Fighting With Their Fists to Put a Period in a Basket

A face-off: Two men glide to the dot doubled-over, resting their weight on sticks across their thighs. They choke down on these sticks, grab the haft above the blade, dip the blade like a garden trowel. Then, they make like guys fighting to take the first shovelful of dirt from a hole. Like they’re struggling to dig the other’s grave.

NHL playoffs diary

The wee baby Oscar is to be baptized this week. Such is why I’ve returned to the Bay Area: My nephew is to be marked with the water, marked as Catholic, indelibly—the tracking chip implanted, the guilt ineluctable, welcome to the fold, little homie, hair shirt to follow. The celebration is later this week, but I’m at my parents’ apartment now. There is playoff hockey on the flatscreen, fine and large.

There is playoff hockey on the flatscreen, but I cannot hear it, for I purchased runway-grade earmuffs off the internet in anticipation of this trip.

I recommend these things to everyone! To cup them over my ears is to hear the chomp suction sound of a seal closing. My father’s lamentations from the kitchen? Right behind me in this one-bedroom apartment? Erased from the soundscape! Not even vibrations remain.

Onscreen, the shiny-bald and erstwhile talent scout Pierre McGuire is saying something, something psychosexual most likely, but I can’t hear it, and it’s great.

Ovechkin v. Crosby yet again. The one hockey rivalry a casual viewer might be conversant with. And it is a rivalry, one that captivated my imagination when I was younger—but it’s a rivalry that has proved itself to be one-sided.1 Ovechkin v. Crosby is a rivalry as krill v. whale is a rivalry. As poorly cooped barrel v. Victoria Falls is a rivalry.

But the point of a rivalry is not to settle once and for all who’s better. Like, the sprinter is always better than the stopwatch, because the sprinter’s a human and the stopwatch is a dumb machine that has to live in a drawer at night. That’s not the point. The point is that the sprinter needs the stopwatch because the stopwatch tells the sprinter where she stands. Thanks to her disdain for and competition with the stopwatch, the sprinter can discover what her best is, and could be.

The difference in skill between Ovechkin and Crosby is not great.2 (Crosby was—is—will be the better player, but goddamn it all I’m an Ovechkin man.) Because this difference in skill is small—and because Crosby and Ovechkin respect but dislike each other, and want very much to beat each other—this rivalry forces the other to play his very best. We find out how creepily perfect Crosby is when he’s faced with Ovi, and we discover how frustrated Ovi can get when he plays Crosby.

The good opponent is thus to be treasured, because the good opponent defines you. This notion seems to me true, but I don’t like to dally on it too long. Its logical endpoint is a little Paradise Lost. That is, the logical endpoint to this definition-through-opposition thesis would be: I will always need some adversary if I hope to attain true excellence, lasting individuality. That, as a hypothetical sportsman as well as a human being, my double helix is actually just me twined in mortal struggle with a straw man of my own choosing, the negative image of what I imagine I am not . . .

Ovechkin v. Crosby. Washington v. Pittsburgh. Very close to the pinnacle of today’s hockey. So much of team sports is dim, dull, and unmemorable. But a rivalry sparkles like a blade on a whetstone. A rivalry is illuminating insofar as the clash is something by which to see the rest of the sport.

A face-off: Two men glide to the dot doubled-over, resting their weight on sticks across their thighs. They choke down on these sticks, grab the haft above the blade, dip the blade like a garden trowel. Then, they make like guys fighting to take the first shovelful of dirt from a hole. Like they’re struggling to dig the other’s grave.

It is good that Pittsburgh ditched the Vegas gold and returned to the black, white and yellow color-blocking of their early-’90s uniforms. These new-old kits are simple and loud, as every hockey uniform should be. From what I understand, the people of Pittsburgh enjoy them because they evoke the symbol of their community: an open manhole, and a sign cautioning people away from it. Washington’s uniforms, which were redesigned into a more streamlined red, white and blue pattern a decade ago to appease Ovechkin, resemble superhero pajamas.

I once read that when Wayne Gretzky was a kid, his dad Walter would make him watch Hockey Night in Canada with a pen and a sheet of paper in his lap. Young Wayne was to keep his eyes glued to the screen while tracking the progress of the puck around the rink. For some reason, I’ve convinced myself that this was how Gretzky honed his preternatural hockey sense. Night after night of transliterating the play like a seismograph, making legible each bump and rumble. Maybe because of this, Gretzky came to see every occurrence on the ice as inevitable, foreordained—the latest link in a long chain of causation. He sure played like it.3

Maybe it’s actually Simone Weil who best understood what made Gretzky so otherworldly:

Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.

Despite my parents’ counterclaims re: Yes you can work here! and We will leave you alone, we promise!, I cannot work here, and they do not leave me alone. Reading is impossible, writing is impossible. They defer to the television when hockey is on, though, and I am thankful for that. Under the dome of these earmuffs, the only noise I hear is the tidal pull of my breathing.

Part of what makes the in-person experience of hockey so absorbing is the sound of the game. The shush of skates, the click-click-clack of sticks and puck (which sounds, to me, like an illicit substance being lined up). In-person hockey is orchestral in that the range of its sound is so wide, so rich: from the basso profundo of an errant slap shot booming against the endboards; to the jarring, early-days-of-electronica BARK! of a clearing attempt whipped against the glass; to the tantalizing, cherry-red ping! of puck off post; to the awesome flatulence of the goal horn—ice hockey is set to the best score in sports.

And it’s a score that is fucking ruined by the yammering of the play-by-play guy and his colorman. Mute them, and one realizes just how much announcers condition the viewing experience. It’s kind of insane, when you think about it. In what else do we have a stream of consciousness narrating an experience as you yourself experience it? Whose idea was this? How much did the old radio-industry fear of “dead air” play into it? Is there a qualitative difference between radio play-by-play guys and TV ones? Whom do the blind prefer? Why haven’t networks yet included an SAP channel that is simply arena ambience minus the determinative dyad of Syracuse broadcasting grad plus goony former pro?

Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that watching a game on television as opposed to IRL at the arena is roughly analogous to watching a drama on a screen as opposed to a stage. In the arena or theater, I am responding to a total scene unfolding. My eye can wander while I take in everything at once. But onscreen, the play gets filtered through a camera lens, gets dislocated temporally so that the network can edit out a fourth-liner screaming FUCK! Onscreen, the play has its point-of-view shifted regularly—wide shot, now a behind-the-net shot, now the overhead shot, here’s the crowd shot. So that I apprehend the game not as drama but as mediated narrative. And I suppose I need all manner of commentary to help me thread together the disparate strands of that narrative.

I don’t know. Am I alone here? Does no one else think that Eddie Olczyk’s enthusiasm relates to the play only insofar as the play relates to whom Eddie Olczyk bet on that day? Does no one else hate that Doc Emrick calls games like a hen that wears a bonnet?

NHL playoff games are, on the whole, remarkably balanced affairs. One goal decides many if not most matchups. Nearly half of the games in this year’s first round (fifteen of thirty-seven) were decided in overtime. Four separate games required overtime on the same night. Late bedtimes all around.

This is because coaches tend to “match lines,” making sure their best neutralizing players are on the ice whenever the other team’s best offensive players are. The hockey then becomes like a round of musical chairs contested between a greased acrobat and a pankration champion. Yet star players make up a relatively small portion of a team’s four lines of forwards and three pairs of defensemen. Which means that, while the best offensive players are tied up with the best defensive players, your mid- and lower-tier muckers, grinders, and pylons are often the ones providing late-game heroics.

Really, most playoff games are like drawn-out movie fight sequences. One primary character grapples on the ground with the other primary character—maybe one of them is able to reach the knife, maybe he isn’t—in the meantime, the primary characters’ toadies burst in on the scene—they too start choking each other, stomping on insteps, biting necks—until one of the toadies finally reaches the knife, kicks it over to his protagonist—or maybe he just stabs the opposing primary character in the back himself.

A highlight package of Ovechkin goals is played. Most of them are older ones, from when Ovi scored more off the rush, and they go like this: Ovechkin kicks a pass from his skate to his stick as he moves up his off-wing. In the space of a few strides, he goes from furiously scrabbling his legs to gliding. It’s like watching a sped-up evolutionary process. He metamorphoses from six legs to wings.

He enters the final third of the ice. He stops pushing the puck and begins to stickhandle, swatting it back and forth. In terms of the evolutionary sequence, it’s as if we’re witnessing the moment Ovi acquires the ability to think abstractly. Just as there’s no thinking without words, in hockey there’s no offense—no creativitywithout worrying the puck, tending to the ember of its kinetic potential by stickhandling. Ovi’s got his head up, he’s stickhandling, and he’s prepared to hammer a shot on net like it’s his most venturesome thesis yet.

Perhaps this is why Ovechkin—hard-skating, hard-checking, heavy-browed, hard-shooting, hard-celebrating, late-Pleistocene-looking Ovi—has always seemed so earthy, brutal, human, and fun. When he comes in off the off-wing, no longer base but flying, stickhandling until the defender has positioned himself between the puck and the goaltender—and then suddenly, right as the defender opens his legs to keep pace with another stride, Ovi torques a dense streaking meteor between them—and it whizzes over the goaltender’s shoulder before going bar-down! the puck rings off the underside of the crossbar, redirects acutely into the bottom of the netting, where it steams, reeks of cordite—maybe why all of this is so satisfying is because it didn’t have to work out this way. In the moment, the sequence seems so impossible and contingent, so dependent on innumerable variables, Ovi’s barely corralling the bouncing puck, the ice is bad and he’s practically fighting it, everything could go wrong at any moment—and it almost does! but it didn’t! the puck cleared the line between not-even-a-shot-on-goal and off-the-post-and-in—and Ovi made it look like that’s how he meant it all along, he’s so skillful that of course he was aiming for high-glove + bar-down, his was a perfect, purposeful shot, just-so and irreproducible.

And, watching it for the millionth time on replay, I get the sense that of course it could never have been anything but this way . . . a kind of anthropic principle of the puck . . . the observer is as essential to the creation of [this sick-ass goal] as [this sick-ass goal] is to the creation of the observer . . . and here Ovi celebrates as if to thank us for this fact . . .

Hockey is very conservative (and vindictive) when it comes to celebrating goals. If you celebrate too much (as Ovi used to do, play-acting like his stick was on fire), the other team takes this as a slight on their honor. This is because hockey is as suffocatingly honor-bound as a passive-aggressive argument between two Colonels Sanders rocking chairs on a verandah under a still wicker fan.4 The transgression of celebrating too vigorously is remembered, and avenged.

Small or insubstantial-seeming hockey players who cannot mimic Ovi’s fleshly style of play—but who nonetheless are good at creating offense—are often referred to as “wizards” or “magicians.” The appellations are offhanded, but the congruence runs deep, I think.

Take Sidney Crosby, for example. (Although he is no longer as slight as he was in his teens—he’s got a huge, powerful ass now, and is stronger on the puck than maybe any other player in the league—he’s still under six feet tall.) Not that big or imposing, yet he uses a wand to effect spooky action at a distance. While stickhandling, Crosby works his hands as if casting a spell on defenders. He bewitches them, compels their attention while his linemates (themselves interchangeable; this year, it’s two cobs of corn) sneak into the slot, where Crosby sets up their goals with tape-to-tape saucer passes. Seriously, watching him cycle the puck in the offensive zone, mesmerizing the opposition, moving himself so as to rearrange the layers of defense to his eventual benefit—it’s some broomsticks-from-Fantasia shit. His hands dance and, suddenly, the puck appears in the net.

So, yes, slight but great players (like the Great One himself) are wizards in that they subdue the reality of the play to their wishes. And through round-the-clock training, self-betterment as obsessive as an alchemist’s attic experiments, Crosby has extended his power to the performance of all things possible. He has in fact become so powerful that lesser players have taken to thwarting him the one way they know works: clobbering him about the head and shoulders. Targeting the delicate, infernal mechanism that is not, alas, shockproof.

Maybe that’s why fans have never quite cottoned to him? An unconscious aversion to the Faustus character? “A sound magician is a demigod,” after all.

A goaltender plays all sixty minutes with his back against a (six-foot-by-four-foot, invisible and totally permeable) wall. This is why he is very appealing, and also insane. Goalies are just flat-out different. The difference is manifest and real; you don’t need to watch them play, even. Walk into a locker room, and you’ll know who the keeper is.

Why? One of the greatest of all time, Ken Dryden, wrote: “Whether it’s because the position attracts certain personality types, or only permits certain ones to succeed; whether the experience is so intense and fundamental that it transforms its practitioners to type—I don’t know the answer.”

When asked, coaches and defensemen will shrug and say that all they care about their goalies is that they be dependable (which means stopping about ninety-one out of a hundred shots) and that they have the ability “to come up with the big save” (which means bailing out coaches and defensemen when they screw up). Deliver on these two attributes, and the goalie has license to be as weird as he wants to be. Deliver on these, and everyone else will leave him well enough alone. (Indeed, it wasn’t but twenty years ago that most teams went without a goaltending coach. Goaltending was then viewed as an arcane art, one best practiced in isolation.)

What sets a goaltender apart at the NHL level is the fine grain of his mind. He need not be very smart, or nuanced in his thinking. But the motherfucker had better be focused. “Because the demands on a goalie are mostly mental, it means that for a goalie the biggest enemy is himself,” Dryden wrote.

Not a puck, not an opponent, not a quirk of size or style. Him. The stress and anxiety he feels when he plays, the fear of failing, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of being physically hurt, all are symptoms of his position, in constant ebb and flow, but never disappearing. The successful goalie understands these neuroses, accepts them, and puts them under control. The unsuccessful goalie is distracted by them, his mind in knots, his body quickly following.

I feel a strange affinity with these unhinged gentlemen who stand afore the place of their livelihood and defend it, manically, like a grocer in a riot. “No matter what gift he is given,” Robert Bly wrote of the goaltender, “he always rejects it.”

I’ve always considered Pittsburgh backup (/former starter and first-overall draft pick) Marc-Andre Fleury a bad-team goalie who’s been trapped on good teams his entire career.

The bad-team goalie is the goalie who can face a lot of rubber—maybe kinda needs to face a lot of rubber, since the action keeps him warm, keeps his head in the game. He can become hot, as they say; can work himself into such a rhythm that he stops almost everything, steals games his bad team has no business winning. He allows the occasional dribbler, but who cares, he’s right back to b-boy’ing in his crease after that. Maybe he’s weaker, mentally, than the good-team goalie who faces fewer shots and, as such, has to be more focused.

There’s something of Sisyphus in Fleury. He makes flailing, cartwheeling, never-say-die saves—and moments later, he’s leaning away from the near post, thinking about nachos or whatever, and a bad-angle shot wriggles through.

Washington’s Braden Holtby, on the other hand, has struck me as the consummate good-team goalie. He is compact, composed, patient—focused. His movements are quick, crisp, and assured; he tends goal like the fast-forwarded game footage of a man who’s already earned the shutout. Holtby is rarely called upon “to come up with the big save,” but all that means is he absolutely, positively has to make all the other saves. I pity Holtby, in a way. His team allows so few goals that he must feel every one personally. There he is, staring ahead, feeding his most recent failure into the high-pressure forge of his loathing, transforming goals-against into rare precious things.

I wonder if this isn’t what separates playoff hockey from playoff basketball: will. It’s not that tired stuff: basketball players are wimps and hockey men are the stoutest—ooooh, when Howie Morenz peeled off hangnails his hangnails kept peeling past the elbow, and he peeled them without missing his shift. None of that Rocky-esque racial fantasy about the white plug having more heart and mulish capacity for pain than the “urban” dandy.

I mean simply that ice hockey is a full-contact game played in an enclosed space. You can hit people, hold them; you can use your body (and the tool in your hands) to obstruct or otherwise make difficult the progress of the other guy. You can physically enact the ressentiment of the lesser-skilled, is what I’m saying.

You can (and are encouraged to) heave your body, wrench-like, into the gears of artistry. Hell, playoff hockey is some 65 percent “board battles”—two to six men fighting for the puck in a corner like two to six pigs wrestling over a Milk Dud—and board battles do not require skill. They require strength, guile, and ruthlessness.

Through sheer will, a player can: hit a guy; take the puck away from him; throw said puck to his teammate at the point. He can then “crash the net,” i.e. skate like a nightmare at the opposing goalie while hoping someone banks the puck in off his corpus. If that doesn’t happen, he can withstand a flurry of crosschecks and slewfoots in front of the net in order to obscure the goaltender’s vision, transform his body into the fog of war a teammate can shoot through.

This-all (and so much more!) often shades into outright violence. The entropic nature of hockey sometimes causes it to devolve into “a fervent made-up sort of hostility,” as Alice Munro wrote. In the playoffs especially, referees tend to let the boys play. If anything, these officials act as sanctioned crabs-in-a-bucket monitors. Which is why it’s that much harder for an extraordinary talent to take over a game a la LeBron: his opponent can try everything in his power to stop him through sheer, unfettered will.5

A friend once told me that she tried to watch a playoff hockey game, but she got frustrated and turned the basketball back on because she preferred “to watch the best be the best . . . to see what the best are capable of.” She said that the ice, the rubber puck, and the near-constant duress made it so no one was able to do exactly what he wanted to do. It made her uncomfortable, she said. I got real huffy, shot back, “Yes, well, welcome to life.” But of course she’s right. In its darker moments, playoff hockey can resemble Dante’s fifth circle, the one where belligerents and ingrates take turns downing each other in a bog.

My father appeared at the side of the television as Crosby finished off Ovechkin in Game 1. He was rubbing his mouth, laughing. Then he caged his ears with his fingers—he wanted me to remove my earmuffs. Household noises dilated as I peeled one cup. I heard what sounded to be a frangible spinster—ah, Doc Emrick, counting down the final seconds. I asked my father what’s up.

He asked, Does that guy still play? Ray Two-Nuts?

Huh? I said.

You know, he responded. The guy I loved, when you got into hockey. The goalie. Roy Jack-Balls.

Oh, I said. I slipped the cup back over my ear. “Ron Tugnutt” is who you’re thinking of.

My father heaved with muted laughs. He put his hands on his knees, slapped the right one, then straightened up and walked around the wall to the kitchen, shaking his head as he did so. He has not watched hockey with me since the mid-90s, the heyday of journeyman keeper Ronald Frederick Bradley Tugnutt.

Very few people in America pay attention to the NHL during its regular season. Not many more tune in for its postseason. I’m not on social media, so I don’t know if the sport is much buzz-ier there, or what. (I doubt it. Just the other day, ESPN laid off most of its hockey editorial staff.) All I know is it’s a very hermetic feeling, watching playoff hockey. It’s just me and the text, as it were. Not a lot of competing interpretations or metanarratives. It’s nice. Peaceful. Like sitting down in an overlooked European cathedral in the middle of the day.

I hope Ovi beats Sid this year, but I also don’t, since what I’m attracted to most about Ovi is the perpetuity of his frustration, his longed-for and denied ecstasy. “When you are committed to tormenting yourself,” E.M. Cioran wrote, “your own torments, however enormous, are not enough; you fling yourself on those of others as well, you appropriate them, you make yourself doubly, trebly—what am I saying? A hundredfold miserable.”

Sports! They are absurd and superfluous—and hockey is the most absurdly superfluous of them all. Mooks on frozen water, fighting with their fists to put a period in a basket—the game is not immediately self-evident. Hockey has no reason for being. Rather, hockey’s one of those things that give reason to being. I cannot wait to initiate my nephew. In due time, once he’s come to love it (and he will love it), I’ll try to spin its metaphysics with him. I’ll point him to Auden. “To pray,” Auden wrote, “is to pay attention or, shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention—be it on a landscape, or a poem or a geometrical problem or an idol or the True God—that he completely forgets his own ego and desires in listening to what the other has to say to him, he is praying.”

I look forward to paying homage with Oscar at the rink.

  1. https://www.nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/sid-ovie-part-one/ 

  2. They play different positions, and have different responsibilities, but along the spectrum that runs from Southern Professional Hockey League-er to Sidney Crosby, Ovechkin is closer to Crosby than the great, great majority of hockey players. 

  3. It bears repeating: If you took away Wayne Gretzky’s 894 goals, he’d still have more total points than any player in NHL history, save the ageless Jaromir Jagr. 

  4. https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-20/essays/enforcers/ 

  5. In the eventual third game of his series against Washington, Crosby was slashed across the back by Ovechkin and then cross-checked in the head by another player, causing Crosby to be sidelined with yet another concussion. The true number of concussions he has suffered is unknown, but at this point in his career, commentators are speculating as to whether he won’t soon retire to protect his future health. Crosby is 30 years old. 

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