Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hockey Men

The bar is a small room on a small street just off Dunhua. It’s full of smoke and hockey equipment and a cross-section of Canadian expatriate masculinity. There are forty-something guys with polo shirts tucked into belted khaki shorts and twenty-something hipsters with elegantly contrived facial hair and extensive tattoos, all swapping League gossip and gratuitous profanity over beers and poutine. Towards the back, tables have been pulled together in a long rectangle, behind which a milky PowerPoint presentation is projected on a pull-down screen. This is the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey League 2008-2009 Draft, and these are Taiwan’s hockey men.

In the book Future Greats and Heartbreaks, Gare Joyce uses the term ‘hockey men’ to describe those guys who’ve made their lives in hockey, those who know far more about it than he (as a journalist) ever would. They’re the specialists, the professionals, the experts. But specialization and professionalism, and even expertise, are circumstantial- the expert isn’t the person with perfect knowledge, just the person with the best available knowledge under the circumstances. And the guys in this room may not have made their lives in hockey, but they’ve made a significant portion of their second lives- their expat lives, however long or short those might be- in Taiwanese ice hockey.

The CIHL is a curious entity, since it exists at the intersection of the casual play of homesick quarterlife drifters and the rudimentary-but-growing Taiwanese ice hockey program. It is, simultaneously, an unremarkable beer league and the highest level of hockey played in the entire country. Most of its Canadian players wouldn’t even have been in the top tier of their university intramural leagues, yet several of its Taiwanese players will be representing their country in IIHF tournaments. So depending on the angle one looks from, it’s either utterly insignificant or deeply serious. Such are the paradoxes of hockey in iceless lands.

Tonight I am shadowing Julian, team leader of the Kaohsiung Mustangs and reluctant drafter. He is 27, conspicuously blonde, righteously pragmatic, and (at the moment) amorphously uncomfortable with his situation. Despite the name, ‘leader’ has nothing to do with leadership in the hockey sense, and Julian is the first to tell people that it is not (emphasis his) the same as captain. Rather, the leader is the team’s administrative head. Think of him as a kind of combination GM, equipment manager, secretary, and coordinator. League directives come to him, and he nags, cajoles, or bullies his players to meet them. Given that most of his players are transient expats and non-Anglophone teenagers, it’s like herding cats. ADHD cats with busy social lives. He sends out detailed emails that get no response about scheduled ice times, equipment requirements, policies and events, only to get fifteen text messages the night before any significant moment from guys who don’t have a stick blade, don’t remember where Taipei’s only hockey store is, wanted to come and can’t, didn’t think they could come and will, as well as countless variations on ‘Hey, what’s going on with hockey?’. It can be a lot of work and some intense short-term stress, and it might be an exaggeration to say he enjoys it, but the frustrations are usually minimal compared with the shocking good fortune of having a Kaohsiung team at all. But tonight he’s not particularly excited to be here- although this is one of his most significant duties for the entire season- because it meant leaving the rink an hour early, and hours of ice time are one of the more precious things in his life. He could be playing right now. The draft will be excruciating tedium.

Every season, the CIHL redrafts the entire League. This is to preserve balance; several different balances, in fact. Most critical are the balance of skill and the balance of ethnicity. The first is essential because the CIHL is like elementary school gym class- everyone must play, which means everyone must be taken, which means in order for any modicum of parity to survive you have to give each team a few good players and force them to take a few poor ones. Somewhere around round 8 you have to shift your thinking from ‘guys who will help my team win’ to ‘guys who won’t help my team lose’, and the only thing that makes that transfer palatable to the more competitive souls is the knowledge that it’s the same for everybody. The second is essential because the player pool is comprised, overwhelmingly, of two distinct cultural groups: the locals and the foreigners, which more or less means the Taiwanese and the Canadians. In order to promote a spirit of cross-cultural camaraderie, and insha’allah expand the popularity of ice hockey in Taiwan, it is beneficial to ensure that all teams contain a similar ratio of the two kinds of player.

In the case of the southern teams, such as the Mustangs, it’s more complicated. The trip from Kaohsiung to Taipei is four or five hours by bus, and over the course of the season the travel can be both temporally and financially burdensome. Hence, while most teams in the CIHL will play one game every other weekend, the southern teams (Kaohsiung, Chaiyi, Taichung, and Tainan) play two games every fourth weekend. Therefore, all southern players must be on a southern team. The practical upshot: Julian goes into the draft with roughly seven of his 12-13 skaters prechosen, and no picks in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th, or 10th rounds. In the 6 or so remaining picks, he must choose most of his defense, his goalie, and no fewer than four Taiwanese skaters.

Slowly, the various team leaders convene around the table. Greetings are exchanged, papers are shuffled, the computer is set up, and eventually Dave Campbell- league vice-commissioner- makes use of the unique powers granted to the only man in a given room with a microphone to announce the opening of the draft.

With the first selection, the Raptors take Steve Clark, who as a former player for Michigan State is pretty much as close to a 'real' hockey player as the CIHL gets. Were this a full redrafting, though, there is no question as to who would have been first: Ryan Lang, team leader for the Rhinos, is far and away the best player in the CIHL, a ‘rookie’ last season who got 71 goals and 34 assists in 20 games. The second overall pick belongs to Julian, whose foremost concern is defense. Among the six foreign players he has, none feel themselves capable of playing regular D. Howard Bai, the Taiwanese skater from Taichung preselected for the Mustangs in the 4th round, is a defenseman, but Julian doesn’t know him and is uncomfortable with the total lack of other options in the range of ‘guys who can skate backwards’. So he takes Tommy Sullivan, one of the League’s best defenseman and moreover one of the few guys who makes his full-time living in Taiwanese hockey, doing coaching and training for inline teams and working with some of the players on the under-18 national ice hockey team. In picking Tommy, he gets both a solid D and a wealth of inside information on relatively unknown Taiwanese rookies. Tommy was the only foreign player Julian could select. From here on out, he has to fill out his roster with mostly low-ranked locals, mostly rookies and mostly teenagers, few of whom he’s ever laid eyes on before.

Across the table, Brandon Marleau, ex-Mustang and newly deputized drafter for the Tainan Dragons, is- for some reason- wearing a kimono. A big man with a wide, expressive face and strong opinions, the robe makes him look like a refugee from some devastatingly decadent party. He is in an even more awkward position than Julian, since until last week he thought he was going to be a Mustang, and learned only a couple of days ago that he was not only playing for the Tainan team, but drafting for them as well. With his pick, he splits the difference between goals-for and goals-against by taking John Long, widely considered the League’s best defensive forward. Together, they make the room’s most striking pair, because while Long is a talented player, his appearance- shortish, baldish, massive dark beard- is more Gimli than Gretzky. For the rest of the night, they will make most of the decisions concerning the Dragon’s drafting jointly.

Although there is ‘hard’ authority in the League- various men hold various titles that carry real executive powers- in practice the structure is anything but dictatorial. For example, although the actual draft selection can only be made by the team leader, the decision-making process is a complete free-for-all. Most of the League’s most experienced and most talented players are there, and many of them hold dual roles (Tommy, for example, is the head of officiating) but they all have opinions. Every pick, every potential pick, is an occasion for debate or commentary, as players alternately tease, wheedle, and/or nag the various leaders to take (or not take) some potential selection. In some cases- such as Julian’s and Brandon’s- the team’s first round selection probably has more practical influence on who gets chosen subsequently than the leader himself.

The Mustangs don’t get to pick again until the sixth round. In a booth behind the big table, Tommy pores over the lists. Tommy is large and, for lack of a better word, authoritative. I wouldn’t venture to put an age to him, suffice to say I think he’s one of those guys who would always seem significantly older than whoever he’s talking to, not so much because he’s old as because he puts out an air of casual exhaustion, a weary confidence. There’s a whole sheaf of papers to consider- a complete registered player list, a veteran player ranking, a rookie player ranking, a full draft spreadsheet, a goalie list. He jots down numbers and gives a running commentary on the teenagers he works with. He suggests a Taiwanese goalie- young, small, but technically adept and very quick- and a couple of skaters, including a one Jerry Liang of whom no one has heard. Jerry is ranked in the 9th round, but it's a good bet he'll still be around at 12 or even lower. It’s the bottom of the barrel anyway, Tommy says, and the thing about Jerry is that he’ll go to the net.

In the sixth round, Julian gets a flash of inspiration and takes advantage of the League’s keeper system to hold onto one of the Taiwanese defensemen from last year’s Mustangs- a Kevin Chang. However, in order to exercise this privilege, he has to give up the seventh round pick, which places the remainder of his choices in the bottom four rounds, where his decisions make little difference to the team’s overall quality. Still, with 3 solid defensemen and a goalie in mind who won’t be selected by anyone else, his most pressing problems have been addressed.

From here, the atmosphere grows chaotic. Early on, almost every leader knew the all players he selected- by reputation at least, and more often personally. He had a clear idea of what he wanted. Now, however, the draft is creeping into new-player territory. There are thirty-eight rookies this year, and twenty-three of them are Taiwanese, which effectively doubles the number of Taiwanese players in the League; a lot of new names with (as yet) no faces to accompany them. It’s hazy and loud, and with the constant chatter and the ever-present interjections of the watching draftees, confusion sets in. Campbell, even with his microphone, takes on the mien of a frustrated elementary school teacher. His amplified pronouncements alternate from strained pleading (“Can all the team leaders please come back to their seats?” to abrupt commands, “Dragons, five seconds.”). Some of the team leaders have done their homework. Across from me, a short squarish man with a neat goatee and a set of even neater lists is tranquilly crossing off names and consulting notes. Others are scrambling. Some have not been paying attention to the slides and are unclear as to who's been taken (“Hey, does anyone have Kevin Lo?”, “Kevin Lu?”, “No, no, Kevin Lo.” “Who’s Kevin Lo?” “Wait, Kevin Lowe? What about Kevin Lowe?”) Mix-ups happen, particularly where the rules concerning local and foreign players are concerned. There are two Kevin Changs- one is an American of Chinese descent, the other a Taiwanese. Charlie Brooks, however Ontario-sounding his name, is a local, while Kazutaka Hiyashi is Asian but a foreigner. One team accidentally drafts too many Taiwanese players and has to give one up, but most have too few and are now picking more or less blindly from the rookie list based on who has the coolest English name. Gorilla Lee. Neo Huang. Green Liu.

In his final picks, Julian mostly follows Tommy’s advice, for his own part only making the slightly sentimental choice of Infinity Chang (or Rabbit), a neuroscience grad student and former teammate who is remarkable primarily for being fluently bilingual, exceptionally friendly, and strongly committed to improving his skills. Like a lot of Taiwanese players, Rabbit was an inline hockey player first, and only skated on ice for the first time immediately prior to last season. Since then, however, he has taken to the sport eagerly, and surprised everyone in the preseason ice times with his more fluid skating and better hockey sense.

And then, suddenly, it's over. One of the team leaders, frustrated with some detail of the enforcement of the local/foreigner ratio, still sits at the big table, in hot debate with Campbell, but mostly the leaders drift away with evident relief as soon as their final pick is made. They rejoin the crowd, glad to be finished with the special responsibilities that distinguish them from the rest of the players. The fray quiets and the hollering stops, and we have before us the new CIHL. Nine teams, 128 players, the elite of the improbable and irregular Taiwanese hockey world.


Sarah said...

a fascinating read.

completely re-drafting every year must cause absolute chaos

Mookie said...

wow! you managed to bring back many of the feelings i struggled with throughout last season. julian is the greatest of people and i can only imagine the burden he bears.

i'm having a drink as i watch the canadiens on RDS and remember all the great times with the mustangs. i'm truly sad to see them split.

stay away from that marleau boy...hahaha. he's the devil in disguise (a kimono this time).

jmarleau said...

yo bro good luck with the draft. to bad i cant play nets for ya anymore. i would love to show the boys how we play together. good luck brando. your bro little marleau

Julian said...

"the burden he bears"... well, it's mostly just a lot of calling people and emailing, not a huge burden Marc. But I appreciate the sympathy....

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Julian who posts on my site from time to time? If so, cool - the hockeyosphere is a tiny, tiny place.

E said...

pretty sure it is the same julian, he's rather devoted to oilers blogs and it's not a common name. turns out that the hockey blogging world isn't only a tiny place, it's also a surreal one.

tonyar said...

Very intersting. I had no idea the 'conspicuously blonde' (and now famous in the hockeyosphere) Julian had so many team responsibilities. He may just become a hockey man yet:)

dino_bravo50 said...

Marleau.....the devil indeed.

I'm holding a roster spot for you in Truro this year should you decide to return to canada

Anonymous said...

Ellen, glad i finally found this, great read, I can't believe the Wolves were left out of this discussion however...
look forward to reading more about our little hockey world in Taiwan.

pay per head demo said...

I really like to go to those places to watch a game and drink some beer with sport fanatics.