When I was a child, ice hockey was the bane of my TV watching. It pre-empted everything, for hours. And I didn’t care for it. I knew nothing about it, which made me the worst sort of philistine. There were small parts of Hockey Night In Canada that I enjoyed. The opening theme music–who couldn’t love that? And the occasional announcements in French: the wild, enthusiastic ‘Ockey Night du Canada! with the silent h; and at the end, dripping with anticipation: et maintenant, le Premier Étoile…
My brother, carrier of a Y chromosome, played hockey. My parents got up at 4 AM to take him to practices. Rink time is so precious that true Canadians accept it with gratitude at any hour. My mom never could quite believe that such homage could be paid by parents to a game. But it couldn’t not be done. My brother only played a few years, but he’ll always skate better than any of us.
When I was sixteen I finally tried it for myself. My friends and I pooled our resources and rented rink time at 3 AM for an hour. Even though I had had skating in PE, it was a real challenge to skate holding a stick, even more so to slap the puck with it.
The hockey puck is terrifying. Off the ice, it’s a squat black cylinder that sucks surrounding light into itself. On the ice, it’s a slick, merciless projectile. It cares not how many teeth it knocks loose. I stayed out of its way.
After actually playing hockey I grew a huge respect for the skill of the game. But I was still under the impression that it was about shooting the evil puck into the net.
When I was at UC Berkeley, fellow grad student, a Canadian, invited me to see one of his hockey games. Berkeley was playing Stanford. I never took the Berkeley-Stanford rivalry very seriously. And I assumed that this would be a boring game, a grad-student game. A bunch of civilized, nerdy lightweights flinging the puck around after a hard day of grading midterms and debugging computer simulations. To humor him, I went.
The game began that way, skill and tactics and skating, a couple goals scored by Stanford, a goal by Berkeley. And then I don’t know who started it, but the game got rough. I had to rear back from the plexiglass panel as cheeks smeared into it. My gentle friend, an unlikely NHL draft choice as he barely cleared 5’9″, got a warning for elbowing someone. Keep it together, I thought. You’re a point down. But then he grabbed a blood-red Stanford jersey and mauled its wearer like a Kodiak bear. He was ordered off the ice for a three minute penalty, leaving his team a man down. Berkeley would lose for sure.
You’d think that Stanford would’ve seized the opportunity to build up an irrecoverable lead. They were man up, a point up. But no. Points no longer mattered, rules no longer mattered. Only war mattered. A Stanford player got a penalty.
When my friend returned to the ice, it was as if the cool-off period had heated him to boiling. He was even more violent. It was the same with the Stanford players. They racked up fouls and penalties. I didn’t know who would lose worse, really. I swear I heard the music of Wagner roaring in my ears, and that small disc-shaped valkyrie howling with pleasure. Sticks and gloves were thrown with abandon, hot blood pitted the ice, effeminate bandaids furiously thrust away.
When it was over, and the gloves and pads and fluid-soaked uniforms were stuffed into XXL duffel bags, my friend emerged to go for pizza and beer. Berkeley had won by a point, but no one cared. I had no words for what I had seen. My friend had already transformed back into a mild-mannered grad student.
“Cheers. Quite a game,” I said.
It sort of made sense now. Why slog through the Illiad? Go see a hockey game. There are things best said on blue white ice, with condensed black matter, and the grinding snick-slide of bladed steel.