Tuesday, February 24, 2009

on hockey spectation

Our family has been season ticket holders for the Pittsburgh Penguins since 1972, the year I was born. Our two (kick-ass) seats in section C25 of the Civic Arena are one of very few extravagances my parents indulge in. Every year the season ticket price goes up, especially with the team selling out 90+ games now in a row. This year, each seat jumped from $66 to $71.50 per game. And with every increase, there is heart-aching about the rising cost of the seats and talk of giving up the tickets. However my parents' love of hockey always wins out over their frugality. As their son, and an often-recipient of these tickets, I'm pleased it does.

No live sport holds my interest like hockey. Unlike football or baseball, the game runs unbroken by innings or changes of possession. It's fluid like basketball, but more so, since it has fewer fouls and interruptions of play, and is more graceful, given that the players are constantly skating on a sheet of ice. (However, I know of not a single poem about hockey, while there are several fine poems about basketball, e.g. Slamdunk by Yusef Komunyakaa. I tried to write a hockey poem once, and put myself in the penalty box for the attempt.)

A basketball fan I know argued that his game had at least as much grace as hockey, and I found his argument laughable. I told him there is simply no comparison. (Though, after giving it some thought, I agree an argument could be made that each sport's players exhibit a similar grace in playing their respective sports. However, I maintain that, for spectation, there is no comparison.)

Hockey is art performed to the hushed scrape and clatter of skate and stick on ice. Basketball is nothing but a constant chase of squeaking shoes and an incessant banging of a ball upon hardwood.

In response, my basketball aficionado friend countered by saying, "At least you can follow the basketball."

This is the no. 1 complaint of a stranger to the sport of hockey -- "I can't follow the puck." -- and it's also what makes the sport as unique as it is. Besides hockey being a blend of grace and bare knuckle violence, it is the only sport that makes a demand upon those who choose to watch it. You must make a conscious effort to follow the puck. Period. And once you begin making this effort, you develop a sort of Zen mastery as a spectator -- you begin to see the puck without seeing it. You intuit where the puck is by the movement of the players in relation to it.

By requiring the spectator to actively engage in the act of spectation, the sport chooses its own fans. It embraces those willing to be mindful and attentive and, in turn, repels those who are not. Those who the sport deems unworthy are denied the privilege of seeing moments like this:

Not only does the sport reward you with this kind of eye candy, but it also (used to) punish you for failing to give your rapt attention. (This applied to fans in the stands before they began draping nets above the boards to keep stray pucks from flying into the crowd.)

As a young lad I became accustomed to seeing spectators bleed in the stands from errant pucks. It was as if the game took it upon itself to remind the crowd of its one requirement-- you must watch the puck. Just as the Greeks explained lightning as a consequence of Zeus's anger -- the god hurling bolts down from Olympus in a rage -- I explained a puck striking a distracted spectator in the face as the game exacting its vengeance upon the unworthy. If the businessman two rows ahead of me had been watching the game instead of schmoozing the client next to him, he wouldn't be bleeding into an usher's towel.

Now that the nets are up over the glass, though, the game can no longer make the unworthy bleed. Without fear of being struck by flying pucks, fans can drift in and out of attention to the game with impunity.

This has sullied spectation of the sport. How many times I've found myself seated next to a teenager, texting his friend on the other side of the arena while the game is being played, and wished a puck would somehow find its way over the glass and remove the foremost bridgework from his mouth.

No longer is the sport played for a pious audience that, under its breath, is earnestly hoping for a puck to come screaming through the air at them. Because they're ready for it, have been ready for it and would catch the frozen disk of vulcanized rubber in a heartbeat, though it may dislocate a knuckle or two in order to do so. Now, it's become a haven for the business-schmooze. For the techno-distracted youth. The unworthy. Remove the nets. Let them bleed.

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