I am trying to play defense.
It’s not the hardest thing in the world. My level of hockey is not the level of superstars or even average men’s league. Mostly what’s needed from wingers is to try to pressure the defensewomen, should they have possession, and should they not, to hover open in some airy space in between them and the dots, hoping to pick it up for the breakout. I’m not so very good at the out-breaking- I have about as much chance of leading a wagon train through Siberia as carrying the puck successfully in the neutral zone- but I can be disruptive and have known to be able to get a pass to the right person every now and then.
Like I said, trying to play defense.
Anyway, I’m a little bit low when the puck goes back to the defensewoman, but close enough to pressure her, and she doesn’t get it clean. There’s one of those moments where the puck is with her but she doesn’t really have it; one of those moments that smell like a turnover. I try to press it, but she gets control just before I can and flicks it hard, right through the triangle between my stick and my body.
[insert blank gap in memory here]
The next thing I know, I’m all the way down below the right dot, near the boards, literally as far away from my territory as I could possibly be, my own defender glancing quizzically back at be as she takes the puck behind the net.
How the hell did I end up here? I silently ask the hockey gods.
But I know how it happened. I was puck-chasing.
One of the single most important lessons in hockey is don’t watch the puck.
Even non-playing fans learn this after a while. The reason the glow-puck is such a ridiculous concept is because it reflects the misguided notion that seeing the puck is important. It’s not. Most of the time, in an NHL game, you can’t see the puck. When it’s being carried, it’s obscured by the stick blade. When it’s on the boards, it’s obscured by a skate or four. When it’s shot, it vanishes from sheer speed. In fact, when a game is most exciting, the minutes of quick passing and agile stickhandling, is when the puck is most invisible. We’re not seeing the puck, we’re inductively reasoning the existence and behavior of the puck from the gravitational force it exerts on the players, who wheel and spin around it like a solar system of gas giants around a tiny dark sun.
Actually, based on my own experience as a spectator, you learn the most about hockey when you tear your eyes off the puck. If the first, naïve stage of hockey watching is trying to see the puck, the second stage is watching the puck carrier. That’s fine, of course, particularly for drunk-watching, party-watching. Follow the puck carrier and you’ll catch all the big moments. But it’s not until you learn to watch the other guys- the defensemen covering, the wingers supporting, the anticipatory angling of the goalie- that you really start to understand how hockey works. Literally 90% of the game at any given moment is happening without the puck, and often, that 90% is where the goals-to-come begin.
If learning not to watch the puck is important to spectating, it is essential to playing. In fact, one of the easiest ways to quickly figure out player’s experience level is to see how much time they spend staring directly at the puck. The newest players never take their eyes off the damn thing, whether it’s on their own stick or all the way across the ice, and will chase it here and there and back again, all together in a goofy clump of limbs. Get a little bit better and you learn to glance up now and then, and then maybe- especially if you play the kind of hockey where people hit you- you learn to look up more than down. For the great players, though, the relationship between eyes and puck should be no more than a series of quick glances and light-speed deductions. A good player watches bodies, sticks, and the spaces between them far more than they watch the little black dot. The puck is an agent of distraction. Follow it physically and it will lead you astray. Follow it visually and you will be a victim of the dozen little sleight-of-stick maneuvers that together constitute the phenomenon known as as ‘being deked out of one’s jock’.
Positioning is pretty much my only strength in hockey. I have a weak pass and an even weaker shot and the physical presence of an anemic gnat, and everything I do either backwards or backhand ends in hilarity and failure, but dammit, I know where to be. That’s what years of obsessive watching gets you, as far as playing goes: you don’t know the skills but at least you know the terrain. My positioning makes me a tolerable teammate. I’m not good for much, but I seldom get in the way of people who are good for something, and I know enough to get in the way of an opponent every now and again. And because positioning is the only thing I’m kind of good at, I try very hard to continue being good at it.
And yet, sometimes and more often than I’d like, I still get caught puck-chasing. Sometimes it’s triggered by a semi-rational, if misguided, process of compensation- I had the puck, I fucked up, and I want a do-over. Of course, there are no do-overs in hockey; when you fucked up, you fucked up, and that’s just that, and the best thing is just to make sure your next move isn’t a fuck up. Trying to recapture the puck and make the play you failed to make at the right second is- unless you play with people of substantially inferior skill to yourself- a recipe for disaster. All you do is chase the play way out of position like an eager Timbit, leaving wide open empty ice behind you, and make no mistake, it is from that vacant patch of ice where you should be and aren’t that your burning will come, and oh what a burning it shall be. But in that half second, when I’ve just erred a great error and the puck is going out of reach but isn’t gone yet, in that moment when the puck-chasing begins, there is just an empty roar of frustration in my head, like the noise of a very large seashell. Everything I should know- everything I do know- about positioning is gone, and I lunge off the wrong way.
But even stranger than the compensatory puck-chasing, which is stupid but at least explicable, there are bouts of random puck-captivation. There are times I don’t have the puck, I’m not defending the person with the puck, I’m not supposed to have any-fucking-thing to do with the puck, but it flutters by just so and…………………………………………………………… a second or two or three later I wake up. Sometimes I wake up standing in the same spot and the rest of the play has spun away from me, others I wake up digging on the boards behind the net. It’s like being a volunteer in one of those horrible hypnotic demos when the old man with the pointy beard snaps his fingers and there you are lying on the floor wearing a tutu and everyone laughing and you think what? How? Why? Huh?
If you know anything about your brain, you know that it takes shortcuts. It has to, juggling all that sensory input and memories and feelings and logic and whatnot. So, to keep up with all the data, it prioritizes some information, discards other stuff, makes generalizations, and generally cuts corners in order to triage life into convenient bite-size pieces that your consciousness can deal with. (For a handy guide to all the different shortcuts your brain takes and how they apply to hockey, I recommend the vast oeuvre of Kent Wilson, which sadly has yet to be published in book form but is highly Googlable).
Usually when your brain takes a shortcut, you don’t realize it. As it’s cutting corners, it’s covering it’s tracks, creating plausible alibis. If you suddenly get a piece of new information that challenges your existing worldview, it’ll patch in rationalizations to make it feel as if you always knew that. If your relatives repeatedly tell you a story about your childhood that you don’t remember, it’ll make up memoryish-feeling images of the event. You actually can’t see colors at the far edges of your vision, but you never realize this, because your brain is plugging in the colors it remembers are there.
Puck-hypnosis is just a mental glitch, like so many others, but unlike most of them, it’s a glitch that can be experienced. I never go into a play intending to puck-chase. Quite the opposite- if anything I tell myself to calm down, look around, be patient, think. I am very carefully trying to build proper, sensible, responsible hockey-playing subroutines into my mind, and that is what is so absolutely intolerable about it. I know this game. I know what I should do, I know what I want to do, I have this huge mass of plans and intentions built up and then *glitch*- I turn into a cat chasing a laser pointer. And I feel it. I feel my conscious, thinking, planning, rational mind just stop, and it is freaking weird.
I don’t know why it happens, but I suspect it has to do with the way a puck moves. In other sports, the balls obey very clear principles of high school physics: the fly, they arc, they fall, they bounce, in rather predictable ways according to their size, shape, and weight. Pucks, though, being small, flat, and dense, and being manipulated on an exotic surface with a variety of differently designed blades, don’t move in any way you could easily calculate. Sure, it’s still Newtonian in principle, but you’d need some advanced degrees and a lot of time to model all the different ways a puck can move, and to the average brain in real time, its movements look chaotic and almost, sometimes, alive. It slides, glides, rolls, floats, flies, and flutters. Shot, it may rise or fall; deflected, it might pop straight up or flip sideways or drop straight down like a dead thing. It’s a tiny object moving crazy and fast in the unfocussed corners of the visual field, and every now and then, it triggers some very deep, old instincts. Some little rope of nearly atrophied neurons connected with hunting or defense at the very bottom of the brain stem get this signal and wake up screaming THING THING THING THERE IS THING GO GO GET THING and I wheel on my skates, defense forgotten, tearing off across to the wrong corner while my exasperated prefrontal cortex slaps the reptile brain across it’s scaly cheeks and hisses it is the puck and you don’t need it right now.
I know that the amount of puck-hypnosis that happens to me is a function of my immaturity as a player. I know that as I get more experienced, not to say better, it will happen less. But every now and then I’m watching the pros and some fifth defensemen gets caught gawking at some nifty stickwork, or some young forward jumps off his guy to create a tangle of players on the boards and a big gap in the middle, and I think: it never completely goes away. The glitch is always there. It happens to everyone. What changes is the recovery, the processing time between THERE IS THING GET THING and not right now. Advancing in hockey means shaving that process from two seconds to one to half to a tenth, until it’s so fast that a moment of puck-hypnosis is barely more than the expected glance.
Personally, though, I’ll be happy if I ever get to the point where it doesn’t yank me, unconsciously, twenty feet out of position.