL’s notice. He participates in the Hong Kong Fives, an international tournament featuring a jumbled assortment of corporate-sponsored teams of mostly expatriate Canadians and national or pseudo-national teams from unhockeyish places like
Bidini is not an adept cultural analyst, at times given to portraying the countries he visits in effusively floral descriptions which regularly display the range of common North American stereotypes through which he imagines his travels. The frequent references to the Orient Express, the Thousand and One Nights, Vlad the Impaler, etc. are likely to irritate anyone with a deep knowledge of any of these regions (or a more sensitive attunement to the ethical imperatives of post-colonial etiquette). However, the author is also disarmingly frank about his comparative ignorance, and his friendly, open, modest tone inclines one to give him the benefit of the doubt where he is occasionally heavy-handed with his exoticism or just plain wrong. Ultimately, he gives the impression of being the best kind of tourist and an excellent traveling companion for an armchair excursion.
But the surprising thing about the book is that, given its nominal topic, it is in large part about exactly the things Bidini claims to be trying to escape. For every anecdote about the history of Chinese or Arab or Szekely hockey, it seems, there is a parallel about Canadian hockey. And for every story of some far-flung team or tournament, there is a story about the NHL. I learned more about the Toronto Maple Leafs from Tropic of Hockey than I’d learned in two years of living in
One might hope that this would lead to a sense of renewal. Certainly that’s what I hoped. It’s exciting and refreshing to see these comparisons drawn, because it reveals the things that are perennial about hockey, the multifaceted relationships, overt or implied, in reality or in our own minds, that weave all the disparate elements into one unique sport. It’s easy to imagine one of those Chinese old-timers coming to
This is where Bidini let me down. He never takes that last step, the one that seems intuitive to me, of letting the excitement of the experiences he has around the world revivify his view of the game in North America. Rather, his narrative retains a stubborn commitment binary oppositions, in which he links seemingly all the good that he sees internationally to the Glorious Lost Past of Canadian Hockey, back when men were men and- as he puts it- no one had ever heard of the Left-Wing Lock. This is contrasted with the debased and defiled present of Canadian hockey, against which he trots out the usual array of petulant complaints: the trap ruined everything, players are greedy and passionless, expansion irrevocably diluted talent and cruelly displaced
There is a life cycle to hockey-love, as there is perhaps to all love, and there’s little doubt that the first part of the cycle is the best. When hockey first grabs you- not the first time you see it, but the first time it really captivates you- everything is glorious. It doesn’t matter if that happened in 1923, 1952, 1977, 1989, 1994, or 2007. What matters is that it is the beginning. For Bidini, the beginning was 1984. For me it was 2006. The two stories are remarkably similar. You see the right game at the right moment, something clicks, and you fall head first, and for awhile (I’m hoping it lasts at least a few more years), hockey is just the most beautiful brilliant wonderful thing in the world and can do no wrong. But then time passes, things become familiar, routine sets in, and you start to see flaws: stupidity, corruption, greed, laziness. At first these things merely irritate, but as you become more and more accustomed to the everyday glory of an ordinary hockey game, they seem to rise to the fore. They begin to challenge the things you love for prominence.
This, I think, is the point at which people start saying, “Hockey isn’t what it used to be.” What they’re really complaining about, though, is that they are not what they used to be. They’re older, wiser, more knowledgeable, and as we all know, knowledge is the end of paradise. Which is why everyone wants hockey to be whatever it was that year they first discovered it, their own personal golden age. Bidini would be thrilled if hockey returned to the way it was in the mid-eighties, but there are fans of older generations for whom those self-same years were horrendous and the real magic was lost with the invention of the curved stick. Me, I’m quite entranced with hockey just as it is, but call me up in a couple of decades and I guarantee I’ll be dissatisfied.
Bidini’s experiences abroad, then, give him not new hope for the NHL that he’d nearly given up on, but rather give him the opportunity to relive that sensation of newness and unfamiliarity that allows for blind adoration. He cannot feel that way about North American hockey again, he knows its secrets too well. In Hong Kong or Dubai, however, he can play that best of all possible roles, the expert outsider- he knows the game well enough to play and contribute, to share stories and reminiscences and reference points with those he meets, yet simultaneously gets to revel in the purity of a fresh experience. It’s a beautiful thing, but I still wish he’d come full circle, and returned home to find his own hockey anew.