Notes on Hockey

s.yume, Inside Canada Hockey Palace, February 17, 2010.

Angelo Serse is an abbreviated hockey totem. Five-foot-nine in skates, 185 lbs only if you include sopped gear and a hate-saddled heart, right wing, #8 on your New York Aviators. He’s on the backcheck now, skating as though puppeted by rage. The much more substantial puckcarrier, #12, defenseman for the Long Island Stingrays, is gliding toward center ice and scanning for an outlet pass like a pilotless drone. Angelo churns his short stride into a bladed gyre. #12 hears Angelo, shushes to a stop, and spins away from a flying shoulder. Angelo clatters into the boards and to the ice. #12 guides the puck into the offensive zone. Angelo pushes his helmet from his eyes and takes off after him.

A hockey game starts with a shift—a line of five guys playing furiously for 45 seconds—before a new line jumps on the ice, and 45 seconds after that the lines change again, and so on, until time runs out. For three periods of twenty minutes a hockey game goes until it doesn’t. Action doesn’t rise, peak, and fall so much as start and stop with a whistle. It’s sport as mixed tide, flowing back and forth.

Generational talents excepted, most hockey players need time to mature and discover the role they play on a large team, so most earn a couple hundred bucks a week playing in Laredo, or the Quad Cities, or Pee Dee, South Carolina. Anyplace there’s industrial blight or a military base, there’s a good chance there’s also a minor-league hockey team. The Aviators play in the deepest, darkest antechamber of the pro hockey network, the New England Professional Hockey League. Between them and the NHL are the Southern Professional, Central, International, East Coast, and American hockey leagues. The Aviators are guys who topped out pretty low: most stopped at prep hockey, a few played club in college, one or two of the older guys played professionally in Europe. Two-thirds of them are from the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area. One guy’s from Queens, and another’s from Brooklyn. For $200 they practice and play six or seven times a week in a reconditioned airplane hangar at Floyd Bennett Field, just shy of the Rockaways between Barren Island and Dead Horse Bay.

It’s 1-0, New York Aviators. The Long Island Stingrays chip the puck out of their defensive zone and go for a change. They send out their checking unit, the defensive line, guys who are all grit and thumbtacks but who skate like fridges on dollies on hills. New York’s right defenseman retrieves the puck and retreats behind his own net while his forwards peel off for the bench. As soon as they’re within a few feet, Angelo and the rest of New York’s scoring line spill onto the ice. A couple of quick passes and New York has eluded Long Island’s lumbering forecheck. Angelo skips through the neutral zone, winding up his legs like a Merrie Melodie. Once inside the blueline he crisscrosses with the left wing, who drop-passes the puck between his legs for Angelo. He takes it and transfers it to his backhand and accelerates wide past the defenseman, protecting the puck with his body and hunching his back like he’s been yoked suddenly with the 30 phantom pounds listed in the program. While he skirts the net, Long Island’s defense collapses in front of their goalie, the way an NHL team does, hoping to squeeze shut any shooting or passing lanes by damming the net. This is a mistake: Long Island are too small and their goalie too positionally unsound. Angelo circles above the jumble and shovels a loopy backhand that plinks off asses and elbows into the net, 2-0.

Referees generally call only the most egregious offenses, and of those only the ones they see. And even then there are make-up calls and calls advertantly missed, because penalties put a team down a man for at least two minutes, and (at this level at least) refs don’t want to upset the game’s natural flow. But infractions missed by referees don’t go unpunished. There’s a shadow system of justice in hockey called “The Code,” or simply “showing up.”

Players pay far more attention than casual fans to every little insult, cheap shot, or act of disrespect. They keep a book that needs balancing, whether in this game or the next. Violence is not random; the guilty must be held accountable. Most incidents are resolved that way, tit for tat. When things escalate, or there’s no other solution, that’s when players fight–for retribution, intimidation, deterrence, protection, momentum or, most important, order. Each team usually has an arbiter, a skating deterrent whose job this is: he’s the enforcer.

To curb fighting and improve its image in the eyes of most Americans, the NHL instituted Rule 47.11, which requires a two-minute minor penalty, a five-minute major, and a ten-minute misconduct to a fighter for “gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.”

After the goal a scrum flares up by the net. The cause went unseen, but everyone on the ice finds a partner and shoves. Angelo backs #12 up against the glass and presses the shaft of his stick into #12’s midsection. #12 grabs Angelo’s red jersey and swings the little man in an orbit around him. The two bark and nod at one another. They revolve like the basest atom. The referee fissions them with some difficulty, and he guides Angelo, a pissed-off negatron, back to the bench.

Because hockey is the only major sport that respires, where teams match each other frequently and on the fly, its games are a long, continuous chain of cause and effect. Unlike baseball or football, where games are the sum of a thousand binary contests, hockey is organic. Lines—traditionally Scoring A, Scoring B, Checking, and a seldom-used ruckus of agitators, rookies, cheapshot artists, and goons—are deployed and countered by their coaches. Chess it’s not; more like desynchronous paper-rock-scissors.

Players plays both ways and must be conscious of who’s where doing what.  Positional responsibilities can be likened to what a baseball defense does when men are aboard and a hitter bunts down the 3rd-base line, except with skates on and for an hour. What’s happening one moment resulted directly from what happened twelve seconds prior, and it’ll lead directly to what happens in two minutes.

Red Dutton, Hockey Hall of Fame, 1958:

“If some of the longhairs I see on the ice these days met Sprague Cleghorn [5’10, 190lbs], he’d shave them to the skull. Jesus he was mean. If you fell in front of Cleg, he’d kick your balls off.”

The puck is dropped at center ice, and immediately there’s a fight. Long Island’s #10 goads New York’s #10, who removes his gloves and helmet slowly and bows to set them on the ice. Both are right-handed, so each holds that arm straight behind himself while clutching at the other’s right armpit with his left hand. Locked like this, they tug and spin and try to knock one another off balance. They swing a few nervous rights, none hard enough to unsettle the equilibrium. 25 seconds later they’re in a clutch, trying to throw the other to the ice. The linesmen, who had been watching and waiting a few strides away, come in to break it up. One pats New York #10 on the back as he’s separated. As the #10s are led to the penalty boxes, the players on the ice clap with their sticks, and those on the bench drum a benediction against the boards.

Two quick, lucky goals later Long Island’s back in the game. It’s 3-2 at the start of the second period. Long Island wins the opening draw and dumps the puck in deep. They’re playing counterattack. Four of them stand staggered across the middle of the ice like a sluice gate while the center forechecks. He lures New York’s defenseman into an easy pass up ice to the left wing, who’s mired immediately. The puck is turned over, 3-on-2 for Long Island, and they pass a neat little equilateral triangle around the flatfooted defense and score, 3-3.

A hockey game is a fragile ecosystem. Uncertainty is its biotic flow: It’s played on ice, with rubber, full contact, by forces interacting for and against chaos. The game is meant to swamp the rink like a floodplain. Left unspoiled, it works itself into roiling, recalibrating congruence.

The NHL is not a conservation fund; it’s a business. It added 8 franchises between 1991 and 2000, expanding the league total to 30. The new teams were made up of castoffs and roster stopgap. To compete, these teams played a eutrophic defensive scheme called “the trap” in which they clogged the middle of the ice and choked the life out of rinks like algal bloom. Average goals per game shoaled from 7 in 1991 to 5 in 2004. Most of those years at least one trapping team made the Stanley Cup Finals, including many former expansion franchises.

The league shut down for the ’04-’05 season. When it came back, it came back with gimmicks and artificial tweaks that have turned an already evaporated game into an hour of power plays, traps, cross-corner dump-ins, and weak point shots made turbulent by goalmouth traffic. NHL hockey now eddies in the corners, trickles down the boards, oozes through the neutral zone, babbles the blueline transversely, and puddles in the net.

Long Island #12 quarterbacks their power play. He’s skating the puck along the blueline, which forces a penalty-killer to track him and opens a shooting lane for a teammate rotating off the half-boards. #12 saucers a backhand pass to him and then pinches, leaving his position to sneak down to the front of the goal. The other defenseman moves to cover the hole #12 left and passes the puck to a forward down low. The forward tries a backdoor pass to #12, but it doesn’t connect; it hits the boards and bounces to a New York winger. He and a teammate take off; the players behind them skate hard, trying to reconstitute the normal shape of play. It’s a 2-on-1, but #12’s stride is professional-gauge. He catches up. Rather than play the body of the Aviator with the puck, he spins into a backwards skate and mirrors his every stride like a late-day shadow. His positioning is antiseptic and his pokecheck surgical.

Hockey players play in a state of constant fear because defense isn’t just positioning. It’s warfare, physical and psychological. The surest way to keep a player from scoring is to make getting to the net as unpleasant as possible. Hack him, crosscheck him; slewfoot, facewash, and mug him in general. He can be hit anytime between his touching the puck and the three seconds after he gets rid of it. If he’s willing to brave it, to swim against a welter of men with bludgeons in their hands and knives on their feet, he’ll put himself in a position to score. If not, he’ll keep out of the high-traffic areas like a weak swimmer in a public pool, and every time he receives a pass he’ll look down and see a cooked grenade at the end of his stick. This is why there’re so many upsets in hockey. This is why the prettiest and the most talented don’t always win: one team can outwill the other.

Having broken up the play, #12 pulls the puck behind his net. The power play expires and his team changes lines. Angelo Serse leaves the penalty box and joins the forecheck with such savagery that his torso pitches and yaws for balance. All three New York forwards rip into the zone like grapeshot. #12 is chased back behind the net by the center, and Angelo pinces from the right side.

The panes of plexiglass that surround a rink are thick, thick as a thumb to the first knuckle, thick as the glass that separates a visitor from the aquarium. #12 knows Angelo is coming again, but this time he pulls the puck against the boards and wilts into the glass. Angelo leaves his feet and heaves his smallness shoulder-first between the 1 and the 2, and they both crumple to the ice. The center collects the loose puck and passes it to the winger camping in the high slot, goal Aviators, the panes still swaying as the lines change again.

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