“He shoots! He scores!” It’s playoff time in the National Hockey League, and we Canadians alter our social lives accordingly. Nothing—even in this fragmented, segmented entertainment market—grabs and holds our attention like hockey.
And why shouldn’t it? It is the quintessential Canadian game. Right down to its Christianity.
(More about that last part later.)
Hockey began as a winter pursuit of lacrosse players—or so goes at least one account of the game. Lacrosse used to be our sole national sport, derived from the considerably more vigorous (that is to say, murderous) aboriginal original, and is still our national summertime sport.
(How it became the preserve nowadays of East Coast American prep schools and elite universities isn’t clear to me, but we’ll have to explore lacrosse another time.)
Hockey, however, is king—and none of that “ice hockey” stuff, thank-you. There is field hockey, yes, and there is (just) hockey.
The Canadian spirit is, indeed, on display in hockey.
The fastest sport powered solely by human bodies, it is also one of the quietest. (You know Canadians: nice, unobtrusive folk.) Stop by a recreational rink when two teams are playing without spectators, and you’ll be impressed again by the soft “shik-shik-shik” of skates and the only occasional light “crack” made by sticks on pucks.
The typically Canadian paradoxes continue. Whole periods, even whole games can go by without a single goal, but there is no major sport in which goals can be scored faster and losers suddenly become winners.
The NHL record for the fastest three goals scored by two teams is 15 seconds. The record for the fastest three goals scored by a single team is a mere 20 seconds.
And the fastest hat-trick (three goals by a single player) was recorded in—get this—21 seconds. (The legendary Chicago Blackhawk Bill Mosienko scored it against the New York Rangers in 1952.)
That’s a fast game.
It is also a truly beautiful game, with looping ice ballet, tic-tac-toe passing, and magical stickhandling.
And players exercise almost supernatural patience with their opponents who grab and hack and otherwise try to frustrate them as they make art out of sport.
But the game is also bloodily violent. Players slam into each other at over 30 kmph (that is, over 20 mph), when they’re not dodging—or throwing themselves deliberately into—slap shots that have been clocked at over 160 kmph (= 100 mph).
They do indeed work each other over with sharp sticks and heavily gloved hands while poised on razor-sharp blades.
And, like Canadians generally, when hockey players have had enough, they explode. (Think of the massive war machine that peaceful Canada so rapidly became during World War II.) Hockey is the only major-league sport that not only does not expel players for fighting, but actually features fighting among its array of traditional tactics.
Even there, however, is another paradox. Hockey fighting rarely results in serious injury. In fact, newcomers to the game wonder why players even bother, since they’re so heavily padded and risk breaking their hands on each other’s faces.
Fans know, however, that it’s theatre, not assault: WWE, not UFC. It’s all in good fun, and opponents who flail away at each other one moment can laugh and kid with each other from their respective penalty boxes the next.
And that brings us to the best, and most Christian, thing about hockey: the lining-up of both teams for a post-series handshake.
Not just a grim and glowering “get you next time” fist-bump at the end of a game, but a “one team is going on and the other is going home” ritual at the end of a playoff series.
Men who minutes earlier had been clobbering each other along the boards and wrestling like furies in front of the net now wish each other well, often with personal words of appreciation and soft taps of good wishes as they pass each other.
All is forgiven. The contest is over. Let’s get changed and head out together for a well-earned meal.
It’s a picture of good sportsmanship, yes, and it smacks of the “muscular Christianity” of the nineteenth-century origins of the sport and of, indeed, lacrosse.
As such, it’s a modest, but vivid, picture of shalom.
And it makes me proud to be a Canadian every time I see it.