Friday, November 19, 2010

Game 10: Score

Long ago (by which I mean last year) and far away (by which I mean a couple of kilometers from my front door), there was a player called Yu Kai-Wen. Or, at least, his family called him Yu Kai-Wen. We called him Kevin Yu, according to the custom of the day.

Kevin Yu was probably the first great Taiwanese hockey player, the first Taiwanese player to be able to outplay a preponderance of the Canadians in the country and embarrass them in the process. There are a lot of people who will argue with this, because Kevin Yu had (and probably still has) some conspicuous lacunae in his game. There are doubtless those who will trumpet the sleek ambitions of Andy Shen, or the inimitable musculature of his brother Eric, or the Canadian-trained toughness of Jacky Lu, or the offensive ingenuity of Mike Lin, and all of those people would have a point, because all of those players are very good indeed. But all those players got good later, and none of them have quite the same spark as Kevin Yu.

He was a prodigy. Some people, they’re just born different, they got mysterious powers the rest of us can’t understand. Mozart was born to play music and Vonnegut was born to write novels and Johnny Knoxville was born to hit himself in the nuts with strange objects. Kevin Yu was born to score goals. Beautiful, remarkable, heart-stopping, breath-sucking goals, the kind of goals no one ought be able to get away with, the kind of goals that make people fall in love.

Certainly, he must have been frustrating to play with. The boy never met a deke or a dangle he didn’t like, and never made only one move if he thought he might squeeze in three. He was such an incurable rusher you’d think he was playing by 1926 rules, no forward pass, no dump-and-chase, and he had a proclivity for lingering at the red line, looking blithely back at the his team’s attempts at defense, yearning for a deflected pass or a sloppy clear. Age and experience muted these tendencies, but fact is, Kevin Yu was never the kind of player Don Cherry would approve of. So be it.

But when he got the puck and a little bit of room- didn’t have to be much- he could make the kind of plays only one guy in a thousand can get away with, even in the most hockey-fevered countries. Go around defensemen like they were nothing more than cones, fake out goalies like a thimblerigger running a shell game, and pick the corners on his backhand, all elegance and hubris and enough swagger for a team an a half.

Times were plenty his defensemen must have wept, but the spectators always cheered. Big crowds or small, local or foreign, grannies or toddlers, he pulled the noise out of people like a vacuum and absorbed it like a black hole. You couldn’t help it, nearly, the way he played you had to hoot or groan or at least say something, shaking your head in some kind of disbelief. Yu, that noise was like heroin to him, it got into his blood and made him go a little crazy, and he would celebrate.

He celebrated everything. First goals, eighth goals, winning goals, losing goals, glamorous goals and garbage goals and deflections and goals scored by other people and although I never saw it I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if he had a special kind of celebration for empty-net goals. The celebrations ranged from the classic jumps and spins and hugs to the more Ovechkin-esque mime performances: stick-as-gun, stick-on-fire, stick-as- projectile, but always about fifty percent more than one might consider standard.

Among all of Kevin Yu’s distinctly un-Canadian hockey habits, the goal celebrations were the most egregious. When he played in the international league, his teammates would make a point of trying to quash them. By expat standards, such exhibitionism is not only inappropriate, it’s very nearly immoral. It is just not done.

The Canadian antipathy towards goal celebrations is long-standing, one of those mysterious customs that goes back to the misty memories of grandfathers. It might, in fact, be a cultural proclivity, an outgrowth of that courtesy and reserve by which the Canadian privately distinguishes itself from the other varieties of humankind. I do believe it is one of those things that is felt first and rationalized after. Maybe goal celebrations are wrong because they’re emotionally cruel to the defeated team, but in a sport that sanctions all manner of physical cruelty against opponents, that indeed makes heroes out of thugs and agitators, it seems curious to draw a hard moral line at the point of ‘making opponents feel sad for making mistakes.’ More often, the reference given is the practice of exemplary figures. Bobby Orr did not celebrate his goals. Gordie Howe did not celebrate his goals. If such men, who scored goals infinitely more glorious than most players can dream, did not celebrate, what possible justification can the ordinary player have to pull the ‘gun-stick’ move? But I think the aversion runs deeper than that. It is not that goal celebrations are wrong for any particular reason, but that they just seem… decadent. (N.B.: The boy points out that this attitude has softened considerably over the past couple of decades, but based on a combination of media observation and personal conversations, I do believe that there is still a commonly held- I cannot necessarily say prevalent, but certainly widespread- view that anything more than a raised stick and an occasional fist pump is inappropriate.)

In most respects, the mores of Canadian hockey tend to the ascetic. They’re like a spiritual discipline designed to suppress the greatest hedonistic pleasures of the game and instill, rather, a sense of pride in stoicism, inexpressiveness, and responsibility. Every other sport, somewhere along the line, goes in at least a little bit for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but Canadian hockey is all meet-a-nice-girl-and-settle-down, take-your-vitamins, and be-in-bed-by-nine. It’s a country where virtually the entire population has been brainwashed into believing that the best things in hockey are back-checking, mucking in the corners, and taking punches to the face, and anybody who thinks different is a closet European and possibly also female.

It’s bullshit. The greatest joy in hockey is scoring goals. With apologies to the goalies and the defensive defensemen, who have consoled themselves their whole long lives with platitudes about the virtues of preventing goals against, there is no more profound moment anywhere in the sport than a beautiful and meaningful goal. There is a reason that the media outlets, seeking to draw in viewers, compile countdown after countdown of this-or-that form of goal. There is a reason that fans spend hours before their computers compiling and editing and syncing music to the montages of a favorite player’s most remarkable markers. There are goals that everyone remembers. There are no such back-checks.

And goals are so painfully rare. Hockey is so difficult, so complicated, so stressful, the kind of game that drains a body in less than a minute and punishes even a split second of imperfect attention with high-speed assault, and the rewards don’t come twenty or thirty to a game, or even ten. They come one by excruciating one, and often not even that. A player can be very, very good at this game and still only earn a single goal in three hours of intense play. An average player might consider himself lucky to get one in twice as many matches. I, personally, would be extremely surprised if I get one real goal in my lifetime.

So maybe Bobby Orr didn’t celebrate his goals, But fuck, by hockey standards, those he scored all the damn time. Most players, even professional players, will not achieve anywhere near that rate of scoring, at any point in their lives. Why should ordinary players- guys in beer leagues, kids, grannies, Taiwanese medical students- be expected to treat their goals with the casual indifference Bobby Orr did? Should a pauper be expected to treat her few dollars with the same careless dispassion as Paris Hilton? Should I feign a blasé world-weariness after having an article published just because David Foster Wallace published dozens and was horribly miserable? It is natural for human beings to value what is rare for them. It is right to exalt in the achievement of some difficult aim.

Fans celebrate goals. In their capacity as watchers, Canadians, like the rest of humanity, will celebrate any and all goals scored by the right hands as though they were miracles of the first order. They will celebrate a goal in song and story and interpretive dance, and feel no shame whatsoever for doing so. We recognize that, for fans, the goal is a great cathartic release of the tension that builds and builds through the scoreless minutes, like a spring released somewhere at the base of the spine. But it is no less cathartic for the player, and probably even more so, and the celebration can be a form of communion between the scoring and the scored-for.

Once upon a time (by which I mean two Octobers past), Kevin Yu was playing in the final game of the Top Division Championships, a hard-fought affair between the Typhoon club and their upstart rivals, the Vikings. The game had gone to overtime, when he got his puck and he got his space and he dangled and deked and he scored, and he celebrated. He leapt and wheeled and cheered at the crowd, and the crowd cheered back. He took his glove and flung it into the stands. And then his other glove. Then his helmet, and his jersey, and his elbow pads, and his chest protector, until he was looping the ice, hugging his teammates while naked to the waist, having spontaneously donated half his gear to the swooning hockey moms of Taipei. And he stood there, arms straining above his head, facing the adoring, indulgent hoots of what was for that brief moment his public, and I’m pretty sure for about eight seconds he was the happiest hockey player I have ever seen. Some people are never going to play in the NHL, never going to get their names in the Hall of Fame, never going to sign an autograph or give an interview. But they still have their victories. And they still deserve their celebrations. Maybe they deserve them even more than the pros.

A few days later, a picture came up in Kevin Yu’s Facebook feed. It must have been taken by someone in the crowd- girlfriend, acolyte- at the end of his celebration, when he was standing topless with his arms upstretched.

He had Photoshopped the Stanley Cup into his hands.


grey wall said...

post the picture.

Marc.E.B. said...

I remember watching Kevin and thinking that he may or may not be remembered as a Taiwanese hockey legend.

I'm with you on the goal celebrations. Go nuts, it's nice to see others bask in excitement of a goal.

Great piece!

E said...

grey- i dunno, i feel weird about posting stuff off facebook without permission, and being as how kevin is off doing his military service right now, i can't exactly just ask the dude.

marc- if anybody is ever going to be remembered as a taiwanese hockey legend, it's kevin. or andy shen, who has gotten so popular he might be able to start his own cult.

Julian said...

Marc, you're (if I recall correctly, and we did play on the same team for a year) a goalie.... seems like if anyone would dislike goal celebrations, it'd be your flock.

Snap Wilson said...

I'll admit, I went looking for the picture. He sounds entertaining as heck.

As a Ducks fan, this reminds me of Vinny Prospal. Maybe the only fun thing about the Ducks 2004 season was Vinny's goal celebrations:

Not gloating, not showboating. Goals simply brought him unadulterated joy. When he scored his hat trick (shown in that clip), he was absolutely euphoric, just a beaming smile. The man had touched down on Elysium.

Even when the Ducks scored and he wasn't on the ice, I would look for him on the bench. He was easy to find, the first to jump up and throw his arms up in the air like he was doing a one-person wave. Simply put, the man loved goals.

Naturally, I was crushed when they traded him after the season. Whenever Prospal decides to hang them up, I would welcome him back heartily as a Goal Celebration Coach.