tclakin

A Plea for Puck as the 21st Century Pastime

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2009 at 4:00 pm

America's Game

I have many regrets in my life.

Who doesn’t?

I regret the time in elementary school my friend and I skinned all the bark off our neighbor’s expensive Japanese birch tree with a fishing knife because it was the summer and we had nothing better to do. I regret not appreciating the Michael Jordan era more when I was growing up. I regret seeing “Torque” in theaters. My biggest regret though?

Not playing organized hockey as a kid.

Sure, like every other kid growing up on a quiet suburban street in the 90’s, I laced up the blades or the Nikes and played street hockey until dark with the 2 nets blocking the road. I’m a veteran of a couple pond hockey games, though I couldn’t skate very well and the only real way I knew how to stop was by hitting the boards, so on a boardless pond I was pretty much useless. But I never took the team hockey plunge, never made the “6 AM ice time – giant bag of smelly gear – watching Slapshot on the bus with your travel team on the way to a tournament” type leap. I stayed behind the glass, content with Little League, CYO and – god knows why – town soccer. I justified my stance with all the usual hockey complaints – can’t follow the puck, can’t skate, no one watches hockey anyway, why would I want to get up that early? That kind of stuff. I basically said “no thanks” and didn’t give it another thought for 15 years. Now, after a season (and counting) of being a Boston Bruins season ticket holder in the last row of the balcony where the air is thin and you can stand the whole game yelling pretty much anything you want, I realize what a mistake ignoring hockey really was. I realized this about the same time I realized that hockey really is – well, should be anyway – the National Pastime of 21st century America. The various reasons why are fairly intricate and complex, so I’ll start with the easiest and most obvious: Speed.

Hockey is, at its core,  a lightning fast game. America, at least today, is a lightning fast country. We text, we tweet, we Google, we’re constantly looking for the flashiest, newest and fastest technology that will enable us to reach our conclusions, our destinations, our motivations, our reactions that much more quickly. It’s unbelievable, really. It’s eroding our social skills and our way of life under the guise of improving both (I barely talk to anyone anymore because of my iphone; instead of having discussions about questions I have, I just google them. It’s disgusting) with “life-changing” gadgets and “social networking sites.” I’m shocked I’m even writing this on a computer  when I could be tweeting or emailing or furiously searching for stuff on Google Chrome. And ultimately, there is no game better suited to our new mile-a-minute America than hockey. It’s a mix of constant action and controlled violence. It’s a 2 1/2 hour combination of ballett and boxing. The games are quick on the ice and quick on the clock. How is baseball – which I love, by the way – our national pastime, today, in an Era of Speed, when baseball games last over four hours and the action unfolds at a leisurely crawl? Why not hockey, with its furious checking, running clock, and 105.4 MPH slap shots ?

Not only is hockey fast, it’s also terrifically violent. And aren’t we a violent country? There’s MMA, there’s a war overseas, there’s Resident Evil video games, Grand Theft Auto, school shootings, CT from the Real World, and Gary Bettman’s violent incompetence. It’s everywhere – we are inundated with violence. At least in hockey – unlike in the real world – the violence is safe, controlled, and contained. It’s also damn entertaining. In its various hockey forms – open ice hits, rough stuff in the corners, checking, fights – it represents the best in sports, not the worst as many gentler types would have you believe. The violence in hockey is an example of competition at its most pure because it allows the players to p0lice themselves. What if, instead of suspending Josh Beckett for 6 games for allegedly throwing at Bobby Abreau’s head, the umpires let Beckett and Abreau drop their gear and square off on the pitcher’s mound? The resulting penalty – 5 outs in the dugout for each. What fan wouldn’t want to watch that rather than getting cheated out of a subsequent  Beckett start because he sailed a pitch when Abreau called timeout at the very last second? Wouldn’t it be more fun – and ultimately, more telling – to let them settle their differences right then and there? If you say yes – and judging by America’s penchant for settling things with violence, you do – then start watching the NHL. Please.

If you’re not already sucked in by the speed of hockey or excited by its violence, then, if for nothing else, watch hockey for the characters who play the game. There are weekly NHL storylines out of an afternoon soap or a gossip magazine. You can take me to task on the speed point and definitely on the violence theory, but you simply cannot argue that America loves a good scandal. Ready made for that national love is Rangers winger Sean Avery, veteran of the tabloids and the penalty box. Agitator Supreme. A guy who has dated Elisha Cuthbert and Rachel Hunter and then been suspended indefinitely by the league for referring to them as “sloppy seconds.” I mean, Avery interned at Vogue during the summer offseason and has an admitted “interest in fashion”! It doesn’t get weirder than this guy. And he’s actually a good player. It’s unbelievable. But if Avery’s antics don’t float your boat, you’re still in luck. There’s Alexander Ovechkin who wears fur coats and drives 180 miles an hour on Washington highways and also happens to be one of the two  best players in the league. Or George Parros, the 29 year old goon who looks forty, has a fu manchu and fights everybody in sight, and who, oh by the way, graduated from Princeton. Don’t like Ivy Leaguers? Then how about Tim Thomas, the journeyman goalie for the Bruins who didn’t make it to the League until he was 31 and is now in the running for the 2008-2009 Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goalie? Something about hockey draws interesting characters and there’s at least one on every NHL team. Even if you think the puck’s too small or there’s not enough scoring, anyone can enjoy the simple pleasure of hating a guy like the Flyer’s Scott Hartnell. That one is too easy.

If, after all this, I still haven’t sold you on hockey as the 21st Century Pastime, then here’s a quick rundown of what should be the the clinching factors:

1. Every other league in the country is fixated on “going international.” The NFL is considering holding the Superbowl in London. The NBA exhibits foreign talent like Tony Parker and Zaza Pachulia (talent? Wellll….). If someone doesn’t stop Bud Selig, the MLB is in serious danger of actually being moved to Japan. Yet the NHL – the most international league of them all – toils away in relative obscurity, all the while offering a product chock full of Canadiens, and Russians, and Czechs. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a credit to Gary Bettman. If he was trying to go international, we’d have a league comprised entirely of the most patriotic Americans possible, every last one of them named Smith and Jones. But, despite Bettman’s best efforts, hockey  flourishes as an international game. Yet no one watches it here in America. It’s like soccer. (Except, you know, stuff actually happens during games).

2. While every other major sport is chided for abandoning its fundamental origins, hockey has remained relatively the same. MLB is desperately attempting to emerge from the Steroid Era, where juiced-up players effectively weed-wacked a hundred years of statistics and history, so that now in 2009 the top-10 All-Time home run list includes the names Barry Bonds, Sammy “No speak-a Ingles” Sosa, Mark McGwire and the immortal Rafael Palmeiro (I still can’t believe he’s on there. It actually makes me want to throw up). Over in the NFL, players are getting bigger and stronger, faster and more flamboyant at an incredible rate. The sport has changed, from a smashmouth running game to a pitch-and-putt passing game, with personalities like TO lighting up Sportscenter. Oh, and they also have a steroid problem that no one talks about (see: Shawne Merriman). The NBA, bless it’s heart, is a shell of its former set-shooting self (though it is finally starting to emerge from the post-Jordan era with the recent crop of superstars) and the once-beautiful passing sport has degenerated into a one-on-one showcase. Then we have the NHL, where the only major changes have come in the form of rule tweaks, composite sticks, butterfly goaltending and Bettman’s quest to squeeze fighting out of the game.

But his failures are hockey’s blessings. The 2009 version of the game still hasn’t lost its essence. It remains, fundamentally, a beautiful, slicing street fight. Ten guys, two goaltenders, wearing blades on their feet and fighting to put six ounces of vulcanized rubber into a small net. At its core, it is a schoolyard game – if someone breaks the rules, they sit out. If two people get angry, they fight. The tougher group often wins. The greatest winners live on in history.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like America.

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