Monday, October 27, 2008

Rinks of Kaohsiung

How elastic, exactly, is the word ‘rink’? Must a rink have seats? Must it have glass? What about boards? Changing rooms? Showers? How many of the conventional accoutrements of a hockey rink must a given playing surface possess to earn the title?

Must it have ice?

If the answer is yes, than there are no rinks in Kaohsiung. Similarly, if hockey is by definition an ice-bound sport, than there is no hockey here. The only ice in this town is preserving fish and cooling tea. But here I am, at the maybe-rink on Jhong Jeng, at what is purportedly a hockey tournament, and a major one. Teams have congregated from all over the island, thirteen men’s and five women’s, and many of the Taiwanese players have ditched their CIHL games (their iced games) to be here. To play inline hockey.

The rink has been freshly restored, its concrete surface smoothed over and painted a dark, sophisticated green with bright red lines demarcating the zones and circles, surrounded with the familiar white boards. Behind each net, a plastic pane clears the view for a goal judge, bored-looking men slumped in folding chairs. On one side, it’s overlooked by a massive skateboarding structure and a gentle grassy slope. At night, bats skim overhead, wings flickering in the floodlights. During the day, dragonflies hover, waist-level, in the midst of the play.

Inline hockey, when played seriously, bears strong cosmetic resemblances to ice hockey. The player’s equipment and jerseys are very similar, even down to the skate boots, which are produced by the same companies that make hockey skates. It is, however, a different game, a more earthbound one. The surface, even when smooth and glossy, grumbles where ice would purr, and throws up the indifferent resistance of friction against every would-be pass and shot. In trading eager but fragile blades for the stolid security of rubber wheels, the players are still quick but conspicuously less agile.

In the Canadian mind, inline hockey is the poor offseason substitute for real hockey, and hockey without modifiers is always ice hockey. Inline belongs to the family of ball hockey, things that can be played more readily and more casually perhaps than ice hockey, but are only imitations. They’re shadow sports, they have no real existence apart from the icy Mother Game.

But here, the roles are reversed. Inline hockey, while not approaching the popularity of baseball (the major Taiwanese athletic passion), is a common enough sport, particularly among children and teenagers. There are several stores in Kaohsiung where one can buy skates and sticks and gloves and kneepads, and there are a couple of rinks. One will occasionally see kids playing on the paved portions of parks. If anyone in Taiwan comes to ice hockey, it is through inline.

This is probably the root of the major cultural difference in the Chinese Taipei Ice Hockey League between the Taiwanese players and the Canadians. However similar the two sports may be in the broad strokes, the different surfaces correlate with major differences in play style. Passing is the most common point of contention. By modern Canadian ice hockey standards, players trained in inline first do not pass frequently or sensibly. They’ll carry the puck for days when allowed, trying to deke around or simply squish through improbable numbers of well-positioned defenders. In only a few games, I’ve seen dozens of occasions where local players in the CIHL skate straight down the center of the ice at the net, assuredly carrying the puck with no evident concern for how many bodies are they’re heading into. They don’t pass and they don’t dump. The Canadian boys, privately, will mutter things about ‘selfishness’ and ‘no hockey sense’, but it’s more a matter of experience and training than any personal choice or quality. Inline hockey is played with more space (only four skaters per team) and less maneuverability; the person skating forwards with speed has some natural advantage. Moreover, a poorly maintained inline hockey surface- like the one at National Sun Yat-sen University, right on the harbor and subject to the cruelest whims of every typhoon- will be scarred with deep cracks and scattered with gravel. Regardless of skill level, pristine passing just isn’t feasible the way it is on ice. For the Canadian, the values of ice hockey will always be ‘good hockey’ no matter how much inline he plays as a concession to the tropical climate, but for his Taiwanese teammate, inline is often the first game- the one played more often and more seriously, and it's inline values that seem more ingrained.

Today- a blazing bright Sunday afternoon- we’ve come out to see something even more prototypical. This day of the tournament has been given over to short-stick hockey, which was the first form of hockey to establish itself in organized form in Taiwan. It is a curious game. To my eyes, the eyes of a contemporary NHL-produced hockey fan, it looks like a mutt game: one third old-timey, pre-Great War ice hockey, one third field hockey, and one third roller derby. Most of the players here are older than inline players, including some of the guys who coach and supervise the current teenage inline clubs. They play in shorts and T-shirts, on quad skates. The goalie pads are pieces of flat board tied to the shins, and the netminders play the whole game in a crouch designed to cover their otherwise unprotected abdomen. The sticks, for which the game is named, are indeed short, so much so that to carry the ball, the players must bend nearly double. They are entirely flat, the blade bending out from the shaft in a gentle, abbreviated L-shape. We meet some inline players- seventeen, eighteen-year-olds- that Julian knows on the way in, and although they aren’t participating in the short-stick games, they tell us to stick around, because it’s going to be exciting.

In a way, it is. It’s light and completely non-contact, with a loose, casual air that couldn’t be more different from ice hockey’s tense, hyperactive urgency. It is, finally, a latter day incarnation of the prototypical ‘ball and stick’ game from which we are told that hockey descended, an even more simplified version of whack-the-projectile. Taiwanese hockey, it seems, really did start at the beginning.

Much has been written, and still will be written, about the formative spirit of Canadian hockey- the long winters, the deep cold, the boredom, the need for community, human contact, and shared ritual amongst a widely scattered people with little in common beyond similar hardships. But not much has been written about what forms other hockey cultures, other than the allusions to the influence of bandy on the Russian game. Most of the time that hockey has come to other places- especially hot places- it has followed a path akin to the NHL’s expansion in the southern United States. It has created artificial ice and imported Canadians to skate on it, and eventually, to train the locals. Paradoxically, although some have criticized all attempts to displace hockey from winter, this mode of transport always honors the Canadian model, because there are no local influences to speak of. Imported hockey is usually a transplant, not a hybrid.

Watching the Taiwanese playing short-stick, and listening to the enthusiastic hooting and shouting from the small-but-active crowds at the sidelines, I wonder how international hockey really is and how international it’s prepared to become. At most CIHL games, the fans are docile and quiet, nothing approaching the level of audience engagement I’ve seen at the inline games. Short-stick and inline have a level of resonance here that ice hockey doesn’t yet have, and when Taiwanese players bring elements of inline-style play into their on-ice game, they’re bringing in elements of what is relevant to them personally. Their experience of hockey is one that can be played outdoors on sweaty, verdant nights under a smog-yellowed moon. When they play ice hockey, they’re playing from a different metaphor and a different history.

Sometimes, hockey commentators talk about what an international game our sport is, but usually what they mean is that there are a lot of foreign names and foreign languages in NHL locker rooms comparative to the NFL or the NBA. However, of the couple hundred countries in the world, only a handful, maybe a dozen, have major professional ice hockey leagues, and only maybe a half-dozen produce elite players consistently. It’s possible that it will always be that way, that only the coldest countries will ever be really serious about ice hockey. But increasingly, thanks to the advent of artificial refrigeration, it’s an indoor game, and a potentially mobile one.

There has only been competitive ice hockey in Taiwan for five seasons, and already there’s at least one Taiwanese player who aspires to go to Canada and play minor pro. The odds are against his success, but give it a few more years, another generation, and there will be more; and more still from lots of warm nations with only one ice surface and one tiny, struggling amateur league. People will fall in love with this game who’ve never shoveled off a frozen pond and never heard of Bobby Orr. Hell, people who’ve never owned a pair of mittens. They’re a long way off yet, a long way from skating in Le Centre Bell, a long long way from getting their sweat all over the Stanley Cup. But they’re coming, their future mothers might be skating right now on the green, concrete rinks of Kaohsiung. Much of their distinctive cultures will be filtered out as they advance- no Taiwanese player is ever going to make the NHL with such a blasé attitude towards gaining the offensive zone- but some of it won’t be. Just as with the Russians, some of it will eventually challenge standard Canadian hockey practices. Some of it will, eventually, get traced on NHL ice.

Think hockey has changed a lot in the past twenty years?

We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

3 comments:

Doogie2K said...

Hey, you bring what you know to a game. Hell, I bring the concepts of hockey goaltending to soccer, and the net's like fifty feet long. Suffice to say there was a learning curve.

That being said, at least in this particular example, I'm not seeing end-to-end rushes like that working in high-level hockey. It's not like the old-old days, when any forward pass was offside, nor is it like a beat-up concrete rink, where the laws of physics prevent the sort of passing that has evolved into hockey over the last 30 years, thanks in large part to the Soviets, 70s Jets, and 80s Oilers. But I do take your larger point, that the evolution of hockey is a never-ending process, and that like anything else, its final destination is seldom predictable.

E said...

doogie-

yeah, this isn't one of my better-written or well-articulated posts. there are a few points i meant to make and didn't, or didn't clarify enough.

i don't actually expect any taiwanese players to make the nhl the way they play now. there's obviously going to have to be a lot of refinement first. my point was more that hockey sense, those instincts about what is the 'good' decision in a given moment, is formed early and not always easily refined. the taiwanese players in the cihl, even as they develop their ice hockey skills (in some cases surpassing the majority of the canadian players) still retain a lot of inline instincts- and for some of them, it works. i've seen many ill-considered rushes, but i've also seen several succeed brilliantly. there are taiwanese guys who can pull off their unorthodox style with surprising efficacy.

i think the point i was trying to make was simply that, as more and more people play hockey in more and more non-traditional countries, you're going to see more unusual instincts and different kinds of hockey sense showing up in professional leagues. some of those will get eliminated or refined, but some elements will probably slip through, carried by the occasional gifted athlete whose skills are sufficient to compensate for atypical form. not unlike the way the first european players made it in north america, in spite of widespread bias against european styles of play.

the-jumbotron.com said...

I've just recently started reading Theory of Ice and think you do a fantastic job. I thought the points of more non-traditional countries embracing hockey in their own ways came across pretty clear. again, great work