Ellen Etchingham

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2013 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five

I’m not a Blackhawks fan.

People often assume I am. Sometimes I talk about hockey and they catch the accent, and, when I confirm my Chicagoan heritage, they congratulate me- the Haws are terrific; you’re so lucky. It’s a reasonable assumption: lady from Chicago, hockey enthusiast, how could she not be on that glorious bandwagon? But no, I’ve never been into the Hawks. My mom is, now, my dad and a few of my further relations. Me, though, it was Montreal where I was born again in hockey, and I (tragically, self-flagellatingly) bleed bleu-blanc-rouge. Sorry, man, just another Habs fan, nothing to see here. I’m sure my face falls as the unspoken revelation passes between us- if only I had gotten into hockey the natural way, in the place where I was born, I would have a Stanley Cup in my recent past. Two, now.

I try not to look disappointed, but I can’t hide it entirely. I should have been a Hawks fan. But I’m not, because when I lived in Chicago, the Hawks didn’t exist.

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Florida Panthers
On June 4th, in what has to be one of the most safety-conscious competition committee meetings in its history, the NHL decided to begin experimenting with hybrid icing. The move was long overdue. Touch icing is probably one of the most broadly unpopular features of the NHL brand of hockey. Nobody likes it. I’m pretty sure there are more supporters of the instigator and the puck-over-glass penalty than there are of touch icing. Unlike most safety issues, it wasn’t only tender-hearted New-Age fans who hated watching players race at full speed into the back boards just to end the play. One of the greatest opponents of the practice was Don Cherry, representing a whole faction of old-school, traditionalist, good hard hockey fans who were similarly appalled by this dangerous practice.

This is odd, because Cherry and his ilk are definitely not against hockey players getting hurt. We are speaking of a man who opposed visors for years and holds up Scott Stevens as a model body-checker. He’s all for hockey players getting hurt in all kinds of ways, including many that normal human beings would consider stupid and unnecessary. He’ll advocate for guys getting punched in the face for saying something mean, yet when it comes to touching the puck for an icing call, that’s too much. That’s the one thing in hockey that’s not worth the injuries it causes.

Why? What makes touch icing an unacceptable cause of harm, in a game with thousands of acceptable and even beloved causes of harm? It’s not how bad or frequent the injuries are. Although the potential is certainly there, there’s never been an epidemic of careers ended by touch icing. If the concern was purely player safety, we’d be revamping bodychecking standards rather than experimenting with hybrid icing.

This is another place where we see aesthetics at work in hockey’s attitude towards violence. The difference between touch icing injuries and other sorts isn’t the harm itself, it’s the storyline that goes with them. The Don Cherrys of the world don’t just want pain, they want aesthetically satisfying pain. They want pain that means something. Touch icing is an overwhelmingly anticlimactic phenomenon. It’s players running a great risk in pursuit of a completely deflating whistle, and even on the rare occasions it’s beaten, there’s seldom much dramatic payoff. Icings are boring, period, and adding a footrace element doesn’t make them any less so. It’s not the danger itself that turns people off. It’s the dullness.

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Sidney Crosby's face, telling you everything you need to know about the emotional experience of playing Boston.

Sidney Crosby’s face, telling you everything you need to know about the emotional experience of playing Boston.

The Boston Bruins are the toughest team in the NHL.

The above statement is both true and untrue. It would be difficult to prove it by any objective measure. In the era of their dominance, they’ve never led the League in any of the standard metrics of thuggery. They don’t have the most fights, the most hits, or the most penalty minutes. They’re not the biggest team or the dirtiest. Although they appear with some regularity in the Annals of Controversial Incidents, they’re not even close to cornering the market on terrifying plays. If a skeptical alien came down to Earth today and asked us to demonstrate, with clear logic and pure evidence, that the Bruins are tougher than everyone else, we would disappoint it badly.

And yet, somehow, this is something we all know. Not because we have data or proof, but because we’ve seen the games, and in seeing the games, we see something in Boston- not constantly, but consistently- that speaks to us of violence. Sometimes it whispers, other times it screams, but it’s always there. It’s in Chara’s mad eyes, in Lucic’s f*&k-you snarl, in Marchand’s shameless dirtiness, in Thornton’s old-school pugnacity. Even their players who don’t especially represent any kind of danger or aggression it in their own game carry these traces, as if it’s rubbed off on them like dandelion pollen. They have the swagger of men who won’t back away from a fight, and are apt to start one for no good reason.

Last night, a friend who’s hockey fanaticism is so casual it barely even counts as attention- I dunno, the Bruins just seem like dicks. I don’t like that guy, I don’t like the way he plays, I don’t like his face. You know the one. This morning, a headline in my inbox- The Chara Factor looms over Final. When we speak of the Bruins, we speak of them in the language appropriate to school bullies and the Red Menace, without even realizing that we’re doing so. Their toughness has become a social fact without ever being an actual one. We don’t know it for any specific reason, we just know. It is known.

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The author, learning hockey with people who are smaller than the cones they skate around.

The author, nearly thirty, learning hockey with people who are the same size as the cones they skate around.

Sunday Morning

I am only three strides gone when I lose the puck. I don’t know how it happens. One moment, I have it, and the next it is in my skates and then gone. I look back and the thing seems a hundred feet behind, the mocking eye of the ice. I turn back to retrieve it, determined to exert my dominance once and for all over this piece of recalcitrant rubber, and I botch the crossover and fall sideways onto the ice. It is at that point that Sean passes me, deftly skating around my splayed body, puck firmly on stick.

Sean is seven years old. I am 28. On the sidelines, his mom snaps a picture.

I never intended to learn to play hockey. A serious fan of the game and sometimes-serious writer about it, I wanted to play. I wanted to play so badly it would literally hurt, a twitching kind of spasm in my arm muscles when I’d pass an outdoor rink on a sunny, frigid Montreal afternoon. Someday, I’d tell my friends with a convincing semblance of sincerity, I’ll take lessons. Someday, when I finish my degree. When I have more money. When I live closer to a rink. Someday, really. But it was a lie. The truth was, at the time I discovered hockey, I was 24 years old and rocking a 12-year-run of total inathleticism. Hockey is something to be learned in infancy. If you’re not a Timbit, you’re never going to be any good. I wasn’t about to invest a lot of time and money in something I knew I could never do well.

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Taarof and Daniel Alfredsson

Daniel Alfredsson, practicing his "leader" face.

Daniel Alfredsson, practicing his “leader” face.

Postgame scrums are supposed to be boring. No one admits this, of course, because admitting the inanity of the custom would undermine the justification for its persistence, and without its persistence a great many column inches would have to be filled by something else, and no one is quite sure what that would be. So it goes on, game in game out, every extraordinary performance followed up with the same ordinary questions and the same ordinary answers. Players felt good or squeezed their sticks, pucks were got in deep or should have been, small things were done right or need to be worked on: such is the account of every game, as spoken in Scrumese.

After game four between the Senators and Penguins, which Ottawa lost disastrously to put themselves down 3-1, a reporter asked Daniel Alfredsson whether he thought his team would be able to come back to win the series. He asked the question, as all reporters in scrums do, already knowing the answer. In hockey, the correct answer to “Are you, team who is in a bad situation, going to get yourself out of this bad situation and move on to glorious victory?” is “We know we’re good enough to beat them, we just have to take it one night at a time, focus on doing the little things right, and play our game.” It’s a perfectly proper hockey sentiment: confident without being hubristic, with exactly the right sheen of blue-collar lunch-bucket determination. There is absolutely no way to go wrong with that answer. Which is why it was so shocking that Alfredsson chose to pass it up- it was sitting right there, right in front of him, a perfect little piece of traditional home-cooked hockey cliche that everyone would happily eat up- in favor of an entirely unexpected response: “Probably not.”

Alfredsson went on to say more, standard and appropriate things about playing hard and never giving up, context that (as he later complained) was largely ignored, for that “probably not” proved very difficult for people to swallow. It stuck in our throats and stayed there, an exotic morsel that even his supporters couldn’t quite believe they’d been served. Some were offended, some weren’t, but few let the comment pass unnoticed as the great majority of post-game cliches do. These two words alone spawned thousands more, as dozens of commentators and hundreds of fans defended, debated, or condemned Alfredsson’s choice to speak them. They were that controversial.

Unlike most controversial assertions, though, Alfredsson’s “probably not” was not only true, but common knowledge. Literally every single person who heard that statement not only already knew it, but also already agreed with it. If you were God and you decided to spend your time counting all the thoughts thought by people who watched that game, “The Sens probably aren’t going to come back from this” would have been far and away the most popular. Recovering from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series is extremely improbable; everyone knows this. Even people who know nothing about hockey know this. I could ask a ten-year-old Indonesian girl who’s never seen ice outside of a drink if she thinks anyone down 3-1 in any best-of-seven competition is going to win, and she would say “probably not”. It’s not even a hockey thing; it’s just a life thing. It’s a math thing.

We wanted Alfredsson to lie to us. More accurately, we expected him to lie to us, and when he didn’t, some of us were actually pissed off that he didn’t lie to us. People actually wrote outraged blog posts and comments excoriating the man for not telling a blatant, transparent, obvious lie.

Which isn’t surprising. Most of hockey speech is lies.

Or more accurately, most hockey speech is taarof.

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How You Play the Game

PK Subban, behaving awesomely/inappropriately/interestingly, and therefore winning hockey.

PK Subban, behaving awesomely/inappropriately/interestingly, and therefore winning hockey.

Why, exactly, is it a problem for hockey to be unfair? Okay, sure, maybe it has some depressing existential implications concerning the potential for fairness in other parts of life. And maybe it’s a troubling experience when that unfairness hits your team. But there are plenty of games- not sports so much, but the sorts of games we play on boards or at tables in Vegas- wherein the outcomes are dictated in part or in whole by randomness. Even knowing that, we still enjoy them. We still choose to play. Why can’t we think of hockey in the same mold, as a long succession of weighted dice, rolled by a trickster god? Is it possible to say, yeah, sure, it’s unfair, so what?

Yes, it is, but in doing so one calls into question many, if not all, of the conventional narratives of the sport. Admitting that a large part of the game is not determined by any particular skill, action, or intention on the part of any team or individual means decoupling results from both talent and choices. This is troubling because sports narratives are almost universally meritocratic in tone, with winning postulated as the highest value. If you admit that any and all actions, no matter what their inherent value, can easily and frequently be swamped by chance, it starts to undermine the functionality of free will.

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Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven

A thousand monkeys poking at a thousand typewriters might, given enough time, compose the complete works of Shakespeare, but not even such a diligent menagerie could ever script a crueler heartbreak than the one which befell the Toronto Maple Leafs this past Monday night. It was not exactly a tragedy and not exactly a comedy, but more of a vicious joke, as black as humor ever gets. The set-up: seven seasons outside the playoffs, an unexpected run of luck, a shocking comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, a 4-1 lead in the third period of game seven, a scrappy underdog team poised to do the unthinkable and make the second round over the bent backs of a feared League power. It was the beginning of a great, classic sports tale of the sort that could win over even the hardest haters. It was the opening to the story that might have made the Leafs, once more and against all odds, Canada’s team. The punch line: three Bruins goals in the last ten minutes, two of them at 6-on-5 in the final heated two, topped off with the overtime winner.

Such a comeback is virtually unheard of in hockey, which despite the speed of its pucks and players tends to be a low-scoring, defensive sport. A three-goal lead with ten minutes remaining is as close to insurmountable as a lead gets; according to one analyst’s calculations, one might expect to see a team in such a position lose a game seven once every 159 years- which makes sense, since it’s never happened even once before in the entire near-hundred years of the NHL.  The Bruins victory, then, is not merely unexpected. It is the realization of something so improbable that it would have been considered functionally impossible, like the sun coming up in the West* or the seas turning yellow. It was like being kicked in the nuts by a unicorn.

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