Archived Story

On watching hockey for the first time

Published 10:21am Friday, March 16, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

This winter I discovered an appetite for something I never would have imagined getting involved with: hockey.

Growing up in Arizona when I did meant that hockey was foreign, one of those strange activities people from up north did to survive winter, like curling and ice fishing. It just didn’t sound normal: People using sticks to hit small round pieces of rubber across a sheet of ice while other people try to stop them.

During my student years at the University of Arizona, I did attend a couple of games featuring the University’s club team, but only because the woman I was dating then liked hockey. My first impressions of the game were that it was a militarized version of golf, on skates, with opponents who crashed into you at high speed. But I didn’t really watch the hockey game; I watched the way she flicked her hair out of her eyes, the shape of her lips as she yelled and cheered . . . but never mind about that.

In the whole city of Tucson there was only one regulation size rink, at the Convention Center Arena, and they only put down ice when there was a profitable reason to do so. The team had to practice at the tiny rink (connected to a bowling alley) where Tucsonans pretended to ice skate or they drove up to Phoenix for practice — 90 minutes away.

What first got me to the City Arena here was the desire to support my students and my friend, who is the assistant coach. It was Waldorf’s first season with a hockey team, and guys on the team were in my classes. What got me to come back and watch again . . . and again and again, was the way they played.

Against all odds, these guys played and won far more games than was expected: 14-4. Maybe no one told them that this was their “shakedown” season and they should get used to losing. They played a classy game. Not a lot of aggressive posturing. Very little fighting. They checked and blocked and made some mistakes, so there were some penalties, but no bench clearing brawls. They mostly skated, shot (and scored) and kept that puck out of their own goal.

Their style of play was not what I was expecting from the stories and commentary I’d been reading in the sports section about hockey violence. There was one game, actually, which was more like what I was expecting, against a Minnesota college which shall remain nameless.

That team played aggressively, and along with them came a rude, foul-mouthed hockey mom. Since I am so new to this sport, perhaps a lot of hockey moms and dads are like that woman, but she — and the way that team played — sucked all the joy out of those games.

So I don’t expect my joy at watching Waldorf’s team to carry me through a professional game or probably even junior league games. Too many hockey parents or blood-thirsty fans yelling from the stands. Too much emphasis on violence, too much “joy” from fans when it comes to fighting. How many brain-damaged hockey players does all of that create? How many young players get their own joy sucked out of the game by the expectations of people in the stands?

One thing I believe after watching hockey this season is that the game doesn’t need the violence to be exciting or to bring fans to the arena. If I can get hooked on hockey, anybody can. So I hope the Minnesota High School leagues keep a tight lid on unnecessary checking and that the Canadian and American hockey officials trying to ban fighting are successful. Mostly, though, I hope Waldorf’s team continues to focus on the basics and find victory in clean, well-played games.

If blood is what some hockey fans want, then perhaps they should take their expectations to Extreme Fighting clubs, and pay money to watch men and women beat each other to bloody pulps. Leave the ice clear of blood and fighting, and let the men and women skate, block and shoot.

 

David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.