Let me just get something out of the way, right off the bat (to use one of the millions of sports metaphors that are so ubiquitous we don’t even recognize them as metaphors): I’m not much of a sports fan. Actually, not a sports fan at all. There are exactly zero professional teams that I give a rat’s ass about, and three college athletic programs that I feel some sort of kinship with, since I (or my parents on my behalf) paid tuition at those schools, and that gives me a tiny, mostly imaginary stake in their fortunes.
There are a bunch of reasons for my lack of interest, most of which have to do with my never having felt a great connection to a city or geographic region growing up, and even more so with my skepticism that a professional team really represents me as a resident of wherever I live. It’s really difficult for me to maintain interest in a sports contest in which I don’t care who wins and who loses.
There are a lot of sports I like to participate in though; and I do enjoy displays of athleticism and on-field drama as they are depicted in highlight reels and movies about sports.
But that’s not even what I want to talk about. It’s just some background so you might understand that my bemusement with the world of sports comes from a willful ignorance of it.
What I wanted to talk about is a bizarre spectacle I witnessed at a hockey game last weekend.
I was able to attend and maintain interest in this game because it was one of the rare occasions in which I cared about the outcome.
I really, really wanted the orange team to win.
My sister had brought my nephew down here to sunny SoCal from Montana to try out for our local junior hockey team, and the tryout process entailed a hoard of prospective players being divided into teams and playing each other, round-robin style. My nephew was on the team with the orange jerseys.
This also has nothing to do with my point here, but I have to brag about my nephew for a minute: he’s the sweetest kid you would ever want to meet, a solid student who is graduating from high school next week, a hero of epic proportions to my two-year-old girls, and a tremendous athlete. He’s trying out for a few junior league teams in hopes of playing for a while before he goes to college, and possibly attracting the attention of universities that would offer him scholarships.
So my sister and I were watching the game and chatting, mostly about my nephew’s prospects and his performance in this game and the decisions he would have to make depending on how this tryout went; but also about the weirdness of hockey.
Sis pointed out to me that the guys wearing the plexiglass shields that only covered the top half of their faces were already in a junior league, and the kids wearing the full wire “cages” were probably still in high school, where they are required to wear them.
We had talked about face protection quite a bit before, since her main concern about her kid continuing his hockey career is that he’ll get his teeth knocked out. The upshot of it is that guys who play in the juniors can wear full face protection if they choose to, but no one does because it would be seen as less than tough. Stupid, but not surprising.
There are a lot of instances in which proving your mettle is considered crucial in hockey, another one of which I would witness forthwith.
Toward the end of the second period (these games consisted of two long periods), with my beloved orange-shirt team trailing by four goals and play stopped because of an “icing” call, the rink started rumbling with the sound of sticks being pounded against the boards.
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” my sister replied, with a this-can’t-be-good tone in her voice.
The rumbling continued, and the people in the stands, parents by and large, repeated the exchange my sister and I had just had.
Then the hubbub in the stands turned to sighs, a few gasps, some Oh. My. Gods, and a couple of No ways.
The two opposing goalies had dropped their gloves and helmets and skated to the center of the ice, where they proceeded to pummel each others faces for about thirty seconds in what could have been a parody of a doubles figure skating routine.
The official allowed the fight to run its course until the goalies fell to the ice; after which they got up, bro-hugged, and skated to the penalty box.
In the stands, we discussed the whys and wherefores of the fight, and the concensus was that it was completely manufactured in order to impress the owner, coach, and fellow players.
“But the coach and owner wouldn’t be impressed with fighting,” one spectator said.
“In this league they would,” said one of the hockey dads with a grin. Which was exactly the wrong thing to say with my sister nearby.
“See,” my sister said to me. “You guys think I’m over-protective, but just look what they do to each other.”
It’s true. I had chuckled at her obsession with her son’s teeth, just as my nephew and his father had.
“Just imagine,” she continued, “that your little girls were out on the ice with that kind of crap going on. Then you would know how I feel.”
But I didn’t even have to imagine it. My stomach was in knots just from watching kids I didn’t even know go out and try to beat the shit out of each other out just for the amusement of a few spectators.
I’ve been to pro hockey games before, and have gotten caught up in the (usually drunken) cheering along with the rest of the crowd when fights broke out. I’ve even been in the middle of brawls that started over something much more stupid than sports politics.
But this was just a couple of kids with no possible beefs with each other, having spent the entire game as far apart as you could get in a hockey rink, skating with very little enthusiasm onto center stage to perform an act of ritual violence.
There were all of forty or so people watching the game, most of whom were parents of the players. The relative quiet in the stands made the act seem that much more ludicrous and tawdry, like strippers performing at an underattended bachelor party where there’s no beer and the groom’s parents are there.
When the game was over, the players eventually filed out and found their friends and families. The goalie from the orange team was greeted with great approval from the grown ups in the stands, who checked out the lumps on his head and patted him on the back. It turns out he’s a sixteen-year-old high school student who is well-known and loved by the denizens of the ice rink. And who knows, maybe that bit of bravado will win him a spot on the team, despite his letting no less than ten goals get into his net, and losing the game for my team.
Once again, this is immaterial to my point (i.e. hockey is weird), but my nephew was offered a contract on the spot after the last game, so you may soon be witness to my transformation from an effete, pseudo-intellectual crank into a bloodthirsty hockey uncle.