Saturday, June 04, 2011

Cold Slows The Thought Process -- Thankfully

One of hockey's great charms is that there's so little to say about it when it's over. The insane speed of the sport means that participants and observers can have only the most vague impressions of what happened on the ice. It's not unusual for the individual who scored a winning goal to be unaware of the fact until informed by some teammate. Beyond "good game" or "bad game" post-game analysis is essentially pure speculation, or to use the technical term, hooey.

Of course, if you're a working sportswriter, that's not exactly a charm. I felt more than a twinge of pity for my former colleagues out in Vancouver yesterday as I imagined them working on second-day follow-up stories to a 1-0 game. That's the THIRD set of analyses, second-guesses, individual stories on players who increasingly can't remember what the hell they were thinking when X, Y and Z happened, etc. Hockey just isn't built for the traditional patterns of U.S. sportswriting. It's too mysterious.

Way back in 1990, when I first became a Herald columnist and realized I was going to at least have to be able to fake some expertise about the sport, I undertook a course of study. I confessed my ignorance to Bruins players, coaches, and executives and begged to be enlightened. Every time something came up I didn't understand, I asked a question. I'm sure most of them were very stupid.

Or perhaps not. The Bruins and all the other NHL folks I questioned could not have been more gracious instructors. (Here's a journalism tip I've always found useful. People are much more eager to answer questions and do so truthfully when the questioner admits they know less than the person they're questioning). But it was striking how often my little seminars went as follows.

Me: "I've noticed X while I'm watching the games."

Bruin: "Yes, that's a known fact about hockey."

Me: "How come X happens?"

Bruin: "Nobody knows."

This dialogue is probably the main reason I came to love hockey. A big-time professional sport whose big-money, cutthroat competitive personnel accepted that the heart of said sport was unknowable? How delightful. What I wouldn't give for all the other sports to adopt the same attitude.

I mean, about the oldest cliche in football is that the ball takes funny bounces. When's the last time you heard anyone in the NFL say, or even hint, at that truth? Random chance is a loathed and feared enemy, whose name must not be uttered aloud. Baseball has gone so far down this path there's a large and growing subset of fans who don't feel the need to even watch it. Just give them a printout page of numbers and they know more about the game than John McGraw ever did.

It's not that hockey eschews the scientific method. The Bruins and Canucks watched videotape until their eyes bled the last two days. Practices were conducted on the principle each team can control its own performance. Which is true, up to a point. What separates hockey from the other games is that the people in it accept the idea there's a point in their game where rationality stops and instinct and happenstance take over. More importantly, they accept that beyond that point is usually where games get won and lost.

In other, less highfalutin' words, hockey is the sport where the idea of "go out there, do your best, and let's see what happens" is most honored. As anyone knows who's ever attended a game, hockey is chaotic. So's football, but football's built on attempting to control chaos. Hockey's built on accepting and living with it.

This makes, or should make, hockey playoff commentary simple. Odds are, what happened in the last game, or the last period, will have little influence on what's happening now. Odds are, tonight's Game Two will bear no resemblance to Game One, no matter who wins it. So why speculate now? Why indeed even commentate today? The game'll start soon enough, and we'll have a new set of mysteries to ponder.

For the same of my former colleagues, however, I do hope that whichever player scores the winning goal tonight will know how the hell he did it.


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