How to enjoy hockey when you really don’t understand hockey
Monteiro asked if I would write an article helping him understand hockey. I said “understand it or enjoy it?”
So now I’m going to teach Mike how to enjoy hockey. Because you don’t really have to fully understand something in order to enjoy it. I mean, no one understands what “Wake up the cake, it’s a lake, she’s kissing me” means but they still for some reason buy Chili Peppers albums. So I believe Mike can learn to enjoy hockey without me going into the intricacies of offsides and icing and plus/minus ratings.
All you really need to know is this: There's a puck and there are five guys on the ice (not counting the goalie) for each team and it is the job of those guys to work together to get that puck past the opposing goalie into the net. When they do that, the red light goes on and everyone cheers and some ten second clip of an awful rock song plays on the PA system.
Just like the beloved sport of baseball, there are beer and hotdogs and players with giant egos and teams in financial distress. But unlike the beloved sport of baseball, hockey is a game that needs to be watched. You can read a book while you are watching baseball. You can vacuum the living room, play Angry Birds or enjoy the intimate company of a loved one while a baseball game is on. Chances are, you won't miss much. You can't do that with hockey because it moves too fast. And therein lies the enjoyment.
Hockey is breathless. Oh sure, there are stops in plays (see the aforementioned icing and offsides, as well as tv timeouts), but when the play is on, it's a blur of motion. It's speed, finesse and grace peppered with dashes of brutality and violence. Not necessarily the violence of two grown men dropping their gloves to pummel the crap out of each other (made to happen less often thanks to Brendan Shanahan's inglorious hunger for power and might), but the ferocity of checks against the board or the brutal beauty of a mid-ice check. It's the sound of a slap shot. The thrill of seconds winding down in a close game as your team buzzes around the net. It's the shorthanded goal. The sound of a puck hitting the crossbar and the collective gasp of the fans.
But that is what you are supposed to enjoy. How do you enjoy it? You go to a game. Don't start trying to get a feel for a game by watching it on tv. You need to be there. You can sit up high with the rowdy fans chanting insults in between gulps of watery beer or you can sit down low, close enough to the action to see sprays of ice flying around. Doesn't matter. Whatever makes you comfortable.
You just watch. The puck drops and you follow the action. You watch the sticks, the skates, the rush of players all headed in the same direction. You watch the defensemen hang back or play the point, you watch the forwards skillfully maneuver their way around the net like a biker weaving around traffic on the Long Island Expressway. You keep your eye on the goalie, all padding and painted helmet, contorting himself like a gymnast to keep that puck from going into the net.
There's a lot going on in hockey. You're not watching one player at a time taking a swing at a ball and missing when the bases are loaded and the game is important - sorry, having an A-Rod moment there - you're watching everyone on the ice. At once. You've got to keep up with the action. There's no time to be bored. There's no time to be social while the game is in play. You focus, you follow and you become one with the game.
Pick a team. Wear a jersey (Sharks, perhaps?). Get yourself a beer. Forget about rules and regulations for now. Follow the play and if you get lost follow the crowd. Watch what they are watching. Cheer when they cheer. Chant when they chant.You get the hang of the rituals of the game if you just watch everyone around you. It's almost like going to Catholic church; sit, stand, sit, stand. And your will find yourself invoking God and Jesus everyone once in a while. "Oh my god, just shoot the puck, already" or "Jesus Christ, that was a shitty call, ref." But I'm not going to get carried away with the church analogy or you'll never go to a game.
It's easy for me to tell you the things to enjoy about hockey. But I can't make you enjoy it. It has to be in you. That need for something fast-paced, for hyper kinetic action mixed with grace and agility, for the punishing hits and wicked shots. It's not a game for the laid back. Hockey is not a game for someone who thinks a lazy fly ball is exciting. But I can ask you to try it out.
Grab a beer. Just sit back and watch the action unfold. And don't look away until the whistle blows.