Good Pain

There is some point, usually around the middle of the second OT but almost always by the fifth intermission, that every long playoff overtime turns into a spectacle of pain. By the time the Rangers and the Capitals had played a hundred minutes of hockey on Wednesday night, the broadcast had taken on a wee bit of a torture-porn tinge. There were endless close-ups of Brian Boyle’s split chin, Mike Knuble’s oozing forehead, and Dan Girardi’s bloody jersey. There were lingering shots of exhausted players bent over on the bench, overlaid by recitations of the body-punishing numbers: forty minutes of ice time! Eighty-one blocked shots! ONE HUNDRED AND FIVE HITS!! There were commentators enumerating the invisible sufferings, from potassium depletion to lactic acid accumulation, while eagerly looking for evidence of oxygen tanks and IV fluids. At some point in infinite overtime, the major point of interest in a hockey game switches from a minute cataloging of plays to a minute cataloging of suffering.

Playoff OT is one of the most obvious examples of one of the most uncomfortable aspects of hockey watching: its vampirism. Hockey fans love blood. Sure, there are nicer euphemisms and pretty excuses, but eventually one must face the fact. There’s a reason that the reason the camera takes so many close ups of ruby  puddles on the ice and rusty smears down the front of jerseys, and it’s not just because red’s a pretty color. It’s because we like to see people bleeding. Because blood is a symbol of pain, and yes, we like to see pain.

Told you it was uncomfortable. Are you uncomfortable? I know I am. But bear with me; it gets better.

Fans vary in their tolerance for pain-watching, but everyone likes a certain amount of it. There are people who applaud high hits while being outraged at slew-foots, people who admire a good slamming against the glass while roundly condemning a trip into it. Some people love the risk inherent in fighting while being appalled at that inherent in touch-icing, others feel the exact opposite. The variant lines between enjoyable violence and abhorrent violence are as many as there are people who play and watch the game, but there is always some kind of suffering of the ‘enjoyable’ side. We all like some pain in our hockey, we differ only as to the degree and variety we prefer.

Is this wrong? If it were pretty much anything else in life, it would probably be wrong. I mean, I don’t want to go out on a limb here, but I figure if I went out on the street and asked twenty random people if it was wrong on principle to enjoy real-life violence, nineteen would say yes and the twentieth would kind of go ummmm… and look at the sky noncommittally. There’s not a lot of things modern North Americans agree on uniformly, but ‘violence is bad’ is pretty much as close as we get.

Our condemnation of violence in virtually every form is an outgrowth of the belief that pain is something which should always be avoided, minimized, and outright stopped if possible. Modern people don’t endure very much pain- between the safety of our lives and advancements in medicine, we’ve excised (almost) anything much worse than a headache from ordinary experience. Whereas people a century ago would suffer through years feeling the teeth rot out of their heads and tumors grow inside their bodies, the experience of pain is largely foreign to contemporary everyday life. And, for the most part, we are extremely grateful for that.

But there is such a thing as good pain. There’s not a lot of it left in Western society, but childbirth is a good example: some women hate that pain purely but there are many who find it transformative and life-affirming, so much so that they will voluntarily refuse available painkillers. Religion is another notable case: for many centuries Christian monks would beat themselves in order to come closer to God, and even today certain regional Hindu and Buddhist rituals involve tests of pain- hooks through the skin, coals under the feet. Ascetic practices such as fasting, arduous pilgrimage, and sensory deprivation are still fixtures of many spiritual traditions the world over.  In every case, believers actively seek suffering out in order to humble the ego, discipline the body, and transcend the material world.

Sports, also, are one of the last remaining bastions of good pain. Even ordinary people will work out until they hurt and beyond, forcing out one last rep, one last mile, despite screaming muscles and burning lungs. People quite happily choose to run until their toes turn black and their nipples bleed- ’nuff said.

Despite all our anesthetics, despite our ever-increasing pacifism, we still sometimes choose against comfort and ease, because many of the best human qualities only emerge from the most difficult experiences. Without suffering, there is no endurance. Without danger, there is no bravery. Without risk, there is no courage. Without pain, there is no strength. There must always be some awfulness in the world just so that we can go through it and come out tougher, braver, stronger on the other side.

Hockey is one of those things. It is a site of socially-approved pain and suffering. People play hockey, in part, to test the limits of how much they can take and maybe push those limits a little further than ordinary life ever could. People watch hockey for the vicarious thrill of seeing other people push the limits even further. To be a professional hockey player requires facing extraordinary levels of danger and pain, far more than a normal person would tolerate, and because of that it shows us character studies of people with the highest levels of stoicism and determination. We enjoy the pain elements of hockey not because we like to watch people suffer but because we like to watch people overcome suffering, battle through a long war of attrition and come out on the other side scarred and grinning.  Once upon a time we made gladiators fight to the death; now we just make them fight to the pain.

There is an ugly side to this. Hockey culture’s zealous admiration for people who play through pain and injury can sometimes curdle into a contempt for those who cannot. Even though everyone rationally understands that there are some injuries that one cannot transcend through sheer force of will, ‘fragile’ is still used as an insult, as though it were a character flaw. A player who is done in by an injury may often be thought of as weak rather than simply unfortunate. That aspect of our admiration for toughness has to go, especially in this brave new world of concussion-awareness we’re now living in.

But, as we move forward with the ensafening of the game, trying to weed out head-hits the way we once weeded out stick-duels and bench-clearing-brawls, we should also remember that the goal is not perfect safety. It’s not the removal of all suffering. We are having a very lively and necessary debate these days about the forms of violence, injury, and risk hockey can no longer tolerate, but there is a opposite conversation that is just as necessary: What sort of violence can we tolerate? What kinds of injuries are okay? What is the acceptable level of risk? If we have a discussion about the importance of safety without having an an equally honest discussion about the importance of danger, we might unintentionally end up purging the game of many of the extraordinary qualities it has long cultivated in players and, by extension, in fans.

So what are forms of good pain in hockey? If the gleeful vampirism of Wednesday night’s triple-overtime broadcast is an accurate measure, than dehydration, exhaustion, missing teeth, and facial lacerations are among them. What else is?

Comments (6)

  1. The threshold for me is lasting, detrimental effect on quality of life. I enjoy witnessing the pain of exhaustion because I know with a couple days’ rest they’ll be fine. I enjoy hard hitting and courageous shot-blocking because bruises heal. I don’t even mind facial lacerations or lost teeth because hey, chicks dig scars and dentists can do amazing stuff with implants.

    I see it differently when the consequences are more serious. I don’t like headshots because I can’t in good conscience cheer for something that will ruin the rest of the player’s life. Same for dangerous hits to the knee (whether an Ulf Samuelsson knee or a Brad Marchand-esque submarine). I also support visors because of the potential damage to eyes.

  2. I used to joke when I first started playing hockey that it was my version of Fight Club (except I could talk about it). This cultish little meeting of like-minded people, hitting and sweating and grinding it out at some weird hour of the night, shaking off the doldrums of otherwise average lives, ignoring “curfew” and early mornings. Great stuff.

  3. My line, FWIW, is not enjoying pain so much as enjoying and admiring people pushing through pain. Instinctively, we gravitate towards people willing to pay a price for something they treasure, and we hold easy successes as somehow cheapened. I don’t want to see anyone get crippled doing what he loves, but I love seeing someone get back into it, defying odds, mastering pain and finishing the job. Some of the most iconic images of sport are of those moments: Willis Reed hobbling down the tunnel; a bloodied Rocket Richard in the handshake line; Byron Leftwich carried downfield by two of his offensive linemen to line up for the next snap; Kellen Winslow too depleted to move after the double-overtime game in Miami; Kerri Strug nailing her vault; Pat LaFontaine sagging in joy and relief while Bob Mason sags in exhaustion; hell, even “Daniel LaRussa’s gonna fight!” would probably qualify.

    It’s all in the old Wide World of Sports intro… “The thrill of victory! And the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition.” Toss in some brass fanfares and there you go.

  4. It was really interesting to read this piece immediately after reading this one: and the fear Bourne describes as he tries to find his jaw with his tongue.
    Sometimes players are thought to be unfortunate rather than fragile having their careers shortened, such as Bobby Orr and Cam Neely.

  5. Uh, read the comments section of any online news source, watch any t.v. show, or talk to people on the street about anything slightly controversial and you will see Americans love violence. People might say violence is bad, but huge portions of the nation have supported every single war that has ever been cooked up, fantasize about committing violence, and are even willing to support wars against made up countries if they are told they insulted the US. People say they dislike violence, but they sure do watch, buy, and talk about it a lot.

    • This article was intended to be more about pain as distinct from violence- replaying the big hit over and over and over again is relishing the violence, whereas extreme close-ups of broken teeth is relishing the pain. Some kinds of hockey pain (i.e. the oxygen tanks and IV fluids in infinite OT) don’t result in any direct way from violence, but we’re still fascinated by them

      I would say that sports occupy a very interesting place in our culture because they are both real and entertainment. Most forms of violence we approve of are either entertaining but not real (i.e. movies, video games) or real but not entertaining and therefore serious (war). Our endorsement is based on the separation between the two kinds- sports are one of the very few things, possibly the only thing, left in the uncomfortable middle.

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