There is a fundamental sameness to all Jumbotron entertainment. It has the apparent makings of good advertising. It’s big, it’s loud, and it’s on during the dull parts of the game when people have nothing better to do than look up at the shiniest available object. But somehow everything that’s on it melts into one glob of formless, pointless bluster. Animated characters bounce frenetically and classic rock songs blare and the camera pans the crowd in search of smiles, kisses, dances, but to what purpose one could never say. I have yet to ever, once, remember a specific product promoted by a scoreboard ad. They are all just One Great Meta-Product, like the One God of the Israelites or the One Ring to Rule them All.
Likewise, every player I’ve ever seen on a scoreboard interview has somehow merged into one Hockey Player. Hockey Player is usually blondish and muscleyish and wears a vague, unfocussed expression like he’s not entirely sure where he is. He responds to the questions in low monosyllables, punctuated only by the occasional dragging ummmmmm or a laugh that isn’t really a laugh but more of a half-snort. He always says the same things.
What’s your favorite television show?
What’s your favorite rock-paper-scissors move?
What’s your favorite pre-game meal?
Chicken and pasta.
It’s the chicken and pasta that always gets me. How many Jumbotron-featuring hockey games have I been to on this continent? 40? 50? I can’t even remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure that Mr. Chicken-and-Pasta was on the scoreboard at every single one. And it’s always just “chicken and pasta”. Never penne alla arrabiata with sliced herb-marinated chicken breast or roast chicken legs on a bed of spinach linguine, or even Kraft Dinner and buffalo wings. Just “chicken and pasta”, like dude just boiled a pound of spaghetti and slapped a slab of boneless skinless on it and called that dinner.
But last Saturday, while watching the Toronto Marlies whoop the Hamilton Bulldogs into shamed submission, I saw something on a Jumbotron that I had never seen before. The pretty, bubbly hostess pulled aside a likely looking fan and laid out a challenge: guess how many types of cheese a Toronto Marlies player can name. The fan, a slightly chubby and obviously sensible gentleman, suggested five. Then the Jumbotron cut to a recording of Hockey Player* naming cheeses. He said one quickly, I couldn’t hear which, then followed up with Cheddar and Swiss, and then just stopped. At three. Three kinds of cheese.
What the hell? Everyone can name more than three kinds of cheese. Hell, I’m pretty sure that most non-vegan non-lactose-intolerant people have more than three kinds of cheese in their house right now. This continent has at least six fundamental kinds of cheese: Mozzarella (cheese on pizza), American (cheese in plastic wrap), Swiss (cheese with ham), Cheddar (cheese on tacos), Parmesan (cheese on pasta), cream (cheese on bagels). These aren’t fancy, high-falootin’ cheeses. We’re not talking about Stilton and Halloumi and things aged in the dank bottoms of Swiss caves. You don’t have to be uppity in the slightest to have the basic six-cheese-consciousness. Yet here is an adult human being who made nigh on a million dollars last year and lives most of his life in the largest, uppitiest, cheese-filled-est city in Canada and his awareness of the food ends with Cheddar.
Such is the life of Hockey Player.
“Three kinds of cheese” may now have to replace “chicken and pasta” as the best possible shorthand for what I suspect is one of the great underreported truths of the professional hockey lifestyle: a lot of it seems really, really boring. Boring for a reason, of course. For us, things like “dinner” are pleasurable occasions where we can simultaneously fulfill our animal need for sustenance and yet also explore a variety of social and sensory experiences. For hockey players, especially on hockey playing days during the hockey playing season, though, “dinner” is not about silly things like “pleasure” or “food”. It’s about pumping fuel for hockey through your mouth hole as efficiently as humanly possible. What, you feel like a big salad tonight? Fuck you, you can’t play hockey on lettuce. Have a thing for sushi? Too goddamn bad, you get chicken and pasta. If you’re good, maybe you can have fish and rice. Once a month. Maybe. I fully expect that within my lifetime someone will develop a mechanism by which a precisely balanced blend of carbohydrates and proteins can be injected directly into the stomach via a painless feeding tube, and hockey players won’t even actually ‘eat’ anymore. Why doesn’t Hockey Player eat much cheese? Because cheese is food, not hockey fuel.
Hockey is one of the few professions in the world where the work itself is unbelievably intense and dramatic while the off-hours lifestyle is dull, rote, and repetitive. It’s like the inverse of being an accountant whose hobby is coke-fueled orgies. Ever listen to a player talk about his game day routine? Take out the hockey-playing parts and it’s not that different from the average day of a heavily medicated, institutionalized psychiatric patient. Wake up, [deleted: go to the morning skate, come home], have ritually formulaic snack, go for a walk maybe, take a nap, wake up, have ritually formulaic early dinner, watch some TV, [deleted: go play hockey, thwack people, score goals, be awesome].
Think about the houses, those occasional features where so-and-so invites the cameras into his palatial estate to show it off. All the teams do them, but sometimes they make the general hockey media, especially in the playoffs when the whole hockey world is interested in a rapidly contracting number of players. And while sometimes you get a guy with a ritzy condo downtown and sometimes you get a family dude with a mass of children who all seem to be the exact same age playing on stained beige carpeting, mostly you get a blondish muscleyish dude guiding you through an enormous building that he appears never to have been in before. It’s always a really nice enormous building, clearly there have been decorators in, but it’s like getting a tour of a model home from an extremely disinterested trainee realtor. “So, uh, here’s the kitchen? It has, um, granite counter tops? And there’s the living room? Yeah, it’s a great couch. Here’s the TV?” Cue fast camera pans, wacky angles, enthusiastic host desperately trying to get Hockey Player to express some enthusiasm for one of these enormous, tasteful, empty rooms. Sometimes they get it, usually for the room with the video games in it.
Because that’s what hockey players do in their houses, apparently. They sleep, and play video games, and eat chicken and pasta, and then they get on an airplane and go to a hotel, where they sleep, and watch CSI, and eat chicken and pasta, and then they get on another airplane and go to another hotel, where they sleep, and watch CSI Miami, and eat chicken and pasta, and then they go home and do the whole thing over again. The whole unsettled life is a desperate attempt to keep up these dull routines in an endless succession of generic non-places, in airports and on airplanes, in hotels and hotel restaurants, in the private hotel that is, technically, his house, where he may not even live once the season is over.
The routine is necessary. Getting to the NHL and staying there requires a player to perform at or near his absolute peak physical efficiency, always, but peak physical efficiency requires consistent inputs, not just regular, predictable, optimal fueling but regular, predictable, optimal sleep and regular, predictable, optimal exercise. Over a seven to nine month season, full of constant travel, injuries great and small, bouts of illness, exhaustion, stress, and anxiety, it takes every ounce of boringness a man can muster off the ice to preserve physical and mental stability on it. Media training is often blamed for transforming hockey players into bland characters, but the lifestyle probably has a lot to do with it. So much of the life is waiting and preparation, followed by rest and recovery that segues seamlessly into more waiting.
Certainly there are some players who do interesting things. Ryan Miller, if I remember correctly, is into photography. Henrik Lundqvist is into wearing clothes. Ryan Smyth is rumored to be quite the expert in Catalan poetry**. But beyond the few guys who have a band or a really cool dog or are Paul Bissonette, how much evidence do you ever see that hockey players do anything especially interesting off the ice? To imply that they live anything even remotely resembling a superstar lifestyle?
We might suspect that there is some epic partying, I guess. Surely there is partying, because periodically the photos get out and everyone acts briefly scandalized, which is hard, because they’re not scandalous. Ooooohhhh, someone went out to a club! And had some drinks! And posed with some women! Just like… oh, about half the male population under thirty, every weekend. Do hockey players party? Sure, some of them. Do they party in any way more epically than lots of other dudes who like to party? I doubt it. Our hypothetical orgiastic accountant, who, not having to maintain a rippling musculature, not having to follow a minutely ritualized routine four days a week, and not having an old guy in a suit checking to make sure they’re in bed by ten, can party way harder than most guys in the NHL possibly could. And anyway, millionaire or no, celebrity or no, there’s only so drunk a human being can get, and trust me, it ain’t any better for Mike Richards than it is for you.
Let’s be honest: we assume hockey player lives are amazing because we assume that they get to stick their penises into lots of people. Now, I don’t doubt that putting one’s penis into lots of people is pretty fun. I am told by people with penises that putting them in other people is pretty much the best thing you can do with penises. But the fact is that, no matter how awesome it is, there is only a tiny fraction of one’s life that can be spent with your penis inside other people, given that one has to wear clothes for so much of the time and play hockey besides. And nowadays, the work of being a professional hockey player means spending a whole ton of that non-penis-insertion time doing really, really boring things.
Maybe, once upon a time, in the forgiving anonymity of the big American cities, it was possible to play hockey and live like a rock star 24/7, but it looks very much like most of that is gone now, gone with the intermission cigarettes and the huge steak dinners, gone with the WHA and the bench-clearing brawl. It’s an ever more disciplined game that demands ever more disciplined players, and while I don’t doubt that there’s still plenty of drugs and debauchery somewhere beneath the bland surfaces, I do doubt that it is either so much or so exciting as we outsiders might imagine. It has to happen,when it does, in the interstices of the season, those few precious days when there’s no routine to hold, no coach commanding a dry island or checking your key card. The rest of the days, though, must pass in repetition, each much the same as the others, on airplanes and in hotel rooms, eating chicken and pasta and only three kinds of cheese.
* I subsequently learned that, in this case, the role of Hockey Player was being played by Jake Gardiner. Firstly, I would like to apologize to Mr. Gardiner for this whole thing. I am sure that under his bland Jumbotron facade, Mr. Gardiner is a rich, complex, and fascinating human being, as indeed are we all. Secondly, I would like to offer to buy Mr. Gardiner a block of Havarti.
** What? No, not really. God no.