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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (or at least understand) Hockey

Posted on 2 June 2011

I am not a hockey fan.

There. It’s out there. I have never been one to follow draft picks, know who’s leading the Eastern Conference or even, until recently, fully grasp all the rules.

I say “until recently” on that last one because a few years ago I decided to develop a working knowledge of the sport. I did this for a couple of reasons.

The first one is fully pragmatic or, more cynically, self-serving. I was moving to a new city with a new job where I would be working and socializing with people I didn’t know. The city was Victoria and the job was within the easily divided world or provincial politics, a place where it seemed one of the few common grounds was rooting for the Canucks (or disparaging the rogue Toronto or Chicago fan). Vancouver was on what looked to be a good run towards the playoffs and it was a primary point of conversation when meeting new people, which was happening a lot. It was a lot easier to spend a few minutes here and there figuring out what was happening with the team and use that as an icebreaker than it was to chat about, say, the weather.

The second reason shows what I’d like to say is a little more growth on my part. Early on, my non-interest in the sport was just that– simple non-interest. But as time went on, it congealed into something else. It marked me, in a small way, as different. In a country made up of hockey fans, not watching hypothetically sets you apart. Put another way, I eventually began willfully ignoring the sport for the sole reason that everyone else was watching it. I could get behind random soccer teams in the World Cup, but couldn’t find a way to root for any of the teams in the NHL, in part because it was “too mainstream.”

I think what opened my eyes to the hypocrisy of this was an exposure to the darker side of soccer. One of the things I thought I disliked about hockey was its crushing dominance on our culture and the inclinations towards jingoism it could sometimes take on. Soccer I enjoyed because I had played it in the North American tradition: a sport not given to the extreme emotions of hockey here in Canada or football and baseball down in the United States. It was a sport focused more on participation and fair play than the violence and fights seen in the NHL.

Then two things happened. First, I joined a more competitive soccer league speckled wiith players who were given to the violence and fights more traditionally associated with the NHL. Second, I took on an academic study of soccer’s place in world politics and became acutely aware of the fact that the negative aspects of hockey I saw here in Canada were expressed on a far greater scale in the soccer world abroad. Between these two things I came to the conclusion that, had I been raised in England or Brazil, I would probably disparage soccer as crushing, violent and jingoistic and may well enjoy the outsiders status of hockey.

Sport is sport is sport and just like anything else it can be used for positive or negative. Embracing hockey has been largely positive. It’s fun to get on a bandwagon with a bunch of strangers and root for a common goal, however pointless it might be. Most exchanges on hockey don’t need to last long– “Did you see that goal?” “Did you see that miss?” “Go Canucks!” It’s pointless, but fun. And it doesn’t take much. If you’re like I once was, here are some steps to take to understand how to like hockey.

1. Embrace a team. I live in B.C. so I chose the Canucks. Most other people around here cheer for them, and they are by far the easiest to glean information on, which is useful in conversation. Once you get over the inherent pointlessness of choosing one well-paid group of foreign nationals over another, it’s fun to have a team to root for. Also, it limits what you need to follow. Honestly, I can probably name ten players on teams outside of the Canucks. It just doesn’t come up that often.

2. You don’t have to watch much. I don’t like watching TV, and I still have a hard time just sitting through a whole game. But guess what? Same goes for most other people. Put it on the background while doing other work, catch the highlights, or listen on the radio (I’ve actually found I prefer the radio commentary as I do other work).

3. Read some good hockey literature. “The Game” by Ken Dryden is a great piece of writing that goes beyond the world of sport. “Tropic of Hockey” sees author Dave Bidini traipsing around the globe seeking pockets of hockey in the last place you’d expect to see it. Greatest Hockey Legends is a good blog for putting the games of the day into context (for example, see this piece on why the Canucks victory over the Blackhawks in the first round of the series was such a big deal) and the Walrus magazine has had some interesting pieces over the years. And this article in the Vancouver Sun is an interesting read for anyone in Canucks land.

4. Play. I can’t skate backwards, but recently a group of us have started playing pick-up road games throughout the summer. There are no teams, no elite players, and it does help you appreciate the skills more, which makes watching more enjoyable. It’s pretty easy to get road hockey games going, too– I think everyone’s played street at some point and it’s a great way to get people out there.

Filed under: Best Of, Canada, personal

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