There are only two major ways of experiencing hockey: playing and seeing. Once upon a time and many years ago, there was hearing, but radio has largely fallen out of favor now, and the only person I’ve ever heard of who primarily listened to hockey was a blind AHL fanatic who could follow the games in the arena by the clacks and thumps alone. Sighted people in the modern era, however, pretty much confine themselves to playing and seeing. Of the two, playing is the more revelatory, comprising as it does all the senses and the ability to affect outcomes, but it is also the more constrained. One can only play as much hockey as one’s skill set and work week allow, which is generally not very much.
So most of us are stuck with seeing as our primary mode of hockey-consumption, which is unfortunate, because human eyes are not especially well-suited for seeing hockey. About the best you can say for them is that they’re front-mounted (imagine trying to devise a television for deer-vision) and good at picking up motion, but their range is pathetically narrow. The horizontal breadth of human vision is perhaps 200 degrees from one extreme to the other, the furthest thing you can perceive right to the furthest thing left, which sounds pretty good until you consider that the range of focus is only about 15 degrees right in the center. Within those fifteen degrees, our sight is full-color, high-definition and fully 3-D, but the other 185 degrees have all the clarity and resolution of an amateurish 1850s daguerreotype. Every degree outside the focal point, we lose the ability to perceive color, shape, and depth rapidly, leaving only the awareness of motion.
Under normal circumstances, we use this motion-sensitivity of vision to compensate for its limited range. When we catch something moving in one of the blurry corners of the visual field, we reflexively snap our focus over to it to figure out what exactly it is. We are constantly panning that precious fifteen degrees around, our brain busily building up a detailed panorama of the encircling world. Naturally, the brain tends to keep the focus on whichever things in the environment are moving in a particularly rapid, interesting, or erratic fashion. Things that are stationary or predictable are checked more infrequently, under the (usually correct) assumption that they are this second just as they were the second before and the second before that. Under most circumstances, this mode of seeing works quite effectively to put our attention exactly where it ought to be. You are never going to miss the ninja in your living room because you’re too distracted by your couch.
Unfortunately, hockey is that rare situation in life where there are multiple objects in rapid motion at the same time, none of them falling into a wholly predictable or regular pattern. The one hockey player skating alone is a remarkable enough motion to capture and hold the attention, but ten of them moving at once have a way of pulling it in ten different directions. To compensate, the natural impulse seems to be to keep the fifteen degrees of focus on the puck and the players in its immediate vicinity, but anybody who knows anything about hockey knows that plenty of important things happen away from the puck, so of course you try to do little periodic checks on the positions of the other players, without pulling your focus too far off the puck for too long. But with everyone constantly in motion, nothing is exactly the same one half-second to the next, and everything outside your fifteen degrees is blurred and hazy.
So there is bad news and good news and then more bad news beyond that. The first bad news is that your vision is not very well-suited to following hockey games. Sorry, I know it’s tough to hear, but that’s the way it is. The good news is that, in addition to your woefully inadequate eyes, you also have a tremendous large brain with a nearly inexhaustible capacity for learning. Everything your eyes automatically do- the zeroing in on faces and movement, the rapid flickers from this to that to this, the lightning-quick mental mapping of your immediate environment- they learned to do. Of course you don’t remember what that was like because you didn’t develop the capacity to form long-term memories until about two years after you learned how to see, and at the time your tiny, busy brain was also learning a great many other valuable life skills such as how to bend your knees and suck on nipples. But the way you see now is a skill you developed, and your brain is more than capable of developing new seeing skills.
Indeed, the progress of hockey understanding is in many ways tied inexorably to the development of hockey vision. I know this personally, because the entirety of my fanaticism has taken place within my adult consciousness, and I remember very clearly what it was like in the beginning, when I could barely follow the changes and didn’t understand how offsides worked. Early stage hockey fanaticism is simply the ability to understand what is happening- that’s a hit, that’s a shot, that’s a turnover. After that comes the ability to identify players and positions, and after that intentions and immediate tactics, and after that some dim recognition of strategies and systems, which is about as far as my eyes have gotten. Beyond this, I know, there is the sight of players and coaches and the most advanced analysts, who can perceive a sophisticated geometry of play, a lattice of lanes and angles which I only notice when they are used, but to them appear always as the shifting ghosts of potential plays. At the highest point of hockey vision, there are some truly remarkable seers.
But remember how I said there was more bad news? Here it is: learning awesome hockey vision does not happen automatically just because you slap your eyes on enough games. It requires disciplined, critical attention. To see the game well, you have to watch a lot of it and watch it carefully, dead serious, dead sober. You have to develop an underlying knowledge and then apply that to your vision, and then apply the vision to the knowledge, in endless recursions of refinement. In hockey, what you know doesn’t just affect your interpretation of what you see, it can literally determine what you see, so you better be damn sure that what you know is true. Most of what your brain tells you about things caught in your peripheral vision is based on guesswork, which is in turn based on experience and preexisting knowledge. When your eyes are following the puck carrier, not much else- even on a TV screen- is within your range of perfectly accurate vision. So say there’s another player on the ice, towards the lower right of your little ocular window. What your eyes are actually perceiving about this guy is virtually nothing- they’re not reading his number, they’re not distinguishing his size, hell, they’re barely even registering the colors on his uniform. If they’re aware of him at all, it’s only because he’s in motion. In this second, everything you know about this guy is based not on what you’re seeing but on what you know. Your brain is making lightning-quick best-possible-guesses about who he is and what he’s going to do. But the more you know about the teams, the line combinations, the coaches, the status of the game, the status of the season overall, and various hockey strategies and tactics, the more likely it is that such guesses will prove accurate, the more likely it is that your eyes will dart to the blurry peripheral figure who’s likely to do something significant and avoid the ones who aren’t. To get to the point where you can really see an entire game, clearly and accurately, you have to have honed and refined your mental shortcuts to the point where they are almost never wrong. That don’t come easy. To be a student of the game, it turns out you actually do have to study.
It’s just you and me here, now, on this blog, so let’s be honest with each other: we do not really want to watch hockey that way. That way of watching hockey is hard. You know how sometimes you’ve got a game on and the color dude is speculating about some potential trade and they cut to a shot of the GM sitting in some dull beige box, glowering down at the ice with an expression that somehow conveys both depression and constipation? That is what serious, analytical hockey-watching looks like. It is not fun.
We want to have fun watching. We want to watch with friends and chit-chat while we do it. We want to watch in bars and drink while we do it. We want to watch in arenas and scream and jump and sing through it. Sure, hockey knowledge is great, but it’s not what our hearts want to get from the experience of watching a game. We want community and laughter, excitement and thrills, we want the vicarious immediacy of being there. We don’t want to be serious, no matter how seriously we take the outcome. We want to frivol.
Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all. Frivolous watching is the hockey-god given right of every fan, and indeed just about the only thing we have over the experts who are contractually obligated to analyze every damn thing. It is a privilege to be able to have no serious ideas whatsoever while watching a game, and we should feel no shame whatsoever for taking advantage of it. That is what the whole hockey media is there for, with their play-by-play and their intermission debates and their telestrators and their instant replays: to allow you to watch games in a drunken, half-assed fashion and still understand most of what’s going on.
But know this: frivolous vision is not analytical vision. The ideas one gets about hockey from the casual, tipsy watching of a game are impressions, and impressions are not to be confused with insights. Impressions are chancy things, based on what the eyes happened to catch at a particular second, and they- like every chance sighting- are subject to a whole raft of cognitive fallacies and shortcuts. These have been often enumerated and discussed in the hockey blogosphere, so I won’t bore you with lengthy explanations of confirmation bias, and the illusion of validity, and the availability heuristic. [Sidebar: Is it just me, or are cognitive fallacies starting to edge out evolutionary psychology as the defining explanatory framework of our cultural moment? Discuss.] Suffice to say, if you’re not bringing your absolute best, most critical attention to bear on the game, than a lot of what you think you see is at best incomplete and at most flat-out wrong. Hockey is fucking complicated system, and your eyes are not the best tools the universe ever gave a creature to make sense of complicated systems moving at high speeds.
Which is not to say no good ever came from a chance impression. A smart person with a deep knowledge of the sport can pick up on meaningful things even in a cursory glace- all that learning and experience doesn’t vanish just because you’ve had a few beers and are flirting hard with the chick on the next barstool. I’m sure plenty of revelatory analyses of hockey have had their origins in a fleeting glimpse. But the fleeting glimpse is not, in itself, the revelatory analysis. It needs to be checked, ex post facto, against itself, against similar events, against the data, against history.
Say you are watching a game in the casual way and happen to notice that a given forward spends nearly his whole shift along the boards, unable to crack the slot. You know from the narratives of the day that this player has not been scoring so much as one might expect. Your impression, then, is that Forward X is a perimeter player who’s afraid to get his nose dirty. You are perfectly entitled to this impression, of course, and nobody is going to blame you if you voice it, in exasperated tones, to your fellow watchers during the next commercial. However, it is not necessarily true. You do not have enough evidence to know whether it is true, and if you care about truth, then you have an obligation to treat the impression critically and do a little research. You can go back and watch his other shifts. You can check out charts that show wherefrom he takes his shots. You can look at his underlying percentages. Through the magic of Google, you can check your impression against those of others going back through all the years of his play to his midget days. You can check it against the more analytical vision of scouts, teammates, coaches, and general managers. There is no excuse, with the absolutely mind-blowingly vast array of hockey knowledge available to even the most casual fan nowadays, for passing off one’s momentary, fragmentary glimpse as hard fact.
And yet, people do this all the time. There are some circles of hockey thought these days that take a rather dim view of ‘seeing’ as a way of acquiring and developing hockey knowledge, and I think it’s largely because of some fans’ recurring insistence that any little thing they think they saw be treated as hard evidence, when in fact it is barely even a sliver of an anecdote. Any time you’re trying to get someone to believe in something based on something you saw, stop for a moment and consider: there are people who believe they have seen leprechauns. If you don’t believe those people based on the evidence of their eyes, then it is probably not fair to expect others to believe anything based only on the evidence of yours.
Nevertheless, despite its inadequacies as both a mode of perception and a rhetorical technique, I find I am always seduced by the promises of seeing something good, because seeing is about why things happen, and why is the most elusive part of hockey. What is easier: the score sheet can tell you the basic what, and beyond that lies a whole infinite regression of what. From simple stats to refined stats to advanced stats, the numbers get more and more accurate but it’s all what, and all of it is susceptible to the fear that all it really says is that shots were taken and goals were scored. What is good and useful, and it might be all you really need for any practical decision or assessment, but most hockey fans seem to long for why more than what. We want the causal mechanism, not just the starting point and the ending point. You can describe the brilliance of the Penguins with a thousand kinds of data but it’s still just what while the mind craves the why. The one thing that eyes will always have over numbers is the potential to explain why, which makes it triply heartbreaking that they seldom deliver on that promise. Most of the time, all we see with our casual vision is what we already believe reflected back at us. Night after night, the game will show you what you expect to see and nothing more, unless you force yourself to look harder.
I would like to end this with some sort of formula for how exactly one does that, how one combats all the cognitive biases and physical limitations, how one cultivates good hockey vision. I wish I had the secret, but I don’t. All I have is the following idea, and it is not even quite an idea but merely a suggestion, and I would not dare to call it a good one, but it is the best I have so far, and it is this principle: Do not trust your eyes; challenge them. Make then see differently than their first instinct. Fight the impression rather than giving into it. Spend a whole game watching only one or two players, keeping your focal point and attention on only them no matter where the puck flies. Or do the opposite and focus only on zones- watch one area of the ice always and notice who goes there and what they do while they’re there. Count your own scoring chances, not for the data so much as for the discipline of training yourself to think about what is a chance and isn’t, to pick up quickly who is on the ice and who isn’t. Watch only the defensemen in the act of defending. Watch only the goalie. Some of you, of course, have better eyes and have done all these things and more, but they beauty of hockey is that there is always something you haven’t yet noticed, if only you have eyes to see it. If only you can teach your eyes to see it.