I don't have any good pictures of my own rec hockey, so here's one of hockey in Taipei.

Hockey bloggers have different attitudes towards comment threads. Some never read them at all, some track them obsessively. Some think of them as opportunities to get in touch with their audience, others see them as troll-ridden sewers. However, it would probably be fair to say that most people who write about hockey on the internet are not especially influenced by the comments they get. Which is a shame, because sometimes the comments are asking exactly the right question.

On my previous post, where I lamented the lack of prestige and resources available for women’s hockey, the commenters challenged me in the best possible way. Why, many of them asked, does the status, or lack of status, at the highest levels matter so much? Most of us will never get to that point; most of us never expect to get there. We don’t play for fame and fortune, we play for the love of the game. So why should it matter that girls don’t have the same wild fantasies to dream on that the boys do? You shouldn’t be playing for wild fantasies anyway. You should play for the more prosaic charms of the rec league: fun, fellowship, community. The rest is dust and air.

It’s a great point. There is no necessary correlation between what can be achieved at the elite level and the whys and hows of play at the ordinary level. Beer league hockey doesn’t exist for the same reasons pro hockey does, and therefore there is no reason that  beer league players should care about the weird customs and biases of the NHL game. The inherent sexism of peak hockey- like other non-inherent but still controversial practices like finishing checks, fighting, or playing through pain- shouldn’t mean sweet fuck all for the hockey most of us make.  The NHL should be irrelevant

And yet, somehow, it isn’t. Rightly or no, the NHL echoes down the tiers of the sport. On this continent, it exerts a powerful influence over the definition of hockey that no other group or institution can match- not any other league, not even any national association.

The NHL defines the rules. Lower level hockey may not adopt everything the NHL does- we don’t all embrace the trapezoid, for example- but for the most part, the reason you play according to the rules you do is because once upon a time the NHL decided it would be so. If you’ve never played a game with a rover, that’s because the NHL decided to eliminate rovers. If you don’t take no notice of the red line when passing through the neutral zone, it’s because the NHL said you don’t have to. Rec leagues defy the NHL, sometimes, by playing on non-standard ice surfaces and penalizing certain types of aggression more firmly, but for the most part the rules of Shanahan are the rules for everyone, or will be after a few years.

The NHL defines the customs, including customs of violence (how much contact is acceptable and what wrongs constitute grounds for glove-dropping and what kind of hits are “clean”) and the etiquette of play (how long shifts should be, or when you should pass or not, or how you should surrender your ice time to better players at key moments). In hockey played by people with day jobs and no possible gain other than their own fulfilment, there is every reason to follow less violent, more egalitarian ethics, and yet we constantly struggle to do so.  Even when rec leagues try to keep out fighting and that disturbing level of ANYTHING TO WIN competitiveness, it always seems to seep back in. There are players who will play their beer league like the NHL and make no apologies for it, because “that’s hockey”. But there is also a whole class of players who never intend to emulate the NHL- who, in their more rational moments will admit it’s silly to do so- who nevertheless start acting like Raffi Torres when the clock is counting down.

But most of the NHL’s power over us is more subtle. It’s not literal. We’re not going around thinking, I should play like the NHL ’cause maybe there’s scouts watching, maybe I can still make it big. Rather, it happens on the level of metaphors, allusions, and dreams. For most of us, the NHL provided all of our heroes and all of our models. We wear their colors and choose their numbers. When we make a great play, we find ourselves reflexively thinking of what old pro made similar moves. When we compliment each other, we say: Gretzky, Orr. Many of us grew up admiring their toughness and tenacity and we want to enact those characteristics when we play, even in their ugly, unprofitable incarnations: cruelty, obsessiveness, self-abnegation.

Is the influence of NHL culture a problem? Not always. But sometimes.

It can be a problem for people who are excluded from participating it. Gifted women and girls are stuck with less sophisticated development programs and fewer opportunities to profit from their talents than their male counterparts. Because NHL machismo defines so much of hockey, talented men who make the commitment to the sport but don’t make The Show have many more opportunities to parlay their investment of time and money into some kind of hockey-related career.  There may only be few thousand men playing professionally in the world, but those men (and the boys they were) are served by ranks of coaches, trainers, managers, scouts who are also overwhelmingly male. Women, of course, can get some work doing those jobs in the women’s game, but because that game is so much smaller and so much less funded, the work is seldom decently paid and often not paid at all. Even in media, having played on the NHL track opens doors for men that remain firmly shut to female voices.

It can also be a problem for the subsection of men and boys who lack the temperament, inclination, or cultural background to act out NHL ethics. There is a lot of attrition from male hockey in the teenage years, round about when hitting is introduced and the average level of humorlessness rises.  At that critical stage when the serious game wants to reach the largest number of potential stars, there’s an intense tension between the families who are in it to win and the families who are in it for fun, and it seems that often the latter give up the game rather than fighting for their version of it.  There are a lot of guys who would love the beer leagues available to adults, if only they hadn’t quit hockey at 13.

But the NHLification of popular hockey is also a problem for people who do participate in it, because it teaches dispositions, values, and behaviors all out of proportion to what rec hockey actually is and actually means. The core values of pro hockey are winning and making money, and in pursuit of winning and making money professional players have to cultivate a stoic, serious, and intermittently vicious temperament. In contrast, the core values of rec hockey are fun and community, and those are best served by a laid-back, forgiving, and even generous attitude towards the game. People who played to long on the NHL track, or in the delusion that they were on the NHL track, or in the fantasy that all hockey is just the NHL writ small often make shitty rec league teammates. Those character traits that, combined with freakish skill, would make you great? Without freakish skill, they just make you an asshole.

As the sport gets more expensive and the NHL ethic more antiquated, the presumption that professional customs apply universally becomes destructive to hockey. Participation rates in minor hockey are dropping, and it isn’t tough to guess why. Consider the sales pitch: “Hey, parents! Why not spend thousands of dollars putting your kids in a sport that teaches values like fighting, hitting people who aren’t looking at you, and playing through concussions? It will build character, of the sort that hasn’t been especially relevant in daily life since 1957!” Now, sure, you and me know that there’s a lot more to hockey than that. We know that the game is more than the sum of its worst traits. But the worst traits get all the press, and the NHL- capitalizing as it does on blood and melodrama- is perfectly happy with that. The NHL hockey culture alienates a lot of people who might well love other hockey cultures; the goofy camaraderie of the best men’s league teams, the chill patience of the most open women’s shinny groups.

Hockey people often advocate for top-down change: fix a problem in the NHL, and the lower levels will fix it in imitation. This is part of the argument for why the NHL should ban fighting and why it should institute tougher concussion protocols and stricter suspensions: because if they do it, then the AHL will do it, then the OHL will do it, and on down through the ranks. Because NHL customs echo through all the levels, some argue that the only way for change do the same is to make the NHL do it first.

With all due respect, fuck that. Trying to change the NHL is like trying to train hippo on ketamine: it’s tough to make it do anything, and when it does something it’s hardly ever the thing you wanted and doesn’t work anyway. And anyway, the NHL doesn’t need to change. There is a lot of awesomeness in the stoic, tough, vicious ethics of the NHL; it’s a beautiful old code that should survive within the tiny bubble where it still makes sense. The NHL can keep it’s ethics. Lower level hockey just needs to divest itself from them.

We already do it, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, but we do it in weird ways, within the private, closed culture of a particular league or a particular hour of ice time. You wouldn’t recognize hardly any aspects of NHL culture in my women’s shinny group, but the women who play in the skills class one Zamboni-run later would never know that unless they got in. As masa2009 said in the comments on the last post, hockey is a sport with many more watchers than players. The culture of watchers is the culture of the NHL, perpetuated by hundreds of experts on dozens of different media platforms, broadcast out to millions of waiting eyes. In contrast, the culture of playing is microscopically fragmented along lines of skill, class, region, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, vocation, and every other axis of identity people use to form their teams and leagues. The good thing about this is that, no matter who you are and what you’re into, somewhere out there is the perfect hockey team for you. The bad part is that it may be a thousand miles away and you’ll never hear a thing about it.

There is no great conversation happening about the importance of distinguishing hockey from the NHL Hockey, about what authentic hockey would look like when the values of fun and community are put ahead of winning, about how hockey can serve the ordinary needs of ordinary people in ordinary communities. There are hundreds of little conversations, conversations of three or four around round tables at local pubs, but no big conversation of the sort that takes place surrounding the NHL, and we should have one. These days, hockey could use a little evangelism that’s targeted toward making players rather than customers. For the health of the sport, it would be a great thing if more people saw the value in lacing up their own skates rather than sitting on their asses watching other people do so.

There’s a need for that conversation, and there’s a market for it, too. For a mainstream hockey blog, Backhand Shelf hosts a lot of ordinary-person hockey content. I write personal narratives occasionally, and Bourne does frequent posts on the strategy and etiquette appropriate to beer leagues. These posts may not draw the most traffic- certainly not as much as the ones that feature cat pictures and .gifs- but they often draw the best discussions. The longest, most detailed, and most civil comment threads you will find on this site are the ones where people get caught up comparing their own hockey experiences. Tell me that no one wants to read or talk about the ECHL, and I’ll admit that you might be right. But if you think no one wants to read or talk about their own level of hockey, well… just try asking an ordinary hockey player about their last game and see what happens.

And yet we don’t push that discussion. When we’re making an argument for why hockey should be this way or that way, we reach for our fan cards (“I’ve been a Bruins fan since 1977…”) rather than our player cards (“I’ve been playing since 1977…”). We act as if legitimate authority to speak to question of hockey drives primarily from time spent watching. Why? For the same reason that women’s hockey has been doomed to be such an isolated, under-appreciated bubble for so long, because we follow the greatest NHL principle of all: deference to authority. The best players get to decide how hockey should be played, and the rest of us all should strive to emulate them as far as we can and shut the hell up after that.

Here’s an idea: you should not defer to the way professional players play hockey unless you are a professional player or within two breaths of becoming one. NHL players- or at least the code-abiding Good Canadian Boy variety- are shitty role models for regular players. Sure, as private citizens, many of them are probably super-cool guys with all kinds of lovely personal characteristics, but we don’t see the personal side and therefore we don’t emulate it. All we see is the image, and it’s kind of a bullshit image. Who wants to share the ice with that narrow-eyed seriousness, all that combative righteousness, that conditioned indifference to pain? Not anyone who’s in it for the fun.

It’d be dangerous, for sure, a beer league-driven redefinition of hockey ethics. If the whole mass of people who play hockey talked about the hockey they play all the time as the greatest good, the NHL would stand out more as the freakish bubble it is. We, paradoxically, might threaten its culture a little. Certainly it would test everyone’s ability to compartmentalize hockey, to tolerate, and maybe even love, contradictory versions of the game based on utterly incompatible values. In the long run, it might be a little troublesome for the people who play at the lofty pinnacle of the game. But, well, the beliefs and practices of the tiny peak have been a bit troublesome for the whole broad base for decades. The NHL may be the highest level of hockey, but we are the biggest level of hockey, and we should be more aggressive about making the sport serve our needs rather than theirs.