On the John
Thoughts and memories on a sport with no teeth
Originally completed May 16, 2010
I never understood hockey. It was the one sport of America’s Big Four that remained uncelebrated in the Silverstein household. My brother and I played Little League baseball. We played flag football at Orrington Elementary School and hoops as well. I recall my brother trying hockey once. He was flipped in the air by a fellow skater’s errant stick, smacked hard against the ice, and promptly returned his skates.
My father and his brother were Black Hawks fans. Indeed, the first Hawks game I remember watching came one evening when Uncle Eddie was babysitting.
My father was 10 when the Hawks wrapped the title against Detroit. Eight years later he graduated high school. Ten years later he was a working man in Boston. Two years later he was married. Five years later he had two sons. Three years later he had a mortgage. 15 years later his sons were high school graduates. Eight years later they were working men in Chicago and Los Angeles. The 10-year-old boy is nearly 60 now, still waiting for that second Cup.
The Hawks remained competitive, of course. From 1959 to 1997, they missed the playoffs only once. Grade school became high school, college became career, girlfriends became marriage, condoms became children, summer remained the Cubs, Sundays remained the Bears, the Bulls became Da Bulls!, the Hawks slid away…
And that is, more or less, how a 10-year-old hockey fan goes on to birth a 10-year-old hockey novice.
My father’s childhood love for the Hawks did rub off on me, if only indirectly. My Neil Funk imitation is a direct descendent of his imitation of Hawks radio man Lloyd Pettit, a flurry of words and hockey phrases that would pour from him, always sounding to my 8-year-old ears like: “To Hay to Hull to Nesterenko back to Hay abamanaramadonerater GOOOOOOAAALLLLLL!!!”
I had problems making it work with my hockey fandom. Whenever I did watch a game, I was always, somehow, looking away when any goal was scored. Friends would cheer, and my head would flip back to the television to see celebratory sticks in the air, the siren/light blaring/spinning. In fact, I did not see an NHL goal with mine eyes until March 4, 2000, a random ESPN game between the Penguins and Flames that I watched in Wilmette with Josh and Sven.
One of my favorite columns ever written was about hockey. Penned in 1998 or 1999, Rick Telander wrote “a letter to Bill Adee” (the Sun-Times sports editor at the time), asking Bill to run a photo of a recent fight between, I believe, Tie Domi and Bob Probert, promising to “come up with some words to go with it.” It was a satiric column about fighting in hockey, and I was very excited to share it with my New Trier hockey friends.
“Isn’t this a sharp comment on the state of the sport?” I asked them.
“No,” they answered.
That was sophomore or junior year – I had started eating lunch with these hockey players, and was eager to learn the game. They were eager to teach, and I found it all quite thrilling during the playoffs, but I could never accept the idea that punching was part of the game.
I still can’t. And yet the evolution of my fandom mixed with the renewal of the Blackhawks has brought me into a place of greater appreciation for the sport.
For starters, I understand now what I was missing every time my head was pointed in an unfortunate direction. Hot damn, hockey goals are exciting! I realized this during Game 3 of the Bruins-Flyers series, a game I watched at a Boston friend of mine’s while we hashed out details of an upcoming comedy shoot.
Neil was dressed in a stitched Bruins jersey, focused intently on our work. He wrote the series, it’s his baby, I am involved at his request, we are working out the blocking and discussing BRUINS ON A BREAKAWAY HERE WE GO SHOT ON GOAL! NOOO! MISSED IT! HE FREAKIN’ MISSED IT! how we will rearrange the set to maximize our shooting space. A really successful meeting: our shoot the previous Sunday had been something of a disaster, and our shoot last Sunday was OH! OH! THERE HE GOES! AND… GOOOOOOAAALLLLLL!!! GOAL BRUINS! MAHK RECCHI! ATTABOY B’S! THERE WE GO! a certified success.
But there’s no success quite like a hockey goal. It packs the importance of a touchdown with the thrill of a homer. Touchdowns are EXCITING, but we always know approximately when they will strike. When teams are consistently punting between their 30’s, where the hell’s the thrill?
And that is why hockey goals get the people crazy: the fan advances from The Calm to The Orgasm just like that. (snaps fingers.) Each goal is more important than any one homer, and certainly any one dunk. Imagine if basketball players scored once every twenty trips near the rim… that’s pretty much what’s happening here.
Which also explains why soccer fans go ballistic with such regularity. Those goals occur less frequently than even hockey goals; combine that tension/release with the all-in nature of European sports (they don’t have a Big Four to dilute their interest), and is it any wonder why soccer fans are prone to the occasional riot?
But that is a question for another day. The World Cup will be upon us in one month, and we will have plenty of time then to dissect the world of futbol. I have to go now. Puck drops in an hour and a half.
Copyright 2010, jm silverstein