By Chad Hermann, Post-Gazette.com
While it is true that no professional sport is as ill-suited for television as ice hockey — even in HD the puck can be difficult to follow, the speed and flow of line changes and late-rushing attackers are impossible to track, and the great, sweeping canvas of the ice must be rudely squeezed into a frame far too small to hold it — it is also true that no professional sport is better suited to live viewing.
Baseball spreads half its players across a pasture, hides the rest in dugouts, and then, proudly aware that it is the only sport without a time clock, proceeds apace as though its fans do not have one either. Football, played on one hundred twenty yards of distant field in increasingly canyon-esque stadia, packs twelve minutes of balletic violence into sixty minutes of game time and two hundred minutes of real time. Basketball provides near constant action and often intimate attention, but when scoring occurs every twenty seconds, only the last hundred or so seem to matter, and they often unfold over such an excruciation of stops and starts and fouls and timeouts and team meetings that even the most dramatic finishes unfold like athletic arrhythmia. Soccer drops one lost ball amidst twenty joggers, offers almost as many riots in the stands as goals on the field, and is beloved only by a loose affiliation of drunkards, Europhiles, and overprogrammed eight-year-olds who have yet to convince me I’m missing anything of interest.
But there’s something about hockey.
It’s a Canadian game, and many of the players have French or Russian names, so it’s not exactly an easy sell in the United States of Xenophobia. It’s the red-headed immigrant step-child of the American sporting world, dismissed, frowned upon, and condescended to by a great many people who do not understand it, have never seen it played in person, and are therefore in little position to judge. It barely registers on the radar of millions of so-called sports fans, with precious little print coverage and tv ratings somewhere between the abject boredom of bowling and the Kafkaesque torture of poker. It’s a bunch of guys in sweaters and shorts and ice skates, chasing a little rubber biscuit around a big, frozen parking lot.
But still. There’s something about hockey.
You feel it as soon as you walk out of the concourse and into the seating bowl; the chill rises off the ice and ripens the air, filling your lungs and radiating a cool, rousing energy throughout your body. You take a deep breath, then another, and step forward into the light, to behold a gleaming, glistening rink below. Freshly mown fields and polished hardwoods have their charms, but to my eye, neither can compare to the pure, pristine perfection of Zambonied ice. And it only gets better once the game begins.
The ice becomes the background, the playground, the blank canvas on which a dozen artists take their shifts and make their marks and paint their works of flowing, darting, crashing beauty. They skate with equal parts power and poetry, propelling themselves up the ice and back down again, starting and stopping and flashing, gliding and cutting and flowing, reaching speeds of twenty-five miles an hour suspended on just a few millimeters of metal. Imagine strikers, linebackers, catchers, and point guards all doing what they do; now imagine them doing it on ice skates, with bullseyes on their backs, in pursuit of a ball the size of your fist, as it hurtles toward and away from them and back at them again, at almost one hundred miles an hour.
Everyone plays offense and defense simultaneously; there are no quarterbacks and safeties, no pitchers and hitters, no formal turns and changes of possession, just two teams of guys (or gals) doing it all at once, moving from attack to retreat and back to attack in the blink of an eye or the flick of a wrist, when every inch and every second and every possible point, whether it’s scored in the first period or the last minute, could win the game. The action continues, fevered and frenzied, unbent and unbowed, until someone scores or someone breaks a rule, not even stopping for breaks or rests or substitutions; teams and players change on the fly, jumping over the boards and hustling back to the bench, always in service to the rhythm and flow, sometimes going two or three or four (or more) minutes between breaks in the action. It’s the fastest game on earth, and also the most frenetic.
Of course, hockey sounds almost as great as it looks. The swish and swoosh of the skates cutting through the ice. The bang and boom of bodies crashing against the boards. The rattle of the glass shaking after a heavy forecheck. The tap-tap-tap of sticks on the ice, facing off or mucking in the corners or calling out for a cross-ice pass. The smack and whoosh of the puck rocketing off a stick blade. The thwack of the puck hitting the glass when it sails over the net, followed by the hard tap of it falling to the ice and back into play. The grunts, the whoops, the chips and shouts of players skating, checking, grinding, and shooting, barking orders to their teammates and yapping at their opponents. The blare of the horn and the wail of the siren when the puck crosses the goal line or pops the back of the net. The exultant roars and chants of the crowd that, 17,132 voices strong, quickly obscure both the horn and the siren. The great, giddy ringing in your ears that follows you out the door and onto the street and all the way home, sometimes even to the next morning, one more sensual reminder of this most sensual of games.
There is, the occasional Alexander Ovechkin outburst aside, no showboating, no trash talking, no choreographed celebrations; when a hockey player scores, he raises his arms and pumps his fists and gets a few hugs and helmet-taps from his teammates. When a player breaks the rules, he's sent to the penalty box, where he must sit alone for two or four or five minutes and watch his teammates pay for his sin by playing without him or any replacement for him — one man down, contemplating his punishment until his sentence ends, or the opposing team scores and ends it for him, teaching him another hard lesson in obedience along the way.
There are only two referees. There are no cheerleaders. There are no visits to the mound, no endless succession of pick-off attempts, no cascading pitching changes; the game has neither the time nor the patience for such piffle. There are no huddles, no audibles, no waiting for plays to be radioed into their empty helmets; plays and formations are called on the fly, run from memory, and most often improvised in brilliant bursts of athletic creativity. Each team gets only one timeout. There are fewer television timeouts in a whole game than there are in any quarter of an NFL game. The time between prime scoring chances is usually measured in seconds, not in innings or minutes or hours.
Hockey is home to grace and grit, to brains and brawn, to prolonged periods of brute force followed by sudden explosions of astonishing elegance. It elevates teamwork and celebrates self-sacrifice. It bestows an annual award for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct. It inspires awe and honors tradition and does both at once, at the end of each season, when its two best teams meet to win and hold and see their names engraved upon the most hallowed, the most regal, the most revered trophy in all of professional sports.
There is, indeed, a whole lot of something about hockey.
Something that, if you don't know, you should know. Something that, most especially, you should see and hear and feel at least once live and in person, at any arena in the country, where the boys of winter (and fall, and spring, and now even summer) ply their trades and prowl their ices with the energy and exuberance and maybe even the innocence of an overgrown bunch of kids who, with nothing more than a piece of rubber, a few friend,s and a frozen pond, believe they can take sixty simple, scintillating minutes and give you the elemental rush of the coolest, greatest, something-est game on earth.