Hockey is Life

People who don’t know me well are surprised to learn I’m into hockey. Something about a book-loving science fiction geek being interested in something so sportsbally—er, sportspucky—doesn’t compute. Someone, probably Jenn, even asked me once: why hockey? I can’t remember what my answer was at the time, but I do recall feeling unsatisfied by it, and I’ve been considering the question ever since.

As a kid, believe it or not, I was reasonably athletic. I played baseball and football, and I loved it—well, except for the people. Even so, I followed sports, especially football; for a huge chunk of my teens and early twenties I was a devoted Buffalo Bills fan. This, uh, explains a lot. I happened to be going to college in Manhattan during the Bills’ first Super Bowl loss, surrounded by celebrating Giants fans while I glumly lamented Scott Norwood’s missed field goal. As the Bills went on to lose three more consecutive Super Bowls, my passion for football disintegrated, and I pivoted to the Sabres in search of relief. Oof, ask any Sabres fan how that worked out! But when I first got into it, watching Pat LaFontaine and Alexander Mogilny tear up the league, I was captivated by hockey’s speed, skill, intricate teamwork, unpredictable moments, and gladiatorial drama. Baseball and football were all well and good, but I could sort of even do them, at least in a backlot way, and that made them less impressive. Sliding around on ice, though, with sharpened knives on my feet, carrying a stick, slapping a frozen rubber disk around while five other people are trying to run me over? Hockey seemed impossible. For a guy who’s been on ice skates precisely once, it still seems impossible.

My interest in live hockey generated a parallel interest in virtual, video-game hockey. I did not have a Sega Genesis in 1994, but friends did, and I became obsessed with EA Sports’ NHL 94. I have been playing the NHL series religiously ever since, first on my own Sega, then leveling up consoles over the years. In fact, the latest edition, NHL 24, inspired this post—I was planning to review the game. But I decided why bother? Hockey sims are hockey sims, the same thing every year, usually with a few cool upgrades; if you’ve liked them since the Sega days, chances are you’ll like them even more thirty years later. Video game hockey is my primary relaxation staple, something I can spend thirty minutes or an hour doing when I’ve run out of energy for anything else. Not just playing the games, but also trading players, negotiating contracts, designing uniforms, creating expansion teams, and meticulously reviewing stats. Since being a hockey fan comes with such frequent disappointments, having a slightly easier virtual version in your back pocket can ease the pain a little. It is a completely pointless exercise that takes me, gloriously and in just the right way, out of my head.

Still, why hockey? In many respects, hockey is full of things I despise. It’s territorial, warlike, and all about winning. Since I’ve come to feel that, as a species, we have an utterly toxic obsession with “winning” and “losing,” sports in general have lost their luster for thrusting that destructive competitive instinct into microcosm. That topic could fuel another post, but in this context it’s made my hockey fandom feel like a guilty pleasure.

And yet, here I am, still hooked. One aspect I’ve always loved about it is the level playing surface when it comes to scoring. One point for a goal, one point for an assist, and on any given night, anyone on the ice can contribute to that heroic moment. Centers, wingers, defenseman, goalies—sure, some score more than others, but there’s something even-handed about the way twenty players working together can spread the glory around. Hockey isn’t precisely egalitarian, but it spoke to the part of me that respects committed teamwork.

Why else hockey? Maybe because, in a weird way, it feels like life—a thought that sparked the title of this post, paraphrasing the great Danny Rojas of Ted Lasso. Because yes, hockey is skill, effort, and talent, but it’s also wild luck, random chance, and unexpected timing. It’s natural ability and dogged persistence, flashy moves and smart, workmanlike plays, aggression and composure. It’s collaboration and competition, heroes and villains, emotional ups and downs, all the elements of story. It’s graceful and creative and fast, it’s clumsy and dangerous and brutal. It’s exciting and joyful and frustrating as hell.

So, yeah, hockey—a sport I have watched on and off with varying degrees of obsession for going on thirty years now. It’s like life: thrilling, frustrating, fun, depressing, joyful, full of effort and persistence and shifting fortunes. Leave it to me to love a sport as vexing as life itself. Come to think of it, it’s a little like writing, too! Oops? Shit. Oh, well!

Oh yeah, the review:

EA Sports NHL 24. The usual, four-and-a-half stars.

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