The women look like miniature showgirls on lunchbreak. Two-inch false eyelashes in blue and purple, glittery cheeks, long sweeps of feathers rising from shellacked hair, holding light coats wrapped over sequined lingerie, they sit at the Starbucks counter slurping coffee and inhaling muffins as quickly as their lipstick allows. In between bites, they laugh uproariously and point with bright fingernails at the spectacle outside the window.
The spectacle in question is the Australian Under-18 National Hockey Team. Lanky, shaggy-haired and grinning, the boys have taken over a wedge of slate in front of the coffee shop with Frisbees and the flagrantly juvenile enthusiasm of teenagers on a class trip. It’s a windy, cool day in
The girls are half-hour escapees from some sort of tyrannical cuteness expo taking place in the big, central bowl of Taipei Arena; the boys, from the IIHF Tier III Under-18 Ice Hockey Championships (A Division), currently being held in Ice Land- the small, incidental hockey rink annex to the main building. Behind the Starbucks, across the concourse and opposite the gift shop, arena staff are hurriedly running sheets of rubbery foam across the linoleum. Working in teams with rolls of packing tape and big black squares, they make an awkward little web of pathways from a janitor’s closet to the stairs, from the stairs to the elevator, from the elevator to a different janitor’s closet. From inside said closets comes the occasional clack of sticks and the dull thwunk of dropped duffel bags; chubby older guys in team-logo windbreakers are sorting equipment. When they’re done warming up, the Australians will crowd into one of these (thankfully spacious) closets to dress and imbibe whatever pre-game inspiration is on offer, before clomping in skates and full gear across the concourse, up the stairs, through two sets of sliding doors to get to the rink. They’ll do the whole walk six times every game, for the duration of the tournament.
This trek would be an indignity of sorts for the best 18-year-old hockey players of some nations; the janitorial dressing rooms an insult. But for these players, it’s at worst typical and at best luxurious- few of the participating nations here have abundant hockey-ready ice; one of them doesn’t even have so much as a single indoor rink. The South Africans with their swooping Afrikaans chatter, the Australians with their surfer hair, the thin, fragile-looking Mongolians: these teams have very little in common culturally, linguistically, economically, or historically. But all of them share an experience of hockey that is defined by compromises. Their hockey is the hockey of lack: lack of ice, lack of equipment, lack of money, lack of practice time, lack of competition, lack of training. They have low standards. They have learned to make do.
Hockey is an international sport, we are told, and it is. Sort of. Hockey is an international sport the way the Cold War was an international problem: It’s mainly defined by the tensions and collusions between two factions comprised of seven or so major powers. There’s North American Hockey, there’s European hockey. There’re the Canadians, the Russians, the Swedes, the Finns, the Czechs, the Americans, the Slovaks, occasionally the Swiss or Germans or some such. This is the level of the NHL and the KHL, the Worlds Juniors, the Olympics, and probably 99.9% of hockey fans globally are concerned exclusively with this First and
But the IIHF has 65 member nations. The World Juniors and the World Championships might be their flagship tournaments, but most of their membership- most of the countries in the world with some kind of ice hockey program- inhabit an entirely different universe from that of Canadian or Russian or Swedish hockey, and it’s a difficult universe to characterize. Looking down, it’s adorable and exotic and a bit heartwarming for the upper-echelon hockey fan; the tongue-bending names and nifty jersey stylings alone are enough to give one that warm fuzzy ‘tendrils of hockey are everywhere’ feeling. Looking up, however, the picture is cloudier. Playing hockey outside the orbit of the major powers is an expensive, frustrating, and ultimately quixotic endeavor. One might easily spend more money and nearly as much time as a Canadian kid chasing hockey dreams, but without even the infinitesimal .05% chance of becoming tangibly successful at it. It’s a sport, frankly, for the deeply bored, the accidentally rich, the recklessly impractical, and quite possibly the congenitally insane.
Saturday’s first game sees the heavily favored Australian team playing the heavily not-favored
In the stands, the Mongolian team is stealing the show. They don’t play today, so they’ve been drifting around the arena in pairs or packs, and now they’ve congregated to watch the game- or, more accurately, to make a ruckus on the bleachers during the game. Their blue tracksuits, more or less standard issue for non-playing hockey teams, are accessorized with black velvet caps bearing tall golden spires, like a Teletubby antenna or a miniature minaret. The Mongolian boys really look like boys, like children- too thin, too small, too raw and unconditioned, too under-equipped and under-trained to compete with the likes of
Why, exactly, the Mongolians are so enthusiastic about
The Mongolian team are underprivileged to a degree so depressing as to be nearly comical. Remember how your granddaddy used to tell stories about the
Canadian hockey fans tend to think of the hockey potential of an area in terms of climate. It’s tiresome, of course, to hear the sixty-thousand-and-fifty-third whined complaint about the inauthenticity of hockey in
But in this case,
The two most important criteria in building an international hockey power, today, are existing infrastructure and the wealth to maintain it. Despite a thousand Hockey Day in
However, it’s not long before even the Mongolians start to lose interest in the RSA-AUS game. Initially, the South Africans manage to resist the Australian pressure, tenuously and largely due to the efforts of a tense, hyperactive goaltender who plays like a hummingbird, skittering in and out of his crease at 1200 heartbeats per minute. He’s sheerly fast, and the Australian shooters seem briefly confounded by it. But only briefly. Nine minutes in, they get their first goal, and from then on their score ticks up at regular intervals.
One of the reassuring things about serious, low-level, international hockey is the crude economy of skill. In the upper echelon, hockey skill is measured on a fine, softly curving continuum that leaves room for real debate and speculation about the actual talent and optimal use of players. It is, in a way, a testimony to the elite uniformity of the NHL that it leaves so much room for in-fighting about which players are truly most valuable, that fans find it necessary to dig into imperceptible statistics and speculative personality assessments to try to ascertain a player’s contributions. But down here, the skill curve looks like a Balinese terrace farm- wide collecting planes followed by sharp drops straight down. Skills start to spread out and disassociate from each other, revealing themselves as distinct abilities rather than the interdependent, unitary play-styles of the elite. A good player is a precisely-calibrated machine designed to produce a particular kind of game, but a poor player is always a collection of pieces. Good hands, bad legs; good eyes, bad lungs; all heart, no head. They’re obvious, Tier III players.
Furthermore, at this tournament, one can actually see distinct hockey ‘cultures’ in operation. Because of the limitations of their context, most of these players’ on-ice experience is entirely within the bubble of their own communities- communities where few people are even aware of hockey, much less understand it, or watch it, or consider it seriously, or develop communicable views on how it ought to be played. A hockey player in a non-hockey society is isolated geographically, culturally, and often linguistically from the competitive and stylistic trajectory of the elite game. Even an exceptional amount of coaching cannot entirely compensate for that distance- players ultimately hone the skills that make them effective against the kind of competition they most often face. So in a third-world hockey country, one might find any number of strategic or formal quirks and gaps flourishing in the game. Bidini noticed this, in The Tropic of Hockey, and he describes it as refreshing, sees in it something pure and childlike- probably because, for a Canadian with any degree of seriousness about the game, such quirks and deficiencies seem so absurd and careless that one cannot imagine indulging them save in childhood, before one might be expected to know better.
For example, the South African team which is being so decisively decimated by the Australians, has virtually no knowledge of stickhandling. True, a lot of their skills are weak, but the Australians don’t seem to have decisively better skating or stamina. But the Australians can carry the puck, they have players who can actually possess it, keep it in such proximity to their person that one might consider them to have a real control over its movements. The South Africans can’t. Their hands can’t keep up with their feet, so when they get the puck, their only options are to pass it immediately, whack it away in vague and reckless fashion, or attempt a sort of puck-herding maneuver which consists of shoving the thing a few meters ahead, skating hard to catch up to it, and then shoving it another few meters. Some of their better players, the only ones who manage to get some shots, can cradle the puck in the curve of the blade while skating, leaving it unprotected but somewhat controlled.
By the second period, the Australians are so confident of victory that they become arrogantly sloppy. They take penalties casually, kill them lazily, and their goalie still has so little to do that he’s practicing day-dream plays at his end- butterflying and sliding and waving his trapper at phantom pucks. Finally, on the umpteenth Australian penalty, South Africa’s 24 capitalizes on the netminder’s disengagement and gets a lone goal, but this only gives the Australians license to try again. By this time,
One of the few low-level international hockey games that high-level hockey fans might remember the epic blowout where the Slovakian national women’s team defeated the Bulgarians 82-0- a score so outrageous that it prompted many to wonder whether the Slovakians are aware of a concept called ‘running up the score’, and if so, whether they’re aware that it’s generally considered bad sportsmanship. Now, part of the reason that there’s an incentive to exploit a massive skill differential and rack up an inappropriately high score in many international hockey competitions is because they’re round-robin affairs where goal differential is a secondary or tertiary tie-breaker. But sometimes, frankly, it’s difficult not to. The Australians, I don’t think, have any particular urge to run up the score against the South Africans, but this goalie is leaving them such platinum-crusted, diamond-studded opportunities that they can’t make even a pretense of trying without- almost accidentally- getting goals. What, after all, is a player supposed to do when he’s left standing at the far side of the crease with the puck on his stick and the goalie all the way at the other side, looking the other way, with no apparent intention of moving over? It’s a perfect, nearly infallible shot, and if he didn’t take it one might justly accuse him of trying to throw the game, or at least distort the result. And so, as the second closes and the minutes of the third ache deliberately by, the Australians’ lead becomes 8-1, 10-1, 13-1, and finally, in the last minute, 16-1.
Fortunately, by that time, few people in the audience are really paying attention to the game in front of them, although
[To be continued…]