Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday Review: The Other and the Self

Subject: Bidini, Dave. Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000

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’- China, the United Arab Emirates, and Transylvania- the periphery of the hockey world. Bidini’s overt mission is to find hockey that is away from the NHL, away from Canada; to use the adjective ‘uncontaminated’ to describe the sort of game he’s seeking would be blunt but fitting. The book begins with the assertion of his disillusionment with the professional game and the country that (somewhat ambivalently) supports it like no other. The NHL is the primary target of his ire, but there is no small amount of irritation with a Canadian hockey culture which he clearly views as increasingly too wrapped up in idolizing, emulating, or serving that corrupted League. He cannot find, it seems, enough of what he loves about hockey in the most hockey-rich nation on earth; frightened that his growing ennui will alienate him from the game completely, he sets out to find Other hockey in Other 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 Singapore, the Philippines, and the UAE. He travels to Harbin, in northern China, in an unsuccessful search for indigenous Chinese hockey, and meets and plays against an assortment of old-timers from several generations of Chinese National teams. In Dubai, he marvels at ornate rinks in desert cities, and describes the young players who constitute the very first generation of hockey in their iceless countries. And in Transylvania, he finds perhaps the oldest tradition of hockey in Europe, amongst a Hungarian minority who rival Canadians in their devotion to the sport as a national emblem, all the more so because their nationalism has been stifled in virtually every other arena.

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 Canada. Interspersed throughout the travelogue is virtually the whole tale of Bidini’s hockey life- his childhood games and beer league teams, his professional heroes and villains, the vicissitudes of his fandom and relationship with the NHL, and countless opinions about everything from helmets to game-stoppage music to expansion. Flip the text open to a random page and you’re just as likely to find yourself reading about Phil Esposito or the Montreal Forum as Vakar Lajos or the rink at Al-Ain. It’s as though the further Bidini gets from Canada the more heavily the distinctive identity of Canadian hockey player/fan weighs on him, for in everything he sees in the foreign worlds reminds him by similarity or contrast with something from home.

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 Canada and writing a very similar book with the roles reversed, as the things he observes on the other side of the world call to mind the memories of his own experiences, passions, and frustrations in hockey. At times, as an American who is chronically upset by her nation’s disregard for hockey, I thought I saw some glimmers of encouragement in the text. It is marvelous to see hockey growing in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Maybe there is something marvelous in its growth in those of Arizona too. I have no great love for my country, but I do have a great love for hockey, and am often saddened by what I perceive as a certain provincialism (pardon the term) among Canadian hockey fans that wishes to deny the sport to the rest of the world, or at least those parts of it where it isn’t ‘traditional’. I have nothing but awe and respect for the unique relationship that Canada has with hockey, it’s part of what I adore about Canada, but I regret my own hockey-less background enough that I’d like to see it take root in every country.

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 Canada from its rightful place, everything nowadays is too corporate, blah blah blah. Forgive me for the harsh caricature, but it’s become tiring to hear this same litany of complaints over and over again. Not because there’s no truth to any of them- there certainly is- but because the truth of them is only the truth of change, the change that has characterized hockey in every era. The valuation, the perspective that makes them evil, is nothing but the perspective of age.

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.


CheGordito said...

Thanks for the excellent and thoughtful review.

One thing though: call me up in a couple of decades and I guarantee I’ll be dissatisfied.

Really? Do you really think you'll be caught in this one era and not like future changes? I would hope not - but I may be biased by my own hockey experiences - totally new to it in 2002 and enraptured by the winter olympics, slower to follow the NHL, with an on/off interest cut short by the lockout which picked up last season watching the Habs implode. Maybe hockey never captivated me the way you describe, where it "can do no wrong." Or maybe it was just very short, limited to a few olympic games until I grew too busy to follow yet another sport.

But I'd still hope for growth - I've found my distaste for the commercialized violence has grown, but I've been able to prevent that from detracting from my enjoyment of the game. And I hope to continue to enjoy the changes and evolution of the game as I slowly improve my own understanding of the physical/interpersonal dynamics.

Anonymous said...

Imagine that, as you obviously grew up reading and loving books, that with your considerable expertise in how others write and how yourself are quite a formidable writer, you one day come across a 40-year old person who just learned to read and is holding his first copy of "Dick and Jane." He then proceeds to yell loudly that Charles Dickens was a hack (or insert your favorite author) and that Curious George is of far more literary merit.

This is my opinion of southern hockey fans (mostly). I myself grew up in the south, but after going to school up north, playing in high school and college, beer league, etc, I have become somewhat knowledgeable on the subject of hockey. I like the sport moving beyond its traditional borders, but I also despise the license some take, simply based upon their geographical team's success, to tell me what is and isn't good hockey.

That said, an excellent point about coming full circle. I suppose I really should cut those folks some more slack.

E said...

che- i'd love to think that i'll never become jaded and bitter, but looking around me, it seems unlikely. to clarify, i don't think that when you're new to the game you're totally unaware of the flaws, but rather that you don't see them as fatal- i think there's a little bit of an idealistic crusader/reformer mentality that nouveau hockey fans have when it comes to the bad stuff, rather than outright cynicism. what comes with time is the sense that the best of the game has been lost entirely to history. i've met few long-time hockey fans who don't share this sense of loss and an attendant frustration with the present. i don't have the hubris to believe i'll be any different.

kov- i empathize, a bit, with people whose attraction to hockey causes them to overstep the limits of their actual knowledge. i do that myself. so in their defense, i'd say that the analogy with kids is quite apt- we're very willing to indulge child hockey fans in strange or inaccurate convictions because, well, they're kids and they don't know any better. we have faith that they'll learn with time. people who don't grow up surrounded by a wealth of hockey knowledge start out as (basically) children, whatever their chronological age. it's probably worth having a little faith in their ability to grow up, given the opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Great review of this book. I had a very similar reaction to Tropic of Hockey. I think that Bidini can't quite make up his own mind whether he as an author is or isn't what he sees and identifies in Canadian culture. I don't think he has resolved for himself whether he ultimately embraces the broader cultural trends he picks up on, or reviles them. That isn't so much a criticism as an observation: he is to be forgiven for that human complexity, in my view, and the lack of an authorial stance on those issues makes his writing more personal and charming, but it has the result of impairing, or rendering incomplete, the nature of some of the books he has written. I recently read his Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs, a book about his solo music career after the breakup of the Rheostatics, and in many ways your observations would need little re-tooling to be equally applicable to Tropic.

Would you mind if I published a link to this post to a Rheostatics-related newsgroup that I subscribe to? Many Rheos fans read Bidini's books and articles and would be interested in your review.

E said...

junior- please feel free to send the link to whomever you'd like. this is the first of bidini's books that i've read, but some of his others are on my to-do list. i'd be interested to see if i find a similar ambivalence throughout his other works, as you suggest.

i should say that, like you, i don't think tropic is a bad book. it's definitely a pleasurable read and i clearly found it provocative (although that was probably not his intention). i just wish that he'd found it in himself to 'follow through' with the wider perspective that, to me, his experiences might have fostered.

Anonymous said...

Done. The Rheostatics discussion group in question is called "Fish Mailin'", on I'd post linky, but I don't really know the right one to use for non-group members. It's easy enough to find on Yahoo with a modest amount of diligence - I know, 'cause that's how I found it.

I've read most of Bidini's books; my personal favourite is On a Cold Road, which is a kind of history of the travelling live musician in Canada all jumbled up with the story of the Rheostatics' arena tour in support of the Tragically Hip (for those who don't know, a mega-popular band here in Canada, though they can't get arrested Stateside) in 1996. Your mileage may vary.