There is a long pass coming in from the east. Or maybe it’s the west, I’m never sure. Elias catches it at the line and cuts to the center, pushing into the defense. He has the puck in front and then, suddenly, he doesn’t, and Zubrus, coming in behind, does. I didn’t even see the pass. The puck is here, and then it is there. Sometimes they have it on a string. Other times they have it on a teleporter.

On Twitter, people are prepared to be bored. Only a few minutes in, it already has the feel of a close game, something that will be played in the narrow space between 0 and 1. Although the play has been back and forth and back again, the chances have not been glorious and the goalies have been sharp. Across the internet, some people are honing their sarcasm to fine points, while others are preparing to settle in for a long night of complaining. It’s astounding how fast the consensus emerges: this is just too dull to be SCF hockey. Pittsburgh-Philly should have been the Final. Those were great games.

Some Devil, his number obscured, falls behind the back boards. Flat on his side, he lashes his stick out and grabs the puck, pulling it back into his body with the smoothness of a frog flicking out it’s tongue after a fly. Two Kings are on him, looming over his body, but though they pin the man they miss the biscuit. He pops it out between his legs, clear to a teammate hovering in the low circle, and the play goes back the other way.

I remember the first game I ever saw. This is one of the privileges of being a late-blooming fan- my origin story isn’t lost in the misty nostalgia of early childhood. I know where I was and what I was doing the exact moment I fell in love with hockey. But here’s the strange thing: it’s not the game I remember. It was the Habs, and it was a Saturday, that much I know, but I don’t remember the goals or the opposing team or the score or even if they won. None of the customary things that are supposed to make hockey games matter.

Brodeur kicks out his pad and the puck leaps straight up in front of the open net, almost floating. He snatches it out of the air and freezes there, legs half split, body twisted back.

What I remember is a takeaway. I remember doing Persian homework and getting hung up on a particularly evil subjunctive clause and looking up and seeing a takeaway. It was a nice takeaway, a smooth pocket-picking without even the shadow of contact, but not the sort of thing an experienced fan would gasp over. I, however, gasped.  It was a small play, sure, but it was also an impossible one. It did not conform in any way to my sense, at that time, of what was possible.  There was one player with the puck and some speed and then there was another player and then he had the puck and it was gone and it all happened in less than a half of a second and then it was over and all I could think was how the fuck did he DO that?

Quick comes out of his net to play the puck, but his timing is off and he is beset by Devils. He abandons the puck and pushes backwards, already crouched, a crab scuttle back to a perfect position on the left post. He never takes his eyes of the puck. He never once looks backwards.

That was my first hockey game: one long succession of gasps and how-the-fucks. Not over laser shots or lovely dekes, mind you, but other things: passes threaded between legs, leaps over fallen teammates, pucks caught mid-air. I didn’t know enough to know what was important in the strategy of the game, I couldn’t see the systems in play. Hell, I couldn’t even name one single player. All I could see was an incomprehensible wall of speed and intricacy and BOOM. All I could feel was shock.

Carter catches a pass in the middle of a tight circle. He holds the puck in the center and wheels his body around it, eyes on the net. He stutters his stride mid-loop, a bit of syncopated timing that looks like a glitch in the Matrix, like a hiccup in time itself, right before pulling out for the shot.

No other sport has ever shocked me. Other sports- especially the other big, American sports- are slow and fairly basic. People walk, mostly. Sometimes they run and sometimes they jump, and they throw balls, but mostly they walk and then they stand around and then they run a bit and then they stand some more. I get that there’s skill involved, and that there’s no way I could run or jump or thrown even a tenth so well as they, but ultimately it’s still just the fine-tuning of a few basic human abilities. Everybody runs. Everybody throws.

Mitchell receives a pass while skating backwards through the neutral zone. He shifts his stride slightly, drawing a wide reverse arc across the middle of the ice, the puck obediently clinging to his blade like a devoted puppy. He is skating backwards, using a long stick to handle a small object at his feet. He never once looks down.

The other sports have some difficult elements, but hockey is entirely made of difficult elements. There is not one easy thing in the whole game. What hockey players talk about when they talk about ‘keeping it simple’ is a succession of practices that no normal person could hope to execute. Take an ordinary person with no experience of soccer, no teammates, no goalies, and tell them to kick the ball into the net. Most of us could do it. Take an ordinary person with no experience of hockey, give them a puck and a stick, put them in the high slot and tell them to hit the net. I bet you get a less than 50% success rate. Even the most basic possible hockey skills- the wrist shot, the chip up the boards, the race for the puck- involve at least a half dozen discreet component abilities. Other sports take human skills, break them down and separate them. Stand here, hit the ball, then run, stop. Line up, then run, then throw, stop. Hockey synthesizes twenty different skills together at top speed in endless organic recombinations. Even that basic defenseman arc, that thing that they do two dozen unremarkable times in an average boring game, is an extraordinary fusion of talents.

Parise loops towards the boards, where a teammate is caught in a mess of ineffectual limbs with an opponent. The teammate stops trying to hold the puck and rather holds the man, leaving the disc alone on a slice of white space. Parise stretches out the full length of stick and arm to get to it, gives it a tenth of a second of settling, and then snaps it abruptly on net. Grinding to scoring chance in less than two seconds.

I remember having no words to describe hockey. It is a game that requires it’s technical terminology. In the early, eager days my descriptions of events collapsed before they even began, tumbling and tangling together into senseless, ecstatic word-rubble- “So that guy had the puck and then he kind of stopped and did this wiggly thing and there was this other guy kind of over there and he went this way and the first guy went that way but he passed the puck over there and there was this other guy coming really fast from that way and then…” In layman’s terms, the game is nonsense. To compensate for the complexity, we give simple names to intricate things- a one-timer, a deke, a cycle, a box.

Without the puck, the penalty killers move like a school of fish, their attention shifting in perfect symmetry. Each of them is managing a tiny, intricate dance- dart, stop, pivot, dart, shuffle, kneel, rise, dart, repeat- within his own small square of ice. When one leaps out to pressure, the others shift accordingly. Synchronized skating- Esther Williams would be impressed.

With the jargon, though, comes cynicism. If we had to describe everything in hockey with normal words, we might never lose sight of its miraculous details, but when those details are folded into a succession of monosyllabic shorthands, the remarkable starts to seem pedestrian. Repeated enough times and folded into the simple language of the play-by-play, one eventually stops really watching the games and starts chunking them into what seem like preordained routines. Sometimes, now, especially watching the game with friends, especially watching the game while drinking, I catch myself looking up half-heartedly and dismissing what I see. Trap, neutral zone, no scoring chance immanent, back to small talk. Deeper understanding is supposed to open up the wonders of the world. In hockey, too often, it flattens them. The more you know, the easier it is to be bored.

A King is trying to get free on the boards, covered on both ends. He doubles back, then, faced with an opponent, doubles back again, and then twists away a third time, until finally the defenders leave a half a foot of gap and he threads the pass through.

The ultimate boredom, I think, comes from watching hockey for the competition. The competition is the part of the game that is common to every sport: scoring, screwing up, setting records, signing stars, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, etc etc. Every team sport has these things, and they give rise to the familiar athletic storylines, the ones about underdogs and juggernauts and best-guy-evers and droughts and dynasties. They are the things that drive multi-sport fanaticism, the kind that cares mostly about the winning and the losing and not so much about how it happens.

Fayne misses the pass and only catches it with a King on top of him, nearly body to body. Two hundred pounds of pressure towards the neutral zone and he can’t keep himself in, but he can keep the puck there, chipping it through the defender as though he were no more than a bulky shadow.

Hockey is often a poor sport by the standards of general team competition. It is low scoring and frequently defensive, subject to long runs of luck and chaos, easy to suck at and difficult to dominate. A viewer watching only in the hope of goals and nearly goals will often be disappointed. Difficult to follow, long on tension and short on cathartic release, it’s not kind to the casual fan. It’s not easy to love the competition aspects of hockey.

The Kings botch a D-to-D pass and Clarkson rushes in. He gets the puck and pivots, but the momentum is carrying him backwards and nearly parallel to the net, with the recovering defenseman in the way. He shoots anyway, around the body and just wide of the net.

The hockey statisticians like to draw a distinction, process vs. result. For them, it usually refers to general management- since results in hockey are so often subject to chance, good team-building needs to be judged by the prudence of the processes rather than the results of a given season. The same distinction, though, can be applied to watching. To love hockey deep and long, as a spectator, you have to care more about processes than results. You have to be in it for the details, the geometric dominance of a well-constructed power play unit, the crackling sychronicity of a clicking forward line. The gymnastic artistry of a goalie building a shut-out, the desperate forward lunges of a trailing team. This 0-0 game is the result of a thousand tiny miracles, excellent plays executed smooth as glass and fast as mercury, but the scoreboard is a victim of the teams’ success. It is scoreless exactly because it’s been played so well, which is often the way with hockey. Badly played games are full of goals; perfectly played games are bereft of them.

A footrace, end to end, the Devil a slight stride ahead of the King, enough for a lukewarm snipe. If the shooter was one step faster, that’s a goal. One step slower, and it’s not even a chance. The decision between the three isn’t in the feet of the racers. It’s fifty feet away and three seconds earlier, in the pass or the deflection that led to the rush, in the positioning of the defenseman’s partner, in the rebound off the previous shot. Every play is recursion within recursion. Every chance is a hundred decisions deep.

There is nothing more nonsensical in hockey than an argument based on the phrase ‘just watch the games’, as if you could see everything there is to know about hockey just by planting your eyes on a screen. I always want to ask, watch what? Watch the blur of the puck ricocheting wildly around the surface? Watch the stars whirling and looping and scanning for their chances? Watch the line matches the coaches are pursuing? Watch the scoring chances? Watch who is carrying the puck into the zone? Watch the style of individual players? Watch the systems? Watch the rise and fall of emotions? There are a hundred ways to watch, a thousand things to watch for, many of which cannot be seen at the same time. Tonight I am seeing the game one way, as a series of flickering, shocking moments. The tactically-minded Mr. Bourne is noticing systems and structures. The statistically-oriented Mr. Charron is parsing chances and zonestarts. We are all watching the same game. None of us are seeing it the same way.

But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s the best thing, because it promises infinite entertainment to those willing to look a little differently. No matter how much hockey you’ve watched in your life, no matter how much you think you already know, there is always something you haven’t seen before, some angle you haven’t examined, some strategy you haven’t unpacked, some player you haven’t followed. There is always some little scrap of brilliance that you never really noticed before and weren’t fully expecting. There is always something else to see, another layer to excavate, another level to explore. Hockey is the only sport where, no matter how dull the result, the process is always revelatory. It is always beautiful. If you’re getting bored, all you need to do is watch a different way.

Comments (17)

  1. Another fantastic piece, Ellen. Great read!

  2. Name another team sport where even the very top athlete can only play 45 seconds, then needs to sit down and rest.

  3. Very nice writeup. You capture the essence of the game very well, from the pt of view of a casual observer. On your comment about a Philly-Penguins SCF, too bad they are both in the eastern conf, maybe a Red Wings-Flyers matchup would be more exciting or Wings-Pens …. But that would be boring since that happened two yrs in a row recently.

  4. Always enjoy your writing, Ellen, and this was no exception. So much hockey commentary, at least in the print media, focuses on how boring hockey can be these days and how the rules need to be changed so that a “better,” more entertaining product can be put on the ice. It’s so enjoyable to read a writer who remains fascinated by and clearly loves the game.

  5. Very good descriptions. My first hockey experience was much the same as yours ” They can jump on skates and catch a puck in mid air?” or “How can a forward move that fast around a defenseman?” or “The game almost never stops, players are always coming and going – how do they do that? How does everyone know when it’s their turn?!?!”

    So many small details that make hockey great and take so much talent and training. You can’t just pick up and play hockey – you have to learn to skate before you can even try!

  6. “What hockey players talk about when they talk about ‘keeping it simple’ is a succession of practices that no normal person could hope to execute.”

    I want to frame this line and read it every time I get on the ice.

  7. So good on so many levels. To me the best thing about watching hockey is the anticipation that something magical is starting every time a team starts up ice.

  8. Interesting, since I didn’t grow up playing the sport, until I started to play I didn’t understand how difficult it was to perform some “simple actions” on the ice. I often catch myself using the DVR to go back and show my daughter, who plays hockey, some simple elegant move a player made in an NHL game. She kind of gets annoyed after the fifth time, but what your saying is true, there are so many very difficult actions completed in a short period of time that go unnoticed by the casual observer. A great sport!

  9. I learned to skate shortly after I learned to walk, and suited up for the first time when I was five.

    I am a terrible hockey player, yet many actions that you described players doing is second nature to me; I just can’t preform them with the same precision and consistency.

    It is so interesting to think about someone watching hockey who has never and may never play the sport.

    Very good article.

  10. I’m not going to say that hockey cannot be enjoyed by people who have never played, but i sometimes wonder if it can be appreciated by people who have never played. To understand what it takes, you sort of have to have tried it. The single biggest complaint (or comment) i get from friends who watch the games with me, but are not necessarily fans, is that they never know where the puck is.

    “How do you see it”?

    Time after time I explain that I just KNOW where it is. My eyesight is great, and I often do see the puck, but it’s just easier to know where it than to see where it is. To understand the players positioning, the body language, the movements. To understand the play as it develops, is to know where it will likely go before it gets there. These are the reasons I wonder if the game can be appreciated by the uninitiated.

    I have one friend who’s never played, but actually “gets it”. The guy grew up playing football (soccer), and for whatever reason, he’s keen enough to see the game and appreciate it without having ever played. Maybe he just cares to understand the game rather than the score board.

    • I’d like to think I could appreciate it before I played, but it is true that playing- or even trying to play, as I am- opens up a whole new level of understanding. There are definitely skills I took for granted until I tried to do them and moves I notice now that I’d never caught before. If you play, I think, it becomes a little harder to take the pro level of skill for granted.

      Unless, of course, you have an enormous ego, which is hardly unknown among rec leaguers…

      • Yeah, I probably over stepped saying it cannot be appreciated by people who haven’t played, but i know very few people who appreciate the subtleties and tiny miracles that go on if they’ve never laced up.

        I think maybe the speed of the game makes it very difficult since most people are still trying to follow the puck around. But if you have a feeling for the game, you stop watching the puck because you know where it is and where it’s going. It sort of frees you up to appreciate how and why it got there.

  11. This reminds me of one of my very favorite essays, Brian Phillips’ “Pele As A Comedian,”, not just because he also argues for the unique difficulties of soccer but also because the unit of viewing in that essay is the moment:

    “A Pelé Moment might make me shout, or jump out of my chair, but more than anything they seem to make me laugh…. Everything that’s wrong—the difficulty of controlling the ball, the interposing defenders, the fact that he can’t use his hands—suddenly seems right, because it merely provides the occasion for the astonishing thing he improvises.”

  12. Ellen, this is the first post of your’s that I’ve ever read. I’m truly sorry I haven’t had the pleasure before now.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing something that counters all the negative crap so many sports reporters have been spewing during these playoffs. Equating the enjoyment level of a hockey game to the number of goals scored completely disrespects the skill of the players, and the enjoyment factor that even a defensive game can be. If the number of points scored in a game was indicative of a game being entertaining then basketball would be the most exciting game going.. and it sure as hell isn’t.

    I’ve played the game for 45 years, but wasn’t exposed to it until the late (in Canada) age of 8 when my family moved here from the US. It was love at first sight, that first sight being black & white NHIC games in 1965.

    Every time I put on my gear, I do so with a smile, because I know I’m about to play the greatest sport on this planet. And it is great to know there is other people out that that feel the same.

  13. Hmmm.

    Nah, I’ll still take rugby as the best sport any day. Not only for the physical/athletic side or the entertainment aspect but the cultural side as well. Much more respect and good will between players, respect for the ref and the game itself.

    Plus rugby players are much more fun to follow on twitter – they actually have personalities!

  14. Love your writing. Also came to love the Habs as a Montreal transplant in my twenties.

  15. I came late to hockey, as an adult, having moved to New England from my non-sports-watching family in DC. In one of the first games I watched, a player sliding forward on his stomach just rose up off the ice and rejoined the play without ever having stopped or lost track of the play. That was my first real “How the hell did he do that?” moment.

    “It is scoreless exactly because it’s been played so well, which is often the way with hockey.”

    I love this piece. I relate to it as a fan. I love hearing the crowd applaud a good shift even though no one scored. I love self-passes off the boards. I love seeing players jump up off the ice, because I’ve tried that and it’s crazy hard; the blades slip on takeoff.

    Discovering your writing is the best thing to have come out of “While the Men Watch.”

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