IT’S SPRING, SO THAT MEANS it’s the National Hockey League playoff season. Of the four major sports leagues in North America, the NHL is the drunk cousin of MLB, the NFL, and the NBA. It’s a strange game, this Nordic amalgamation of soccer, lacrosse, and college bar fights. The rules are weird, no one wears proper shoes, they pound the living shit out of each other, then get five-minute penalties to sit by themselves and think about what they’ve done.
In order to help make sense of the idiosyncrasies of playoff hockey, The Smoking Jacket has asked me, a former minor league defenceman, and occasional hockey journalist, to break down some of the intriguing elements of the NHL.
1. Puck Bunnies
Every sport has its groupies, but hockey’s groupies stand out both for having the best moniker and being the least understandable. There are a few famous examples of puck bunnies, notably Hilary Duff, Carrie Underwood, and Elisha Cuthbert. We’ll assume that they all have sort of degenerative disease or else an ice fetish. Sure, the players rich, but they lack teeth and high school diplomas. And who has ever said to themselves, ‘I need to go out tonight and find me a nice Finnish boy to marry?’ No one, that’s who.
And god help the puck bunny who marries one of these louts–they could end up living in Winnipeg. Do you know what’s in Winnipeg? Nothing. It’s a town with a population of 500, that has no three-storey buildings, and the average temperature in July is -40°F.
2. Playoff Beards
The playoff beard is a tradition in which players refuse to shave until they are eliminated from the playoffs, which explains why by the time June rolls around many hockey players look like they play banjo in an alt-country band.
There are many stories of the tradition’s origins, but the one that we at The Smoking Jacket subscribe to purports that the 1980 New York Islanders team, that would go on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, was made up mostly of Canadians. Canadian hockey players, notorious socialists that they are, grew their beards as a tribute to Fidel Castro, who was, ironically, a huge fan of Islanders’ right winger, Mike Bossy.
In most sports, when a fight breaks out, it’s an oddity, an irregularity that results in fines, suspensions, and banishment. In hockey, it’s a way to earn $1.6 million dollars a year playing three minutes of game high on OxyContin and Red Bull.
But why is fighting encouraged in hockey?
Hockey was invented by Canadians, and it’s important to understand that fighting is legal in any Canadian workplace. It’s how Canadians settle all disagreements. It’s how their unions engage in collective bargaining. It’s how marriage ceremonies, convocations, and court proceedings end–with fistfights. Pileups. Knock-outs. I’m punching my editor in the mouth over a disagreement about my verb conjugationing as I write this.
This past season, headshots and concussions have been at the forefront of the hockey discourse. The big news was how the NHL’s premiere player, Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, was sidelined for much of the season with a concussion. But repeated head injuries have been a problem for many hockey players.
As the game’s gotten faster, and the players have gotten bigger, dangerous hits to the head have increased exponentially due to the sheer velocity of all that muscle throwing itself around on the ice, and all those equipment-on-equipment collisions.
But why so buff, you ask? One reason is that the players are just better athletes than they used to be.
Until the mid-90s, hockey players were three-pack-a-day smokers who spent their off-days getting trashed and screwing puck bunnies (see above). Nowadays they cross-train, only drink wine coolers, and they’ve cut back on the bunnies. The result is a leaner, more dangerous generation of players with way-trimmed-down beer guts and fewer illegitimate children. I.e.: a lot more pent up energy to beat up on each other (see below).
It’s not just fighting and headshots that make hockey an exceptionally violent sport. The players hit each other while traveling 30 miles-an-hour, decked out in equipment that borrows technology from US Army IED units. There is very little in the way of PED testing, and hockey players are well known for getting amped up on pseudo-ephedrine, caffeine, and painkillers before, and after games.
But it’s not all on-ice mayhem. Hockey players sometimes kill folks and get away with it off-ice. Dany Heatley, Craig McTavish, and Rob Ramage, are three prominent NHLers who have killed people. Sure it was vehicular manslaughter, but still. Another guy, Mike Danton, tried to put a hit out on his agent.
I mean every now and then maybe an NFL player kills his gf, a millionaire, or a dog, but they don’t get the minimal jail sentencing of NHLers. The best we can understand is that hockey players have been hit in the head since they were six years old with great regularity, they like the cold, and they don’t have any teeth, and these facts together lead the courts to assume that they all suffer from some sort of mental defect, and can’t be held entirely responsible for their crimes.
NHL players are lucky like that.
Mike Spry is the author of JACK (Snare Books, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and he was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize. His most recent work is Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011).