With the National Hockey League kicking off its All-Star Weekend today in Montreal, I’m feeling sentimental about my own introduction to the great game of hockey, detailed below. I originally wrote this piece for the for the Spring 2003 issue of SportsFan Magazine, a print and online sports journal founded by James J. Patterson, a real Renaissance Man with careers in music, radio theater, and publishing. SFM, as it was lovingly known, was devoted to chronicling the life and times of America’s sports fans. I was a founding editor for SFM, along with now-famous hockey writer Greg Wyshinski. It was a really great job.
So tonight, why not settle back and watch the fine athletes of the NHL in their skills competition? And to get warmed up — well, read on.
How the New Age Movement Drove Me to the National Hockey League
I remember the exact moment when it happened. It was Ottawa, November 20, 1998.I was in the second row of the hockey arena, having made the trek form Toronto with my boyfriend and a couple of pals to watch our beloved Washington Capitals take on the Senators. Unlike my companions, I was new to the game— in fact, I still had trouble following the puck. But I fancied that my borrowed Dale Hunter jersey made me seem like an old-timer, and I cheered and booed with as much gusto as my more knowledgeable companions.
The game was not pretty. We fell behind early on, and the Caps turned, as frustrated hockey players often do, to their fists. At one point, the Caps’ Chris Simon, a favorite of mine, dropped his gloves in a gesture of disgust that mirrored just how I felt about the game in progress. When he started swinging at a Senators’ defenseman, I leapt out of my seat, cheering.
“Beat the shit out of him, Simon!” I screamed. “Go ahead, baby, kill him!”
I looked around. My significant other was looking at me, mouth open, eyes wide with surprise and, yes, delight. We both knew I had crossed some kind of bridge in my hockey fandom, and I wouldn’t be crossing back.
I had fallen in love with fighting.
I don’t mean to sound like a crybaby, but as a sports fan, I’ve lived a rather lonely life. Having been called a brain since I was in kindergarten, I’ve known for almost as long that, according to most people, a serious mind and sports fandom just didn’t mix.
I remember being teased by my academic peers in grade school when I wore my Redskins hat to class the Friday before a big game. The “slower” kids wore such things all the time without having to hear about it. When I walked into the gym to watch a basketball game, cries of “Where’s your book?” would greet me. (The thick pair of glasses that had appeared when I was in second grade didn’t help my image, either.) High school was no better. During sophomore year, my friends were appalled when I began dating a varsity offensive lineman; they felt much more comfortable with his Camus-carrying, patchouli-wearing predecessor.
By the time I hit graduate school, I had grown accustomed to the fact that nowhere in my immediate circle would I find anyone who understood my passion for sports. So I shared my fandom with a few folks outside my literary and teaching career, and tried not to get too defensive when colleagues sniffed at major league sports as something for the unintelligent.
Nothing, however, prepared me for what would happen when I found the New Age movement.
In case you were too busy worrying about salary negotiations, strike threats, and championships in your favorite major league, I should explain that the New Age movement — also known as the alternative-consciousness or psycho-spiritual movement — flourished in the early part of the last decade among liberally-educated, forward-thinking people who found themselves, like so many others before them, trying to answer the question of why we’re here on Earth. The best of the New Age-thinkers are serious scholars in their respective disciplines, which range from Buddhist philosophy to pre-Christian goddess worship, from medieval mysticism to Kabbalah. Their books and ideas intrigued and then hooked me, and I spent most of the nineties working for a New Age magazine and for writers and publishers within the filed.
I loved the work. But while I was used to feeling like an outsider for my love of sports, my new colleagues had an even more negative take on it, and me. It wasn’t just that they looked down on sports; they found the violence involved in, say, a well-executed block morally offensive.
“How can you watch football?” the magazine’s advertising manager asked me, the day after the Super Bowl. “Big, dumb men beating each other up. It’s symptomatic,” she added, with an expressive shiver, “of everything that’s wrong with our culture.”
And no, she wasn’t referring to the halftime show.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The signs were all around me that most New Age thinkers had a rather narrow approach to conflict. In their world, anger was to be expressed only within the confines of a therapist’s office. A person’s bad behavior — excuse me, I mean, inappropriate behavior — was always the result of someone being poorly parented, or traumatized at an early age, or otherwise misunderstood and unloved, and never, somehow, the person’s fault.
At an editorial meeting one day, our publisher informed us that he had sent the book review he was in the process of writing for our next issue to the book’s author for comments. I reacted with obvious dismay — after all, this is a Journalism 101 no-no — but my comments were pretty mild. Still, he took me aside after the meeting, near tears, to tell me that his inner child still carried the wounds from how his mother had “shamed and blamed” him, and that my comments at the meeting had touched those wounds. He then posted a sign in the Xerox room that said, “Everything runs better when nobody blames anybody for anything.”
As I said, I loved the work. But the atmosphere was starting to wear me out.
I began to notice, more and more, how no one in the New Age world seemed to say anything directly. It was not uncommon for the people around me to begin conversations with, “I have something to say to you from a very deep place,” or for strangers to introduce themselves by telling me their Jungian personality type and asking me for mine. At one of the magazine’s annual conferences, a woman approached, saying that she wanted to tell me something from the aforementioned deep place. I was going over my notes for an introduction I was about to give for our keynote speaker; I had just a few moments before I had to take the stage, in front of a crowd of 2,500 people, and wanted to be sure I was focused on what I was doing. So I asked, politely, if we could talk after the speech.
“I want you to know,” she said, her voice trembling, her eyes damp, “that I hear that boundary, I respect that boundary, and I thank you for setting that boundary.”
It seemed to me that a simple “OK” would have sufficed.
During the years when I was enduring conversations like that one, my love of hockey was growing fast. I don’t think it was any coincidence. Football, despite what my colleagues might have said about it, is a sport in which the violence is carefully controlled. Once the play is over, contact stops, too; penalties are levied for unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness, and late hits. But in hockey, it is assumed that the players will step outside the game from time to time, using their fists to dole out punishment or settle a score. Fans, for the most part, love it, and the reason is obvious.
We all have aggressive urges. We all, from time to time, want to yell at somebody, hit somebody, hurt somebody. When someone else acts out those urges for us, we experience catharsis, or the vicarious purging of our feelings. Marion Woodman, a brilliant Jungian analyst and author, describes this beautifully in her essay, “Sitting by the Well,” saying that when we watch the play of Othello, we are able “to recognize and even redeem the murderer in ourselves.”
No, hockey is not Shakespeare — though I do think that Eric Lindros, with his tragic parental issues and mysterious, grief-stricken gaze, is the Hamlet of the NHL. But when Lindros or Craig Berube or Mike Grier drops the gloves to teach somebody a lesson, the part of me that also wants to hit somebody is released and purged.
After a while, I had to leave the New Age field. The sloppy language, lack of personal accountability, and endless discussions of early childhood wounds all got on my nerves. I think that sometimes it’s appropriate, even necessary, to take and give blame. I think that saying you’re about to speak from a deep place should earn you unabashed ridicule. And I don’t even have an inner child.
I do, however, have an inner big tough guy, and watching hockey gives me a chance to let him out. At the end of a difficult week, I can go to the arena and root for the guys on my team as they skate and check, score and fight. If one of the marks of a civilized culture is that it provides its members outlets for their aggression and a means to achieve catharsis, then cheering on a good hockey fight is quite a civilized act.
And it feels really good, too.