Sunday, April 05, 2009

Third World Hockey (Part 1)

Wherein Australia plays South Africa.

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 Taipei, and the neon discs refuse to follow their intended flight paths. As they gamely retrieve their errant projectiles from the street, from the planters, from the fountain, the players are a source of constant amusement to the lunching ladies. Wai guo ren at play.

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 Second World hockey.

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 Republic of South Africa. The Australians are an erstwhile Tier II team who were relegated, and it shows. It shows in the bodies of their players, who- absent the gigantic thighs that tend to characterize adult hockey bodies- look like players; they’re all lean muscle and latent kinesis. This team has been culled, carefully, from a national talent pool of over a thousand junior players, their sultry continent supports a couple dozen rinks and its own pro league. Again, compared to an elite hockey country, that’s trivial, but on this scale it’s nearly incomprehensible privilege. They swagger, the Australian boys, with their casual outdoor soccer practice and perpetual grins, and they have every justification to do so. Their victory is certain; all that remains to be seen is the margin.

Ice Land looks more or less as it always does, very white, very tidy, very basic, but it’s been dressed up with a few flags and a few ads, a first-aid station and a grandiose scorekeeping set-up. Usually the off-ice officials in Ice Land are laconic dudes in baggy jeans with oversized beer cans, but now it’s like NASA’s Makeshift Division- a whole row of laptops staffed at a rate of, apparently, three officials per machine. The loudspeakers are chanting I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one- just the first of many blithely vulgar musical selections made by a non-Anglophone DJ with a borrowed iPod.

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 Australia. They’ve got forwards who weigh in at less than 120 lbs and defensemen listed at 5’4”- but at least they’re having fun. They sit close together, arms interlaced, laughing and cheering, hopping back and forth over the benches, shoving each other playfully. Some of them have gotten ahold of two South African flags of commanding proportions, and they take turns standing and waving them in prolonged, stretched-arm figures like a semaphore monologue. When the South Africans take to the ice, the Mongolians whoop like joyful puckbunnies, garnering more than a few perplexed stares from the Taiwanese audience.

Why, exactly, the Mongolians are so enthusiastic about South Africa, I will never surely know. But I could hypothesize that it is the sense of common cause that sometimes develops between underdogs. The South Africans will not win this tournament. The Mongolians will not win this tournament nor any other, probably, for many years. Both are teams for whom the very concept of ‘playing to win’ would be a cruel joke. They need other reasons to play- nationalism, pride, pleasure, novelty, the imperceptibly distant future, the dim prospect of maybe concussing an Australian… who knows? I have to admit I cannot understand the motivations.

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 1930’s? Stories like, “Why, when I was your age, me and my 12 sisters used to have to share ONE PAIR OF BOOTS!”? That’s more or less the state of the Mongolian National Under-18 Team, which actually, and this is not hyperbole, has to share 14 sticks among 22 players. They have no indoor arena anywhere in the country- they play outside on natural ice in -30 C winters. In the Taipei arena, which seems to be being kept extra frigid for the occasion, the Taiwanese and Australians and South Africans are wearing scarves and gloves and coats with fur-lined hoods. Some of the guys with the Mongolian team are wearing basketball jerseys and shorts.

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 Miami or Dallas or Phoenix, but it’s also understandable. For Canadians hockey is a birthright whose origins are lost in a dimly remembered ur-memory of a frigid, lonely, dangerous past. It’s easy, in Kitchener in January, to believe that hockey just emerged raw in all its purity and violence from the lakes and rivers, some dark night in 1874. Maybe it did.

But in this case, Canada’s long history with hockey obscures, at least in the popular consensus, a realistic sense of the sport its modern form. A hundred years ago, hockey’s most salient necessity might have been cold. Today, however, it’s money. The only consistent fact about ice hockey, the world over, is this: it’s expensive. In some areas, it’s only kinda expensive, but in others it’s un-fucking-believably expensive. In most of the world, it’s damn near prohibitively expensive. Climate is a trivial concern, really, comparative to the sheer cost of the game.

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 Canada photo opportunities, modern-day outdoor hockey is not substantively related to serious, competitive hockey. The spiritual connection may remain powerful, but it’s been a long, long time since there was an NHL player whose skills were formed more on a frozen slough than on arena ice. The real substance, the raw material, of Canada’s current hockey power is its rinks, the 2,451-ish indoor, climate-controlled, chemically-enhanced, precision-maintained, approximately hockey-sized ice surfaces scattered throughout hundreds of huge cities and obscure towns across the country. A century of accumulated buildings, and to a less-defined extent, equipment, allow for nearly bottomless hockey opportunity.

Mongolia has cold, but that’s it, and it contributes about as much towards international hockey competence as the knowledge of Sanskrit. These skinny boys can play their game on frigid, dark, windswept plains that would make hardened Saskatchewanians weep ice-cubes of despair, and they’re going to get their asses thoroughly whooped in this tournament by four teams from literally tropical countries. Wealthier countries.

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, South Africa has switched out the humming-bird goalie in favor of a larger but slower netminder who not only lacks rebound control but, apparently, rebound awareness. He can make the first stop, but after the puck has bounced off his body, he seems to lose all sense perception for a moment- not only does he not cover, he doesn’t even seem to see the thing.

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 Ice Land is packed to standing-room-only. Rather, the stands are filling up for the next one: Chinese Taipei vs. New Zealand.

[To be continued…]


Scott said...

Welcome back to the world of hockey! This is awesome and I do look forward to further installments. Thanks for blessing us all with your writing again E.

Sarah said...

Yay, I get so excited whenever I see you have posted :)

you write so well, I feel like I'm there.

looking forward to part 2

Joseph said...

Love to have you back. Love your writing very much. Wishing you well.

Wayne said...

E, given the Habs are soon to be departed welcome back.

rsm said...

Thank you for one more wonderful piece of writing.