Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I wake up with a long ache in my limbs. It’s a vague ache, the sort of ache that has no particular point to make. It’s not punishing me for some previous injury nor warning of any future infection. In fact, although it is a kind of pain, it is not entirely unpleasant- it carries with it a bit of an electric tingle, ever so slight, a residual static charge in the motor neurons. It diffuses through my muscles from end to end, arms and legs and up my sides, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, but simply being. It is a very Zen kind of ache.

This is hockey ache. I’ve had aches before, of course; it’s not as though I never exercise. But run-ache and swim-ache and basketball ache are different things entirely from hockey ache. Hockey ache is less partisan than those, and more tenacious as well. I love it.

However, it is unusual for me to feel hockey-ache in the morning. Typically, hockey ache lasts from whenever I play hockey until whenever I lose consciousness, fading off with time but never entirely disappearing. Sleep drives it away. Yesterday, though, I indulged in double hockey for the first time, and so now I am feeling a doubly durable ache. [N.B.: I understand, of course, that double hockey is typical for the professionals, and that some have even undertaken triple hockey, and there are those who have lived to tell tales of quadruple hockey. To my knowledge, however, quintuple hockey has only been attempted once, and the poor soul never spoke of it again, having been driven mad in the attempt.]

But, as I said, hockey ache is sort of nice, and there is something enlivening about waking up feeling anything at all with one’s whole body at once, so I am feeling rather pleased with myself for playing double hockey and thinking I ought to do it more often, and while I am feeling and thinking these things I am puttering about the house brewing coffee and looking for socks and other such morning activities, and then suddenly HOLY FUCK OWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWWWWWWWWWWW.

That is a direct quote.

It is like I have been cross-checked in the back by a freakishly muscular six-year-old. It is like I lost a boxing match to a dwarf. It is like my kidneys have swollen to six times their normal size and might just fall out on the floor at any second. It is, simply, the most terrible back pain I have ever felt in all my born days.

To clarify, I have never been prone to musculoskeletal difficulties. I’ve gotten sick and I’ve gotten cut, but I’ve never really pulled or torn or sprained anything much. Other than popping my knee out a couple of times as an adolescent, all of my joints and tendons have always been happy and cooperative. My back loves me, dammit. I do not have back pain.

The boy gets up and sees me, all hunched over like an elderly witch, swearing the most unholy and blasphemous things under my breath, and he laughs. Laughs, the insensitive cad.

“Feeling it, eh?”

[N.B.: The boy actually does say ‘eh’ unironically in conversation, because he is a real Canadian and likes to lord it over me.]

I tell him what I just told you, about the dwarf and the boxing match and so forth.

“Oh, that’s just your body getting used to it.”

Now at first that sounds rather plausible. It’s what everyone tells you when you start some new exercise regimen. Arms vibrating wildly every time you go into downward dog? Oh, your muscles just need some time to get used to it. Stitch in your side every time you run longer than fifteen minutes? Just your lungs getting used to it. Give it time, keep trying, eventually it’ll get better. And usually, for most kinds of exertion, it does.

But does a body ever really ‘get used to’ hockey? I submit, based on my own empirical observations of everybody I’ve ever known in the game, that the answer is ‘no’. People do not suffer less pain the longer they play hockey. In fact, I think the opposite is true. I think more hockey almost universally equals more pain.

Let’s start with the boy, who seems so sure that this is just a little fluke of my inexperience. What has hockey done for his body, ‘used to it’ as he is? Well, there was the broken foot. The tennis elbow. The unstable shoulder with its recurring partial subluxations. The split lip, the split elbow, the multiple sprains of ankles and wrists. And the ongoing catalog of bizarre, undiagnosed troubles: shooting back pains that flare up intermittently and hang around for weeks at a time, indefinable maladjustments of the collarbone that give him pains in the solar plexus whenever he stretches his shoulder blades.

If I expand the study to consider friends and acquaintances, the list gets longer and weirder. Ears reattached, noses rebuilt, knees perpetually braced or surgically reconstructed. Bones broken, tendons snapped, ankles that bend in ways no human joint was ever meant to bend. Concussions, of course. Bottles of No-Pain spray passed around before games like some sort of anesthesia-rave, filling the air with that eye-stinging chemical reek.

I’ve never known a body that was used to playing hockey. I’ve known bodies trained and shaped and wrapped and pinned and drugged and compelled by sheer force of will to play hockey, but never easily, never uncomplainingly. I’ve never known nor heard of anybody who played at any level who got more comfort than hurt out of the sport.

Hockey is fantastic exercise, but there is a reason nobody recommends it as part of a healthy lifestyle regimen. It’s not like yoga or swimming or jogging, it is not going to contribute to your ‘wellness’. It is not going to make you fit and lean, give you fantastic abs and toned arms. The lumpy muscularity that some pro players achieve is a tangential result of the extra conditioning they do, and perhaps a certain amount of vanity, but it is not hockey that does it. By itself, hockey has never made anybody either healthy or sexy. About the best you can say for it is that it does wonders for stamina and occasionally leads to a dramatic increase in butt-mass.

In a previous article, talking about the pros, I made the point that hockey is not safe. Well, now that I think about it, you don’t really need to look so high to find evidence that hockey is bad for you. Just as we down here in the rec leagues experience lesser versions of the same pretty-goal-thrill and bad-turnover-shame that the pros go through, so to do we experience a lesser version of the risks of the game. For them, hockey is dangerous. For us, it is merely unhealthy.

Still, as I shuffle limply through my day, wings of pain sprouting from the middle of my spine, I have to wonder: is it going to be worth this trade-off? I like being healthy. I like my nice compliant back and my languid flexy joints and the veal-tender muscles in my arms. I mean, it’s not as though I’m ever going to be big and tough, so why go through the pretense of acting like pain is nothing? Nobody’s paying me to put up with this, nobody’s giving me Percocet to help me put up with it, and fuck it, I’m not ashamed to say it, I like walking upright. My life does not need extra pain that can be readily avoided.

But truth is nobody ever gave up hockey because it hurt. People give it up, if they do, because they got bored of it or never liked it in the first place, or they couldn’t find a good team, or got bullied out of a bad one. Sometimes they don’t have money; sometimes they don’t have the time. But pain? We all play through pain, from the lowliest Timbit to the Venerable Sidney. It is one of the few values of the game that knows no age, gender, or hierarchy of skill. Every single person who ever took up the stick for any length of time has strained, sprained, broken bruised and cut their poor body more than any body needs or deserves, and most of them would rather suffer all those injuries again and tenfold rather than put it down again. Some bodies, it seems, need hockey more than they need comfort, or safety, or wellness. Some bodies need that long, vague ache.

Insha’allah, I’m one of them.

But ask me again after I’ve broken something.


Alice said...

You've been prolific lately, thanks as always for what you do here.

Loved the pic in Oiler drapes. Put me in mind of some Disney character in oversized clothes, but I couldn't put my finger on it, perhaps Mickey as the Sorcerer's Apprentice? (I won't say Dopey)

Icing. I think you made milk come out my son's nose. It's cool though, he's in Grade 12...

Rochester's women on an exhibition tour through Ontario Universities this week, they hit York on Friday. Girls from California, Calgary, and sure, Stratford too. Have to be some stories there - just like yours, only different.

Certainly you will be at the top of the pecking order, as press goes ;-)


Upper-case Alice

Doogie2K said...

Hockey does raise a lot of lactic acid, being an anaerobic sport (especially at a high level; I'm sure rec hockey is much more aerobic, with longer shifts and so forth). That's why the pros bike at a moderate pace for a few minutes after a game and slowly take it down: encourage aerobic processing of the lactic acid in your leg muscles, and transport to the liver, where it undergoes gluconeogenesis to be stored as glycogen.

And part of it is your muscles getting ripped up on a microscopic level from the stresses you're putting on them, and repairing themselves over time to become better/stronger/faster in the future. That one only fixes by doing it more (after adequate rest).

E said...

big-a alice- yeah, writin' up a storm. can't work in canada yet, so i've got time. i'll look into the women's hockey thing. it's a good idea, i've just got too many ideas and not enough organization at present.

doogie- first of all, glad to have you back. it's like 2007 all over again.

second, hockey is anaerobic? really? i did not know that. interesting.

thirdly, as to the theme of this article, it's been my observation that most people i've encountered who play hockey regularly suffer some degree of joint/muscle pain and not infrequent injuries in the course of doing so. as a specialist in these matters, do you think that's because they just don't do the appropriate kinds of conditioning pre/post-game in order to control the effects? or is it (as i was arguing) that hockey is just tough on the body no matter what you do?