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Hockey’s Winter Classic and Something Sarah Palin Gets Right

Will Saturday night's Winter Classic draw greater (and deserved) attention to professional hockey in America?

This past Saturday night the National Hockey League — which may finally be getting its marketing act into gear — staged its “Winter Classic.” The game featured the Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the Washington Capitals. It also featured a good deal of NBC savvy about how to showcase a sport whose charms have been underappreciated for decades

The 9-year-old boy you see stick-handling in this picture was not at the game. But he experienced it vicariously. He anticipated watching it on television for his entire break — a desire which permitted my wife and I an almost unlimited array of “incentivization” options. What dishes didn’t he clear in exchange for the right to watch the Classic in its entirety?

For days on end, he reminded us that he would prefer to watch the game on our neighbor’s massive wall-size screen. And when Mike Knuble scored in the first period, my son became so excited that he ran to the part of the wall where the Caps were rejoicing, the overhead projector casting his shadowed silhouette so that it looked like he was amidst the celebratory pile of players.

Hockey was my favorite sport as a kid, too.  I played it in Brooklyn, where it was known as “street hockey.” You wore roller skates or sneakers. Or both. You loved the game for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it provided you with a structured environment in which you could punch your best friend in the face.

I never once, though, imagined that my own children would play it. I can’t explain why that is. Maybe it’s because I love soccer, but perhaps the hidden logic of class was at play at well.

So a few years back, my wife and I did what nearly all parents in northwest Washington do: We signed the boy up for soccer. Going the extra mile, I decided to coach the U-6s and U-7s.

When my students at Georgetown found out that I was heading to practice after class (did my Sambas give me away?), I was referred to as “Coach Jacques” for the rest of the semester.

Coach Jacques had an unspectacular run. During games he was constantly vexed by thoughts like: “Am I substituting equitably, and if so, why is that parent glaring at me?”; “Whoa! Did that Harrison kid drop another F-bomb?”; “How can I get the boys to play as thoughtfully as the girls?” But most important: “My son doesn’t seem to be having very much fun.”

When my wife suggested hockey as an alternative, I warned her of something I had noticed about professional hockey players: They are always thanking their parents in interviews. After big games, they scour the crowd looking for mom and dad. They feel a massive burden of familial debt.

You know why?,” I continued. “Because somebody has to drive them to the rink at 5 a.m. Somebody has to buy all that equipment, clean all that equipment, fish them out of collapsed ponds, and what not. If you want to become a hockey mom, consider the sacrifices, and, no,  I won’t be the one reverse-commuting at the crack of dawn in February.

So she did that. And all the better because the kid finally had fun. In fact, in his lifetime of prose, the one poetic sentiment he ever expressed was about hockey. When I asked him what he loved about playing the game, he put forth:

i like the way the wind

blows in my face

when i skate

up ice

A certain type of politician, most notably Sarah Palin, waxes on about the virtues of hockey, and in this case, I think she is on to something.

For a sport with a reputation for goonery (though to my untrained eye there is a lot less fighting than back in the 70s; the pro game seems to have gotten much less violent and much faster), the youth version is surprisingly sportsmanlike and family-oriented.

Since the players have a hard time getting on all of their equipment, a  locker room is a veritable community center, with parents and siblings milling about and lacing up skaters. Almost everybody, strangely enough, is discussing hockey.

As for F-bombs: On the Squirt level, at least, the kids are too helmeted and concerned with wiping out to “use their words.” Trash-talking, an irritatingly persistent component of American youth sports, is a far riskier endeavor on skates.

The tradition in this country is that all kids get to play sports (as well it should be). Though in youth hockey that rule applies only after they have been tested on certain essential skills. In his first year, my son couldn’t execute his crossovers, so he couldn’t join a team. An excellent failure, I would say; a self-incentivizing failure.

From the kids’ perspective, the best part about all of this must be the absence of parental “input” during the game. No matter where the field is in America, when parents are present they offer their offspring a cacophony of exhortation and advice. Most of it highly unenlightening.

Not in hockey. Rinks are enclosed in glass. Children are enclosed in helmets. Hockey parents may be loud and on rare occasions violent (like parents in all sports), but for half an hour or so, boys and girls can easily tune them out.

Professional hockey’s popularity woes are well chronicled. In its favor, however, the sport has an unusually passionate and loyal fan base. They love the game as much as they love their teams.

It also has a great product. The game is fast and brutal and graceful and complex and saturated with skill and motion (that is to say, it is the very opposite of baseball). I am still amazed by the way defensemen skate backwards while able to poke their sticks forward. I want my son to teach me how to do that.

The Winter Classic proved, yet again, that hockey is a great game to watch. What my son helped me remember is that it is a pleasure to play as well.

Photo: Eliza McGraw

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