Los Angeles Kings v Edmonton Oilers


The second you saw the celebration, you knew there was going to be criticism.  Partly because it was Yakupov, and somehow everything Yakupov does seems to draw criticism, as if the hockey world is still slightly offended by his youth and charm. But mostly because it was obviously, unrepentantly, intensely dramatic, and there is a contingent in hockey thought which  finds dramatic expressions of anything vaguely unwholesome, if not actively immoral.  Players get criticized for jumping into the glass.  Yakupov himself will later be criticized by an opposing color commentator for, of all things, a post-goal hug.  There’s no way you bolt half the length of the ice and spin several full rotations your knees while screaming so loud they can see your tonsils in Wichita without drawing some glowering condemnation.

But although there was certainly some disapproval, most of the reactions were moderate. Television networks did “teach the controversy” pieces without much controversy behind them and most analysts, while still expressing a token disapproval, excused the behavior.  It seems that the vocal condemnation of goal celebrations is now the province of a small and mostly elderly minority.  Like flowered suits, yelling, and controversial opinions, it’ll probably die with Don Cherry.  Even where players or reporters had some mild criticism of Yakupov, it was overwhelmingly gentle, even a little bit patronizing, framed with references to his youth, his exuberance, his fresh arrival in the NHL.  Hockey has an old custom of hammering the joy out of young players until they affect the world-weary, lunchbucket demeanor of an indifferent midrange ten-year veteran, but it seems like that culture is fading off.  In the 21st century, no one wants to play old before their time.

But why is it that after years of expecting stoic boredom from its scorers, hockey is finally softening to goal celebrations?  What makes this practice, which was once so strict that arms in the air and little hops were considered unseemly, suddenly so tolerant of rink-length dashes, and spins, and even the occasional pantomime?

Certainly nothing of the old argument against it has ceased to apply.  Consider, if you will, the Cherry Counterpoint: celebrations are offensive to the opposing team, and humiliating one’s opponents is both bad form in itself and strategically inadvisable.  Or, in the classical formulation: Don’t do that kids; it makes you look like a dick and just gives ‘em more motivation.

There are a lot of problems with that logic, but the biggest one is the question of why any team or player should be so very concerned with the feelings of the other bench. Opponents are opponents.  They are, by definition, already against you.  Everything you do that is good or successful by your standards will be offensive or humiliating to them.  Are you going to pull up from a big hit because it might make the other dude decide to try to hit you back harder? Are you going to not undress that defenseman because it would be so embarrassing for him?  If you’re so concerned about what might make another team feel bad, then maybe stop coming into their building in white jerseys and trying to put pucks in their net, because, you know, that really is painful for them.  Remember, kids, winning hockey games just makes the other guys that much more determined to beat you.  If we applied the Cherry Counterpoint to all of hockey, the only permitted things would the the neutral zone trap and flukey goals off clearing passes.

But despite it’s irrationality, there’s nothing time-sensitive about this argument.  It’s as not true today as it was not true forty years ago.  Opposing players’ feelings and motivations have not appreciably changed in the past 20 years; there’s no reason that something which was humiliating in the 70s would not be humiliating now.

What has changed (or is in the process of changing) is hockey’s relationship with theatricality.  The old ethos smells like ratty barns and 50 cent coffee, a relic from a time when the even the big stages were small and few. For careers spent playing to old folks in Peoria and schoolchildren in Peterborough, the idea of making your stick into a pretend sniper rifle or campfire seems pretentious.  Who you think you are, anyway?  Some kind of big shot?  No-celebrations is a humble kind of custom from the humble origins of the game.

But hockey isn’t humble anymore.  Maybe it remembers its humility, maybe it preserves that spirit as an ideal, but every celebrity eventually learns that you can’t stay true to your roots while living in a multimillion dollar mansion on the beach.  The Bettman NHL is bigger and flashier than anything hockey has ever done or been before, and with that scale comes a new sense of spectacle.  With arenas seating thousands and television audiences in the millions, hockey has inevitably become more than just a physical competition. It’s also a kind of improv theater, with the scenes set by the advancing score.  Act 1: Early struggles!  Act 2:  Fighting to get back in it!  Stay tuned for Act 3:  Will they or won’t they?  Players aren’t just playing hockey for us, they’re acting out shifting, situational roles in a season-long television serial.  They’re superwealthy, superfamous, supertalented people creating a fantasmagoric display of brutal, beautiful physicality in front of a swooning throng.  That is the reality.  The humble, aww-shucks-I-dunno-how-that-went-in thing- that’s a more inauthentic act than any celebration ever was.

So much of the emotion we see in a game is partially a performance. When two guys drop the gloves early in the first, they might truly want to motivate their teammates, but they’re also drinking in the improbably early rain of cheers from the crowd.  When a player takes a penalty and immediately raises his arms in the air in a posture of innocent disbelief, he’s half appealing to the refs and half to the hundred thousand eyes immediately trying to judge if he did wrong. Shootout moves are intentionally selected for maximum flair. “Setting the tone” with rough play, or pestery, or speed is about getting yourselves into the game, sure, but it’s also about getting the audience into the game, finding the energy or the sense of momentum you want in that building on that night. And we shall not even speak of diving.

Everything on the ice is a little more effusive than it was before.  The expressions are fiercer, the gestures broader, the style more emphatic.  Consciously or not, everyone is selling the game a little bit more than they did when Cherry was young.  And, traditional or not, that’s as it should be.

Back in those old barns, “flashy” might have been inappropriate, but NHL hockey isn’t played in those barns.  It’s played in the biggest arenas in the biggest cities on the continent.  And the heart of all that- all that scale, all that money, all that drama- isn’t the forty-some guys on the ice.  It’s the millions people watching who will never skate on such a stage and never score such a goal. For us in the cheap seats and at home, the entire value of the experience is the rushes of vicarious emotion thrown out unexpectedly by this unscripted three-act play.  We watch because we want to share those feelings of tension and release, anxiety and excitement, desire and frustration.  Theatricality, perfomance, flashiness- however you define it, that extra bit of sauce that players throw on their game is an acknowledgment of the fans.  It’s them coming out of their precious zone of Zen-like focus for a moment to revel what is obviously the best part of performing in the Show:  having your happiness multiplied a thousand times and draped back over you like a vast fuzzy blanket of cathartic love. It’s the only way for one guy to share his inner state, instantly, with countless strangers.

“Act like you’ve been there before,” they say, when they think a celebration has gone too far.  Really? Is that what we want, as fans, as spectators, as people paying in money and time to derive vicarious pleasure from the triumphs of others?  We want to see dudes pretending to be so bored by scoring a goal in the motherf**king National Hockey League that all they can manage is a lil’ fist bump?  NO.  We spend our lives sitting in cubicles fantasizing about what it would be like to score a goal in the NHL.  We imagine the move, and the shock, and the horn, and the roar of the crowd, and the celebration.  F**k you, if you’re so jaded that you can go through such an experience and yawn on the other side.  I’d rather see an over-the-top performance of joy sliding down the ice on its knees than a totally artificial performance of ennui skating dully to the bench.  Please, hockey players, don’t act like you’ve been there before.  Act like you’ve never been there once and may never be there again.  Because I never will be, but I still want to know how good it feels.