Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hockey Exegesis #0: The Muqaddimah

Once upon a time, I received from a well-intentioned but fundamentally unhockeyish relation, a novelty book. It’s the sort of thing that tends to happen to nerdy fans around the holidays, according to the following process:

1. Acquaintance/coworker/relative feels an impulse or obligation to gift you something.
2. Acquaintance/coworker/relative remembers that you like hockey.
3. A/C/R proceeds to local bookstore.
4. Local bookstore is in the United States; therefore, local bookstore carries three books about hockey, all of which are trivia collections.
5. A/C/R flips through trivia collections, encounters humorous facts with which he/she was not previously acquainted.
6. A/C/R purchases book and gives it to you on or about the holidays, in some sort of festive wrapping paper, with the comment that they chose it because, you know, you’re so into hockey.
7. Repeat with other acquaintances/relatives/coworkers over several years.

Consequently, if you’re into hockey and you’re also into books, you tend to end up with a lot of nicely assembled but rather insubstantial volumes on your shelf, seldom opened except by the occasional bored plus-one at your less successful dinner parties.

Several years back I received one of this genre, entitled Shooting from the Lip: Hockey’s Best Quotes and Quips, which is as advertised, a book of quotations. Now, these are just about the most attractively presented quotations you’ll ever see. They use all kinds of different fonts of both the serif and sans-serif varieties, and some of the important words printed larger than the others, or in boldface, and every now and then there’s a page with a wacky background color, like orange. They put a tiny little attribution beneath, so you know if the quotation was from Toe Blake or Jaromir Jagr, which is makes it really easy to cite if you’re using it to write a term paper or something. Sometimes they even include a picture of the speaker; for example it is entirely due to this book that I now know what Pat Burns looks like. So it’s not a total loss. But nevertheless, this is a book where the average page includes less than a hundred words, and frequently less than ten, and I think we all know how I feel about concision.

So when I got this book I gave it exactly the attention I figured it deserved, which is to say I read it on the toilet and giggled occasionally, and then it spent three years in the bottom of a box at the back of a closet, underneath a retrospective volume on the Hamilton Bulldogs’ 2007 Calder Cup run and a free poster of Teddy Purcell. And then, this summer, I found it again, and I had a revelation.

This is the single most important hockey book I have ever owned. More useful than The Canadian Hockey Atlas, more authentic than Putting a Roof on Winter, deeper even than The Game, more profound than Amazons. Those, those are all books written by smarty-pants types, people with theories and arguments, people who are doing research about hockey. With the exception of The Game, they’re all secondary or tertiary sources, ideas about hockey filtered several steps away from the game itself, works of literary construction first and factual evidence second. And The Game doesn’t really count, because although it is a primary source, it was filtered through Ken Dryden, who is two steps removed even from himself.

What all these books miss is that hockey is not a literate culture. Sure, hockey people can read and write, but reading and writing have nothing to do with how they understand their sport. When we are talking about hockey, we are talking about a fundamentally oral culture, where most beliefs, values, admonitions and recommendations are passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Nobody writes hockey, they talk it.

So Shooting from the Lip isn’t just a bit of check-out-line fluff, a quick cash-in designed to circumvent the irritating need for an ‘author’. No no no. It is a revolutionary new approach to the study of hockey thought. It is a valiant attempt to preserve and transmit the ancestral wisdom of the game out of the locker room and into the library. This is the authentic wisdom of the people, dammit, and who am I to look down on it just because it likes to put the word ‘SPIT’ in 48-point type wherever it occurs?

But this revelation was followed fast by penetrating doubts. How, how pray tell, is an uppity bitch like me supposed to understand the profound truths concealed within these simple words? How can I be sure that I, who have never worn a jockstrap, am properly understanding the intent behind these brief phrases? After all, some of these quotations are as much as forty years old, spoken several years before my birth, in far-off lands like Pittsburgh, where I have never been. There is a gulf of understanding between me and this text.

Shooting from the Lip is a text too dense with meaning to simply be read, on or off the toilet. This is the kind of wisdom that needs to be unpacked, as crystal glasses from Styrofoam packing peanuts. It must be analyzed, as David Staunton by the implacable Dr. Von Haller. It requires, in short, exegesis.

Which will begin on, oh, let’s say Saturday.


Matthew said...

You've just made probably the most profound insight I've ever heard about hockey. I'm tired of hockey writers searching for the "soul of hockey" in some community rink in Saskatchewan or behind glass in an exhibit in the Hall of Fame. The soul of hockey is guys competing together. That's it. Most of the time, academics who try to deconstruct hockey are losing something in translation, because hockey information just isn't communicated academically. It's visceral and transient and, like fight club, it just can't really be talked about.

PS Your blog is my favorite hockey writing ever.

E said...

there's a bifurcation that seems to happen in childhood between mind-people and body-people, and it continues into adulthood. those who spent their teenage years reading dostoyevsky and writing lame poetry in ringed notebooks don't really get people who spent those same years on the ice/field/court, and vice versa. it's an early kind of specialization, and a very difficult one to transcend. for me particularly. i mean, i overanalyze everything in a way players never would, and i know that, but i still try to balance out my own wordy, theorizing tendencies with a healthy respect for the blunter views of guys who actually live hockey rather than just watching it. the problem is that i don't really have access to players, so i have to try to understand secondhand, somehow. which is really what this project is about.

and thank you!

Scott Reynolds said...

I just wanted to say that I'm really looking forward to this!

Matthew said...

I'm very interested in how and why that bifurcation happens. It does seem to be a real phenomenon, even if it is cultural rather than biological (which is probably true). My first year calculus professor made an interesting point when he said that popular science books are useless because people who do science don't have time to write about it. People who are living hockey don't write about it either, and Ken Dryden, as you say, barely counts as an exception.

I'd also be interested in trying to approach hockey from an ethnographic perspective, but obviously, hockey players are generally not the type of people who engage in ethnographies, and the type of people who do ethnography very well are rarely interested in hockey.

E said...

scott- i hope it lives up to your expectations...

matthew- i have different theories about the bifurcation, but all of them need further investigation- i couldn't honestly commit to an explanation at this point. one possibility is that sports success requires so much time spent at such exhausting pursuits that anyone who chooses that path just doesn't have much time/energy left over at the end of the day for study. another is that thinking too much is actually counterproductive for athletic success (see the post on choking, or the first part of moneyball for that matter), and therefore the best athletes are those who don't intellectualize their behavior.

there actually is an ethnography of hockey players out there somewhere. it followed an anonymous ahl team, and all the names were changed. i forget the title, but i found it in the mcgill library some years back and perused it. it was good descriptively but i remember thinking that the anthropology was a little bit shallow, kind of a pin-the-theory-on-the-player exercise. i'd be interested to re-read it now and find out if i'm more forgiving now that i've been out of academia for a while.