Thursday, October 07, 2010

Shell Game

It was, in their defense, a long wait. Not a complicated drill by any means, basically just penalty shots, but some of the kids take an awkward long time. Edison, tiny and new and unsteady on his skates, takes half a minute alone to make it from the blue line to the net, and this is a half-size rink. There’s a lot of wobbling and slipping and losing the puck, especially among the youngest.

So the rest of us, we’re waiting in line while the babies take their shots, and Wally and Jing are killing time by whacking each other in the head with their blades. In the face, actually, or so it would be, were it not for the bulbous protective cage. We all have cages, them because they’re children with anxious parents hovering on the boards, snapping photos, and me because I’m a chick, and therefore will be forced to play with such a thing forever, because it would just be too damn depressing for everyone if I were to break my pretty little nose, so fuck, I might as well get used to the bars.

They’re not angry, but neither are they playing. They’re just two bored kids waiting in line, and so Jing pushes at Wally’s cage with his glove, and Wally responds by slapping Jing’s cage with his blade, and Jing responds in kind, and now they’re just kind of blandly smacking each other back and forth, back and forth, for nearly a minute. It means nothing to them, nor to anyone else who’s watching. Just boys being boys, or something like that. Never, in all of hockey, has a deliberate slash to the face been so meaningless.

Public skating in Montreal, I went in my street clothes and came home colorful, big purple bruises on my elbows, long yellowing ones down my hips, a half-dozen blotches of ache on my body at any given time. I would absently prod them in long, dull classes, feeling the texture of my slow, sore progress.

Now I practice for real, sticks and pucks and everything. Everything, in hockey, being a fuckload of stuff. And with the equipment… man, I feel nothing. I lose an edge by the net, crash a hipbone to the ice and slide sideways into the boards, and I feel nothing. I overskate the puck, make an ill-conceived attempt at a turn, and my feet are gone beneath me, slamming me knee and elbow down, and I feel nothing. Yoyo, a chronically inattentive kid, skates out blind in front of me and we tumble together in a heap, I catch my whole weight square on the knuckles, and I feel nothing. I go home afterwards and inspect body in the shower and I am every inch my customary pallid self. Physically speaking, hockey practice costs me nothing but sweat.

The equipment is so good. I had no idea how good, until now. It is not just my gear; certainly not just my uniform. It is my second skin. My bigger, tougher, braver skin. My shell. It protects me; it frees me, because where there is no pain, there is no fear. I crash and fall and never break my grin, get up and try again. I feel, if not exactly invulnerable, certainly immune to harm. The kids feel it, too. Children’s hockey practice is like body-bumper-cars, they smack into each other casually, fall for fun, and every now and then, whack each other in the face with sticks.

The shell is, in most ways, a good thing. Arguably, hockey doesn’t grow anywhere without the shell. No modern person, in any country, of any ideology, would actually play a competitive game in 1920s gear. It would be excruciating. It would be madness. No modern mother, Taiwanese or Canadian, would put her boy into that kind of hockey, no matter what the cultural significance. It is more than our heavy, healthy bodies can willingly endure. The shell takes the pain out of learning hockey, and that is what makes learning hockey possible.

However, pain is not entirely a bad thing. Pain is how we learn the limitations of the body. It is the signal flag of danger. The rising intensity of pain is what teaches us what we should not do- that we should not jump from that next story up, nor move our fingers that extra inch closer to the flame. Playground research- yes, there is such a thing- has shown that the experience of pain actually reduces the likelihood of serious injury. Kids who play frequently in dangerous places actually damage themselves less than kids raised in cushioned worlds. Exposed to real danger, children learn their body’s limits, learn what to fear and what to avoid, and are over the long term safer because of it.

The painless hockey that these kids are learning, that I am learning, is a kind of illusion. The pain is still there, the danger is just as real as it always was. Modern equipment can reduce the rate of major injuries, but it can hardly stop them. Ankles still sprain, tendons tear, and shoulders separate just as they always have. The shell’s greatest success is not in absorbing the crippling blows so much as the irritating ones. We are spared almost all the cuts and bruises our behavior would normally incur, but we will not be spared the breaks.

Perhaps, in a way, we have actually traded in our bruises for breaks. It takes twice the force to stop an armored player as it would to stop a bare one. If intimidation is a necessary part of hockey strategy, if BIG HITS are something that must be made, then the shell actually necessitates an increased level of aggression. A hit against a protected victim must be both more malicious and more dangerous, or it risks being entirely ineffective.

People have been saying this for a while, particularly as it pertains to head injuries. Don Cherry had a famous bit about it back in 2007, suggesting that shoulder pads were the proximate cause of a rash of recent concussions. The view has never become mainstream, but it has found its standard bearers, particularly among those who want to avoid adding extra penalties to the game in order to protect players.

I always thought it was disingenuous to blame the equipment for something that falls within the realm of conscious human control. Certainly, it is an unsatisfying place to lay the blame, because while you may be able to talk people into different behavior, you are never going to talk them into willingly experiencing more pain than is absolutely necessary. If advances in equipment are really to blame for the high rate of concussions in contemporary hockey, than we’re just going to have to live with an inordinately concussive game. People can argue whether human history is a linear progression from barbarism to civilization, but it is inevitably and inexorably a linear progression from painful to painless. Once they’ve tried surgery under general anesthesia, no one ever goes back to the bottle-of-whisky-and-leather-strap-between-the-teeth method, and once you’ve tried hockey inside a hard plastic shell, you’re never going to go back to wool pads and caution. Any problems caused by the equipment are just problems we’ll have to live with.

Nevertheless, the Cherry position seems more persuasive from a Taiwanese vantage point, precisely because Taiwanese hockey behavior is not governed by Canadian hockey ideas. Canada maintains hockey customs from the pain-filled days, ethics of hitting and taking hits that evolved when the cuts and bruises were inevitable. In Canada, the principles governing the use of the stick, the methods of bracing for a hit, the hits you don’t make, are inculcated values. They are still sometimes ignored, but it is those, more even than the equipment, that keep players safe.

In Taiwan, people have only known hockey as a shell game, and there is a certain casual indifference to its dangers. Like Wally and Jing, smacking each other with their blades. They know ‘keep your stick on the ice’ as a strategic principle- blade flat in case you need to catch a pass or, more often, catch your balance- but not as a safety one. Kids will skate all the time with their blades horizontal across their bodies, jackknifing in the air, and yeah, sometimes somebody gets hit, but nobody ever gets hurt.

Because nobody ever gets hurt, this is a country where people will institute a contact league where 30-year-old men play against 16-year-old boys. Where a guy will see a hit coming and turn his back to it, two feet from the boards. Where a player will slash an opponent, tomahawk-style, across the back of the neck and defend himself by saying he was ‘aiming for a padded place’.

You can criticize and say maybe they should know better, but the fact is that everyone here came up with painless hockey, and it’s difficult to teach a sense of danger to people- kids especially- who have never known hurt or fear. Inside the shell, all sorts of things seem endurable that a bare body would never chance. But the shell feels nothing, so one cannot intuit when it will pass beyond the point of its own endurance, and fail. Until the moment when it does.

There’s no going back, of course, but I wonder what it means for the NHL going forward. The classic prohibitions are loose now and might be loosening, and recklessness has become, in certain players, a highly valued character trait. There are guys in the NHL who owe half their careers to playing on an ‘edge’ that, according to the ostensible values of Canadian hockey, shouldn’t exist. The customs have become no more than that- customs, matters of tradition and convention, disposable under certain circumstances. As more and more players are raised playing painless hockey, more and more will come into the pros thinking of the safety customs as a grandmotherly courtesy, rather than a necessity. And with that comes less respect for the dangers of the game and perhaps, paradoxically, even more pain.

As I enter this, the Canadiens are opening at the ACC, but for me, the game doesn't happen until sometime on Saturday afternoon. Please, if you comment, don't spoil it for me...

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