Sunday, October 17, 2010

Game 2: I Dream of Goalies

Dreams are the most fundamentally bizarre aspect of human experience. Everyone, no matter how staid and stolid, reasonable and rational, no matter how utterly devoid of creativity or artistry, is a pornographic Dadaist in their dreams. Your brain, in the process of clearing its RAM and defragging its hard drive for the new day, will throw out all sorts of unspeakable things, both pleasures and horrors, before your twitching eyes, and it is all you. Everything you dream comes from your own tangled psyche, and you have no one but yourself to blame for the resulting mayhem.

Probably dreams are meaningless. I hope most dreams are meaningless, or otherwise I have some seriously messed up feelings about my childhood pets, who sometimes appear in my nightmares as bat-winged, long-fanged, cave-dwelling demons. But there is one universal variety of dream that arises as a direct result of real life: the stress dream.

You know the ones. You’re standing at the podium giving the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Dental Association and you suddenly realize that not only do you not know anything about dentistry, but you’ve somehow also lost all your teeth. You’re back in college and you suddenly remember that you registered for a class in Middle High German that you never actually went to, and now you’re sitting in a lecture hall and you have one hour to translate an excerpt from Wilhelm von Eschenbach’s Parzival in your underwear. Facing something overwhelming in real life, you dream yourself into situations of comically exaggerated impossibility, and you wake up, muscles tense, palpitating.

In my stress dream, I’m a goalie.

How I got to be a goalie is, in the way of dreams, not explained. Sometimes it has something to do with David Aebischer (who appears in my dreams inordinately frequently and is always, for some reason, deaf), but sometimes it just begins with the faceoff. It is the Bell Centre, or some parody of it, where the ice is fluorescent white and the stands are dark walls of ravening noise, in which tiny lights sometimes flash like popping stars. I am in the crease. My arms and legs are thick, and every motion takes a sort of heaving pull in the muscles, trying to extract my extremities from an invisible bog. Down the ice, I see the players swirl into position for the faceoff, the ref lower his arm and crouch low, and then the familiar jerk of the puck drop. The angry clack of contending sticks. The game begins… and moves at first, mercifully, in the other direction.

***

On one level, hockey is the contention of team against team, but on a more basic level, it is the contention of skaters against goalies. Skaters, on every side, at every position, are very similar in their needs and desires, what they want from a game. Skaters in red vs. skaters in blue is like one of those old-fashioned European wars- two nearly identical cultures waging a needlessly bloody conflict over symbolic differences. Between skater and goalie, though, lies a deeper rift, a fundamental difference in worldview. The culture of ‘puck-in’ vs. the culture of ‘puck-out’. It is truly a zero-sum game- the success of the one is identical with the failure of the other. (N.B.: One might say that hockey in general is a zero-sum game, but that’s not fully true on a minute-by-minute scale. From the perspective of skaters, there are things that might happen- bounces of the puck, irregular plays, which are equally bad or good from the perspective of both teams. Some events are entirely neutral. It is only the countable game events- face-offs, hits, shots, goals- where ‘good’ for each side becomes mutually exclusive.)

The skating game is played on a fulcrum between offense and defense, a player changing his role as the balance of power shifts. The goalie’s game is not only always defensive, but desperately so- the last line of defense. The walls of the city, the rear-guard action. The goalie is the ultimate difference between winning and losing, and it is his play more than any other individual that loses a game. A skater plays only tiny slices of time, and no skater can even bear sole responsibility for his team’s success or failure. A skater is never more than one factor among many. Only a goalie has the power to be an individual cause. Unfortunately, when he is, it is usually for the worse. The netminder cannot win a game. He can play so well that he gives his team an undeserved opportunity to win, but under his own power the best he can do is play to a 0-0 draw. He can, however, lose a game all alone.

Every now and then, a goalie gets to play savior, but what they do is fundamentally undervalued. Goal-scoring is the beauty of hockey, right? Everyone wants to score goals. Everyone wants to see goals scored. There was no time in NHL history greater than the eighties, when goalies let in pucks like soup kitchens let in hobos. No other position in hockey is blamed for the game’s lack of popularity. No other kind of hockey player is ever asked to be worse, for the good of the sport.

Goaltending is miserably hard. It is a unique kind of physical stress, a near-constant muscle tension that has to alternate in quarter-seconds between fixed rigidity and lightning fluidity. Knees and hips must be retrained to move in entirely non-native ways that slowly, over time, grind the joints into new forms. It is the voluntary endurance of violent assault- not only from fired projectiles, but from crashing, banging, shoving, thwacking bodies who consider it their mandate to instill as much fear as they can without taking a penalty.

Beyond that, there is the psychological discipline. Skaters play against each other, but goalies play against themselves. Knowing that they can stop the vast majority of shots aimed by any given player, it is not the usually shooter that challenges them. It is their own limitations. A goalie is confounded, more often, by his own reflexes, his own spatial awareness, his own rearing, struggling attention, than by any particular ingenuity of the shooter.

You gotta be some kind of crazy, or zen, or fierce, or a bit of all three to take this job. Most people don’t even want to do it when nothing is at stake, much less when everything is. When people play casually, it’s the role given to the desperate and the incompetent. The chubby neighbor, the weird sibling, the girlfriend- people happy just to be included at all, people no one would pick for a team otherwise. It’s a chore for the dutiful, not a prize for the great.

The professionals, though, the ones who feel themselves called to mind nets as a vocation… I cannot fucking imagine what sort of person does that. Skaters are easy to understand. Skaters are jocks, immersed in all the belligerent camaraderie common to team sports, where victories are shared in big rollicking hugs and failures quietly, psychologically deflected onto others. That’s fun, yeah? Where else in life can you feed your ego so full and simultaneously bond with others over it? But goalies gotta stand alone, all game long, in their own little tank, their failures richly documented and their triumphs, mostly, taken for granted.

An NHL goalie is an amazing creature by any standard. An NHL skater is among the top thousand or so people in the world at his chosen profession. The starting goaltender on the same team is among the top 30. A goalie with talent proportional to that of a second line forward is playing in the minors. A goalie on par with a fourth line goon isn’t even getting paid for what he can do. The goaltenders in the show are playing, every night, on the precarious edge of a professional perfection we cannot even imagine. They are bestselling authors, multiblockbuster directors, CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. They are all better than ninety percent flawless at their work.

Imagine: you train and sweat and struggle for decades at this obscure, technical profession, you beat your body and your psyche to a rigid discipline, you rise to the exalted level where you can stop Alex-goddamn-Ovechkin nine shots out of ten, and still, the shit never ends. You play behind a crappy team that gives up twice as many shots on you as they can get their own fool selves, and bitches will still write columns about how they need better goaltending. You get the flu, have a bad game, let in four pucks instead of three, and a bunch of fat drunk assholes who don’t work as hard in a week as you do in one night get to booing, like you let them down. You pull a .914 in a month, and on TV snarky dudes in expensive suits sneer and throw up old Patrick Roy stats and ask why it isn’t a .924. Fuck. Why even bother? Because it’s such a goddamn privilege to wear this particular assemblage of colors and stripes? Because if you do ever get that .924, people might be nice to you for about two weeks, but only because they’ve started to believe that next month it’ll be a .934? For money? For pride? Or just to satisfy some kind of self-loathing, masochistic compulsion?

***

Normally, I wake up from the goalie dream before a shot is even fired. The play comes back down the ice, skaters growing bigger and bigger until my eyes are full of speed-blurred bodies, and through some quick fractional gap I see the windup at the point, and I cringe involuntarily deeper into my shell like a spooked snail… and poof, bedroom, boy, beepbeepbeep of my cell phone and sun beating at the blinds like a cheery Viking pillager, and I collapse back into my pillows, secure in the knowledge that I am not actually a goaltender.

But once, only once, in the heavy black sleep that follows particularly late and frenetic nights, it went on.

The shot comes, and it hits, a ringing off the collarbone and I can feel the blood vessels breaking under the skin, but then it is gone- off, away, somewhere to the left, invisible for a moment. And then I find it again, on the boards to my right and a little bit back. I hug the post and watch and wait. A forward pulls it out, passes it back to the blueline, and it leaves a trail. Like the point of a Sharpie, tracing a thick black strek across the ice. The defenseman shuffles, and his skates leave thin, glimmering cuts behind. My own winger goes back to pressure him, leaving long strands of tinsel in his wake. And suddenly, I can see it all. A map of the game rises up before my eyes in neat, straight lines, a geometer’s diagrams etched on the ice. The chaos lifts like a fog and suddenly all is bright and simple. This game is not the hectic mess it appears. It is easy. It is perfectable. Somewhere, in those lines, I can see the shape of a 1.00 emerging- the only clean, whole thing that ever comes from hockey.

There is a deflection coming. They will call it a scoring chance. But I am already in position.

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