Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Charm of the Shootout, First Analysis

I have been much preoccupied lately with the shootout, and have come up with two different perspectives on it, which are not entirely concordant with one another. So rather than integrating them into a single post at odds with itself, I’ve decided to separate them into two distinct pieces. Perhaps when I’m finished I’ll know better which one I believe.

“I sort of hope they make this one.”


“I sort of hope they make this one, because then Omark gets to shoot.”

“But if they don’t make this one, the Oilers win.”


“And if they do make this one, the Oilers might lose.”


“So you are actively wishing that your team be put in a position wherein they might lose, just so that you can see this kid dangle every which way and then make some absurd shot that might not even work?”

He has to think about that one for a second. “Yeah.”

I am speechless. The boy is a purist. He has always been so. I have never heard him say one kind thing about the shootout these past three years and yet, here he is, running the risk of angering the Hockey Gods and jinxing his very own team in their very first game of the season by wishing that the other team might score, just so that he can watch some, as they say, dipsy-doodling. Shock, horror, etc.

But then again, I was reading my book all through the game and all through overtime, pausing only to snark occasionally at the boy as one does at Oilers fans, but although I had reached the very last chapter where the author promises to reveal the philosophical secret to living happily in this best of all possible worlds, when overtime ended I closed that shit right up, because I don’t like to watch the Oilers play, but I do like to watch them in the shootout.

And I thought I was a purist myself.



The shootout is wrong. That’s not a matter of taste; I’m not saying the shootout is ugly or stupid or terrible; I’m not saying that I don’t like it. It is wrong in a much more fundamental way: it is factually incorrect. If the question is, “Which of these two teams is the better hockey team tonight?” then the answer, “The team that scores more often on a series of no fewer than three individual shots taken in alternating turns,” is not the right answer. If this was a test, that answer would get a big red X next to it and a -1 inside a circle at the bottom of the page. The correct answer would be, “The team that scores the most goals within the allotted time according to the standard rules of the game.” That is how success in hockey is judged. Period.

A shootout is not hockey. It is related to hockey, yes, but it is a piece of hockey stripped of context and repackaged as a carnival game. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. As a skills competition, or as a Win-a-Car intermission distraction, or as a way to kill time on a pond with your bros, a shootout is a wonderful thing. But it’s not hockey, and to use it as the deciding element in a hockey game is bizarre, and rather implies that the participants don’t take hockey all that seriously. They do not decide baseball games with a pitch-off, nor basketball games with a free thrown competition, nor football games with whatever that silly kick-the-ball-through-the-big-tuning-fork thing is. They do not do this in other sports because it would undermine their gravitas, as though the participants had suddenly gotten bored with the game and decided to do something easier instead.

So believe me when I say that I am as appalled at myself for writing the following as you are at reading it: The shootout is awesome. It is ridiculous and wrong and like so many other things that are ridiculous and wrong, it makes for some damn good watchin’. In fact, it’s diabolically (and no doubt, deliberately) concocted to be irresistibly entertaining. It’s got these nice little bite-size half-minute windows of drama, exactly long enough for you to feel a little tug of tension but not so long as to become painful, broken up by slices of pure action, the quality of which ranges from aww-crap to ooh/ahh to HOLY SHIT DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!?! And as much as it carries over the stress from the tie game and the pressure of points on the line, it also lightens stress and pressure, enough that you might inadvertently smile, even when you’re losing. (N.B.: The boy points out that there are boring shootouts still; I agree, however, I think the boring shootout was largely a product of players’ lack of comfort and familiarity with the format. As the shootout persists as a part of games, it becomes progressively more and more creative, and therefore more and more interesting.)

It’s like getting a bowl of ice cream at the end of a big meal: it’s wrong and it’s bad and you really really shouldn’t but goddamn that shit is good. And sure, you could have a lump of uncooked tofu instead, that would be better for you, that would be healthy and sensible and ethical and you could probably convince yourself to eat it on the grounds of sheer rightness alone, but no matter how hard you concentrate on the numerous virtues of soy products while you’re choking it down, you’re never going to enjoy it. You’ll do it, out of asceticism or anorexia or just to prove that you can, but it’s never going to bring you any pleasure, and in the back of your mind, you’re always going to be wishing it was something else, or at least a better version of itself, like fried maybe, with a ginger-soy sauce. I could swallow a tie at the end of the game, because it would be the right answer, but I could never like it, much less enjoy it, and Lord knows I would never, ever look forward to it.

It all comes down to this: What is hockey for? A person who believes in ties believes that hockey is for itself, that it is the means to its own end, and that there is no higher purpose nor greater aim for the sport than its own ingegrity. To accept the shootout is to accept that hockey is for fun. Not just fun for cute little kids on cute little ponds, not just fun for the players, but fun for the spectators. Hockey is entertainment.

There is something troubling in that idea, that hockey is entertainment, because most people don’t value entertainment very highly. Entertainment is cheap and stupid, the sort of thing one does to kill time in between doing real things. It’s lowbrow. If you go to a movie and you go out for drinks after and someone asks you how it was and you say, “It was entertaining,” you mean that it was goodsh but frivolous. ‘Entertaining’ is what you say about Transformers 2. You do not describe The Tree of Life as ‘entertaining,’ even if you were in fact entertained. You call it brilliant and revelatory and inspiring and profound, you call it art. You would never call it entertainment.

Sports don’t have the category of ‘art’ to differentiate the high from the low, and so are always vulnerable to the charge that they’re no more than entertainment, and when you consider the millions of dollars and the complex equations and the brain injuries and the weeping and that huge argument about Sheldon Souray with your cousin last Thanksgiving, they’re a rather more costly than amusement ought to be. So to prove that they’re more than entertainment, fans often fall back on just taking them really really really seriously, in the hopes that if they act passionate enough or severe enough no one will question the objective merits of the game. We have to act like hockey is an end unto itself, and a noble one too, or what the hell are we doing with our lives?

As a concession to entertainment at the expense of integrity, the shootout makes hockey feel more like a sideshow and less like a battlefield, and who among us wants to admit to having a heart invested in a sideshow? That’s the thing about ice cream, as soon as it’s over you start to feel queasy. The tofu, though, leaves you with a bit of a halo.


Anonymous said...

i have been reading your posts for a long time and truly appreciate the way i think you think.
i especially like the balance you find between critical analysis of both sides of a thing and the possibility that its the wrong thing.
your writing is, as pearce would say, enlightful

E said...

thank you, sir!

wait... so, if i said that i won't post anything new until somebody brings me loaf of pumpkin bread, am i going to get a mailbox full of baked goods?

don't encourage me to blackmail, people, i'm not above it.

TCO348 said...

Think about this? Do you ever sit down and watch 3 periods of hockey? Of course. It takes about 2 and a half hours. Would you watch 2 and a half hours of shootout? I wouldn't.

The shootout an expeditious conclusion wherein the winner will be decided. Its a small commitment and gaurantees a resolution of the conflict. That's a large part of why we watch.