“Well, that dude loses his guy here.” He freezes the frame. “So he’s one. But who’s the other?”
“I dunno.” I lean in closer to the TV, squinting as if that will somehow miraculously improve the resolution. “Him?” I point to a burry shape in the bottom corner.
“Must be.” We survey the other players. “Yeah, he’s good, he’s good…”
“Process of elimination, this guy at the bottom. But what did he do wrong?” The picture abruptly jumps into motion again, and less than two seconds later there’s a puck in the net. I still can’t quite see the error.
We’re going through Bourne’s old Systems Analyst posts and testing our vision; trying to watch the clips and figure out the mistakes before reading the explanation. It’s impossible to see the video without reading the headline, so there’s always a little clue, but nevertheless, I often don’t see the error without two or three viewings. Even with the entire play neatly cut into a perfectly bite-sized, pre-wrapped highlight, I still miss things.
The life of a late-blooming hockey fan is an unenviable one, a constant struggle to catch up with everything the stick-in-my-hand-from-the-cradle types already know. However, we who started as adults have one tiny advantage: like Socrates said, we know that we know nothing. Fans who were born with the game know a lot, certainly, but they are apt to confuse knowing a lot with knowing everything- like all those guys you meet in beer leagues, good players for their level, who go on and on about how they coulda made it in the NHL, oblivious to the fact that they’d have had about as good a chance of making it as a professional player as a jellyfish has of making it as a shark. A person who’s known hockey all their life can easily think they’ve already learned everything there is to learn. A person who picked up the game at 20, 26, 37 sees the rabbit hole for what it is.
This is the essential thing about hockey: the closer you look, the deeper it goes. All sports get interesting as they get bigger and broader- think of the culturally-influenced styles of soccer playing or the romantic Americana of baseball mythology- but hockey also gets more interesting as it gets smaller and narrower. It gets a lot of credit for being an intense sport and that’s well-deserved, but what is often overlooked is that it’s a fantastically dense sport, packing more elegance, more strategy, more drama and more pain into each minute than any other game. Any given thirty seconds of hockey have as much interesting and important shit going on as thirty minutes of football.
Hockey is a butterfly effect game. Some very small error leads to a slight mistake which creates a significant distortion which leads to a huge breakdown which results in catastrophe. We can all see the catastrophe, most of us can see the breakdown, and if we’re really paying close attention and we know the teams, we’ll catch the distortion. But the mistake is tough to notice without some slow motion replays, and the error often passes entirely unnoticed. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stares at the puck for half a second too long. Karl Alzner turns on the wrong foot. Nick Palmieri goes into the boards at a too-steep angle. The difference between the absolutely perfect decision and a disastrously bad one is literally a matter of one look, one stride, one degree.
This is the invisible essence of hockey, the game not of minutes and feet or even seconds and inches but milliseconds and millimeters, the game that turns on the edges of blades and the lies of sticks and the minute fractional gestures of bodies. At the highest levels, hockey players are not so much pushing the boundaries of human strength or human speed but of human precision, of how long a man can sustain a series of fine-grained actions and reactions in response to an unpredictable sequence of high-speed events. It’s the synthesis of strength, speed, endurance, perception, and reaction, and even the greatest players can barely sustain it for a single whole minute. It’s that difficult.
This dense web of detail and consequence makes the elite game simultaneously complex and exciting, but it also makes it problematic to try to understand it through standard human behavioral concepts. Take, for example, intent. In normal life, intent is a pretty clear thing: it’s forming the idea to do something before you do it. It’s meaning to do what you do. The intentional is the opposite of the accidental, and the distinction between the two is essential to how we judge the actions of others. Think about the difference between accidentally running over a dog and intentionally running over a dog. One is a misfortune, the other is an abomination. Intent is the difference, in real life, between a normal person and a psychopath.
But forming intent takes time. Not a lot of time, true, but enough to perceive something, have a feeling about it, make a deliberate decision, and select an appropriate action. Comparative to unintentional reactions- jumping in surprise, turning your head towards a sound- intentional actions are painfully slow. Slower, most of the time, than hockey. I submit that probably no more than half of the actions players undertake in an NHL game are ‘intentional’ in the layperson sense, in the sense that the player in the moment of playing made a conscious decision.
Hockey playing is best understood not as a process of thinking and deciding and choosing but rather a process of conditioning and executing. NHL players are the result of a very long, very intensive training regime that starts from young childhood and continues until their retirement. It’s a process of constant, complex drilling designed specifically to get rid of the need for intent as much as possible. The aim is to take strategies and tactics and turn them into reflexes and instincts, the kind of actions that can be acted with as little conscious thought as possible. The ideal player doesn’t think about where he should be on the ice, doesn’t decide whether he should make that pass or not, doesn’t choose to shoot. He just goes where he should, passes the second the window appears, shoots when he sees the gap. It’s beyond even the discipline of the body, it’s essentially the deliberate, controlled automation of the body, the inculcating of habits so deeply and thoroughly that, when a given situation throws itself up in one nanosecond, the desirable response happens without the tedious process of intention.
If you ask a player after a game why he made a particular pass or went to particular spot, he will be able to give an answer, but that thought process, that justification, doesn’t reflect what he was actually thinking at the time. It’s the thought process behind the training that taught him the instincts that he acted on at the time. He’s speaking not with the voice of independent judgment, but with the voice of the all coaches who ran him through that breakout drill a hundred upon hundred times, the voice of a legion of color commentators who’ve Telestrated that play on a hundred upon hundred broadcasts. That play was chosen not on the ice in a single game but in the thousands of practices before. The choice is finished and made long before the opportunity arises. What happens in the game is just execution of a pre-made decision.
Of course there are breakdowns. Until the secret Bauer Cybernetics Division finally releases their long-awaited KaneBot, there will always be breakdowns. There will always be times when emotions interfere or attention flags and something goes wrong, because the discipline is so arduous as to be essentially unperfectable. Like the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of perfect hockey playing is doomed to failure. The struggle is what matters.
All of this amounts to little more than some interesting observations, but it does give rise to at least one difficult question: why is it that only in questions of dangerous or illegal hits that “things happen fast out there” is considered a valid excuse in hockey? Think about it. Things are always happening fast out there, and obviously it’s always hard to keep up. But when Nugent-Hopkins loses Kessel behind the net because he was staring at the puck too long, do you think he goes back to the bench and Renney says, “It’s okay, things happen fast out there”? When P.K. Subban gets pressured into a bad move at the blue line and loses the puck, do the fans at the Bell Centre go, “That sucked, but it’s not his fault; it happened so fast”? When a goalie makes a misread and cheats too far and gets horribly beat, is the intermission panel going to say, “Well, it’s too bad, but you know it’s a really fast game”? Players make a dozen split-second tactical errors a night, several of which result in goals, and nobody analyzing the end result is going to forgive them those mistakes because hockey is fast. Everybody knows that hockey is fast. It’s their freaking job to do shit fast. And yet, when a guy comes halfway across the ice and levels an opponent with a shoulder to the head, suddenly oh-so-many people are ready to excuse it because “it’s a fast game.”
We fans and commentators and analysts all understand that players will make tactical mistakes due to the speed of the game, but we never, ever give them the gift of it as a justification unless someone gets hurt. If the consequence of an overzealous, premature committal results in a gap in defensive coverage that results a goal against, as in the Palmieri example above, people will point out the mistake and fully expect that the man take responsibility for it and never do such a thing again. Yet when an overzealous, premature committal to a big open-ice hit results in a concussion, we will pardon the offender because everything-is-so-fast and he-didn’t-have-time. When a goalie misjudges the angle of a shot, it’s on him. When a hitter misjudges the angle of his shoulder vis-à-vis his victims head, it’s just an accident. When it comes to the tactics of offense and defense, we routinely expect a fantastic level of incredibly detailed discipline from players, but when it comes to the tactics of contact, we’ll throw up a bunch of jibberish about speed and chaos as though nobody could possibly control what happens out there.
This contradiction is what creates a space in the game for recklessness that is not really recklessness and accidents that are not really accidents. It forces those of us who like the game fairly violent but still baulk at outright bloodlust into a queasy tolerance of actions we don’t want or need to tolerate. It gives ammunition to those who want to make radical changes to the game on the grounds of safety. We could expect contact to be exactly as rigorously disciplined as we expect damn near everything else to be; it’s not as if expecting more judicious hits is any more burdensome for players than, you know, expecting them to keep their head turned the right way every damn millisecond in the defensive zone. If someone wants to make a case that a hit was good on it’s merits, so be it. But don’t tell me a bad hit is excusable because the game is fast.