By Scott Roeben
You've heard about us. Guys without the sports gene, that is. We don't
care to watch, participate in, or buy extraordinarily expensive memorabilia commemorating
the exploits of participants in, sports. No one can explain this lack of interest. It just
happens. A fluke of nature. Like Scott Baio's career.
It was H.L. Mencken who said: "I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense." I know, I had to read that again myself. I can only hope that this serves to make my point clear, because heaven knows it's unlikely that I will.
All that having been said, I went to a hockey game. I did so at the urging of a friend who obviously has the sports gene, and surprisingly, also possesses fallopian tubes. I used to think that these things were mutually exclusive, but no longer. More about that in a minute.
After attending the game, I looked into this hockey thing.
Ice hockey has a long and impressive history. By birth and upbringing it is a Canadian game. Canada is our peaceful, lethargic neighbor to the north. Actually, it is not as far north as once thought. In fact, twenty-seven of our states lie to some degree north of Canada's southernmost part, specifically Middle Island in Lake Erie. It is amazing the amount of information you can retain when you are not being swatted in the head with a hockey stick on a regular basis.
Hockey is an offshoot of field hockey, another sport that is wildly popular in America, many matches of which are attended by enough people to fill up a mid-sized sports sedan. Historians believe that hockey, or something like it, was enjoyed by the Dutch as far back as 1670, because a Dutch painting from that year shows a number of players with sticks batting a small object across the ice. Other historians believe the painting is actually that of a group of Amsterdam residents doped up on hash torturing a field mouse. We can't know for sure, but I am leaning toward the latter. I've been to Amsterdam.
The first record of an organized hockey game dates to 1855. It took place in Kingston, Ontario, with players using bent branches as sticks. The rules of the game were formalized 20 years later at McGill University in Montreal. With the help of modern technology, the rules have been refined to the point that they can be distilled into this simple directive: "Hit puck into net." Not exactly non-Euclidean geometry if you ask me, but then, what do I know? It was my first game.
The game is played with a black vulcanized rubber puck, which is three inches in diameter, one inch thick and weighs 5.5 to 6 ounces. Pucks travel at speeds of up to one hundred miles an hour, but can be brought to an abrupt halt by the face of the average hockey fan, I learned. That same bloodied and delirious fan will then victoriously lift the vulcanized prize over his or her head and wave to the crowd, which for some reason wishes it could have blocked the puck with its collective face. Just one of many interesting things you observe at hockey games.
Actually, you notice a number of things right away when you attend a game. First, there are lots of introductions before the game starts. The owner, the coach, the players. I wouldn't have minded so much had it stopped there, but then they started introducing people like the "Equipment Manager," the "Assistant Equipment Manager" and the "Goaltending Consultant." Who could have known that collecting towels would eventually become so complicated that one would actually need an assistant? And even if this happened, why would you want to advertise to the world that you were incapable of performing this overwhelming task alone? I won't even go into the staggering complexity of being a "Goaltending Consultant," except to say that the job of goaltender basically entails all the training, subtlety and skill required to "get in the way of a projectile." Who do you have to know to get a job like that?
The next thing you notice at a hockey game is that the management team running the concession stands has obviously gotten a lot of its information directly from the management teams of major movie theater chains. One can just imagine the memo that changed hands:
1) The cost of nachos shall be greater than, or equal to, the price of a two-bedroom condominium overlooking the ocean. On second thought, forget the "or equal to" part. What are we, a charitable organization?
2) Our hot dogs are all beef. Signs should read "All Beef," mainly because we are pretty sure that using quotation marks means no one can hold us to it, should we need to include other ingredients, like sawdust, occasionally.
3) The customer is always right. Right in the way of the next customer. Keep things moving, all right?
Another thing you find at hockey games is a great deal of volume.
The volume starts with the National Anthem. It is somewhat ironic that hockey games begin with the National Anthem. The lyrics for "The Star Spangled Banner" were written by Francis Scott Key, but the tune was actually that of a popular drinking song called "Anacrean in Heaven." Anacrean was a Greek poet who was revered for being an exponent of wine, song and revelry. All three of these are present at hockey games, especially the part about beer--which is in the same food group as wine, trust me. By the way, Key's song didn't become the official National Anthem of the United States for 117 years, almost exactly the period of time one spends waiting in the typical doctor's waiting room today.
Alcohol seems to be a major contributor to the volume found at hockey games, and sporting events in general. On the night of my first hockey game, my friend and I were blessed with having two (loud) gentlemen sitting behind us, and they were kind enough to give us a (really loud) running commentary of the (already plenty loud) game.
"Christ, did you see that shot?"
"What kind of shot was that?"
"You call that a shot?"
"Right. That was no shot."
"I could have made a better shot."
"You? My aunt could have made a better shot--and she's got no arms."
Such in-depth analysis is especially useful when imparted at approximately the same decibel level as the engines of a high-altitude reconnaissance plane.
Also contributing to the overall volume level at a hockey game is the non-stop organ music. Sports events seem to be the last vestige of an era that must have loved the organ. Perhaps the decline of the organ was due, at least in part, to the fact that there are only about three songs that can be played on the organ as far as I can tell, and they all demand some type of rhythmic clapping as accompaniment. Stomping is also highly encouraged. You just don't see too much of that kind of behavior in the rest of American life.
From what I can discern, hockey brings about some type of mass hysteria. First, grown adults put on costumes when they attend a hockey game. Lots of jerseys with numbers on them, as well as names that sound as though they have been read from a French phone book. Actually, a French-Canadian phone book.
French-Canadians and the French are similar in many ways, except that you would probably hit your brakes if you were about to run over a French-Canadian.
The hysteria causes people to suddenly enjoy laser shows, people wearing big, stuffed animal heads, the theme from "Green Acres," high-fives and cotton candy. It also makes them say "OOH!" in unison whenever a shot misses the net. Precisely in unison. Every single time. We can only hope that this is not a threat to our national security.
The hysteria also seems to be responsible for making otherwise rational people believe that being made to sit down is considered a penalty. As someone with bad ankles, I cannot imagine sitting down ever being a bad thing. Or maybe that's just me.
Perhaps the biggest surprise during my first hockey game was the makeup of the crowd, genderwise. As I said, my companion was female. And still is, probably, unless she has made an unexpected trip to Norway. I anticipated the vast majority of hockey fans to be snarling, hairy-backed, testosterone-laden men. Instead, I found that a good number of fans at the event were women. They too were wearing jerseys and "hooting" with the best of the men. At first, I thought the appeal of hockey might be that in hockey, periods only last twenty minutes. I suggested this theory to my friend and experienced what can only be described as a "body check."
I should add that the women at this event were not your ordinary women. Many of them were unusually attractive, and attractive in a higher proportion than that of the surrounding city. My research has not revealed any explanation for this paradoxical phenomenon, but my friend assures me that if I continue to use phrases like "paradoxical phenomenon," it is unlikely that I will have a chance in hell with any of the women in question.
The hockey hysteria also causes people to start speaking another language spontaneously, not unlike those in fundamentalist circles who claim to speak in "Tongues." Even if you know nothing about hockey, you begin using terms such as "end-to-end," "penalty killer," "hooking," "line change" and "Zamboni."
"Zamboni"? It sounded vaguely familiar. The Zamboni machine is a mechanical ice surfacer--the size of your average carriage house--invented during the 1940s by a Californian (part of the nation often blanketed in ice) named Frank J. Zamboni. The machine shaves the surface, scoops up loose snow, washes the ice and squeezes out excess water all at one time. Which is nothing close to what I formerly believed a Zamboni was, evidenced by my history of trying to order it at restaurants, usually with a nice pesto sauce.
The biggest surprise to come out of my foray into the world of professional hockey was how utterly polite the players were to each other. You may find that funny, although if I wrote it, the chances of that happening are fairly remote.
It seems that hockey has an unfair reputation. During the game I saw, there were no fights, nor any real altercations between the players. No animosity. No violence. It all appears to be a huge myth. The idea that hockey is an unusually violent sport has never really held water with me, anyway. The evidence is just not there.
Just look at the names of the teams in the National Hockey League, for instance. There are the Penguins, Islanders, Flyers, Maple Leafs, Red Wings, Maroons and Senators. Not especially intimidating are they? In 1907, the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup. The "Thistles"? Oh, and we can't forget the Flames. It's a little hard to imagine such teams striking fear into their opponents' hearts. They seem far more likely to be involved in saving endangered aquatic animals than punching each other repeatedly.
How could hockey have garnered such an egregiously fallacious reputation? Ignorance, of course. The root of all egregiously fallacious reputations. In actuality, hockey isn't anywhere near the top of the list when it comes to dangerous sports. One study showed the top five most dangerous as: football, skiing, baseball, swimming and basketball.
People feel hockey is violent because they are comparing it to the wrong things. You can't compare hockey, with its fast pace and occasional, inadvertent physicality with something like a quilting bee. Compared to other sports--current and historical--hockey is relatively tame. Note the following examples:
Jousting was a good deal more violent than hockey. Jousting, by the way, is the state sport of Maryland. The runner-up for state sport was trying to find Maryland on a map.
Then there is "purring," which still enjoys popularity in Wales. Two opponents stand face-to-face, grasping each other firmly by the shoulders. At the starting signal, they begin kicking each other in the shins with shoes reinforced with metal toeplates. The first man to release his grip on his opponent's shoulders is the loser. Try penalizing those guys by making them sit down.
"Grenade-throwing" is an official sporting event in the People's Republic of China. Attempts at making "Torturing Dissidents" an official event have been less successful.
Football is violent, but it used to be even worse. During the 1905 football season, eighteen men were killed in college games in the United States, and 159 were permanently injured. This number does not even include the innumerable fans permanently disfigured from sitting on those hard benches for hours at a time.
In Brazil, at the Maracaña Stadium, a moat had to be built around the playing field to keep fans from assaulting the players and referees during soccer games. South Americans take their soccer seriously. The only activity that even comes close in popularity is the age-old tradition of stuffing ballot boxes during Presidential elections.
A sport practiced in ancient China consisted of placing two angry male quails in a large bowl and watching as the creatures clawed each other to death. Ah, those inventive Chinese. Not only was this sport entertaining, it was also the precursor to our modern labor-saving devices for the kitchen in that the poultry, in effect, prepared itself for cooking.
The Aztec and Maya Indians played a complicated game not unlike lacrosse. When the game was finished, the captain of the losing team was slaughtered before the onlookers and his body was torn limb from limb, and his heart was distributed among the onlookers to be eaten. Early concession stands listed "All Heart" in quotation marks, by the way.
Speaking of lacrosse, it's the official national game of Canada. Not hockey as you might suspect. Mutilations in modern lacrosse are discouraged, though, unless a guy makes some bonehead mistake and loses the game.
Prize fights prior to the turn of the century were fought bare knuckled, and often lasted up to more than a hundred rounds. This is in sharp contrast to today's fights, where in most cases, if you blink, the convicted rapist has won and is already in the limo, halfway home.
So, what did I learn from attending my first hockey game? Well, first, that my feelings about sports haven't changed. If I want to commit "puckicide," I can do it in the privacy of my own home, without morons barking obscenities in my ears all night.
I also learned that I do not suffer from "cryophobia," the fear of ice, but that many do suffer from "klazomania," compulsive shouting.
I also learned that "hat trick" comes from cricket, where at one time, if a player scored three consecutive wickets, he was awarded a hat. Now, a player is awarded 3.6 million dollars. Inflation, you know.
I also learned that hockey has more than its fair share of trophies. There is the Hart Trophy, for Most Valuable Player; the Venzina Trophy--Most Valuable Goalkeeper; Lady Byng Trophy, for Sportsmanship; the Calder Trophy--for the outstanding Rookie; the Art Ross Trophy--for the leading scorer; and the Trophy Trophy, for the company that makes the most outstanding trophy.
In addition, I learned that although the first Olympics took place in 776 B.C., hockey was not included as an event for many years because the "annoying buzzer sound" had not been invented yet. The first competition in the world's first Olympic games was a foot race. The participants were all male and ran in the nude. I join the entire male population of our nation
in stating, simply, "ouch"? It did not take long for the organizers of the Olympics to realize that nudity was not the best way to achieve the best results from competitors, except in certain events, such as the "Clean and Jerk," of course. Many decades later, science made important strides with the introduction of the athletic supporter. They were introduced in 1874 to help bicycle riders as they pedaled over cobblestone roads. The term "jock strap" comes from these early "bicycle jockeys." I join the entire the entire male population of our nation in stating "Wrap this up already, will you?"
To wrap this up, I must say that perhaps the most important thing I took away from my first hockey game was that I have no compunction to make it the "first of many."
Perhaps Russell Baker said it best: "In America, it is sport that is the opiate of the masses."
Then again, maybe this Baker guy was doped up when he said that. Until we know for sure, no field mouse is safe.
© Scott Roeben, 1999, 2000. All rights reserved.